17 December 2015

Spoiler-Light Film Review | Star Wars: The Force Awakens directed by J J Abrams

I used to watch Star Wars – and that’s what everybody called it back then, despite its post-Empire Strikes Back subtitling – regularly as a child on home video before I’d ever even heard of its two sequels. Never in any of those viewings did it strike me that the GALACTIC EMPIRE was still out there after the events of the film, or that in destroying the dreaded DEATH STAR, the Rebellion had merely won a small victory in an ongoing war against a superior enemy. By the same token, having never ventured into the sprawling (albeit now defunct) expanded universe of Star Wars literature that picked up where Return of the Jedi had left off, it’d never really struck me that the Rebellion’s success on Endor could have led to anything other than a golden age of peace and prosperity in which Luke would oversee the rebirth of the Jedi Order, and Han and Leia would live happily ever after farming out Force-sensitive sprogs. Not until the first teasers for J J Abrams’ Star Wars: The Force Awakens dropped, anyway. It seems that the dark times have grown darker, and the triumphs and tragedies of the Skywalker dynasty are without end.

I’ve just returned home from my local cinema’s first showing of Episode VII (its episode number may not be referred to in its title, but it is in the movie’s opening crawl), and my senses are still reeling from the awe-inspiring display. In of itself, Star Wars in 3-D is something to knock you sideways – its distinctive opening crawl is mind-blowing enough as the Star Wars logo recedes and the words roll up before you, and that’s before you get to the First Order’s seemingly steroid-abusing star destroyers hanging right in your face, or Starkiller Base looming like the granddaddy of all Death Stars. But, better still, under Abrams’ famed direction, The Force Awakens trounces all of the prior ‘saga’ films when it comes to its overall execution. Watching all six preceding episodes over the last six days - as should be obligatory before being admitted to see Episode VII, iReckon - it struck me how meagre some of the effects are in them; whether I was watching the cartoonish, CG-grounded prequels or the now-dated originals with their unconvincing CSO, no earlier episode is beyond technical reproach. This one is. Whilst still clearly - and welcomely - the Star Wars universe that George Lucas envisioned all those decades ago, it’s finally been brought to life in fantastic, photo-real fashion.

Yet what impressed me most about The Force Awakens wasn’t the obvious spectacle, but the movie’s heart. Its story, written by Abrams himself along with Michael Arndt and Star Wars legend Lawrence Kasdan, manages to be incredibly redolent of the acclaimed original trilogy – particularly Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back – but somehow more nuanced, more real. New characters such as John Boyega’s stormtrooper-turned-hero Finn is a case in point, as is Adam Driver’s chilling antagonist, Kylo Ren. Watch the film and then compare their respective back stories to Han Solo’s and Darth Vader’s, arguably their opposite numbers from the original films, and note the differences in the presentation.

The crossguard-lightsaber-wielding Ren particularly impressed me as he seems to embody all the qualities that made Anakin Skywalker so compelling towards the end of the Star Wars: The Clone Wars TV series and in Revenge of the Sith, together with the cold and capricious venom of Darth Vader. Indeed, in contrast to the ice-cool Dark Lord of the Sith whom he aspires to, Ren is demonstrably unhinged; clearly in the corner of the dark side but, even by his own admission, feeling the pull of the light. This was perhaps to be expected, given that Abrams didn’t have the luxury of a spare trilogy to tell of Ren’s fall from grace – this is Episode VII, not Episode X, after all – but it works marvellously all the same. Some of the film’s most terrifying scenes blend the tear-stained rage that you’d expect from the teenage Anakin with the I’ll-even-choke-my-own-men approach of Vader. I won’t spoil where this tormented soul’s journey leads, though, as I think that I know my Star Wars plot patterns and thematic rhymes and it shocked even me. To the core.

However, the movie’s star is Rey: this generation’s answer to Luke Skywalker, with whom I’d swear she has a strong familial, perhaps even daughter/father, relationship (that’s not a spoiler, mind – just speculation on my part. The Force Awakens benefits from inverting the original trilogy’s secrets: here, the principal villain’s lineage is apparent from early on in the movie; Rey’s, however, remains a secret going into Episode VIII - albeit a thinly-veiled one). Daisy Ridley’s anti-princess may be much more independent and aggressive than the original trilogy’s farmboy-turned-Jedi, but she still walks the exact same path – just in different shoes. I don’t think that I’m spoiling anything by revealing that the movie’s subtitle isn’t as general as many might have surmised, but in fact seems to be specific to her. Unlike Luke, she doesn’t have a crazy old hermit watching over her, primed to one day teach her the ways of the Force – the Force has to ‘awaken’ within her of its own volition. This makes for a very different, and arguably even more gripping, retelling of the saga’s central story. This is one heroine who’s quite capable of rescuing herself...

Which brings me to Luke. Much was made of his almost complete absence from the many trailers for the movie, and the reason for this becomes evident from the very first line of the movie’s opening crawl. Since the end of Return of the Jedi, the last of the Jedi has been through quite a tumultuous time, and as a result has retreated into seclusion and then myth, not unlike Obi-Wan Kenobi before him. His role in The Force Awakens is thus critical yet remote: now the hazy stuff of legend, Luke is the catalyst for the whole plot, much like the Artoo-carried Death Star plans in the original Star Wars. Everything that happens in this movie, good and bad, happens because of him and what he did after Return of the Jedi. Yet the movie’s new characters aren’t really sure that he ever existed, and casual moviegoers could be forgiven for thinking the same as the film tears towards its climax with no Luke in sight, its plot more than adequately propped up by the film’s fascinating new generation - and, of course, an ageing anti-hero who rocks just like he used to.

I must also praise the supporting performances of all the actors involved, who comprise a motley crew of up-and-coming stars and established legends. I can’t say too much about Andy Serkis’s Supreme Leader Snoke beyond that you will almost certainly be overwhelmed by his massive presence, and About Time’s Domhnall Gleeson looks like he’s going to give Peter Cushing’s Tarkin a run for his money as General Hux, the new face of the First Order’s military who is far less tolerant of his leader’s Force-wielding apprentice than the grand moff was.

On a final note, though dark in tone and vast in spectacle, The Force Awakens is not without humour. Chewbacca very nearly steals the show on occasion with his various comic interjections (most of which come out of leftfield), and even old red-arm Threepio gets in on the comic action with a few amusing little skits. Dashing Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is funnier still - he had me laughing even during his first, almost Solo-irreverent, encounter with Ren. The script never strays too far into comedy (or, indeed, attempted comedy) though – it will probably come as a great relief to many to read that the lessons of Jar Jar Binks have been hard-learned by Lucasfilm.

Bigger, bolder and that little bit more real than all of its predecessors, The Force Awakens is sure to please both long-standing fans of the saga and casual cinemagoers alike. My only disappointment with it is the necessary loss of Alfred Newman’s goosebump-raising fanfare at the very start, but in fairness to Disney they have made its absence as painless as possible by simply throwing up the Lucasfilm logo in silence and isolation before launching into the tagline and crawl - there’s neither a fairy tale castle nor a bad robot in sight. Indeed, this film is classic Star Wars through and through, and just like in the original trilogy, we don’t know where the narrative is leading us to. Everything is bigger, everything is faster - and nobody is safe.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is now in cinemas everywhere.