Don’t read on if you’ve not seen the film!
Ten years ago the last Star Wars prequel, Revenge of the Sith was released and everyone had the same feeling of relief one has when a loved one finally dies after a long and painful illness. The prequels were finally over and we could all go back to remembering the Star Wars films when they were fit and healthy rather than dying on their feet. Few people thought a decade on we’d have a new Star Wars film, let alone one without the involvement of creator George Lucas, but in Christmas 2015 we’ve got The Force Awakens from director/writer J.J Abrams which is the fist of a series of new films under the new Disney ownership.
As a film it’s fantastic. As a Star Wars film it’s spectacular. This isn’t a dying relative, but some spritely young thing kicking your back doors in. It’s not perfect, not film is, but the gaping plot holes (and there’s two big holes in the film) are easy to ignore. The plot follows some of the same beats at the first Star Wars film, A New Hope, but it’s remixed not to mention this new trilogy seems to have been planned out in advance so there’s dangling threads in terms of plot and characterisation so I don’t mind that.
The plot starts with an opening scene where Poe Dameron (Oscar Issac), a resistance pilot trying to find a map with the whereabouts of Luke Skywalker (who’s went into hiding) is meeting on Jakku with Max von Sydow’s character and instantly the fact Sydow is speaking the first lines in the new film adds it a gravitas from the off that the opening drivel about trade and taxes in Phantom Menace doesn’t have. From there on in for the next 40 minutes or so the film doesn’t let up. We see the First Order massacre a village of innocents, Poe’s droid BB8 escapes into the desert with the MacGuffin (the map) then a Stormtrooper in the name of Finn (John Boyega) rebel against their brutality, and then escape with Poe in a TIE Fighter from the cruiser they’re on which is shot down and crash lands on Jakku.
The first act of the film takes place almost exclusively on Jakku, a desert planet designed to invoke the original but one that had one of the final battles between the Empire and the Rebellion. It’s here that Abrams has some frankly astonishingly framed shots that blow the closed, tedious shots of the prequels. It’s also on Jakku we meet Rey (Daisy Ridley) who is this generations Luke Skywalker, and that comparison becomes clearer in the third act, but the rest of the first act involves Rey and Finn meeting, being found by the First Order, fighting and then escaping Jakku in the Millennium Falcon (which just happens to be on Jakku) before being captured in space by a freighter piloted by Han Solo and Chewbacca.
Harrison Ford is clearly having some fun playing Solo as a grumpy old man, but it’s really the new characters that sell the film as Ridley, Boyega and Adam Driver’s gloriously pissy Kylo Ren (a Darth Vader cosplaying fanboy acting as the First Order’s muscle) that steal the film from the established cast, though Ford has a lot of screentime with all three with some scenes being charming, and one in particular being shocking if you’re not expecting it.
Act two is about filling in the plot which involves a mega Death Star called Starkiller Base that threatens the new republic, but baddies being baddies the First Order use it to destroy the heart of the republic. What I do like here is that the First Order aren’t as organised as the Empire was, plus they’re more bloodthirsty, so they’re the ISIS to the Empire’s Al Queda.
In a very Cantina type bar (and another nod to the original films) on another alien planet that Han takes them to, Finn and Rey find Luke’s old lightsabre thought lost in Empire Strikes Back,but Rey rejects it after experiencing a vision. As the First Order catch up with them (as they too want the MacGuffin so Kylo Ren can find and kill Luke therefore completing the task Darth Vader couldn’t) a battle breaks out, Rey is captured by Kylo Ren, and Finn takes up the lightsabre in battle against his former comrades. After a bit of some frankly dodgy exposition, we’re taken to the home of the resistance after being reintroduced to Leia (Carrie Fisher’s Stallone level botox will make you gasp) there’s a desperate final attempt to blow up Starkiller Base, and to rescue Rey. Also around now it’s revealed Kylo Ren is Han and Leia’s son who was being trained as a Jedi by Luke, but he went to the dark side, hence why Luke fled into hiding.
Rey however proves to be more than capable as she’s not only able to resist Kylo Ren’s force assisted torture, but she’s able to throw it back at him. Indeed, I read this scene as Kylo Ren fiddling around with someone he’s underestimated and misunderstood, not to mention that he triggers something in Rey who manages to use the force to escape, join up with Finn, Han and Chewie on Starkiller Base, However as they sabotage the thingy they need to so the resistance fighters can blow everything up at the end of the film, Han confronts Kylo Ren who has been struggling with being pulled to the light side of the Force. Han and Ben (Kylo Ren’s real name) have a moment where we think perhaps his father has pulled him from the edge, but no, as the sun blinks out and everything turns dark, Kylo kills his father.
