With an introductory crawl which speaks of the continuing fight for peace and justice in the universe, an ongoing quest requiring daring missions rather than the opposition of taxation, it would seem that J J Abrams understands at least the basics of the universe for which he has inherited responsibility, possibly more than series creator George Lucas.
As director of the first new Star Wars live action feature film since 2005’s Revenge of the Sith, though Abrams may seek to distance his offering from the disappointment of the prequel trilogy to be more in line with the “classic” films released between 1977 and 1983, more than a lifetime away for many of the target audience for this new adventure, The Force Awakens acknowledges their legacy by nevertheless labelling itself episode seven.
Opening with a Star Destroyer blocking out the screen which evokes the moment etched in the memory of any who ever saw Princess Leia’s Tantive IV pursued across the skies of Tatooine, in a reversal of the accustomed scenario for once it is not the Empire seeking the hidden Rebel base. Instead, Poe Dameron (Ex Machina’s Oscar Isaac), pilot of the New Republic’s Resistance, must trace a former Rebel commander who has vanished among the stars.
Unaware he is pursued by a strike team of the First Order led by an adept of the dark side of the Force, pouring out of the black in their shining white armour, the rendezvous is ambushed and Poe is unable to deliver the data chip. As ruthless as the fallen Galactic Empire after whom they have modelled themselves, the First Order have the might of their fleet and Stormtrooper armies, while all Poe has is a loyal droid named BB-8 and a knack for making unlikely friends.
Progressing through the opening act at a pace which leaves the audience as breathless as the characters, every facet of The Force Awakens that can be has been created practically, sets and locations with real presence and substance which reflects in the performances and how the audience perceive the worlds they are shown. The all-digital prequels having left no such markers, this is set among the relics of the original trilogy, the crashed Star Destroyers half buried in the sands of Jakku making use of the full depth of the 3D capability.
Crucially, the weapons are more real than ever before, even the heft and sizzling impact of the lightsabers; for the first time in Star Wars there is blood and thus consequences, a far cry from the dry-eyed mourning following the tragic slaughter of children under the sanitised euphemism of “younglings” in Revenge of the Sith. Conversely, judging by the now almost instantaneous hyperjumps between the different systems, the galaxy seems to be rather smaller than in previous instalments.
Aware that the scale and scope of the universe is best witnessed through the eyes of those who are experiencing it, Abrams places his new characters front and centre, Poe, Finn (Attack the Block‘s John Boyega), the former Stormtrooper designated FN-2187 whose qualms caused him to defect and Rey (Daisy Ridley) and who additionally proves that it is the helmets which cause his former squadmates to be poor marksmen, a tech scavenger who finds BB-8 lost among the dunes, each of them vital, individual and deeply concerned with the business of staying alive in an increasingly dangerous world.
As the new lead trio, each of them has a parallel within the classic films: a cavalier expert pilot with a loose mouth, a youth who expected to live one life who suddenly finds his destiny and his heart lead him in the opposite direction and a woman who absolutely refuses to play along with the expectations anyone may have of her who proves she also a more than capable pilot in her own right in a moment the fans have waited more than thirty years to see.
By their side and maintaining the classic astromech feel, the distinct personality and motion of droid BB-8 bring to mind both WALL-E and EVE, themselves the work of sound designer Ben Burtt who of course also crafted the original vocalisations of R2-D2.
Of the leads of the original trilogy, only Harrison Ford ever broke out to become a genuine star but already the relative unknowns Boyega and Ridley are demonstrating huge presence and talent on a par with the established Isaac who will next year be seen in a very different light in X-Men: Apocalypse.
For many it is those returning characters who will be the most important draw, and Abrams has reassembled the whole of the classic lineup: Carrie Fisher as General Leia Organa, Mark Hamill as Jedi Master Luke Skywalker, Harrison Ford as Han Solo, Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca and many others in supporting roles, but the focus is very much on the aging Corellian smuggler, but while the Millennium Falcon may play to nostalgic need the former Rebel leaders do not.
With Ford a man whose response to the films has sometimes bordered on indifferent, this feeds into his performance here, perceived as a hero but aware of the truth behind the legends which have grown around events he was part of. Time is not often kind to those who have survived, and much has happened to both Solo in the intervening years and the woman whose arms he was last seen in during the celebratory finale of Return of the Jedi.
