There’s been a groundswell leading up to the release of Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens unlike that of any other film in recent memory. The sheer cultural punch of the name Star Wars combined with a returning cast of old characters and a renewed commitment to the tone and practical effects of the original trilogy have led to an excitement level that’s gone beyond fever pitch. It’s as if everyone has forgotten that a very similar thing happened in 1999 before the release of the much maligned The Phantom Menace. This wasn’t a similarity I was able to overlook, and though I enjoy the prequel trilogy far more than most, I approached The Force Awakens with mild trepidation, a nervousness born from the fact that I could so easily imagine all the ways a new Star Wars movie could go wrong. I’m pleased to report that my fears were totally and completely unfounded.
Disney and Lucasfilm have done an incredible job keeping the plotline for The Force Awakens a secret, no small feat considering the film’s notoriety, and I’m not going be the one to spill it. Suffice to say the film sees older characters like Han Solo, Leia Organa, Luke Skywalker and Chewbacca return opposite several new characters to face down a new threat to the galaxy from the sinister Kylo Renn.
There’s so many incredible moments in The Force Awakens, and the film skips along at a brisk pace. Gone is the tedious politicking that dogged the prequel trilogy but also gone is the often leisurely pace of the original films, replaced with a fast, expertly constructed adventure story complimented by some of the best character work the series has done since Reagan was in the White House.
The only true fault to be found in the story, the only true fault to be found in the film actually, is how similar it is structurally to the original trilogy, especially A New Hope. Place both films side by side and some sections will match each other beat for beat, to the point that characters will occasionally even observe that familiarity in the movie itself. The Force Awakens is an incredibly brave film in a lot of ways, both technically and narratively, but in this, at least, it plays it too safe.
The filmmakers also can’t resist the odd bit of blatant fan service, with several moments built into the movie for no other reason then to nudge the viewer and say “hey, remember that?” The Force Awakens undeniably preys on people’s nostalgia and for the most part it does so with a sly wink but in these more blatant moments the film asks you to disregard it and instead think back to several thirty to forty odd year old movies. It’s unnecessarily crass and it breaks immersion.
The Force Awakens makes a concerted effort to emulate the look and feel of the original trilogy. While the prequel trilogy eschewed the dust and grime for green screen and shiny CGI fireworks displays, The Force Awakens makes every effort to create a world that is real. Everything that could realistically be accomplished practically is and the result is an incredibly detailed, incredibly substantial reality for the characters to interact with.
This is the absolute best that Star Wars has ever looked, period. While the world of Star Wars has also been stylistically striking, it’s never been captured through the lens of a more talented director then it has here. Irvin Kirshner (Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back) and Richard Marquand (Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi) did great work with atmosphere and tone but rarely aimed for much more beyond that and George Lucas (Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones, Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith) has one of the simplest, least ambitious eyes for cinematography and visual storytelling then any major director I know of, but two time Primetime Emmy Award winner J.J. Abrams (Super 8, Mission Impossible III) takes the tone and atmosphere that worked so well in the older films and laces it through some incredible pieces of footage. This is a gorgeous, striking movie, with more detail in every frame then any other film in the franchise.
The script also benefits from the change in management, its natural dialogue and confident character development a far cry from the stilted, almost painful syntax Lucas slipped into during the prequel trilogy. Screenwriters Abrams, four time Academy Award nominee Lawrence Kasdan (Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back, Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi) and Academy Award winner Michael Arndt (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Toy Story 3) clearly know their characters, both old and new, the result being people talking like people rather than people talking like aliens emulating the soap operas they’ve caught from satellite TV.
The cast is also uniformly fantastic. Academy Award nominee Harrison Ford (Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Fugitive) slips back into Han Solo’s shoes like he wears them every day, and he serves as a fantastic focal point for the rest of the cast to orbit around. It’s the new cast that is truly brilliant however. The apparent heirs to the Star Wars kingdom are John Boyega (Attack the Block, 24: Live Another Day), Daisy Ridley (Scrawl, Mr Selfridge) and three time Primetime Emmy Award nominee Adam Driver (This is Where I Leave You, Inside Llewyn Davis) and they’re all extraordinary. Boyega and Ridley have more personality and spark in their performances than any of the prequel trilogy’s cast (though to be fair, they have a far, far better script) and their chemistry with each other is pitch perfect. Ridley is an excellent protagonist, one of the series’ best and all the more impressive given her relatively small resume, and Boyega plays the Han Solo to her Luke Skywalker with a palpable energy and a humorous edge.
It’s Driver that is perhaps the biggest surprise, however. It’s safe to say people were surprised when the emotionally stunted guy from HBO’s Girls was cast as the new big bad in one of cinema’s landmark franchises, but Driver acquits himself with flying colours. His tall frame and loping physicality cut a menacing figure and his voice strikes a level of bass that will immediately invite comparisons to the rumbling tones of James Earl Jones, especially when paired with his Diet Darth Vader outfit. On the other side of the coin is Domhnall Gleeson (About Time, Ex Machina), who is woefully miscast as the lead enemy officer of the film. He’s playing against type as well but he’s far less successful at it than Driver, attempting his best Peter Cushing impression but falling summarily short. One key scene in which he addresses his troops plays more like an angry accountant put out by the theft of his sandwich from the break room fridge than the fanatical intensity of Hitler before the Nazi masses that the film is so obviously trying to emulate.
Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens is an unequivocal, undeniable success. In this return to a galaxy far, far away, J.J. Abrams and his extremely talented cast have accomplished an almost flawless re-establishment of one of cinema’s very best stories. It’s a confident, ambitious film with some of the best effects in recent memory as well as better looking cinematography then almost any other modern blockbuster and while it plays it a little too safe in terms of narrative structure, it’s a hugely impressive outing that bodes extremely well for Star Wars fans going forward.