Wednesday 20 April 2016

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

It’s only with forensic examination (or a memory of being subjected to The Phantom Menace) that you realise just how bad a new Star Wars movie could have been. As a sequel it not only has to deal with the challenge of introducing new characters and actors into one of the planet’s most beloved franchises, but it also has no choice but to acknowledge the existence of the previous films; yet, somehow, it all pulls together brilliantly. It’s reverential without being tedious, revolutionary without being obstinate, and damn those special effects are good.

Directed by J.J. Abrams and out now on DVD and Blu Ray, Star Wars: The Force Awakens gets off to a bit of a dodgy start. Sorry, but it does. Nothing wrong with the premise, though. Luke Skywalker has run away to sulk (for reasons that are largely explained during the course of the film), and a droid under the Resistance’s care is carrying an incomplete map to his location (for reasons which are not explained at all). The Empire may be gone, but a near-identical threat has rapidly emerged from its remnants in the form of The First Order. It’s a race between them and the Resistance to find Skywalker. One side wants him to save the universe, one side wants him to be dead. I’ll let you work out which is which. 

The aforementioned dodginess comes from superstar Resistance pilot Poe, who is played (by Oscar Isaac) with an earnest Eighties enthusiasm that quite frankly sits uncomfortably amongst the rest of the characters. His part in this film is thankfully very minor, and let’s hope that doesn’t change for the next movie.  It would be unfair to Isaac to say his performance is bad, but it certainly can’t compare to that of the two leads – Daisy Ridley as the scavenger Rey, and John Boyega as the Stormtrooper that has somehow denied his ‘programming’, Finn. Slap me with the controversy haddock if you feel the need, but I would argue that Rey is the best hero Star Wars has seen so far – thanks in no small part to Ridley’s performance. The part is written with a wonderful balance between reluctant hero and determined, independent warrior. Ridley communicates this in a perfectly understated way, putting enormous amounts of emotion and power into tiny expressions and inflections in a way that only the best actors can.

Boyega complements her extremely well as Finn, a warm and slightly naïve character that he plays with a justice-seeking desperation that only ever comes across as honest and admirable. It also must be said that it’s surely no coincidence that so many new characters, major and minor alike, are so visibly young. There’s a recurring theme of inheritance (which I can’t discuss without spoilers). No wonder Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) wears a helmet; without it, he looks less like an intimidating military commander with incredible powers, and more like a college student stressing out about his Business Studies exam. Conversely, the ages of the returning actors have been reinforced if anything, and the film (and the nostalgia) is all the better for it. There’s something ineffable that warms the soul while watching a creaky Han Solo wisecracking and kicking backsides as well as ever. Well, Peter Mayhew is hidden beneath Chewbacca’s impeccably thick and glossy coat, but you get the idea.

One thing I didn’t like about The Force Awakens was the visual design and direction for the uniformed First Order officers, which takes heavy-handed cues from the Nazis. Nowhere is this clearer than in a rally scene, which even has a Third-Reich-esque salute from the assembled Stormtroopers. Personally, I’m not comfortable with the engineers of the Holocaust being used as a template for comic-book villainy without direct reference, but hey – maybe I’m just weird.

The good far, far outweighs the bad in this film though, including a large dollop of humour (risky, in that it’s more prominent than in any previous film) that has been honed until you can’t imagine the movie without it. Despite an inconsistency in the cutting power of a lightsaber that irks the pedant in me, this is identifiably one of the best Star Wars movies ever.

J.J. Abrams finds your lack of faith disturbing. 5/5.


Luke Kemp

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