Directed by JJ Abrams
Starring Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Harrison Ford, Oscar Isaac, Adam Driver
Let’s just get it out of the way, and if you’re really spoiler-shy you can skip the rest of the review: it’s good. If you’re a Star Wars fan – and, honestly, most people are to one degree or another – you’ll have a good time. The Force Awakens is a fast, fun, occasionally trenchant return to that long ago galaxy far, far away, and if it doesn’t tick every box on your wishlist, it surely ticks a good 90%.
Most importantly, it feels like Star Wars, which is the main object of the exercise. The good plutocrats at Disney are at great pains to distance the franchise as it exists under their stewardship from what it became under creator George Lucas during the prequel period: a moribund mix of the self-serious and hopelessly juvenile whose occasional highlights could not stop it from sinking under the weight of its own wrong-headedness.
That’s surely why they hired arch-imitator JJ Abrams to step behind the camera. A talented craftsman with no real voice of his own to speak of, Abrams is an accomplished mimic – just look at his work on early Spielberg pastiche Super 8. Abrams’ remit here is to give the audience an experience both exciting and comforting: exciting in that it’s packed with incident and action, wondrous landscapes filled with immersive detail, strange aliens and immense ships, the whole magillah; comforting in that, tonally and narratively, it cleaves so hard to the blueprint set out by the original film that it stops just shy of being a remake.
Thus we get an electronic MacGuffin* stored in a robot, found by an orphan on a desert planet, who is pursued by the forces of evil in the form of a masked, black-clad warlord, ultimately culminating in an escape from a huge, high-tech fortress and the destruction of a planetary-scale superweapon.
This time around its soccerball-shaped BB-8 who holds the bit of electronic ephemera that drives the plot: part of a map leading to the location of Jedi Master Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), long gone into seclusion. BB-8 falls into the hands of Rey (Daisy Ridley), a young loner who scratches out a living by looting the battlefields of the desert planet Jakku, the site of some titanic clash between the Empire and the Rebels back in the day, judging from the Star Destroyer hulks littering its surface.
Also along for the ride is Finn (John Boyega) formerly a stormtrooper for Empire-remnant bad guys the First Order, now trying to figure out who and what he is once he’s deserted the jackboots and been caught up in the adventure. He knows he’s not a faceless killer, but can he be a hero?
Rey and Finn make a great double act, distinct from what has gone before. Rey is self-assured, hyper-competent – she’s a mechanical genius and an instinctively formidable pilot – and if she ever needs rescuing, she’ll do it herself, thank you very much. Finn – actually FN-2187, but named Finn by Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), the Resistance pilot he rescues during his escape from the First Order – is a reluctant hero, averse to violence but driven to acts of bravery by his inherent decency. For all that he’s a trained soldier, Finn stumbles through the film making it up as he goes along. Both are star-making turns, Ridley’s in particular – make no mistake, Rey is the central protagonist here, and doubtless will be going forward.
Setting up the future of the franchise is one of the chief aims here, of course, but so too is reminding us why we love this universe in the first place, a job that falls chiefly on the shoulders of Harrison Ford as the more grizzled, still roguish Han Solo, who crops up, Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) in tow, to drop some background knowledge on Rey and Finn and settle into the mentor figure role that this sort of thing always requires. Ford’s taken a lot of stick in recent years for just showing up for the paycheck and going through the motions but he’s all in here, recreating one of his most iconic characters with effortless charm (but not, it must be said, effortless movement; Solo, like Ford, is in his ’70s now, and acts it).
The film really comes into its own when Solo and Chewie enter, and everything we had hoped the movie could be kind of comes into focus. Ford is an avuncular presence, giving advice to Finn (“women always figure out the truth!”), offering Rey a job on the Millennium Falcon, and generally passing the torch with as much grace and style as humanly possible. He certainly fares better than the other returning characters; Carrie Fisher has little to do as Leia, now a general in the Resistance, although she gets a couple of nice moments with Ford. Luke… well, Luke has his own thing going on.
For all that our heroes, new and returning, are fantastic, the most intriguing figure on the screen is villain Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Pointedly not a Sith Lord (he’s called a Knight Of Ren, whatever they are) he’s the reason Luke threw in the towel, and he embodies a different kind of villainy than we’re used to here. Where Darth Vader was ruthless and Emperor Palpatine was duplicitous, Kylo Ren is filled with rage – the sudden, fierce, confused rage of the young. Ren isn’t in control of himself, and he’s a terrifying figure not just because he has vast Force powers but because he’s an unpredictable anger cannon who will lash out at the slightest provocation. He’s a conflicted figure and a somewhat sad one, with the capacity to be terrifying because he can be so unreasoning. Ren is a figure of unchecked masculine aggression, untempered by experience or wisdom – a very timely villain in the context of the broader culture.
The other villains can’t really hold a candle to him, suffering from a lack of much to do and some really poor spins of the Silly Star Wars Name wheel. Domhnall Gleeson’s General Hux is just a generic Imperial officer, Gwendoline Christie’s Captain Phasma proves that women are just as capable of being visually striking and underutilised as men, and Andy Serkis’ Supreme Leader Snoke is really just underwhelming – a giant, evil hologram with more than a whiff of The Wizard Of Oz about him who exists just to hint at greater threats down the sequel track. Thank heavens we have hordes of white-armoured stormtroopers and sleek TIE Fighters to provide our heroes and the rest of the Resistance** with some challenge.
A few elements niggle, but that’s all they do. The first half of the film seems particularly breathless, piling incident upon incident without giving us enough time to breathe and soak in the scenery – even when we do pause, such as when Rey has a lonely meal in the felled wreck of an AT-AT, it feels like we don’t pause for long enough. There are a few convenient narrative coincidences that press at the edge of plausibility, with characters tripping over plot requisites seemingly at random, and the drive to give us the familiar comforts of the original trilogy come at the expense of any sense of discovery or exploration.
But this is still Star Wars, and it’s a better Star Wars movie than we’ve had since 1983 – and maybe even 1980. The stage has been set, the stakes made clear, the emotions engaged. It feels good to be in this world again, and to be here with these characters. Disney wants the Star Wars saga to roll on forever, with new movies, books, comics and other media hitting us every single year – and right now, that doesn’t feel like a bad thing at all. The galaxy is in good hands.
*The Force Awakens actually has three MacGuffins: the map to Luke, Luke’s lightsaber, and Luke himself, although only the first is crucial for most of the running time.
**The galactic political situation is murky at best. There’s a Republic, and The First Order, plus a Republic-backed Resistance fighting the First Order, and by implication other Imperial remnants as well. In the film proper it’s pretty much Resistance vs First Order, but it seems like there’s more complicated stuff going on off camera.