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Thursday, 17 December 2015

Film Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

y first exposure to Star Wars was in 1997. The remastered “Special Edition” of the original film was screened at my local cinema. I left halfway through. Maybe it was because of its relative slow-pace compared to the modern fare I was used to. Perhaps it was because I was offended by the alterations George Lucas had made in his remastering, but most likely it was because I was scared of the creature in the trash compactor. I was only five-years-old after all.
I liked Star Wars before it was cool. Well, I liked Star Wars while it wasn’t cool. Like most boys my age, I fell in love with Star Wars when I saw was The Phantom Menace. I loved Darth Maul, pod racing and yes, even Jar Jar. I sat in the cinema awestruck, totally unaware of the adult Star Wars fans around me, metaphorically biting into a shit sandwich.
Of course, since I have grown up I’ve come to appreciate the original films. Becoming a massive Star Wars nerd in my teens, I had the action figures, the lightsabers and even a Stormtrooper helmet displayed proudly in glass cabinets in my bedroom. While I initially thought the prequels were good – I loved Episode III when it came out – I have since adopted the stance of the typical fan – The new trilogy was a disappointment – totally missing the point of what made the originals (well at least IV and V) great. Of course, this attitude was intensified when I studied film at university.
When I first heard Disney were inevitably using their new acquisition by making Episode VII, I was naturally sceptical. But when I saw that J.J. Abrams was at the helm, I was cautiously optimistic. Abram’s Star Trek (2009) was everything a reboot should be – it breathed new life into a tired property, making Star Trek sexy for the first time.
But what makes a good Star Wars movie? This is something Abrams must have thought very carefully about. I went to a midnight screening of The Force Awakens, trying to push any expectations out of my mind – the hype, the promotions, my anticipation. But I couldn’t help but get goose bumps when that blue text came on the cinema screen for the first time in a decade, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….”
The Force Awakens was co-written by Lawrence Kasdan, who also co-wrote The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. The original Star Wars was partially inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress – in that the plot follows the lowliest characters, R2-D2 and C3PO – we begin by exploring the galaxy from their perspective. This script clearly had this in mind.
The new film, set about 30 years after Return of the Jedi (1983), follows Finn (John Boyega) Stormtrooper number FN-2187, as he revolts from the New Order, and Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger on a remote desert planet. The most glamorous of our new cast of heroes is Poe Dameron, a skilled X-Wing fighter pilot, perhaps the best in the galaxy. These are characters we really care about, and unlike the heroes of the prequels, real tension is created because their fates are uncertain.
Giving screen time to a strong female heroine (Rey) and to a black character (Finn) rejuvenates the saga. It was great to see Rey piloting the Millennium Falcon and kicking Stormtrooper arse without the help of a man.
Something that didn’t particularly stand out in previous Star Wars films was the acting. Mark Hamill was never going to win an Oscar for his role as Luke Skywalker, and I don’t need to tell you how awful the acting was in the prequels. But this is exactly where The Force Awakens stands apart from the other instalments. Taking relatively unknown actors who all give solid performances, the film adds a credibility and weight to the series.
The film’s main villain, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is much more than just a Darth Vader place-holder. His portrayal as a conflicted dark warrior stands out as by far the most three-dimensional performance we have seen in the series. Capriciously immature and prone to lethal tantrums, knowingly a disposable pawn to his Supreme Leader, Snoke (Andy Serkis), Ren is a dangerously unhinged character. Driver is able to give the dark side a new dimension, presenting it as a cancer he needs to escape, having to resist the call of the light. This film resurrects the magic that made The Force capture audience’s imaginations in 1977, reclaiming it from Lucas’s Midi-chlorian nonsense.
It’s refreshing that a conscious effort was made by Abrams to place an emphasis on practical effects. The film is still a CGI-fest, but it is by no means overdone. The bluescreen of the prequels has been mostly replaced with beautiful locations, an array of animatronic aliens and excellent set design.
While some elements of the film seem re-hashed (really, another death star?) and there are parts that seem overly sentimental, overall the film reinvigorates the saga while playing homage to its source. Indeed, in some respects this is a reboot of Episode IV, retold for a new audience. It is a nostalgic trip set to John William’s iconic score, populated by familiar characters that provide a mythical backdrop for our new cast to explore. Abrams has succeeded, the force has awoken, as has the Star Wars fan within me. I only hope this high standard endures through the rest of the sequel trilogy.

Me, wielding a lightsaber at The Force Awakens midnight screening.
(Photo courtesy of the Exeter Picturehouse) 

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