Review: Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens

So here we go – after two years of hype, almost unbearable for the last month or so, The Force Awakens is finally here. And you know what? I really liked it, but it does feel like a reboot of A New Hope at times. Regardless, new characters, interesting new stories and some great action are enough to make it a must-see.

No spoilers: 30 years after Return of the Jedi, loner Rey (Daisy Ridley) encounters droid BB-8 on the planet Jakku, and together they then meet disillusioned stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) and later pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), with the plot throwing them all into meetings with the legendary group of Han Solo (Harrison Ford), General (not Princess) Leia (Carrie Fisher), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). At the same time, Empire offshoot the First Order, led by the enigmatic Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), Gestapo-like General Hux (Domnhall Gleeson) and sinister Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) seeks to wipe out the new Resistance.

Any more information and the surprises in store would be ruined – the secrecy is a huge plus for this film. I loved not knowing who people were, what their motivations were or what was going to happen, and The Force Awakens should serve as an example to other films spoiled in trailers! This feels more like a Star Wars film than any of the prequel trilogy, and director J.J. Abrams (who did the same for Star Trek) has managed to reinvigorate the whole series. Script- and plot-wise, the film barrels along so quickly (very much like Star Trek) that you could almost miss the Grand Canyon-style plot holes and contrivances. The thing is, they don’t bother you because the film is fun and because it’s Star Wars, and plots were never the series’ strong suit.

However, I was surprised just how much the film relies on A New Hope for its bare bones and many major elements. I was almost checking the similarities off in my mind, but I suppose it’s a good way of ingratiating the older fans and introducing the newer ones to the same structure, though my favourite parts were when it dared to be different – Rey’s journey, Ren’s quite striking personality and backstory, and Finn’s brand new character type in particular.

Character and acting wise, the discovery of Daisy Ridley is a masterstroke, as the unknown English actress is an excellent heroine and new figurehead for the films. She forms an insatiable double-act with fellow Brit John Boyega, and their two stories – formed around loss, loneliness and a strong desire to do good – are more insightful than hours worth of angsty crap about young Darth Vader. Ridley’s Rey is a strong-willed, lonely girl who finally finds something to be part of, while Boyega’s Finn searches for redemption and provides both pathos and a great deal of humour. They make you care about the characters within the first half hour, and I’m really looking forward to seeing where they go next.

Add to this Isaac’s lesser seen but 100-percent heroic, dashing Dameron, and you have a new central three characters who combine the best parts of Luke, Leia and Han, while also offering new directions and storylines we’ve not seen before. On the dark side, Driver’s Kylo Ren is perhaps the best villain the series has had on a purely character basis. To say any more would be spoiling things, but the actor – whose strong, odd looks are utilised here – brings impetuous, fraught rage and confusion to a character whose motivations and back story are perhaps the most surprising of any in the movie. He is genuinely unpredictable, and I wanted to see more of him and his internal, raging conflicts, so I’m sure I won’t be disappointed by Episodes VIII and IX in that regard.

star-wars-force-awakens-official-posterOf the rest of the cast, Han Solo is the character we spend most time with, and it’s good to see that the famously laconic and gruff Ford has finally given a crap about a role. As much as he appears to despise the attention he gets from it, Solo made Ford’s career, and while he’s nowhere near the same smarmy smuggler, Ford brings new elements into play regarding Han’s life that develop the character beyond being a money-grabbing, sarcastic smuggler (though he’s still a large part of the comedy), and I was glad to see him return to a (sort of) form. Hamill and Fisher have a lot less screen-time than you might expect, but I feel there’s a lot more to come from them in the next few movies, and they portray the world-weary, damaged Skywalker twins in their own, different ways.

There isn’t much else to say about bad guys Snoke or Hux, except that the former is a CGI disappointment that will remind you more of Voldemort than anything else, and the latter is the most Nazi-like of the Empire’s officers yet, one scene in particular evoking German propaganda films. They’re both quite one-note, so it’s a good thing Kylo Ren offers something different. Droid-wise, C-3PO and R2-D2 take a step back to the hilarious BB-8, who is the main source of humour and fun, in some excellent work by the special effects team. And for series nerds, some classic alien characters make a return in little cameos towards the end.

Musically, it’s a welcome return to John Williams, who has a hard job in bringing the old themes back and introducing some new ones, the strongest of which is for Rey. I feel he as always did a great job, though I would expect many themes to become iconic further down the line. The action is excellent and befitting of Star Wars, with the obligatory lightsaber fight the standout. The battle scenes feel more vivid and realistic, with real heft when ships are shot down or shot at, while the big centrepiece (you can see it hiding at the back of the poster above) is a bit of a disappointing callback mixed together with Star Trek’s ‘red matter’ – the thinking seems to be that the worst weapons in space would be those that destroy planets and/or suns, rather than anything smaller-scale.

However, the sets and special effects (Snoke excepted) are brilliant – a great balance of practical machines or monsters, some with minimal CGI additions, and other bits of flawless CGI as well. This is a welcome change from the prequel films again, and awful effects such as Jar Jar Binks or the plastic-y battles.

What it really managed though was to make me very keen to see the next film, and where the story might go – largely because of the great new characters. And knowing that Disney has Marvel-sized plans for Star Wars – the next film won’t be Episode VIII, but a prequel-ish film about stealing the first Death Star’s plans, Rogue One – I’m excited that the refreshed series is off to a great start. Now if the second could please not copy loads from The Empire Strikes Back, that’d be fab. Give us some more of the new stuff, because that’s what’s best about The Force Awakens.

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