Stars: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Adam Driver, Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Lupita Nyong’o, Gwendoline Christie, Domhnall Gleeson, Andy Serkis, Peter Mayhew, Max von Sydow, Warwick Davis, Anthony Daniels and Kenny Baker.
Writers: Lawrence Kasdan, J.J. Abrams and Michael Arndt.
Director: J.J. Abrams.
Watch the trailer here.
The Force Awakens is to A New Hope, as A New Hope was to the Flash Gordon matinee serials of yesteryear. Just as those creaky two-reelers inspired a young George Lucas to rework sci-fi adventure tropes for a new generation, so to does director J.J. Abrams now imprint his own frantic filmmaking flourish on Lucas’ source material for the millennial mindset.
Whatever factors rob The Force Awakens of the soulful essence of Lucas’ 1977 blockbuster are, frankly, impossible to define; it will be something as intangible as timing or fate or some such thing. Unlike Lucas’ work, which bowed at the birth of the blockbuster era and spoke with a clear and classic heroic voice, the likes of which young audiences had not encountered previously, Abrams’ vision is very much of its time – busy, self-aware, giddy in the thrall of its own energy and aesthetic. Just as he did so successfully with the Mission Impossible and Star Trek brands, Abrams has breathed new life into Star Wars; why it should then feel lacking in a strong pulse at times is worth pondering.
On the record as a die-hard Star Wars fanatic, Abrams' fan cred comes through in his reverential treatment of thematic and narrative elements synonymous with the series. This honouring of lore may represent his geek-boy spiritual bond or may be in answer to Disney’s demands to not mess with the formula, or both. The blueprint to which Abrams adheres is a strength and a weakness; the warm glow of nostalgia is all over The Force Awakens and imbues immediate goodwill, but Abrams does little to earn his own stripes as a conveyor of franchise mythology (unlike Irvin Kershner achieved with The Empire Strikes Back or, to a lesser extent, Richard Marquand on Return of The Jedi).
The heroic characters are strong in this one, with Daisy Ridley’s desert scavenger Rey firmly establishing a spunky, resourceful central figure and strong bond with the plucky droid, BB-8; John Boyega’s defecting Stormtrooper ‘Finn’ is slightly less well defined, but the actor is a strong presence and establishes an honest chemistry with Ridley. Oscar Isaac’s X-wing hero Poe Dameron is all square-jawed gusto; Lupita Nyong’o’s CGI-rendered cantina owner, the wizened Maz Kanata (looking too much like The Incredibles’ Edna Mode) seems poised to become Yoda 2.0. The impact of Harrison Ford as aged scoundrel Han Solo is invaluable, his superstar charisma and weathered ‘grey fox’ appeal the pic’s greatest asset. His scenes opposite Carrie Fisher’s Leia (no longer a ‘princess’, now settled into a strategic role with the Rebellion) are melancholy and warm.
Abram’s villains are less compelling, none matching the malevolence of Eric Bana’s Romulan Nero in the 2009 Star Trek reboot. Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren casts a meagre shadow over the proceedings, his merciless mean-streak seeming no more ominous than that of schoolyard bully when faced with Rey’s resistance. Some convoluted plotting that ties Ren to our heroes does not convince, leading to a development that should be a series-defining moment but which instead plays as a throwaway contrivance. Andy Serkis lends his mo-cap skills to the CGI-generated Supreme Leader Snoke; solid actors such as Domhnall Gleeson and Gwendoline Christie adopt the stuffy Brit baddie archetype in the dark-suited military roles (then it was ‘The Empire’; now, it is ‘The First Order’).
When the film does soar it is on the back of the production design and effects crews. A sequence that re-introduces the Millenium Falcon leads to a thrilling chase sequence on the desert planet Jakku; majestically staged dogfights between screeching Tie Fighters and beautiful X-wing crafts are truly breathtaking.
To put it in ‘old franchise’ perspective, The Force Awakens is immeasurably better than the dire Lucas-directed prequels and probably as good as Return of The Jedi. But it lacks the free-wheeling bravado and pure thrill of A New Hope and the smart scripting and artistry of The Empire Strikes Back. As a kicker for a new raft of sequels, spin-offs and merchandising, it is serviceable and entirely enjoyable. The bitter irony is that the very thing that inspired its existence also created the frenzied, blockbuster-hungry studio system that reins in its potential.