According to the box office results, every single person within 50 kilometres of a cinema has seen this film. If this is not the case, and you have not seen the film, be aware that spoilers do follow.
J.J. Abrams has had a task that not many would envy. With Star Wars: The Force Awakens he has been asked to take control of a series that has not only been beloved by many, but one that has had a rocky last showing. Admittedly this may have provided him with a low bar to jump over. Some fans would have been happy with a merely adequate film as long as it was better than the prequels. Abrams has not only produced a Star Wars film that will appease the fans, he also has provided a new entry point to the series.
The studio heads in charge at Disney have made the best possible choice when it came to directors. Abrams is a filmmaker who is able not only to parrot the movie-brats from the 70s, but understand what made their films so enjoyable. As has been said many a time, Abrams has been auditioning for the Star Wars gig for the past six years. His Star Trek entries feel like a bridge between the two sci-fi powerhouses and Super 8 reads like a love letter to Spielberg’s films. It looks like Abrams has pulled apart the original Star Wars trilogy, seen what makes it tick and borrowed the essence while adding his new flair. Abrams has managed to insert his own style into a film series that has a very particular aesthetic. After the customary introductory planet shot, flashes of light erratically illuminate stormtroopers on a transport vehicle. These shots are discordant and create mood over meaning, a more abstract technique than those used in the Star Wars series up to now. Abrams’ love of swinging crane shots and mobile cameras is also apparent in nearly every scene, which is a testament to the amazing job done by the production designers. The camera is allowed to move freely through exquisitely detailed sets that are all immediately recognisable as being contained within the Star Wars aesthetic. Abrams emphasises the humanity (are they human) of the protagonists through extensive use of close-ups. The performances are all engaging although it’s interesting to note that on the whole, the new-comers handle the somewhat fantastical dialogue better than the old hands.
The cast Abrams has put together is superb. Daisy Ridley plays Rey, a scavenger living on the desert planet of Jakku. Ridley is an amazing find and is such a natural on screen. The openness of her performance allows Abrams to simply spend time with her by way of introduction, showing and not telling. She is by herself for a lot of the films introduction to her, establishing her independence and resourcefulness. We also get an indication of her interests and her motivations: she scratches the days she’s been waiting into a panel on a fallen AT-AT, she knows what to get and where to get it off the fallen Star Destroyers, her skills with working machines are introduced when she puts a pilot’s helmet on her head while she stares out at the landscape, and then her humanity is introduced when she saves BB-8 from another scavenger and decides to help instead of selling the droid. There is an honesty in her performance, and in Rey she conveys a strength veiled in vulnerability, a trait that made Harrison Ford so likeable as Han Solo and Indiana Jones. The scenes that the two of them share together are pure magic. I would have been happy to watch a film that was entirely Rey and Han.
Maybe not though, because that would have meant that I would have missed out on being reacquainted with John Boyega. The last film I saw Boyega in was the fantastic Joe Cornish film Attack the Block and it was surprising to see him employing an American accent in his role of Finn, the morally conflicted Stormtrooper. This could be for some sort of deep canonical reason, or simply because it fit the character better in the mind of the director, actor, or writers. No matter the reason, Boyega brings another brilliant performance and whenever he and Ridley are on screen together the scenes have an energy that pulls the audience further into the story.
Adam Driver’s Darth Vader stand in Kylo Ren is a mix of the helmeted menace of Vader and the unravelling uncertainty of the adolescent Anakin Skywalker from the prequels. Driver handles the somewhat cryptic and esoteric dialogue he has been written with ease, bringing an understanding of a character that could easily have been campy in the hands of a lesser actor. Even though he is masked for most of the early part of the film, Abrams still adores the close up and Driver is able to use his physicality to convey emotion and meaning even while his face is covered. The director and the actor work in harmony to produce an evocative character.
Not having much screen time, Oscar Isaacs is the vehicle for Joss Wedon style contemporary scripting throughout The Force Awakens. We don’t get a huge amount of time to get to know his character, Poe Dameron, and the exposition we get (amounting to he is “The Rebellion’s best pilot”) is doubled up, appearing in both the opening scroll and a rather exposition-y interaction with Kylo Ren. Apparently Poe was not meant to make it through The Force Awakens alive but maybe the writers thought that it was better to keep him around to help fill a Han sized whole in the line-up. Gwendoline Christie gets similarly disappointing amounts of time on screen as Captain Phasma, the shiny commander of the Stormtroopers. Her role is fairly utilitarian and it’s difficult to know if she will be appearing in the next instalment. Domnhall Gleeson struggles a little at conveying the power and authority that his character, General Hux, is written with. His performances in films like About Time and Frank feel a little closer to his nature, and aren’t as much of a stretch. It seems that he will be getting another opportunity to bring some gravitas to the role in the next film of the series.
