Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

 

The Force is calling to you. Just let it in...

 

** SPOILERS **

So this is it! Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens has finally been unleashed! This review has arrived a little late - Film Geek has been busy over the Christmas period, plus multiple viewings of The Force Awakens has taken priority! I’ve now managed to soak it all in, and after posting a brief non-spoiler review HERE, I now bring you the full spoilerific analysis of TFA!

Background

So we all know the back story of course. First came the OT (Original Trilogy), which essentially charted the relationship between Luke Skywalker and his father Darth Vader, culminating in Vader’s redemption from the Dark Side to the Light. The OT is absolutely near-perfect cinema. Then 16 years later came the PT (Prequel Trilogy), which showed the fall of Anakin Skywalker, but little else. The PT divided fans, but for all that is wrong with them (CGI-heavy, poor acting and dialogue, midichorians nonsense, Jar Jar bloody Binks) there is some absolute gold in them too – Darth Maul’s lightsaber duels, Order 66, Yoda vs Palpatine, the tale of Darth Plaguies The Wise, and Anakin slaying Dooku to name but a few. The gaps before, between, and beyond all six movies have been plugged with the forever growing Expanded Universe (EU), with the Star Wars stories continuing on in novel, comic, video game and TV series forms.

Then George Lucas decided to sell Lucasfilm to Disney in 2012 (for the mere sum of $4.05billion) to ensure hisStar Wars legacy continues on indefinitely. Shortly after, Disney announced that not only were they going to develop a new trilogy of films to take place after ROTJ (‘Sequel Trilogy’?), but several stand-alone spin-off films also. Furthermore, the EU would be almost completely disregarded and would no longer be considered as canon (the existing EU has since been retitled ‘Star Wars Legends’) and replaced with a brand new EU. Phew, now onto The Force Awakens!

The Story

Director J.J. Abrams enlisted the help of TESB and ROTJ scribe Lawrence Kasden to flesh out the story for The Force Awakens. It’s an absolute doozy, with numerous threads and elements for the audience to follow. Set 30 years after the Battle Of Endor, we learn that Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has gone into hiding. A brand new Republic has restored order to the galaxy following the demise of the Empire, but is under threat from the First Order, a brutal organisation risen from the ashes of the Empire. Leading them is the mysteriousKylo Ren (Adam Driver), a Sith-like figure who is hunting Luke Skywalker.

We are also introduced to the trio of new leads. Finn (John Boyega) is a Stormtrooper who’s having a crisis of conscience and wants to desert the First Order. He meets Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), a hot-shot X-wing pilot who’s been sent on a mission by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) to investigate a clue that may lead to the whereabouts of her brother Luke. Finn and Poe crash-land a TIE fighter on the desert planet Jakku, where Poe seemingly perishes in thewreckage. Finn then meets Rey (Daisy Ridley) and helps her to locate the Resistance - a Rebel Alliance-inspired military outfit fighting back against the First Order - to deliver Poe’s droid BB-8, who happens to be carrying valuable data relating to Skywalker’s location.

On their way, they run into Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew). We learn that Han and Leia’s relationship turned sour when their force-sensitive son Ben turned to the Dark Side. Han and Leia went their separate ways, doing what they do best – Han returned to smuggling and Leia formed the Resistance.

Then we have the BIG revelation. It turns out that, following ROTJ, Luke hadstarted his own Jedi Academy (we assume he discovered others who were strong in the Force) but one of his pupils was lured to the Dark Side by Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), and ended up slaying Luke’s students. If you haven’t guessed it by now, that pupil was Ben Solo, who then took on the identity Kylo Ren. And that’s not all. Ren is obsessed with his grandfather Darth Vader – he seeks counsel from Vader’s burned helmet that has been salvaged from his Endor funeral pyre–vowing to finish what Vader started.

Back with Han, Chewie, Finn and Rey, the group travel to see the wise, Yoda-like Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o) who is in possession of Luke’s lightsaber – the very same one that he was holding when Vader lopped his hand off in TESB.Upon touching the lightsaber, Rey experiences a Force-vision suggesting that she may be linked to Luke in some way. She’s then captured by Kylo Ren, who seems to have some unexplained prior knowledge to who she is, and is taken to the First Order’s Starkiller Base – a weaponised planet capable of harnessing a sun’s energy to destroy an entire star system. It’s the Death Star on steroids!

