WHEN the dust settles on this fraught 2015 of ours, we might have a moment or two to reflect on how the biggest film of the year came in its final fortnight. As the days slip away on the calendar and receipts stream out from cashiers’ tills, Star Wars (Episode VII): The Force Awakens is already smashing box office records worldwide, steamrollering all in its wake on the somewhat inevitable journey to “Biggest Film Ever”. It’s not hard to see why.
Setting aside the ubiquity of new owner Disney’s marketing blitz, Star Wars has always been a pop culture touchstone. When we ran our series on the previous films last year, it was immediate and obvious how much the series had affected each writer, and the same can be said for blockbuster cinema as a whole. The original Star Wars changed everything about the cinematic landscape and was itself, for a time, the highest-grossing film ever made.
Director J. J. Abrams, fresh from rebooting Star Trek to diminishing returns, had a monumental task ahead: Do the same thing for Star Wars. As subject to monumental pressure from all sides, it’s something of a miracle that Abrams has actually managed to pull it off with such aplomb. Rarely does a film of this magnitude and budget feel right, but here it is, and the experience is breathtaking.
From the first sentence of the opening crawl to the triumphant salvo of the credits’ main theme, The Force Awakens is a soaring adventure that’s perfectly paced, sharply written and exquisitely directed, deftly combining old and new into a wonderful, succinct, and thoroughly magical package. It may not be especially original in its plot, but its approach to characters is both surprising and enthralling, taking its new cast into unexpected and fascinating territory.
It must be said, however, that the narrative of The Force Awakens is dictated near-exclusively by the original three films, so much so that it can’t help but feel familiar. Certainly, the effects are improved (without approaching the uncanny valley that plagued the prequels) and the action sequences are thrillingly dynamic, but the narrative in places is strikingly similar to A New Hope, to the extent that it sometimes feels like we’re watching a spruced up remake.
But these similarities never feel perfunctory or calculated, though they are, undeniably, the latter. Nothing feels like it was added by committee; nowhere to be found is the hallmark of an executive, hovering over Abrams’ shoulder and demanding specific additions for the sake of marketability and profit margins. The film almost effortlessly evokes awe and wonder, and that’s even without the added boon of nostalgia.
While the film does incorporate numerous elements from the original trilogy, it’s not beholden to them. Though certain characters share functional similarities, there are enough diversions from the established tropes and enough new avenues to explore that it never feels lazy. Even Han and Leia, ostensibly older, grizzled versions of their former selves, are familiar yet distinct, matured with age and hardened by the years.
The acting from all sides is energetic and full of hidden depth. Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren initially seems like a stock Sith villain with the mask on; without it, he reveals himself to be a confused, tormented young man, prone to lashing out in violent outbursts with his lightsabre crackling. John Boyega’s Finn and Daisy Ridley’s Rey also grapple with their identity in different ways, but all three are linked by a struggle with who or what they are or have been.
Ridley, an unknown soon to become a household name, is a confident, grounded presence throughout, imbuing Rey with an anxious uncertainty that never renders her meek or frail as so many prior female protagonists have been. She is strong and assured without being flawless or contrived, and her interactions with Boyega are a treat. Boyega proves himself to be a fantastic comic foil, particularly in his scenes with Oscar Isaac’s dashingly cocksure Poe Dameron, the two playing off each other beautifully. They emphasise just how humorous the whole adventure is in spite of the plot’s occasional bleakness.
Much of that bleakness comes from Ren’s casual brutality and the renewal of the Stormtroopers as a palpable threat. The opening shots, with flickering lights inside a freighter filled with soldiers, evokes the claustrophobic intensity of Saving Private Ryan’s Normandy landings, and the action choreography throughout invites similar, heart-in-mouth reactions. One specific moment near the end had me, quite literally, on the edge of my seat, even though I knew instinctively what was coming. Unlike the impressive if overly acrobatic prequel fights, the blaster bolts and sabre duels have weight and physicality; in other words, the people involved actually look like they’re trying to murder each other.
The production design is similarly physical. Eschewing the CGI backdrops of Coruscant et al, Abrams filmed many scenes on location in locales such as Iceland, New Mexico and Ireland, and the set design feels grimy and suitably worn. It’s a welcome return to the grittier, dirtier design of the original trilogy, with enough dabs of Abrams’ glossier directorial style to provide the necessary contrast (sans excessive lens flare).
But, ultimately, it has to be said that this is Han Solo’s movie. Harrison Ford’s performance is superb, breathing new, haughty life into one of his most iconic roles, retaining all the swagger of his youth. His age is neither a comic crux nor an essential element; most of the time, we don’t even notice that he’s an old man. He hasn’t looked so young and immersed in a role for decades, and it’s a credit to Ford that he can still bring his best when required.
He’s never used for the sake of cheap nostalgia either. His moments with Carrie Fisher’s Leia are deeply poignant, their body language expressing volumes. The vein of nostalgia inevitably runs deep in the film as a whole, but it’s only seldom leant upon too heavily. There are some throwaway visual gags that seem unnecessary, and the central threat has already been rehashed once before, but these moments and echoed plot threads don’t distract from the absorbing character drama at the film’s core.
One of the primary concerns for The Force Awakens was falling into the same trap that the prequels did. It’s a testament to how (perhaps slavishly) faithful it is to the original films that the prequels only receive a single, fleeting, one-line reference. Midichlorians be damned – the return to the Force as a purely spiritual, mystical power is supremely welcome. The Force Awakens blasts apart the wasted potential of those films and opens up a whole new universe for Star Wars to capitalise upon. It’s a dazzling victory lap that only seems to get better the more I think about it.
Whether the momentum can be maintained remains to be seen but, for the timebeing at least, Star Wars is back with a resounding bang. It’s almost like it never went away.