The narrative is not without issue as well. The film does a great job at throwing the protagonists together but when it tries to pull them apart again, the film staggers a little as the machinations of the separating events shine through. Rey runs after The First Order with no clear goal in mind which conveniently separate her from the group so she can be individually captured by Kylo Ren. Not to mention when Han, Chewie, and Finn infiltrate the Starkiller Base, even though it is the size of a planet all of the important characters are very close to one another. Even more noticeable is the lazy plot device tying R2-D2 into the film. BB-8 asks C-3PO if R2-D2 might have the rest of the map to Luke’s whereabouts and C-3PO brushes it off, saying he has been in low power mode since Luke disappeared, and that it is unlikely that he would have any information. At the end of the film Artoo wakes up and, who would have thought it, he has the rest of the map. Sure, these conveniences are necessary for the narrative to work, but they stick out because the rest of the plot works so well. Surely there was a better way to write the lovable blue and grey trashcan into the narrative. Audiences aren’t given a chance to take much notice though as the story pushes ahead at break neck speed. In certain instances, this speed seems to cause the unfortunate side effect of not giving the time to moments that might have made them a touch more compelling. There are several points where a cut comes earlier than it may have in the original series, pulling the story ahead, but missing an opportunity for a lengthier reaction from the characters.
The colour palette of the film changes alongside a thematic evolution of the narrative. We start on the desert planet of Jakku, a place where nothing thrives or develops and Rey has confined herself to a life of waiting for a family that it seems will never return. After being caught up in larger events, along with Finn she is taken to a planet of lush greens called Takadona by Han Solo. This planet is a complete contrast to the one they have come from and the greens reinforce the possibility and hope of a new life ahead before The First Order arrives and inflicts destruction. The action then moves to an ice planet/super weapon, where grey and black are accented by the blue and red lights of the Starkiller Base. The colours are given meaning in their reflection of the blue of Luke Skywalker’s recovered lightsabre and the red of Kylo Ren’s ragged blade. The colours echo the good-and-evil nature of the force and the compulsions that pull the characters in either direction.
The Force Awakens operates in conversation with the expectations of the audience, negotiating the place that the film sits in both a contemporary context and within the nearly forty-year-old cinematic universe. The script has a familiar tone but the repartee dotted throughout feels a lot more contemporary than compared to that of the original series, which modernises the film to a certain extent. The first one liner from Isaac’s Poe Dameron is a little jarring as it comes rather unexpectedly but from that moment on the mood is set for the rest to follow. The narrative itself is very familiar to fans of the series as well as followers of the hero’s journey school of scriptwriters. The major plot is very close to that of the first Star Wars film. The changes come in the details. Infiltration replace capture, breaking apart replaces teaming up, and nearly everything moves up in scale.
As a younger viewer the lack of motivation for the antagonists in the Star Wars films never really bothered me. I didn’t realise that all we got of the Empire’s motivations was “our Death Star plans were stolen and we need to get them back so we can destroy a rebellious uprising” and that was somehow justification for blowing up an entire planet and killing probably millions or billions of people. At the time, knowing that “the guys in all white led by the guy in all black are the bad guys” was enough. These days it’s a harder pill to swallow. The Empire was largely destroyed at the end of Return of the Jedi and The First Order appear to be merely The Empire 2.0. The big baddie pulling the strings is no longer the Emperor after his demise at the end of the original trilogy but a similarly grotesque, mysterious and holographic Supreme Leader Snoke. It won’t be a surprising ending for the new trilogy if Kylo Ren changes sides right at the end to kill Supreme Leader Snoke as he is about to kill Rey. As satisfying as that scenario may be by the end of the trilogy, I’m hoping there is a more inventive ending in the wings.
The fascist overtones have been turned up to eleven in The Force Awakens which just makes me think of this incredibly on point Mitchell and Webb sketch. The funny thing is, this sketch justifies the whole “bad guys being bad” motivation for me. It reminds me that a group of people whose entire motivation has been boiled down in the contemporary parlance to “the most evil thing ever” actually existed and ran a country and ordinary people helped them do it. It shows that what appears on the outside to be unreasonable and fanciful has an internal justification that brought it about. When it comes to films or stories in general, however, it is a much more engaging experience when a justification is provided for the actions of the villain. An explanation for the most extreme act of The First Order is provided in the film but I’d argue it was quite a distance from a justification.
The Force Awakens has been a very smart move for the series. It has gone back to the roots of what was so special about the original Star Wars trilogy. The popularity of the first films was not due to the spectacle of the effects or the advancements in technology. It was because the world felt real and lived in, the characters were relatable and interesting, and the story was well told as it was driven by character choices. The Force Awakens has taken the blueprints of A New Hope and updated the details while addressing some of issues of representation. It has done (nearly) the best possible job that could have been done to bring fans back into the fold. I say nearly because it is possible to imagine a film that is almost exactly the same but a small scene or piece of dialogue explains motivations that justify some of the plot devices. All that aside, a lot of ways it has repaired the brand. It has created a path between the old and new. Hopefully this means that the stage has been sufficiently set for the next two instalments to push away from the safety of simply copying what came before and taking the opportunity to create original stories in one of the most well rounded fictional universes.