Is it acceptable for a 33-year-old man to well up multiple times during this film? Probably not, but it happened. It was bound to happen. I mean, from the opening shot of the logo I was struggling to hold it together. Perhaps because I’ve now finished work and it’s been a long year, but it’s more than that, it’s Star Wars. And we’re all hoping beyond hope that J.J. Abrams will give us something good and help take away the pain of the last lot of films.
Happily, I’m pleased to report he does. The Force Awakens is set a few decades after the events of the original films and the First Order has risen as the new evil power led – in part – by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who looks to the memory of Darth Vader as his inspiration to do bad things. Incidentally, Driver is impressive as the new bad guy. Stepping into the shoes of cinema’s greatest villian is no easy task, but his evolution is a compelling one.
But, to backtrack a moment, we begin the film with Finn (John Boyega), a stormtrooper with a crisis of confidence who teams up with resistance fighter Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) to escape Ren’s clutches. Finn quickly meets resourceful scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley) and they – in turn – meet Han Solo (Harrison Ford, as if you need telling) and Chewie and things kick on from there. And this feels good, natural, a nice blend of newcomers and classic characters we know and love. We’re in a safe place. Ok, now we can relax and enjoy it all.
The plot largely revolves around the First Order and the Resistance both hunting for Luke Skywalker who has gone into hiding, Yoda style. At the same time the First Order have built an upgrade to the Death Star, which the Resistance must destroy or face being wiped out by themselves; so what we have is a partial retread of the original first film with touches of the other two originals, for the most part.
Abrams, being a lifelong fan, has gone for the look and feel of the original as much as he can too, with practical effects making a welcome return. And The Force Awakens also manages to balance the light, adventurous tone we originally loved with the pathos and torture of the dark side well, which is no easy thing. Recently I criticised SPECTRE for feeling like Bond’s greatest hits, yet here Abrams does a similar thing. Although there’s a difference between a loving nod and a lazy reference, and I think Abrams succeeded where Sam Mendes mostly failed.
Perhaps what it all boils down to is character and emotional connection (a tricky thing with Bond as he reinvents himself every few years, and is a bit of a cold fish). With Star Wars the audience is full to bursting with nostalgic love before the film has even begun, so it’s more a case of the filmmakers just not dropping the ball.
Give us what we love, but give us new stuff too. Which they do. (You’ll grin like a kid at Christmas – and it almost is Christmas, so everyone’s a winner!)
So whilst this film starts with newcomer Finn, it’s more other newcomer Rey’s tale really. And she gets thrown into the action from the off, but definitely not as arm candy for the male characters, she kicks ass better than most – something it’s clear Abrams is keen to show (and on strong female characters he has past form) so it’s refreshing to see her front and centre of this story.
In some ways she reminded me a lot of Keira Knightley in Pirates of the Caribbean, in terms of both how she looks physically and how her character reacts to situations, fighting her corner and forging her own destiny.
Although, even with Pirates Knightley’s character often found herself having to be rescued by the guys (but this was almost a decade ago, so she sort of paved the way a bit for characters like Rey). And with Rey she is rarely at the mercy of a male character, unless it’s Ren – even then there’s stuff she does which will surprise you, without giving too much away.
But just so it’s not all Daisy Ridley, others should get a mention too. John Boyega, for example, is much funnier than I expected him to be. Having only seen him as the strong and silent type in Attack the Block he’s done pretty much a 180 to play talkative Finn, balancing comedy with the film’s more dramatic moments. And it’s so reassuring to have Han Solo knocking around the place, too. He gives the film a gravitas and legitimacy playing the elder statesman role, but still with a growl and a cocky line or two to remind you who you’re watching.
As far as the rest of the cast go, the movie flies along at such a pace that many other characters (originals and newbies) get scant screen time, but you get the sense their stories will be expanded during the next two films and there’s a lot more to come. So that’s OK then.
All in all, it has to be a big thumbs up and a hurrah for Abrams. He’s made a Star Wars film that people will come back to time and again, one that fits in well with the franchise and tees things up nicely for the next two. He’s also (arguably) repeated his trick of rescuing another franchise (after Star Trek) and restored faith in these stories for many round the world. And all in time for Christmas.
Thanks J.J. We owe you one. May the force be with you.