Movie Review: Star Wars The Force Awakens

It’s a bit difficult to review a movie with this much weight riding on it, so soon after seeing it. The gap between the midnight screenings and the ideal start time for my year-end countdown posts is mere days, so I had to get cracking. But believe me, I’ve been mulling this movie over in my mind almost every second of that short time.

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Starring:
Harrison Ford, Daisy Ridley, Oscar Isaac
Director:
 
JJ Abrams (Star Trek, Super 8)
Rating: M
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Say whatever you want about 2015 in movies – If Star Wars was good, the year was always going to be remembered fondly. In fact you might even argue that it didn’t have to be good, only better than those endlessly panned prequel films. The carefully timed, Disney engineered hype cycle for Star Wars: The Force Awakens has been lengthy, intense and omnipresent, and the, ahem, force of that hype has been looming over the movie, waiting to crush it like it did The Phantom Menace way back in 1999.

Within that unenviable context, what director/superfan JJ Abrams has done with this mega-franchise is astounding.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the seventh canonical episode in one of Hollywood’s most revered sagas, is actually really good. I find myself second-guessing myself every time I think that thought, prying at the seams of what I’ve just seen in the cinema and looking for anything that will prove my inner Star Wars fanboy wrong. Yet I cannot, because while the movie has flaws, they aren’t enough to override what the film does so very well. The Force Awakens succeeds as an homage to the beloved original Star Wars trilogy, a tantalising set-up for future movies and associated stories, as well as, crucially, a thrilling and entertaining ride on its own merits.

Many of the points worth talking about when it comes to The Force Awakens relate to the movie’s completely transparent desire to avoid feeling anything like the prequel movies. Though there is actually plenty of CGI used throughout the film, it’s only used for actual alien characters in two notable cases, with real (and amazing) practical effects used for most everyone else. No-one mentions midichlorians. There is precious little political talk. No beloved characters get their backstories ruined.

At times this attitude reaches a little too far into pandering mimicry, as on top of the hurricane of callbacks and references, both the location characteristics and the very structure of the film’s relatively simple plot will be very familiar to longtime Star Wars fans. For the sake of keeping the integrity of said plot intact, I won’t say any more on that matter.

However, this isn’t nearly the scale of problem it could have been. JJ Abrams seems to have taken a leaf out of Joss Whedon‘s playbook for The Avengers, prioritising character development and interaction over complex narrative machinations. The move works brilliantly, as Abrams can have his cake and eat it too – while familiar, distinctly non-prequel plot devices like X-Wings, Stormtroopers and returning characters do the heavy lifting story-wise, he is able to focus on introducing his new players. And these new players are awesome.

John Boyega leads the pack performance-wise as Finn, a courageous if foolish character who seems perpetually torn in multiple directions. Boyega‘s consistent energy in the role is infectious, while Adam Driver‘s simmering turn as new villain Kylo Ren provides the opposite kind of appeal. Daisy Ridley sells the character growth at the core of major female lead Rey, as Oscar Isaac oozes charisma in every frame as ace pilot Poe Dameron. I like the guy more and more in every role I see him play. But it is, unsurprisingly, practical effects marvel BB-8 who steals the movie. Impressively emotive and always adorable, the round droid successfully slips into the role R2-D2 so famously filled over the last 40-odd years.

New and old characters unite to add power to a few crucial scenes that do what the original trilogy arguably never did – showcase the oppression of evil in a believable and personal way. In conjunction with a typically excellent John Williams score (to which I’ve already been listening on repeat) Abrams and co. present a villainous force – The First Order – that occasionally makes the Empire look cartoonish. But arguably the greatest and most important thing Abrams and his team do in The Force Awakens is remember to be funny. The kind of banter that punctuated the success of the original trilogy is back in full effect, complete with a few sprinkles of genius slapstick comedy. Laughs were one of the biggest “Star Wars-y” elements largely missing from the prequels, and they work wonders for this film’s appeal.

The Force Awakens is a long movie, and an awful lot seems to happen inside that lengthy runtime. Yet there are actually quite a few questions the film does not answer. Certain narrative details and pieces of exposition either blaze past or flat-out don’t take place, and the beauty of these missing pieces is you don’t miss them until after the credits have rolled and you stop to think. This not only leaves Rian Johnson‘s upcoming Episode 8 tantalisingly open, but gives Disney’s other partners a great platform to tell the kinds of fascinating side stories that have sustained the likes of Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Rebels.

The future of Star Wars looks bright once more.

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THE VERDICT

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Good: Impressive newcomers, both funny & powerful moments, great practical visuals, BB-8 is amazing, wonderful score
Bad: Treads significantly familiar ground
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4.5 VsI N C R E D I B L E

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