THIS REVIEW CONTAINS PLOT SPOILERS. WE ADVISE NOT READING THE REVIEW UNTIL YOU’VE SEEN THE MOVIE.
After three non-stop years of building hype and anticipation, the latest chapter in the Star Wars saga has finally hit cinemas.
Strangely enough for a sci-fi fan, Star Wars kind of passed me by. I have vague memories of watching the movies on DVD about ten years ago and I managed to rewatch A New Hope in anticipation of this one, but I’ve never formed the personal connection to the franchise that so many people have. Despite my status as a relatively casual viewer, the terrific trailers still meant that The Force Awakens was one of my most anticipated movies this year…
Thankfully, it delivered. The Force Awakens is far from perfect, but it’s nonetheless a hugely invigorating adventure powered by pure fun and excitement. A long-awaited franchise revival has a difficult task to pull off, with the combined necessities of appealing to the long term fans who remember the older movies and bringing in a whole new generation by working as a great movie on its own.
Jurassic World made a decent try at this earlier this year, but The Force Awakens ticks both boxes with aplomb.
The movie is packed to the gills with fan service, but it never feels like it’s exclusively pandering to the fans – the major moments such as Han Solo and Chewbecca’s entrance into the Millennium Falcon, the appearances of Leia and C3PO towards the end of the film and that ending still worked really effectively without the nostalgic component, consistently imbued with an infectious sense of reverence and awe that swept even me up.
Various brilliantly excitable noises and reactions from the audience demonstrated recognition of nods that completely passed me by, but this never left me feeling like I was missing out on anything crucial.
Likewise, The Force Awakens works excellently as a great science fiction movie on its own. The movie only assumes the viewer has a layman’s knowledge (and, let’s face it, everyone knows who Luke Skywalker and Han Solo are) of the franchise and features a first act almost exclusively populated with brand new characters which I could latch onto and understand before eventually moving on to the re-introductions of old favourites.
The world-building is great, with the deluge of prosthetics and practical effects allowing for the lived-in world full of diverse species who feel like they have an existence outside of the movie’s confines that so many people fell in love with back in 1977 when the series began.
Most of all, though, it’s simply one hell of a ride – a frequently madcap runaway train that breathlessly covers several extremely fun action scenes while concisely and effectively introducing a glut of characters.
Then, there are the new faces, all of whom shine, even if it’s to slightly different extents. The real star of the show is Daisy Ridley as Rey, the movie’s lead for a great deal of the run-time.
Ridley was an unknown when she was cast, but her performance is remarkably assured, conveying Rey’s idealistic thirst for adventure alongside her tragic, dying belief that her family will return to her with admirable commitment and passion. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Ridley begins to crop up more and more in major movies, such is the strength of her performance.
Then there’s John Boyega (Attack the Block) as defected stormtrooper Finn. Finn’s character arc is perhaps slightly fudged (the movie could have done a little more to really sell his transition from brainwashed drone to resistance fighter), but Boyega’s performance is charismatic and enjoyably brash, sparking off Ridley really well in a set of scenes that underline their evident chemistry.
Oscar Isaac, too, is worth noting. He’s probably the most well-known out of the main trinity of new characters, and already has another major gig lined up with 2016’s X-Men: Apocalypse, and his performance certainly reflects that.
Poe Dameron doesn’t get that much screen-time, but Isaac is effortlessly confident as ‘the best fighter pilot in the Resistance’, bringing a sense of joy and excitement to what could have been a dour and self-serious role. Here’s hoping we see more of Poe in Episode VIII, because there’s certainly room for an expert, slightly cocky pilot on the Millennium Falcon now.
MAJOR SPOILERS FROM HERE ONWARDS…
And then, finally, there’s Adam Driver as Kylo Ren. Ren is a genuinely strong villain, and part of his effectiveness stems from the dichotomy of his character – the cold, clinical Vader lookalike with a distorted voice and mask, and the slightly petulant, conflicted young man with his mask off.
The Girls star nails both sides with a distinctive identity for both, but with a clear connection that ensures that Kylo Ren never feels inconsistent in his characterization. There’s a really tangible sense of Kylo’s conflict as he’s pulled between the seductive dark side, as represented by the towering Snoke and the light side, as represented by his father Han, giving the villain a compelling and exciting character arc.
I’m surprised by how well the revelation that Kylo is the son of Han and Leia worked. It’s the kind of thing that sounds like bad fanfiction on paper, but plays out in magnetic fashion during that gripping confrontation between Han and Kylo on the bridge.
It gives Kylo the personal connection he needs to really succeed as more than just a souped-up henchman – and, crucially, it means that Han’s death really has the gut-wrenching impact it needs even for someone who’s not as invested in Han as a character as many.
I’m really pleased that the movie chose to keep Kylo alive and in the picture for Episode VIII, as there’s so much that can be explored with this intriguing character over the course of this sequel trilogy.
Ah, Han Solo. His death works very well on two levels, both of which can be felt as a non-fan. There’s the tangible feeling that a legend has just fallen – the impact of a world famous character dying in such brutal fashion, and there’s the fact that it just works well as a climax to Kylo Ren’s emotional conflict; a confirmation of Kylo’s innate psychosis as well as his deep-seated vulnerability.
When Han Solo fell, I wasn’t gasping like some in the cinema, but there was a real emotional impact there, and that’s due to the way The Force Awakens lets the moment work for fans and non-fans alike.
Another major moment that lands really well is the ending. Throughout the movie, Luke Skywalker is spoken of in hushed tones as a legendary, near-mythical figure in mysterious exile – a nebulous presence that serves as the impetus for the entire story.
Combined with the reverent build-up as Rey climbs the hill of the island Luke’s found himself on, and we have a terrific cliffhanger for Episode VIII that genuinely feels like a seminal moment – the return of the prodigal son to the franchise. As with Han, Luke is not a character I have much of a connection to, but the ending’s tip-top execution means that I’m on tenterhooks to see Luke in full force (ahem) in the sequel.
I do have a few criticisms about The Force Awakens, some of which have been scattered throughout this review already. There’s a sequence with Han and some space gangsters that, despite being really fun, feels unnecessary to the plot and essentially acts as little more than a detour that could very easily be cut or heavily pared down.
During the final sequence, there’s a bit of an imbalance, too – the movie knows that the Kylo/Finn/Rey material on the ground is where the emotional meat is, so the sequences with Poe and the fighter pilots attacking the Starkiller Base is reduced to window-dressing. These are nitpicks, though, and even these bits are pretty entertaining despite their flaws.
The Force Awakens passes its objective with flying colours, acting as a very effective introduction to the franchise for new fans and as a fun standalone movie in its own right.
It’s an imperfect but hugely enjoyable springboard for a slate of sequels and spin-offs that I’m now all looking forward to, kick-starting Disney’s new mega-franchise with style without ever sacrificing its status as a satisfying individual experience.
Released in UK cinemas on Thursday 17 December 2015.
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