Han, Chewie and Finn finally link up with the Resistance, where we see Han and Leia in an emotional reunion, Leia pleading with Han to find their son Ben and bring him home. Finn plans on rescuing Rey from Starkiller Base while the Resistance launch their attack on the weaponised planet – led by Poe, who survived the crash on Jakku after all. And so the finale on Starkiller Base…

Rey, it turns out, isn’t as vulnerable as Finn thinks. She outwits Kylo Ren in a ‘battle of the Force’ and manages to escape. Han, meanwhile, confronts his son Ben Solo/Kylo Ren. Ren is a truly complicated villain, and Star Wars hasn’t seen anything quite like him before (more on that later). He’s forever battling with an internal conflict of Light and Dark, but inevitably he gives in to the Dark, and kills Han – his own father – with his lightsaber! Shocking!Chewie, understandably, goes absolutely mental with his bow-caster.

And so onto the final showdown. Kylo squares up with Finn and Rey as Starkiller Base crumbles around them thanks to Poe’s successful attack. Using Luke’s lightsaber, Finn duels with Kylo but is injured and left for dead. Enter Rey! Channelling the Force, she uses Luke’s lightsaber to thrash Kylo, who whimpers off. Chewie rescues Rey and Finn just as Starkiller Base explodes. Hurrah! Back at the Resistance Base they discover that BB-8 was holding part of a map, which, when coupled with thepiece that R2-D2 was carrying, shows the location of Skywalker. Leia sends Rey to find him. And there Luke stands, alone on an isolated island looking out to the sea, shrouded in a cloak, sporting a heavy beard. Rey shows him his lightsaber, and the two stand facing each other in silence, and… roll end credits!

The Film

So that’s the story in a nutshell (this is going to be a long review!), so what about the film itself? J.J. Abrams has clearly set out to make Episode VII a natural progression from the OT. The Force Awakens definitely feels like a Star Wars movie - we’re once again presented with that familiar, raggedy, lived-in universe which is parsecs away from the sleek and polished look of the PT. The vehicles are literally coated with engine grease, the environments are real locations (for the most part), and most of the exotic aliens and creatures that inhabit TFA are a mixture of animatronic puppets and old-school ‘people in suits’.

Some fans have grumbled about the all too familiar plot. True, many aspects are lifted directly from the OT - in particular ANH - which does make TFA almost seem like a remake: Poe hiding plans in a droid before he’s captured at the beginning; the droid discoveringthe lead character on a desolate desert planet; another Death Star-like weapon that can be destroyed by X-wings firing at an exhaust port (but not until the shields have been deactivated ROTJ-style); the sacrifice of a major character at the hands of the villain; a cantina scene. But none of this diminishes TFA at all. TFA must not only act as a sequel of sorts, but also mark the start of a new era for Star Wars, so mirroring certain aspects of the ANH whilst keeping the spirit of Star Wars fresh is totally acceptable. This ‘mirroring’ has been a consistent theme throughout the saga, and was present in the PT too.

The tone of the film is surprisingly lighter than the trailers led us to believe. There are plenty of laugh-out-loud jokes that just manage to stay the right side of parody. TFA captures the essence of ANH perfectly – a mixture of humour, excitement, wonder, and entertainment. Anyone expecting a more brooding TESB-style turn will have to wait until 2017’s Episode VIII, although TFA does have its fair share of darker moments.

Once again, some critics have levelled criticism at TFA’s lighter banter, accusing J.J. Abrams of ‘pandering to fans’. And once again, yes it can be argued that TFA does indeed ‘pander to fans’ on some levels, but nothing feels out of place – everything drives the story along and further develops characters. The ‘in-jokey’ banter between Han and Chewie is simply Star Wars gold, and elements such as viewing the story from a Stormtrooper’s point of view is a refreshing approach. J.J. Abrams has definitely set out to make a fan-friendly Star Wars film, but is this a bad thing? Some fans are never pleased! TFA brilliantly retains the charm of the OT while offering a much more modern take on Star Wars. Everything just looks better. The Stormtrooper helmets look like they’ve been re-designed by Apple. The TIE-fighters look even more sinister with their new white paint job. And Captain Phasma’s chrome Stormtrooper armour is simply the stuff of fan boy dreams.

