REVIEW: 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' is a thrilling springboard into a new saga
There’s a reason why Star Wars has been with us so long; why it’s been able to weather everything that's been thrown at it. Whether it’s re-cuts, new effects or lacklustre prequels, there’s an essential spirit in Star Wars that remains unadulterated. It’s baked into the original trilogy - a blend of operatic action and drama, with dashes of humour. Visuals that feel simultaneously alien and familiar. A distillation of the simple truths found in Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces and in dozens of cinematic reference points. No matter what certain filmmakers have tried to turn Star Wars into, something keeps us coming back.
Just as the very first Star Wars found that perfect mix in 1977 and rose above its technical deficiencies – and let’s admit it, the film has them – so too does the latest movie, The Force Awakens. Despite some wonky pacing, Awakens builds itself into the first worthy sequel in the series in more than thirty years. Its many echoes of the original film, Episode IV: A New Hope, may seem like a series greatest-hits album at first, but as the film continues, it soon becomes clear what director J.J. Abrams is trying to do. He uses the tropes we remember from the films we love to set his young heroes on the next generation of Star Wars adventures. In order for the series to finally grow, it must first return to what made it great.
Naturally, there are few things more evil in the world of film fandom than spoiling Star Wars surprises. So rest assured: this review will dance around the revelations as much as possible. What is important to lay out, though, is the vaguest outline of the plot: when a stormtrooper called Finn (John Boyega) decides to desert from the Imperial remnant called the First Order, he falls into a web of intrigue involving a plan to overthrow the galaxy. He encounters a scavenger named Rey (Daisy Ridley) who has befriended an important droid, a pilot named Poe (Oscar Isaac) who helps lead the resistance against the First Order, and a young warrior who has fallen to the dark side of the Force (Adam Driver).
We eventually run into some other friendly faces, but the story’s focus soon shifts to Rey, and her attempts to figure out where her place is in the conflict. Like Finn, her story is about overcoming fear and accepting a role in the fate of those around her. After a long time, we finally have Star Wars characters whose stories are not pre-determined: over the next few years, we’ll accompany them in their journeys, and get swept up in their world all over again.
One of best things that The Force Awakens does is expand our understanding of the galaxy we thought we knew. Not only do we visit a handful of new planets, but our way of taking in these landscapes has changed. There are beautiful wide shots of spaceship aerobatics – including some of the most expressive flying the Millennium Falcon and X-Wing fighters have ever done on screen. J.J. Abrams spreads the canvas of his battle scenes in gigantic vistas, showing us the scale from the air and the perspective from characters on the ground. Whereas George Lucas’ prequels often reduced battles to a dispassionate mess of digital things zooming around, Abrams makes you feel like you’re standing shoulder to shoulder with the heroes, gazing out at the action.
Another detail to appreciate is the return of some mystery in the series. Just like the original viewers back in 1977, we're left with just enough questions to keep our minds racing until Episode VIII. The movie doesn't feel the need to have characters sitting around vomiting clunky exposition. Instead, we're invited to decode the movie on our own, like the original wave of fans.
However, in its rush to establish all its fresh characters and update us on everything that’s happened since Return of the Jedi, The Force Awakens doesn’t always maintain a steady flow from one scene to the next. And it unfortunately tacks on a rather important (and long-anticipated) scene at the very tail end of the movie, after the climactic battle, leaving us with an overlong cliffhanger.
I’m more than willing to forgive some structural unevenness, though, in the context of everything that The Force Awakens does right. It’s a film so full of life and eagerness to entertain that the films that precede it, which Lucas released between 1999 and 2005, almost seem like they belong in a weird alternate universe by comparison. As for the original trilogy? Now is not the time to decide where The Force Awakens ranks next to that. Instead, we should celebrate being able to watch Star Wars make its exciting new transition in the hands of filmmakers and performers who see the series as something to explore, rather than something to finish.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens gets three and a half stars out of four.
What did you think of Episode VII? Does it live up to the intense anticipation of the past few years? Or did it fail to live up to your high standards? Join the discussion in the comments section, and if you liked this review, share it with your friends and followers!