Rarely is there a film that needs to achieve as much as Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Not only does it need to be an enormous financial success, it also has to win new fans for the franchise, appeal to the notoriously angry fanbase, and atone for the universally loathed prequels. Whilst I can’t say for sure whether it will satisfy the hardcore fanboys, The Force Awakens is an absolutely wonderful reintroduction that easily far surpasses any of the prequels and is, whisper it, probably the best Star Wars film to date. Mixing the old with the new, JJ Abrams has crafted 2015’s most joyous movie experience and set the stage for an incredibly exciting series of new explorations of one of fiction’s most beloved universes.
As the trailers had made relatively clear, The Force Awakens consciously hits a series of very familiar beats. All the major characters from the original film have an analogue here – from Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron being the new Han Solo to General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) replacing Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin – as do most of the locations and plot beats. If this sounds like it might get stale or grating on paper, it absolutely does not on screen, boundless energy driving the story forward and a fantastic cast of young actors making these roles their own. None impress more than John Boyega as Finn, a Stormtrooper who defects from the First Order (an even more Nazi-like descendant of the original trilogy’s Galactic Empire) and sets the plot in motion. Finn is by turns terrified, resourceful, overwhelmingly excited, and funny, and Boyega’s emotions are infectious.
If one had to pick an overall lead for The Force Awakens, it would be Daisy Ridley’s Rey. A total unknown at the time of casting, Ridley proves herself more than capable of heading up a multi-billion dollar franchise with intensity and charm. She might not have quite the spark of Boyega or Oscar Isaac (who is excellent, obviously), but, like Mark Hamill before her, Ridley has an undeniable heroic presence. Hamill himself makes an appearance, as do Carrie Fisher as Leia, now a general rather than a princess, and Harrison Ford as Han. Of the original trinity, Hamill and Fisher have only minor roles, but Han is integral to the film’s story, and seeing him and Chewie back in the pilot seats of the Millennium Falcon drew a huge cheer from the crowd.
These old smuggler friends are dragged back into a fight for the fate of the galaxy by another droid carrying a very special message – this time BB-8, put in charge, by Poe, of a document vital to the Resistance. It’s worth noting just how much personality BB-8 has (getting the film’s biggest laugh), especially seeing as he’s a ball-shaped robot with no dialogue outside of bleeps and bloops. This continues a proud Star Wars tradition of having movies’ very best robots. Naturally, this message leads our heroes from a desert planet to an alien dive bar all the way to a planet-destroying super-weapon, under the command of General Hux and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).
Ren is a disciple of Darth Vader, but more petulant than his Sith hero ever was. Where Vader coldly choked a hapless officer to death for a failure, Ren responds by carving up rooms with his ragged lightsaber. This childish fury, alongside believable motivation and awesome action feats like stopping a blaster bolt with the Force, helps make Ren one of 2015’s most compelling and memorable villains. His showdown with the new heroes in an icy forest is a breathless and wonderfully filmed, if slightly predictable, fight, the pure, bright colours of the red and blue sabers cutting through the night. This swashbuckling action is slightly more kinetic and mobile than the samurai-esque engagements of the originals, but steers far clear of the CGI-fuelled acrobatics that defined the prequels.
Commitment to minimising the use of CGI in favour of practical effects has played a big part in the marketing for The Force Awakens and its benefits really show. These worlds and costumes feel lived in, the environments have a wow-factor to them that CG images seldom match, and the dangers for the characters always feel more real if you know that you’re seeing a real actor with a real location or set behind them rather than a wall of green. It’s not quite the mindblowing masterpiece of practical effects that Mad Max: Fury Road is, but it’s very heartening to see a space fantasy avoiding the easy way out whenever possible. Of course, plentiful computer effects are still necessary in a film of this ilk and, when they are used, are pretty much flawless. Aerial dogfights (themselves very well choreographed) collide with ground battles, and it’s impossible to see the joins. In fact, everything involving the iconic X-Wings and Tie Fighters is fantastic, DoP Dan Mindel’s lens cutting through the chaos and keeping these lightning-fast action sequences totally comprehensible.
What is most impressive about Star Wars: The Force Awakens is that, despite the fact that I was born in 1995, it made me feel like I had somehow returned to my childhood back in 1977. It so perfectly recaptures a sense of genuine cinematic wonder, the likes of which probably haven’t really been felt since we saw the Shire or Hogwarts for the first time back in 2001, that it’s impossible not to feel giddily childlike as lasers, spaceships, and magic swordsmen zip around the screen. Along with uncontrollable excitement, the overriding emotion as the release for The Force Awakens approached was fear of crushing disappointment. Abrams has totally earned the former and breezed past the latter like there was no pressure at all, bringing Star Wars into a new generation with style and exuberant sincerity.