At this point Chewbacca goes mental against First Order stormtroopers, as Finn and Rey chase down Kylo. The three face off in a nearby forest to the thingy that needs to get blown up to help end the film is, and just as we think we’re in for a big fight with all three Kylo knocks out Rey, so Finn takes up the lightsabre against the better trained Kylo. He manages to hold his own for a bit but Kylo starts battering him, before nearly killing him and knocking Luke’s old lightsabre into the snow. Kylo reaches out for it using the Force (he is after all, a Jedi fanboy and this is the ultimate bit of memorabilia) but as the lightsabre flies out of the snow it passes Kylo’s hand and smacks into a surprised looking Rey. The pair have a fight that’s infinitely better than all the fights in the prequels combined.
Rey gets the upper hand on Kylo, gives him a scar to remember her by but before the battle can end, they’re separated by an earthquake as the planet falls apart as the resistance have blown the thingy up. Fortunately Chewie turns up in the Falcon saving Rey and the comatose Finn. Everyone escapes. Plot threads are left dangling for the next two films, and the film ends with Rey, Chewie and R2D2 finding Luke on a remote planet that looks like Ireland. We has a final shot of Luke and Rey meeting. The End.
Plot wise The Force Awakens borrows a lot of beats from the original films so you could say it’s ‘fan service’ but Abrams would have been damned had he done nothing, so he couldn’t win. For me, he gets it right and yes, I think you could go into this film and not needing to have seen the original films because what’s being done is that Abrams is playing with the culture of Star Wars. In fact, Kylo Ren is a meta-comment on fans (dressing as his hero, collecting relics) and a great character in his own right as we’ve not really seen the baddies in a Star Wars film being developed, or having a story arc outwith of Darth Vader and even then that felt tagged on a bit. This doesn’t. Neither does Finn’s arc, or indeed Rey’s. Only Poe Dameron’s character feels thin not to mention is at the centre of one of the film’s plot holes as how did he escape Jakku??
Most of all it feels like Star Wars. I care about the characters from the minute Poe is cracking gags at Kylo Ren, or Finn undergoes a crisis of conscience and decides to redeem himself, to Rey being a lonley scavenger on a backwater planet to someone that can beat Kylo Ren in a lightsabre fight. It also helps that the script is good. It’s tense, action packed and funny in all the right places, though there’s a lull in the second act and the Starkiller attack is a bit gubbins as it gets in the way of the more interesting battle between Kylo, Finn and Rey, the script is splendid. Just let yourself go and let Abrams hammer you with nostalgia and you’ll love The Force Awakens.
I don’t think it’s better than A New Hope or Empire Strikes Back, but it is better than Return of the Jedi because it’s got real actual character development plus it gives us an important cast member death scene that the films needed (Ford wanted Han to die in Jedi, and he’s right, he should have. It’d have made the situation clearly grave enough that one of our heroes died, but Lucas talked Ford out of it. 30 years later he gets his death scene) plus the new characters are delightful, fun, exciting and threatening. I give a fuck for Finn as he tries to escape the First Order and in the process become a hero. I empathise with Rey locked away waiting for something to happen to her. I even get Kylo Ren’s emo angst. In fact I want to see more of Rey, Finn, Poe, BB8, Kylo Ren and everyone in the film, apart from Supreme Leader Snoke who is just not threatening, or evil enough.
There’s been complaints online that these characters haven’t been fleshed out. We’ve not been told everything about them, or that Rey’s use of the Force in the third act is ‘unrealistic’ in a film where space travel is easy.This is the first of a new trilogy of space fantasy films, so not that word ‘fantasy’ as this is just fantasy, and there’s clearly a plan for the next two films so in this era of people being spoonfed everything it’s going to be hard for people to realise that they’ve got two years to wait til more of the puzzle is revealed but it’s clever. After all, if you’re one of the millions of people that aren’t fans going to see this film and you like it, then you’ll want to come back to get the next chapter. That said,the film probably needed a bit more in the Jakku scenes to give us a bit more of Rey’s life but this is a minor point.
I can’t believe that in 2015 we’ve finally gotten a good Star Wars film that’s a couple of hours of entertaining fun as opposed to a load of bollocks.A year ago the new characters were introduced and people were wary, but now looking back at that teaser I can’t help thinking how great a bit of marketing it is as these are the people we’ll be turning into icons from now on.
See The Force Awakens. It’s blockbuster that doesn’t disappoint.