Once feisty, capable, determined and indomitable and always a highlight of the films, General Leia Organa is little more than a hollow presence, though that is more than can be said for her brother whose pronounced absence sets up the film. Alongside the future lead trio of Rey, Finn and Poe, of the returning characters it is Han’s almost solo adventure with only Chewbacca at his side, the Wookiee smuggler having finally mastered scene stealing in what is Peter Mayhew’s best role in any of the sequence.
The gap between the Battle of Endor and the present is left vague in order that spin-off movies can fill in those details later, should the success of the “Anthology” films beginning with Gareth Edwards’ Rogue One warrant further adventures. That the Empire suffered a huge loss is established but so did the Rebel Alliance, its fleet almost wiped out; it can be presumed the surviving Star Destroyers jumped out of the system following the death of the Emperor but had they remained they could well have proved victorious despite the loss of the second Death Star.
It’s only with hindsight that the reasons Darth Vader was such a terrible failure as a military leader become clear, revealed by the prequels to be a damaged man beneath his mask and cloak who never grew beyond the stroppy and petulant teenager who became an unreasonable and immature adult still manipulated by Sheev Palpatine. Without Governor Tarkin “holding his leash” he had free reign to blame others for his own lack of foresight, summarily executing one after another of his senior officers whom he held responsible for failures carrying out orders he himself had issued.
Cut from the same black cloth as the Skywalker patriarch, Kylo Ren (Inside Llewyn Davis’ Adam Driver) carries on the same tradition of poor handling of situations and violent overreactions, slaughtering innocents en masse to prove a point and throwing tantrums when he doesn’t get his way. From his conversation with Supreme Leader Snoke it is clear General Hux (Ex Machina’s Domhnall Gleeson) does not hold Kylo Ren in high regard and nor is he willing to let his own reputation be tarnished by performance.
Snoke being a magnified motion capture of the otherwise offstage Andy Serkis (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) more suited to a villain of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Hux an embodiment of the Nazi analogy of the Empire without the gentle subtlety of the Third Reich, the most interesting representative of the First Order in that she appears to be aware of what is going on around her and offers a considered response is Captain Phasma (Game of Thrones’ Gwendoline Christie) though she is also the least used.
Always a major factor of the original trilogy, the expected humour isn’t strong enough and feels forced where it is present, Poe showing an unearned cockiness and Finn almost babbling at times, and there are moments of timewasting with Abrams repeating his tendency to generate artificial peril with computer generated beasties as in 2009’s Star Trek when Kirk was attacked in the snowy wastes of Delta Vega.
Despite these flaws the fears that Disney would change the tone of their newly acquired property remain unfounded, and if anything it is less Disneyfied than George Lucas’ own special edition of Return of the Jedi with its extended song and dance number in Jabba’s palace.
While undeniably technically brilliant, the film is hugely let down by the unimaginative script, written by The Empire Strikes Back’s Lawrence Kasdan, Abrams and Little Miss Sunshine’s Michael Arndt, all of whom are capable of far better than what they have offered here which plays as nothing more than a medley of scenes of previous Star Wars films in an updated framework – a courier droid with vital information hunted by the enemy across a desert world, daring hyperspeed escapes in the Millennium Falcon, an exotic bar with its even more exotic clientele, a vast superweapon capable of destroying worlds, many of these scenes now in their third outing.
So keen is Abrams to return to the style of Star Wars à la 1977 that The Force Awakens moves beyond homage, yet where with Star Trek Into Darkness was an unannounced remake of The Wrath of Khan which worked because it subverted the expectations that knowledge would bring, here the result is that every scene is telegraphed to anyone with a passing knowledge of Star Wars leaving it desperately lacking in genuine excitement and less than the sum of its excellent parts, though Abrams’ handling of the elements ensures that it is in every way superior to the endless council meetings of the prequels.
Consciously setting up the foundation of a franchise rather than telling a complete story Abrams has imbued an ambiguity in many aspects of the final act, leaving the door wide open for the as-yet untitled eighth film in the main sequence, due May 2017 from Brick and Looper director Rian Johnson who it is to be hoped will rise to the challenge of taking these characters in a bold and original direction more befitting their legacy and the fully justified expectations of the fans who have waited a generation to be reunited with them.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens is now on general release in 2D, 3D and 3D IMAX