In recent years it’s been easy to forget that that Star Wars is supposed to be fun.
George Lucas did such a thorough job of draining any joy from his original creation with those ponderous, airless, horribly acted prequels that the prospect of being confronted with a movie attuned to the things that made audiences fall unconditionally in love with the original trilogy seemed unlikely. But that’s what J.J. Abrams delivers with Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
The seventh film in the Star Wars saga - and the first to have almost no involvement from Lucas – is still just a movie, but it’s a fabulously entertaining and beautifully crafted movie nonetheless, one that nods to the past but stakes a big claim on the future by actually getting the balance right between light and dark, comedy and drama, CGI and practical effects, and the old guard and the new.
After the opening crawl provides some background details on new villains The First Order – as well as a nugget or two about Luke Skywalker that helps explain his absence from much of the film’s marketing material – Abrams really sets the tone with an epic opening shot of a Star Destroyer eclipsing a moon.
In a film that consciously echoes the narrative shape of the original Star Wars, it’s the first in a series of beautifully evocative images that riff on iconic moments from the saga yet add style and substance anew. Whether casually revealing a sand-dune-covered AT-AT Walker in the background of a scene, or framing an approaching TIE Fighter against a burnt-orange sunset, Abrams has a keen sense of how to create a lived-in universe that gives a sense of the saga’s history without the film being beholden to it.
That’s certainly evident in the nifty way he brings back the Millennium Falcon – scoring a big laugh before putting it through its paces in the hands of two new characters who don’t quite understand its significance.
Those characters are the saga’s young heroes: a female scavenger called Rey, played by Brit newcomer Daisy Ridley, and an errant stormtrooper called Finn, played by Attack the Block star John Boyega. Brought together on Rey’s home planet of Jakku – a Tatooine-esque desert that serves as a sort of intergalactic scrap yard – they’re thrust into a larger adventure via their mutual, independent associations with BB-8, a spherical droid owned by X-Wing pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) that has come into their shared possession after being implanted with a map that may contain the whereabouts of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill).
As with the original film, the plot that unfurls thenceforth depends on some fairly extraordinary coincidence, but Ridley and Boyega really take charge of their characters from the off, making it’s easy to go with it.
Perhaps Abrams’ biggest triumph is his ability to weave the original cast back into the story without making them seem like a greatest hits-plundering super-groupAlistair Harkness
Ridley in particular emerges as the star of the show, particularly as the no-nonsense Rey repeatedly shirks off all attempts to confine her to the role of damsel in distress. But Boyega is great fun too: as Finn he’s charismatic, but not all that sure of his place in the world; his desire to outrun the horrors he’s witnessed in his previous life sometimes trumping his instinct to do the right thing.
Another notable new addition is Adam Driver as Darth Vader-wannabe Kylo Ren. His character’s attraction to the dark side of the Force gives the film a menacing, unpredictable edge, and as an actor, he’s far more equipped to play the role of a tortured villain than Hayden Christensen was in the prequels.
Perhaps Abrams’ biggest triumph, though, is his ability to weave the original cast back into the story without making them seem like a greatest hits-plundering super-group. True, there’s a bit of that and some of the more obscure characters – Admiral Ackbar for one – feel a tad on the indulgent side. But Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) prove a dream team once again; the Wookie funnier and more self-aware than before, Han finding his reputation preceding him as he takes Rey and Finn under his wing.
It’s Han as well who confirms for them that all the old stories about the Force and the Jedi are true. What’s intriguing about this moment, though, is that it isn’t just about the character or Abrams acknowledging the events of the first three movies: there’s a deeper resonance for Han here that justifies his return and makes for a more poignant reunion with Carrie Fisher’s Leia later in the film. And it’s this texture above all else that Abrams repeatedly gets right.
This feels like a Star Wars movie from the opening frame right up until the smile-inducing finale, which comes way sooner than you really want but leaves you wanting more in the best way possible.