VOD film review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Ivan Radford | On 11, Apr 2016
Director: J.J. Abrams
Cast: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Harrison Ford, Domnhall Gleeson, Carrie Fisher
Watch The Force Awakens online in the UK: Disney+ / Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Rakuten TV / Google Play / Sky Store
“It’s true. All of it,” says Han Solo (Ford) to the young whippersnappers opposite him in the middle of The Force Awakens. It’s a moment that marks the baton being passed from one generation to the next – a recognition of what’s behind in order to move forwards.
That balance of old and new is something of a recurring theme in Hollywood, as franchises return, reboot and are otherwise rejigged for a fresh audience. The Force Awakens arrives in the shadow of SPECTRE, two titles that knowingly acknowledge the phantom of history. Even J.J. Abrams comes to the project with an attempt to do something similar for the Starship Enterprise hanging over him. Where both failed, though, Star Wars succeeds: Episode VII is the film that SPECTRE and Star Trek Into Darkness wanted to be.
It’s no mistake that original trilogy writer Lawrence Kasdan penned the script, alongside Toy Story 3’s Michael Arndt and Abrams. Together, the trio pull off the balancing act that eluded James Bond and Captain Kirk: they manage to be self-referential, but also reverential; a mix of awareness and humour, coupled with respect and pathos.
When jokes (and there are many) are made at Star Wars’ expense, they’re not the meta gags of fans and writers, but are driven by the characters. At one point, former stormtrooper Finn (Boyega) talks to Solo about how they’re going to achieve a seemingly impossible mission. “We can figure it out. We’ll use the Force,” he suggests. “That’s not how the Force works, kid,” comes the deadpan reply. When Rey (Ridley) encounters the Millennium Falcon, she gasps. “It made the Kessel Run in 14 parsecs!” “12,” mutters Solo.
There is something richer than just the movie mantle being passed down: it’s also the mythology of those movies. And the familiar faces, from Carrie Fisher’s Leia to R2-D2 and C-3PO, really are the stuff of legend. Set years after Return of the Jedi, those events have now passed into myth, details forgotten, others misinterpreted. It’s telling that each character has their own understanding of what the Force is, and how it relates to them. With Luke Skywalker missing, there’s an air of confusion across the galaxy. Vader’s mask has become a quasi-religious relic. Rebellion helmets have become junkyard headwear for hopeful kids to wear. Good guys are rumoured to have gone bad, bad guys feel the pull of the Light Side on their conscience, and Mark Hamill has a beard. There’s a balance to the Force, but not in how people perceive it.
All of that detail lingers in the background, but it’s never spelled out for audiences; this is blockbusting at its smartest and most subtle. It’s only natural, for example, that the plot should echo what’s gone before, albeit with a twist. There are stormtroopers, but for the first time, we glimpse under their helmets. There is the First Order, partly led by General Hux (Domnhall Gleeson), but it sits (like Vader-wannabe Kylo Ren’s mask) in the shadow of the Empire. We have a father figure in the form of Solo’s craggy veteran, rather than a Sith or Jedi master – and a warped echo of Episode V’s twist in the suggestion that parental bonds could prove as powerful as the Force. We even get a funky take on a Lightsaber, complete with hand guard.
The backdrop has also evolved: we gaze, open-mouthed, at our first hand-to-hand duel in a snow-filled forest. We witness the new generation of fighter pilots – in the form of Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron (who wins our affection with only a few minutes of screen-time). We tap our feet, as John Williams resurrects his familiar motifs, but introduces the series’ first piano-led melody, before playing the Imperial March at a point where you expect to hear the stirring Force theme. And, throughout, we see women everywhere, from officers on the bridge of battleships to leading villain Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie). Even our young Jakku scavenger, Rey, shrugs off the sexism of decades ago. “I can run without you holding my hand,” she snaps at her male counterpart, as they dash through the desert.
The newcomers are natural successors to the starring roles of old. Ridley has the same hopeful optimism, and apparent gifts, that once defined Luke – less a “Mary Sue” and more a progressive interpretation of the genre’s traditional hero archetype; Driver’s Kylo Ren has as much complexity and depth as his stunning hair (and his unstable weapon, which groans and pulsates like a homemade toy built in a shed that’s about to explode); Boyega, meanwhile, moves from Attack the Block to space with the confidence of an experienced Hollywood A-lister, his charisma and natural comic timing fused with a wide-eyed enthusiasm about everything around him. “Did you see that?!” he cries, after shooting a TIE fighter. You can almost hear Han shouting back from 1977: “Don’t get cocky.”
The key, though, is in making all that seem so effortless. Ford slips back into his roguish boots with undeniable charm, while Fisher easily brings emotion and authority to her combat general. Only a subplot involving R2-D2 feels forced and overly convenient; the rest is as sleek as Abrams’ modern visuals, yet grubby as your childhood memories of George Lucas’ saga. Through this battered, beaten-up universe coasts a contemporary wave of creativity – led by the gleeful rolling of the droid BB-8. (Only in Star Wars can a piece of metal steal the show without it being a bad thing.)
The result has the feel of something ancient given a rough polish; the kind of recycled vibe that has always defined Star Wars, from the rebuilt Death Star in Episode VI (how fitting that the villains here similarly lack the imagination to come up with an original plan) to Luke’s repaired speeder in Episode IV. Episode VII sits right alongside those first three films, both in pacing, plotting and sheer entertainment. It’s a hard line to hit, the one between the past and the future, but The Force Awakens nails it like Luke Skywalker hitting a womp in a T-16 Skyhopper. Unlike Star Trek Into Darkness and SPECTRE, the only thing The Force Awakens leaves you wanting is more – more details about these new characters and how they fit in with the universe. More dogfights. More Lightsabers. And more BB-8. As the franchise continues to grow with this new generation of movies, the hype is only set to do the same. The magical thing? It’s true. All of it.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens is available on Disney+, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription or a £79.99 yearly subscription.
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