The dust seems to have finally settled around the enormous financial and critical success of ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’. In many ways, it’s hard to properly assess a film like ‘The Force Awakens’ on release, the experience of watching it fuelled by insane anticipation and collective hysteria that either muddies perception or raises the bar too high for the film to reach. This week, the latest entry in arguably the greatest franchise in film history steps onto Blu-ray, and with time and distance in its favour, we have a chance to properly take in J.J. Abrams’ openly reverential yet quietly bold film. If you were expecting me to have a change of heart after my glowing theatrical review though, I’m afraid I’m going to disappoint you. Returning to it for its home entertainment release, I think I may love it even more.
It’s true, ‘The Force Awakens’ uses many of the same narrative anchor points as the 1977 original – a young, lost individual is rescued from their hum-drum life on a desert planet to help fight an evil force and their planet-destroying weapon – but rather than feeling like a lazy rehash, there’s something strangely bold about this approach. The magic of ‘The Force Awakens’ is that it feels very familiar, and yet strangely new in a way Lucas’ prequels never did. Abrams and co-writers Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt don’t simply reuse elements from ‘Star Wars’ but riff on them, using the motifs to construct a re-orchestration of Star Wars, playing with familiarity and carefully subverting it. It’s not the similarities that are important, but the differences. For example, the First Order might seem like a carbon copy of the Empire, but they act with a hysteria that’s far more unpredictable and dangerous. They lack the calm coldness of their predecessors, and this makes them more of a threat. The narrative might follow a very similar path, but Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) are not the same characters that took out the Death Star, and Rey in particular must carve out a much more difficult path than Luke (Mark Hamill) did before her. The situation might be similar, but the characters within it react in their own unique way, setting an alternate set of events in motion.
Playing with recurring motifs is a feature of the Star Wars universe (if you look again, ‘The Phantom Menace’ is as much a retreat, albeit a much clumsier one, of the 1977 original as ‘The Force Awakens’), but so much about Episode VII is about transition, both for the franchise and for the characters within it. Rey, Finn and the other new players in this galactic saga are taking over the battle between the Light and Dark sides of the Force from those before them and making it their own fight, in almost every case intrinsically linked to their self-worth and identity. Kylo Ren needs to define himself against the shadow of his father and his grandfather, Finn has to create himself from scratch after having his identity taken from him, and Rey has begun a journey to find out who she really is. The series is doing that too, dealing with its enormous past and preparing for its future. Rather than just jumping straight into something new, it’s stepping back into the stream carefully, reconnecting with its roots and getting itself ready to continue the journey. It’s less a continuation than a very gentle reset, a chance to clear the air after the confusion of the prequels and go back to what’s important. Abrams and his team could have rewritten the rules, but instead have spent the time to work out what the rules are to begin with. For some viewers, it might (and legitimately so) seem like a cowardly or lazy move, but I have tremendous respect for this decision and revelled in the many joys it brought.
And those joys grow and grow with each viewing. With that initial hysteria now settled, it’s far easier to revel in the sublime craft in ‘The Force Awakens’. The film looks simply beautiful, shimmering in the natural texture that comes from being shot on film, lovingly capturing a world that feels tangible and real again. The extra care that was taken to return the Star Wars universe to practical sets and effects really does make an enormous difference. After the glorious bombast of the scores for the Prequels, John Williams delivered one of his finest works in decades with this film, a score brimming with hope and longing. The performances are all wonderful, both old faces and new embracing the melodrama and energy that really make these films. And central to this all is Daisy Ridley as Rey, a genuine talent ushering in a powerful and important figure in both Star Wars and popular culture: an inspiring female lead whose story has you cheering and sends shivers down your spine. If the plan is to position Rey as the central character in the next chapter in the Star Wars saga, this can only mean great things.
‘The Force Awakens’ is a sublime film, the best entry in the series in decades and a blockbuster by which all others should now be measured.
We can sit comfortably back and scoff at their decisions, but the team behind ‘The Force Awakens’ love the original trilogy as much as we do, and the responsibility on their shoulders must have felt unbearable. That they made a watchable film at all is a relief. That they made one so intrinsically Star Wars and so beautifully crafted, all the while jettisoning the series into intriguing uncharted territory is absolute magic. ‘The Force Awakens’ is a sublime film, the best entry in the series in decades and a blockbuster by which all others should now be measured. The series has returned in a confident step that reconnects with the magic of the past and prepares for the promise of the future. And what a future! J.J. Abrams may have stuck to the familiar with Episode VII, but you can bet writer-director Rian Johnson will do no such thing. When Episode VIII picks up where VII left off, I suspect we’ll have no idea what’s coming for us in that ever-growing galaxy far, far away.
PICTURE & SOUND
Of course ‘The Force Awakens’ absolutely shines on Blu-ray. The impeccable 1080p 2.40:1 transfer brings out all the natural grain textures of the 35mm image, capturing all the startling visual details, but what really sticks out is the rich and vibrant colours of the film. They don’t pop but have a natural beauty to them, one of the real features of the transfer. The DTS-HD MA 7.1 track might not have the extra kick of an Atmos track, but the track erupts with gorgeous aural clarity and balance. There’s a lot of detail in the sound design of ‘The Force Awakens’, and all of it comes through in this track.
The extensive collection of extras are housed on a second Blu-ray disc, the main feature being ‘Secrets of The Force Awakens: A Cinematic Journey’ (1:09:14), a beautifully produced documentary on the development and making of the film. All the major players are included, and all speak with surprising honesty and sincerity. The handful of controversies surrounding the making of the film are never discussed, but you still get a good look at the dedication it took to bring the film to life.
The documentary is complemented by a series of more specific featurettes – ‘The Story Awakens: The Table Read’ (4:01), which looks at the iconic first read through of the script; ‘Crafting Creatures’ (9:34), on the beautiful practical creature effects and creature designs; ‘Building BB-8’ (6:03), which looks at the design and realisation of the loveable droid created for the film; ‘Blueprint of a Battle: The Snow Fight’ (7:02), a breakdown of how the climactic lightsaber battle was achieved; and ‘ILM: The Visual Magic of the Force’ (7:55) looks at the breathtaking visual effects. For me though, the most exciting featurette is ‘John Williams: The Seventh Symphony’ (6:51), where the legendary composer discusses his involvement with the series and his new contributions with this new film. The set is rounded off with a small collection of inconsequential deleted scenes and a look at Force for Change, the charity work that has come out of the making of the film.