The pacing of TFA is absolute perfection. Even though the 2 hours 16 minutes running time flies by at light speed, it doesn’t feel rushed, and manages to cram in a whole encyclopaedia of new Star Wars information without being too overwhelming, particularly for newcomers to the saga. And the action just doesn’t let up. There are chases, aerial dogfights, epic gun battles, lightsaber duels, and just about anything else you could hope for from a Star Wars film. There is, however, the distinct absence of a space battle, but that’s a minor quip considering TFA is just the starting point of a larger series. The exposition scenes are handled well, devoid of the usual Hollywood clunkiness, and the quieter, more intimate moments are handled with great care. The final Han/Kylo Ren showdown is the definitive heart-stopper, and will literally have you on the edge of your seat holding your breath.

The Characters

One of the joys of watching a new Star Wars film is discovering the new characters that will be added to this magical world. The PT introduced some truly memorable characters (and some not so memorable!) and TFA continues this trend marvellously.

Rey is undoubtedly the lead for this new ‘Sequel Trilogy’. She bears many similarities to Luke Skywalker, in that she’s stuck on a desolate desert planet living a mundane existence, desperately yearning for more in life. She watches ships leave her planet Jakku with whimsical wonderment. It’s utterly refreshing to see a female lead in a Star Wars movie whocan hold their own amongst the alpha males. Newcomer Daisy Ridley (in her first ever feature film role, no less) certainly raises the bar for acting in Star Wars. She lends scavenger Rey a sincere vulnerability underneath her toughness, and conveys so many emotions perfectly – anger, aggression, bitterness, sorrow, and compassion all add up to a wonderfully rounded character. Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy has already made it quite clear that she intends to feature females in more prominent roles for this new Star Wars era, and Rey is a fantastic start. Clues to her past are hinted at very briefly in the film: we know that she’s waiting for her family to return (whoever they may be), and that she may be connected to Luke somehow – his lightsaber caused a Force ‘vision’ within her where she saw flashbacks to Luke’s duel with Vader on Bespin, and the Knights of Ren slaying Luke’s Jedi pupils (more on that later). It also seems that some characters, including Leia and Kylo Ren himself, may know more about Rey than she knows. Never before has a Star Wars lead character been so intriguing.

Likewise, relative newcomer John Boyega is also a breath of fresh air. His character Finn (or FN-2187 when we first meet him) is too a pivotal character in the story, allowing the audience to receive a grounded view into the terror of the First Order. Boyega’s portrayal of a Stormtrooper is unique in that we’ve never been able to gain insight behind the masks of the Empire before (not in the movies anyway), and he does a marvellous job conveying an individual struggling with an inner conflict. His performance is further confirmation that the wooden acting style of the PT will NOT be featuring in Star Wars movies again any time soon! Boyega’s comedic timing is spot-on too, and Finn often serves to lighten the mood at several points in the movie, but Jar-Jar Binks he is not – his character has perhaps the most complete arc. Initially only looking out for himself, he uses Rey and BB-8 for his own selfish gain but gradually develops a bond with the scavenger, which culminates in Finn selflessly coming to Rey’s rescue on Starkiller Base, nearly sacrificing himself in the process against Kylo Ren.

Poe Dameron is exactly what every Star Wars film needs. He’s dashing, cocky, and just plain good fun. Poe has surprisingly less screen time than the trailers led us to believe, practically disappearing for the majority of the middle section of TFA. Oscar Isaac plays the part with a great sense of urgency, and Poe’s energy is infectious, drawing you into the events of the story, whether he’s leading his X-wing squadron into battle or simplyobserving a tense confrontation between two characters. His rapport with his marvellous BB-8 droid is a joy to watch, and really lends the droid credibility. BB-8 truly is a wonder of modern technology. Initially assumed to be a CGI effect, he is actually a real-life working robot (powered by magnets and possibly magic). Simply consisting of a rounded head that glides on top of a large sphere, has a wonderful personality – cheeky, cute, and always loyal to his mission.

Now to the biggie – Kylo Ren. Never before has such a layered and interestingly flawed villain been seen in Star Wars. Wielding a ‘broadsword’ lightsaber that reflects his personality – raggedy, ferocious and unpredictable – he brings a new dimension to Star Wars. Whenever his presence graces the screen, you just don’t quite know what could happen. His metal helmet has strong Vader influences, which reflects Kylo’s obsession with his Sith Lord grandfather. Formerly Ben Solo - Han and Leia’s son –Ren’s descent to the Dark Side is a dramatic tale of tragedy that is just begging to be explored in a future Star Wars film. In fact, the beauty of TFA is that it leaves plenty of room and scope to expand upon many of the ideas it presents, into new films that would slot in between ROTJ and TFA. It’s interesting to note that J.J. Abrams Another interesting note is how much of an influence the now-defunct EU seems to be on TFA, particularly concerning Kylo Ren – but more on that later. Adam Driver is perhaps the more seasoned of the Star Wars newcomers, and he really plays Kylo Ren to perfection. He’s not Sith nor Jedi, but something in-between – a Dark Side dabbler who hasn’t quite harnessed the power of the Force. Equally as menacing unmasked, Driver lends Ren an uncomfortable and unpredictable edge, and delivers an outstanding nuanced portrayal of someone wrestling with inner demons.

