Star Wars: The Force Awakens review

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Dammit Christensen, you ruined Star Wars!

You know how these days Google predicts search terms as you type based on searches others have made? The reason I mention this is the other night Star Wars: Attack of the Clones was on TV. I found myself watching despite the fact that disappointment lurked around the corner.

I am, of course, talking about Hayden Christensen. Now this film was released in 2002 and I cannot believe that, despite the amount of time passing, Christensen’s performance still bothers me. Enough to motivate me to write this piece at least.

Straight after the film I fired up my laptop and began to type ‘Hayden Christensen c…’ and you know what Google predicts? (Get your minds out the gutter for a second.) As soon as you hit the last ‘c’ it gives you, ‘can’t act’, ‘career over’ and ‘criticism’. Seems I’m not alone in my assessment of his performance.

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Star Wars – the original trilogy – was massive, huge, so influential it became ingrained in modern culture and it’s stood the test of time and remained popular from the first film in the late ’70s to the present day. The world George Lucas created was captivating… the Force, the Jedi, the Sith – all of it so richly drawn out but – and this is a big but – above all, it was human.

The characters he created were human ones, they were flawed, they struggled and fought and loved and lost. For example: Luke to understand where he came from and what his power was; Leia, in part, the same; Han to get his rocks off with Leia and prove to himself he wasn’t as selfish as he first came across. And so on.

That is why if you’re going to do a bunch of new films it’s essential you cast Anakin Skywalker as well as you possibly can. All the background about separatists, the republic, the senate, political power plays – that’s all it is, background. These films have always been about the Jedi and the Force and the whole story arc (in this case) revolves around Anakin and his journey from light to dark. It’s what we all want to see and have paid our bucks for – everything else is window dressing, to a degree.

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So why couldn’t he deliver?

Now I know it’s easy to condemn and hard to create but honestly, how did Hayden Christensen get the part? He had been in precious little before Star Wars and his career after has been sparse to say the least. I know some say these films are career killers; for example in the Family Guy version Peter Griffin (playing Han Solo) introduces himself by saying ‘I’m Captain of the Millennium Falcon and the only actor whose career isn’t killed by this movie’.

I suppose this was more true of the original trilogy than these modern prequels, established actors like Ewan Mcgregor and Liam Neeson all fared well post-Star Wars, but then they didn’t have the heavy burden of being the lead. They propped him up as best they could, but it wasn’t enough. Not nearly enough.

Just to put things in perspective: I didn’t buy the way Christensen attempted to portray inner conflict as he wrestled between the two sides of the Force; I felt his delivery of dialogue was stilted and forced; I felt he lacked chemistry with Natalie Portman’s character; I didn’t like his stupid haircut; I didn’t like the fact that a number of his scenes had a homoerotic undercurrent, he had more chemistry with Ewan Mcgregor’s Obi-Wan for Christ’s sake.

To be serious for a second, one of the few scenes in which he actually convinced was his final battle with Kinobe on the river of lava. Much closer tonally to the original films… dark, brooding, dramatic and intense. In that respect maybe their bromance helped, ‘I loved you Anakin!’ (Ahem, like a brother.)

Who else?

It would be fascinating (or infuriating) to know which up-and-coming actors auditioned for the role at the time and were rejected. Given Attack of the Clones came out in 2002 guys breaking out then included: Jack Gyllenhaal (Donnie Darko, 2001), James Franco (Spider-man, 2002), Christian Bale (American Psycho, 2000) and Ryan Phillippe (Way of the Gun, 2000).

Christian Bale wasn’t right as he was probably too old and just doesn’t seem the right fit, however there’s a few scenes in American Psycho that make you think maybe he could have done something pretty interesting with the role. Ryan Phillippe is similar in appearance to Christensen and showed great inner conflict in Way of the Gun with a surprising level of emotional depth. (Incidentally, it’s a great film and worth a watch if you get the chance.)

Then there’s Jake Gyllenhaal. He would have been a brave albeit unconventional fit – his creepy and tormented downward spiral in Donnie Darko showed he could have handled the character’s journey from light to dark. And James Franco may have been an interesting choice too, as he’s since showed in his career he likes to take on alternative types of roles, such as 127 Hours and Spring Breakers.

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In a galaxy far, far away

Anyway, none of this matters. We’re stuck with Christensen as Anakin – so as a rule of thumb, if you’re bored one day and fancy a Star Wars fix, one that has classic scenes, tension, dread, adventure, joy and wonder – stick with the originals. If you want glossy CGI action aimed at kids, Jar Jar sodding Binks refusing to shut up and Samuel L. Jackson flashing his purple light sabre around the place, go with the modern prequels.

But then, if you’re reading this blog you’re most likely film fans (you clever lot) and know this already. In fact, maybe I’m just taking this all too seriously and had better go watch the Family Guy version to lighten up. May the farce be with you.

PS Read my review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens here.
http://mikeysfilmreviews.com/2015/12/22/star-wars-the-force-awakens-review/