Warning – this review contains plot spoilers and is only intended to be read by people who have already seen the movie. You have been warned!
And just in case the first few lines of this review appear in people’s search engines as well, I’m going to write a small paragraph listing everything I got for Christmas, just to make extra-sure I don’t spoil the film for anyone. Ready? Here goes: A scarf. Zelda Monopoly. Star Trek DS9 series 1 – 7. Star Wars: The Force Awakens Soundtrack. Two grey identical jumpers (From my in-laws and my sister, but don’t worry if you’re reading this – I’m already amusing myself at the idea of wearing a different jumper each day and making people think I don’t do any washing), some Lego, Ant Man, £85 in cash, A bottle of Port, some novelty post-it notes, £20 of Steam vouchers and a ‘yoga cats’ 2016 calander.
Right, on with the review. First, let me say that I am a massive Star Wars fan, so this review is going to be written through the lens of someone with a huge amount of nostalgia for the series. Curiously though, my introduction to the franchise was not through the films, but through the computer games. It started with X-Wing on the PC, followed by Rebel Assault, then Dark Forces, and before long, I hunted down the films and watched them in completely the wrong order (Return of the Jedi first, then Star Wars, then Empire Strikes back, then Return of the Jedi again – what an idiot). Anyway, eventually I got the timeline straight in my head, and fell in love with the characters, the universe, the mythology, and the lore.
Then Episode I: The Phantom Menace happened, and gradually, as the prequel films came out, I felt as though pieces of my soul were slowly being eroded away with each viewing. These three films were so terrible; so lore-shatteringly bad (Midi-clorians, anyone?), that I’ve basically had to reconcile them in my mind by pretending none of it happened. I could go on for hours about why those films suck, but I don’t have to, because Mr Plinkett has done that for me. If you want closure on the prequel films and yearn for someone to break down exactly why they are terrible, check out his video reviews here. They are very long (and a bit strange in places), but well worth wacthing, and it says something that Lucasfilm has not ordered them to be taken down, given the amount of footage from the films he uses. To me, it says that they think he’s right. Which he is.
So now, 13 years after the last film (Revenge of the Sith) was released and 32 years after 1983’s Return of the Jedi was set, Star Wars is back. And it’s great. Not perfect – but great, and an outstanding effort from JJ Abrams, given the pressure he must have been under to deliver a film with so much fan expectation, and so much hope that this film would represent a return to form again.
The first thing to remark on this film is just how bloody awesome it looks. One of the biggest complaints about the prequel films was how they were shot – virtually every scene was done with actors filmed against a green screen, and it really showed – everyone looked like they were struggling to make a connection with their surroundings (because there were no surroundings), everything had an awful plastic feel to it (as opposed to the gritty realism of the original trilogy), and the limitation of the indoor sets filtered through to how characters behaved (most notably where, during a critical moment where Anakin walks hastily from point A to point B instead of running, because the set wasn’t big enough to allow him to sprint). The Force Awakens feels real, and that’s because it is real, filmed in real locations using real sets. The effects too, are fantastic, with some of the X-wing combat scenes being particularly exhilarating. The only let-down for me from a presentation perspective was the music. It was great that John Williams returned to score the film, but I didn’t find myself latching on to any new themes in this film. It felt as though the music was deliberately given a backseat to the visuals both in its composition and the mix, however for me, part of the Star Wars experience is about those bombastic sweeping marches punctuating the action, and it would have been nice for Williams to have been let off the leash a bit more. Say what you will about The Phantom Menace, but that soundtrack is something else. There was no ‘Dual of the Fates’ here, and it was a shame, as though a certain dimension was missing.
Next, the characters. Now, I’ve seen quite a few reviews complain about Daisy Ridley’s performance, saying she is the weakest thing about this film. I couldn’t disagree more. I personally thought she was great, and actually the standout. In terms of her character, I found myself leaving the cinema suitably teased about her background, and desperate to know what we might find out about her in Episode VIII. I also thought the range of emotions she went through (from the hopelessness she was experiencing at the beginning of the film, to the moment of realisation at her inner-strength, to the sheer anger on display at the end as she beats the crap out of Kylo Ren) very believable, and a good character arc – she was a different person at the end of the film than she was at the beginning, unlike Anakin in the prequel films, who was basically a smug shitbag the whole time. And above all, Rey is a strong, independent female character, driving the plot forwards herself, and not needing help from anyone (though I did think this point was laboured a bit too much at the beginning when she keeps complaining about Finn taking her hand, almost as if JJ was apologising to us all for that scene in Star Trek: Into Darkness where Alice Eve gets her kit off for no reason whatsoever, other than to allow a few million nerds to fantasize about her tits for a moment)
John Boyega also needs a mention, as the film rests on his shoulders too. I thought Finn was a really interesting character, conflicted about what he is fighting for. His arc was also really well-handled, and it was great to watch him change over the course of the film from someone who just wanted to run away from it all, to someone who wanted to stay and fight. And he’s certainly nailed that ‘I’m knackered from walking through this bloody desert’ look.
