A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…
No opening sentence in the history of cinema means more than that one. It signals the return to a world so beloved by its fans that their devotion to it becomes an almost spiritual experience. For nearly forty years, it has been a touchstone in popular culture and defined countless generations. Now, a decade after we thought it was all over, Star Wars has returned. As that opening title disappears and the legendary fanfare begins, we hold our collective breaths as these words begin to appear from the bottom of the screen:
THE FORCE AWAKENS
I’ve decided not to offer a synopsis of the film for this review, mostly because it’s impossible to give even the smallest description without spoiling something. The most important reason though is because you should have the pleasure of discovering its twists and turns for yourself. Realistically, you’re already going to see the film so you’re probably reading this to find the answer to one question: is it good? The answer is a resounding, relieving "yes".
What I can say about the plot of ‘The Force Awakens’, crafted by director and writer J.J. Abrams and screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt, is that it is both a careful continuation of the ideas and themes of George Lucas’ first six films and a definitive step on its own path. The political machinations that crippled the prequels are thrown to the background as they should be, the film returning the focus of the series to its characters, both old and new. It’s the balance between what has come before and what is to come that becomes the very soul of ‘The Force Awakens’ - this is a film about legacy, the passing on of it, the weight of it and the mystery of it. Much like the film itself, the new generation of characters are forced to deal with the consequences of that legacy, either to embrace it or reject it. The world we enter in ‘The Force Awakens’ is a world devoid of heroes, much like it was in ‘A New Hope’. In many ways, the simple genius of this film is that it strips the storytelling back to the basic truths that founded the first film - a group of young people desperately seeking their place in the universe, convinced that they have the potential for more. The story beats feel very familiar, many of them echoes of the original trilogy, but they never seem derivative, instead necessary for the right of passage these new characters must take. Abrams, Kasdan and Arndt waste no time in setting them on the path to understanding though, because for all its careful themes and thoughtful construction, ‘The Force Awakens’ hits the ground running as the ultimate rollercoaster ride.
In a move that could not have been better played, Abrams and his filmmaking team return the series to the textures of its roots, shooting ‘The Force Awakens’ on film and relying on models, puppetry and practical effects wherever possible. It’s staggering what a difference this makes to the film. What we’re offered is an actual world once again, lived in and brimming with detail. For once, we’re given a Star Wars film that actually feels like a Star Wars film, a practical universe populated by living, breathing things. You won’t have time to take it all in though, because from the moment it begins, the film sets a cracking pace and never lets up. We move between action set pieces, from one world to the next, from revelation to revelation, but at no point does it become overwhelming. Each change of gear comes when necessary, a credit to how skilled a director Abrams is. Just as vitally, the film is injected with the same giddy excitement, wit and melodrama of the original trilogy. Rather than set a new tone with something gritty or dark, Abrams picks up the baton left by ‘Return of the Jedi’ and keeps running with it. Of course you have the soap opera story and occasionally broad characters, but it wouldn’t be Star Wars without them. Unlike Lucas though, Abrams and his team know how to use those tools to their advantage. That said, he also doesn’t over-do it. The plot is surprisingly simple and the style is restrained for Abrams, who knows the parameters he has to work in set by the original films and sticks to them. He made his own personal mark with the Star Trek films, but here he understands that his mark is secondary to the wider context he is working in. This is a film very concerned with getting it right, but just brave enough to get there on its own terms.
Abrams and his filmmaking team return the series to the textures of its roots.
The cast themselves take some time to find their feet, but when they do they’re all a pleasure. Again, I don’t want to say too much for fear of spoiling surprises, but the new leads (Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac and Adam Driver) take on the challenge of the film with aplomb. Ridley ends up being a standout, particularly as the film begins to rest more and more on her shoulders. The character of Rey is something of a coup for the series, giving it a new female hero it so desperately needed. Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher step neatly back into the shoes of their iconic characters, and it’s quite something to see how much chemistry and electricity there is between them still after all these years. And Mark Hamill as the original farm boy himself? Well... you’ll just have to wait and see for yourself.
‘The Force Awakens’ is the start of a new chapter for the Star Wars Saga. The machinery that started turning in 1977 is still going strong, but the gears have started to shift. The film offers endless surprises and J.J. Abrams has left many tantalising unanswered questions for Rian Johnson to pick up in Episode VIII. It ends exactly where it needs to, yet you'll still be yelling at the screen, to find out what happens next. As I walked out of the cinema tonight, the audience was abuzz with excited debating about where it would go, what it all meant, who was really who. If I hadn’t felt it watching the film, I certainly felt the truth of it then - Star Wars has finally returned. ‘The Force Awakens’ is a triumph, a film buckling with enormous expectation that actually delivers. This series was always at its best as giddy escapism, and this latest instalment has it in spades. It moves like lightning, it cracks with wit, it looks spectacular, and it’s brimming with heart. We wanted a film that celebrated the classic trilogy and we’ve gotten that - but most importantly, we’ve also been given a film that carves its own place within the saga and sets in motion a story of its own. As we watch our new generation of heroes and villains come to grips with their legacy, so we watch a new generation of storytellers come to grips with theirs. As a Star Wars fan, I couldn’t have been happier. And as a Star Wars fan, I cannot wait to see what happens next.
There has certainly been an awakening indeed.