Elsewhere, we have Domhnall Gleeson who is excellent as the fanatical Hitler-like General Hux, and Gwendoline Christie as Captain Phasma – who is sadly under-utilised and utterly wasted in TFA, but Lucasfilm have assured us that she will play a much larger role in the next instalment.

The returning members – or the ‘Legacy’ cast as they are now affectionately referred to –are a decidedly mixed bag.Harrison Ford is brilliant as always – his Han Solo stands front and centre, and when he starts wise-cracking with his Wookie companion Chewbacca, it’s almost as if the 1970’s never left. Their banter is delightful and wonderfully nostalgic. Ford also plays Han’s more subtle moments perfectly – the distraught look he gives Ren upon seeing his armour-clad son strut around, the loving touch to Ren’s face as he falls to his death.It’s evennear impossible for a grown member of the audience to maintain a dry eye when Han enters the Falcon’s cockpit and looks around reminiscing.

Carrie Fisher returns as General Leia Organa (she’s dropped the ‘Princess’ title) but she’s left with little to do. Once you stop staring at her over-botoxed face (hey, even ageing Princesses need cosmetic surgery in a Galaxy far, far away!) you realise that she really just stands around moping a lot. Her reunion with Han Solo is rather touching though, and the moment she feels Han’s death through the Force isparticularly heart-wrenching.

Mark Hamill’s involvement with TFA has been shrouded in secrecy since the get-go. He returns as Luke Skywalker, and appears only at the very end without any dialogue. Mark certainly earned his pay check on this one! Luke’s presence is felt throughout TFA, and his final appearance only serves to whet our appetites for Episode VIII. Hopefully he’ll train Rey (a possible family member?) and kick some serious Jedi ass!

Anthony Daniels holds the spectacular feat of being the only actor to have appeared in all seven Star Wars movies, although it seems his beloved C-3PO is just present here for nostalgic reasons. He has a red arm now, which is explained in a new EU comic – and also helps sell the new line of Threepio products!

EU Influences..

Speaking of the EU, it’s interesting to see how Disney are handling this. Even though the existing EU has been declared as non-cannon, TFA has lifted some major aspects - Kylo Ren’s character, for example, has been heavily influenced by the EU. His facemask has been modelled on that of Darth Revan, a Sith Lord who first appeared in the brilliant Knights Of The Old Republic PC game. Also, in the TFA Kylo was formerly Ben Solo, Han and Leia’s son. He trained with Luke at his new Jedi Academy but turned to the Dark Side. In the non-cannon EU, Han and Leia have three children – Anakin Solo and twins Janina and Jacen Solo (Luke named his son Ben). It was Jacen who turned to the Dark Side, to become  Darth Caedus. It will be interesting to see how the non-cannon EU will continue to influence Star Wars characters and story threads in the future. Another interesting note is the fact that ‘The Force Awakens’ was a last-minute title change. The project had originally been named ‘Star Wars: Shadow Of The Empire’, which of course is extremely similar to the EU’s Shadows Of The Empire title which involved comics, novels, video games, and other media.

And as mentioned before, TFA leaves plenty of room to expand upon the new ideas and stories presented. For example, who is Snoke and how did he corrupt young Ben Solo? Where did the Knights Of Ren stem from? And why is Jakku littered with crashed Galactic Empire spacecraft? The new Playstation game Star Wars: Battlefront explains that Jakku was the Empire’s weapon stronghold, and after their defeat at The Battle Of Endor, the Empire retreated back to Jakku. The rebels pursued of course, and won victory at The Battle Of Jakku – now that’s a film I’m sure fans would just love to see!

TFA has truly set the standard for this new era of Star Wars. We can now look ahead to this year’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story with a sense of relief that Disney seem to know what they’re doing. And long may it continue.

VERDICT:

The Force is definitely strong with this one. If its adventure and excitement you crave, then The Force Awakens will deliver on all levels.