As for everyone else, Adam Driver as Kylo Ren was great – menacing, but also strangely charismatic – I loved the scene where he is informed that the droid has escaped, and then beats the shit out of the console in front of him with his lightsabre before saying “anything else?”. There’s a petulance here; an immaturity, and it’s little touches like this that really gave his character a depth that was lacking in the likes of Darth Maul.
Then there’s the old guard. Harrison Ford returns as Han Solo, Peter Mayhew is back as Chewie, and Carrie Fisher returns as General Leia. Oh, and Mark Hammil stands on an island for a few seconds at the end. So how did I feel about seeing these characters return? Well, if I’m honest, as much as I LOVE Han Solo, I felt he was perhaps a bit over-used in the film, and could have benefitted from about 15 minutes less screen time. He’s no action hero anymore, and I just felt that it would have been more interesting to see this once-charming, resilient rogue having to adjust to being older, less agile, and less able to rely on his looks and charm than before. Instead, we got the same Han Solo, rather than an evolution of his character. Leia was great though – smart as ever, and definitely all the better in her role as a general. And when we finally meet Luke, he looks exactly as he should.
Something else I want to touch on about The Force Awakens is its tone. There’s no doubt about it – this film just oozed that classic Star Wars feel the whole way through. Sure, this was certainly helped by the fact that it looked the part and was crammed was imaginative aliens, spaceships, and locations (not to mention a healthy dose of fanservice), but for me, it achieved that feel the most by capturing what made the original movies so endearing: though all the tech mumbo jumbo and mysticism, it was all grounded by a sense of humanity that shone through. We have a boy that wants to impress a girl. A mother and father wanting to bring back their son. And it was damn funny too – BB8 stole the show on a number of occasions, and the scene where he colludes with Finn to keep up the pretense to Rey that he works for the Resistance was hilarious.
And so finally, we come to the story. Now, on this front I felt a bit conflicted – the opening act on Jakku I thought was superb, full of amazing action, great character introductions, and a suitable MacGuffin in the form of the map to Luke Skywalker (though why only now this map made an appearance, and why it even exists in the first place did puzzle me). But then we start to learn of the First Order’s Starkiller Base – a planet terraformed into a big, round, ultimate weapon, capable of destroying planets, a bit like another big, round, planet-destroying weapon we’re all somewhat familiar with. Now, at first I was a bit disappointed that the writers couldn’t have come up with something more original. With a weak spot that needs to be exploited, a shield generator that needed to be disabled, and parallel action taking place on the surface and in the skies above, the third act felt like a complete re-tread of Return of The Jedi. However, on reflection, I can’t help but feel that this is exactly what the film needed. We’ve been through the boredom of political conspiracies in the prequel trilogy, and in having the Starkiller base, The Force Awakens shamelessly goes back to basics, and is all the better for it too. There’s nothing too complicated to worry about here – the audience knows that the Resistance are going to go to that massive thing in space, and blow it up.
One thing I did find complicated though, and which I felt could have benefited from some more explanation, was the intergalactic geography of everything. Maybe I was being stupid, but I didn’t really understand what was in relation to where, and the implications this had on destroying the Starkiller base. In the original Star Wars, we understood everything we needed to know about the Death Star – it was a massive ship, which moved from system to system blowing up planets. The finale was about the Rebels blowing it up before it had orbited Yavin to a position where the moon was in its line of sight. The logistics surrounding the Starkiller base however were a bit more complicated. Firstly, it looked as though the base was a terraformed planet. Was it orbiting a sun or had it been modified to travel by itself? Once it drained a Sun, did it move on elsewhere? And where exactly was it in relation to everything else? We never see it travel anywhere or enter hyperspace, or even move to orientate its weapon. Is this even how it works? Also, when it blows up the Republic’s capital (which again, needed a bit more exposition to distinguish the planet from the architecturally-similar Coruscant – the city planet in the first three films), the shots appear to be fired from another system, which can be seen in the sky from planet Takodana. How fast are these shots travelling? And where are they travelling from? It’s a minor niggle, but I just felt this all could have done with a bit more explanation, just to allow the audience to appreciate the ‘landscape’ of the battlefield.
But that really was my only complaint about the plot, and it’s not so much a complaint, more a suggestion as to what could have been improved. Ultimately, the film’s pacing probably benefited from leaving this information on the cutting-room floor, so overall it was probably the right call not to bog things down too much in the details.
So that’s all I have to say really. If you haven’t seen Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, I strongly recommend you go and see it, whether you’re a fan of the original films, or a newcomer to the series. The film rekindles that Star Wars magic, does a great job of passing the baton on to our younger heroes, and most of off, it begins the healing process after the disappointment of the prequel trilogy, offering great promise for what’s to come.
Roll on Episode VIII!