NB: Spoilers are subjective. There will be character names mentioned here, but not precise relationships or plot points. I’ve tried to be as spoiler-careful as possible.
Yep, it’s still got it.
That moment when you sit in the dark, and the film name-plate pops up, then pops off, and you get the glowing Lucasfilm logo, and a fairytale legend, and then – bam! Trumpets. The unmistakeable strains of John Williams’ martial Star Wars theme blow your hair back, and the Star Wars logo appears, and suddenly you’re eight again.
The scrolling introduction is here, the starfield is here, pan to a planet, and we’re off on a brand new Star Wars adventure.
In fact, it’s possible that we’re off to the best Star Wars adventure since the one that at the time, we mere mortals just called Star Wars.
Oh boy – big claim. Don’t get me wrong here, I can wax as lyrical as the next geek about the wonders of The Empire Strikes Back, and I particularly enjoyed Hayden Christensen’s descent into Darth-hood. But the thing about Star Wars movies, be they original or prequel, is they’ve never particularly been about the characters being believable or likeable. In the original Star Wars, it’s not till we meet Han Solo and Chewbacca that it’s revealed the whole galaxy doesn’t have one giant mopey stick up its butt. That’s why people love Han so much – well, granted, Being Harrison Ford doesn’t hurt in that regard at all, but still – he’s the only one who really talks like a recognisable human being. Luke’s an avatar of innocence and boyhood, and he pretty much goes, through the first three movies, from that to an avatar of sainthood, the benign wizard that makes the Jedi always seem so unspeakably dull. That’s why Darth Vader was as popular as he was, too – he spoke like James Earl Jones, had a cool aesthetic, and he was the opposite of all that milksop purity that seemed to infect both his children.
Similarly in the prequels, Liam Neeson practically sleeps his way through The Phantom Menace, his character’s so dull – and he’s the rebellious one on Team Jedi. The whole process of Jedi training seems to be geared wholly to the grinding out of any spark of personality or wit in its proponents (Fine – notable exception: Yoda, but even Samuel L Jackson couldn’t really cool up the Jedi). Again, it’s one of the reasons people are always more interest in the bad guys, and we’re positively panting for Anakin to join their number, so he might get the chance of a good line.
Now – forget all that. This is that most unlikely of things: a genuinely witty Star Wars movie. Not just in little snippets, not just concentrated in one or two characters – everybody here talks like real people. It’s a Kessel Run away from anything you’ve seen or heard before in this franchise.
Escape now. Hug later.That said, for anyone who’s a fan of Classic Star Wars action, rest assured – The Force Awakens has got you covered. Space battles – several, and, as you’d expect with the advances in technology, looking better than ever. Desert planet – check. Ice planet – check. Droid on a mission – check. Bunch of fascistic jackbooters with a big MacGuffin – sooooo very check, and actually soooo very cool too. Game of ‘spot the British character actor’ – still intact. Scene where Han’s activities catch up with him – check. Scene on a bridge above a giant chasm in the bad guys’ lair – check, check and double-check - it’s as though the bad guys think they only need one bridge, and no safety netting, across the whole of their bad guy lair. Shooty sequence where you have to take out a particular panel on a MacGuffin or the whole galaxy’s doomed? Handful of checks. Weird alien space bar with musicians? Yep, that gets a check too.
The danger with all this is that if you judge the tone of the movie wrong, you’re going to be screamed at for creating merely a re-tread or a collection of all the original Star Wars movies’ best bits, especially since this is the first Star Wars movie in 32 years to actually feature the original actors and lead heroes.
That’s where the wit comes in handy. It’s so remarkable, it actually feels like a new beginning for the franchise, rather than any kind of re-tread. The elements are referenced with love and care, and never get in the way of the characters’ stories or the space opera unfolding gorgeously in front of you. That’s perhaps the difference about this movie in a nutshell – it could stand to be watched on its own by someone who’d never seen Star Wars before. If you’ve seen the whole saga, then you’ll get way more out of it, but The Force Awakens stands on its own, just as the original Star Wars had to.
Is it perfect then? Nnno – while the presence of Darth Vader is felt heavily throughout, and the presence of Luke Skywalker even moreso, the new movie’s version of The Emperor is good, but lacks quite the silky unpleasantness of Ian McDiarmid’s presence. And while BB8 is utterly adorable, it’s adorable in a Disney, Wall-E, merchandisers’ dream kind of way, rather than the almost crotchety ‘I’m going this way’ vibe of R2 (though R2 does show up here, and scenes with both droids in remind you of an older dog who has to get used to having a puppy in the house). There’s also one plotting element that might drive you spare – having won at the end of Return of the Jedi, how did ‘the Resistance’ get to still be the Resistance? The Senate is technically restored to power, so who are they resisting? They’re an almost suicidally self-destructive lot, the Resistance, and you might end up wanting to bang their heads together and say ‘For the love of the galaxy, will you just govern already?’ But overall, these are almost pathetic niggles against a movie that makes you feel like a grown-up eight year-old, as the best science fantasy should do.
In terms of the cast, Harrison Ford looks as though he’s having the most fun he’s had on any Star Wars set, and indeed has said as much, attributing it largely to the writers. That makes enormous sense when you compare what he has to say here with his dialogue in other Star Wars movies. The point of which is he’s no longer the only cool kid in the movie. The new young Star Warriors have it good too – Daisy Ridley as Rey is likeable from the first moment she encounters BB8, and only grows moreso with every scene she’s in. John Boyega as Finn the storm trooper is great right from the beginning too – imagine a soldier away at war who suddenly one day realises that, far from what he’s been told every day of his life, he actually works for the Evil Empire? He’s essentially just having the worst work day of his life. Oscar Isaac is the Star Lord of the piece, or, rather more close to home, the new, hot young Han Solo, and he’s an early injection of that Solo spirit – “Screw this, let’s talk like regular people,” though he’s more than matched in that regard by Rey. And Adam Driver as Kylo Ren, or Darth Wannabe as we’re encouraged to think of him, gives a performance that’s as surprising as it is compelling. One of the big questions on which the success of the movie would hang was whether Kylo Ren could be a properly anchoring villain, in the way that Vader was, and the way which, try as they might, none of the prequel Sith Lords ever managed to be (not even, really, the inestimable Christopher Lee – again, it’s as much in the writing as anything).
The movie makes it easier for him by intentionally lowering its stakes on that score – it makes Ren actively strive to be as strong as the great Darth Vader, and so inherently clues us in to the fact that he’s by no means a finished product yet. He’s on a par to Anakin in The Revenge of the Sith – troubled with the nagging voice of goodness in his head, but doing what he can do supress it because he genuinely feels the Dark Side is right. If you believe nothing else you’ve read in this review, believe us when we say he has his moment in this movie. You won’t forget it in a hurry once you’ve seen it.
The set-up for Episode VIII looks pretty clear, and rather exciting, and by the end of this movie, you feel like you’ve seen a ‘full-on’ Star Wars movie again, only with seriously good dialogue and characterisation, for all some elements are telegraphed from a good few parsecs away.
Go and see The Force Awakens – it’s pretty much the movie you hoped The Phantom Menace would be…only better.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk