It’s tough to say whether super fans are the best candidates to revive the franchises they love, or adapt the materials they grew up with. The connection can be too deep to allow for creativity or necessary levels of editing (case in point: Zack Snyder’s Watchmen). There is no doubt JJ Abrams loves Star Wars, and make no mistake he had a tough job on his hands choosing to play in the well-moneyed intergalactic sandbox vacated by series creator George Lucas. It is a great relief for me to say that in most respects, Abrams was the right man to take on the job.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens will be many things to many people, but it is primarily a sequel to Return of the Jedi, the final part in Lucas’ original trilogy, which was released in 1983. It also functions as a sort-of reimagining of the originals, mostly in a positive sense. There is no doubt it will induct a legion of new young fans, while the hardcore faithful will probably still be debating its merits in 50 years’ time.
If Abrams had made something bad, or even average, there’s a good chance he would’ve been pilloried for life, something even the series’ progenitor George Lucas has had to endure following the poorly received prequel trilogy which began in 1999 with The Phantom Menace. This film is in many ways a return to form. It’s thrilling, fantastical and feels like Star Wars. Abrams has spoken in the past of how stressful he found the process of making the film feel like it fit in with the others, although Lucas himself – after selling the rights to Star Wars to Disney – has not had creative input in this film.
We begin (after a brief introduction), as A New Hope did, on a barren, desert world – this time Jakku – where hard-up scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley) comes into possession of an adorable droid, BB-8, who is carrying some important information needed by the Resistance (aka the Rebellion of old). A chance series of events sees her partner up with Finn (John Boyega), a runaway stormtrooper who has turned on the First Order, a dark faction which has risen from the ashes of the original trilogy’s Empire.
If most of that sounds familiar, that’s because it is. The film consistently, and intentionally, mirrors the storyline of A New Hope, and has references to Empire and Jedi. That’s not to say the storyline is the same, but it’s definitely close, in both theme and structure. Once we get into space, and Rey and Finn meet up with wandering spacers Han Solo (a returning Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca, this feeling of warm familiarity sets in even further. But crucially, Abrams keeps the new characters as the focus of the film. It’s exciting to see old favourites return, but this film is about a new generation of heroes.
That said, although the film is about its new protagonists, their actual character development is relatively minimal. Both leave lasting positive impressions thanks to engaging and likeable performances from Ridley and Boyega, but at present they’re being carried along by the narrative rather than driving it. Similarly, the fast-paced narrative leaves little room for returning faces such as General (formerly Princess) Leia to make much of an impression beyond the joy of simply seeing them in this world again, and some new characters – in particular ace pilot Poe Dameron, played with verve by Oscar Isaac – are pretty one-dimensional roles.
Luke Skywalker is conspicuous by his absence. Indeed, an intergalactic search for Luke – from both the First Order and the Resistance – is the central thrust of the plot, although as is traditional, there’s a giant space base to be attacked in the final act.
On the villainous side of things, the film gives us a new and memorable character. Kylo Ren, played behind an ominous mask by Adam Driver, is a temperamental, dangerous force, and not without inner demons, which the film is bold enough to face up to.
The Force Awakens – officially titled Episode VII in the traditional opening text crawl – injects much-needed life into the franchise. Abrams’ film romps along at a pleasing pace, isn’t afraid to fill the corners of its screen with titbits and oddities (as Lucas himself was prone to do), and delivers both spectacle and charismatic characters.
Why, then, only four stars? Perhaps because it feels too safe. As a long-time Star Wars fan, I wanted to see a new director – crucially, one given free reign in this universe, as Abrams was – be more daring with the material. In places, it’s just a little bit too familiar, even down to replicated shots, lines and narrative arcs.
But I understand that to new viewers, and to those who haven’t seen the original films countless times, that point of view may not apply. Which is why I’m ending the revi ew by reiterating that I had a huge amount of fun with The Force Awakens, an encouraging and relieving beginning to a new trilogy. Star Wars is back, and the Force is with it.