Disclaimer/ Preamble/ No-Spoiler Warning:
So, we have a brand new Star Wars movie: the first created without the input of George Lucas, the first to fall under the Disney umbrella and the first of an already rapidly expanding film universe that will include both direct sequels and spin-offs/ one-shots and, <gulp>, prequels. The problem with talking about Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (to give it its proper title), though, is that you can't really talk about it.
The film has been marketed in such a way as to give as little information as is humanly possible about the actual plot, who these new characters are and how they fit in with old favourites, Luke, Leia, Han and Chewbacca – and I'm certainly not gong to be the guy that ruins it. If you're looking for spoilers, basically, feel free to look elsewhere, as you ain't gonna find them here. Instead, I'm going to try talk about what works (and what, perhaps, doesn't) about the movie while being entirely vague about what actually happens in the film itself. And, believe me, that's an even tougher task than usual.
Also, I should point out that I'm writing this review all of two hours after having seen the film, which is much less time than I usually allow for my opinions to properly gestate – especially in a movie that is as loaded for me as this is. I am a HUGE Star Wars nerd, who hasn't only seen the original movies countless times but also spent much of my teenage years reading the countless spin-off novels and, to a lesser degree, comics that were released in rapid succession after the staggering success of Timothy Zahn's Heir to the Empire novel reignited the Star Wars craze nearly twenty-five years ago. Alas, the prequels did sort of ruin things but, even there, I don't hate them anywhere near as much as most fans and even thought Revenge of the Sith was actually a pretty decent, if flawed, Star Wars flick.
I had huge expectations going in, as well as plenty of apprehensions and fears, and I'm still trying to separate them from an even remotely “objective” (ha!) review of the film as just one of the hundreds I see each year. It probably won't work, but it needs to be acknowledged. With that preamble out of the way, then, onto the actual review itself...
What we thought:
No matter what you might think of the Star Wars prequels, it's hard to get away from just how different they were from the original trilogy. While the original movies had a ragged, roguish and decidedly analog feel to them, the prequels were best represented by their then-cutting-edge digital effects: impressive in their way but also cold, stiff, sterilized and utterly lacking in the sense of fun that made people of two generations and counting go back to Star Wars, Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi again and again and again.
No matter what else The Force Awakens gets right – and it gets plenty right – the most important thing is that it feels like Star Wars in a way that the prequels never did. Watching it didn't feel like a return to a universe that I last visited less than a decade ago, but to the wondrous dreamland of my childhood. It's a bit more violent and its walks on the Dark Side hit harder than ever but all of that old Star Wars magic is back with a fiery vengeance.
Part of that, of course, is that not only do we get to spend a significant amount of the running time with familiar and beloved faces, but that the film is never too far away from another allusion or reference to the Trilogy (a reference to clone Stormtroopers aside, the Prequels virtually don't exist here). This sense of nostalgia, even outright fan service, is the one area of the film about which I'm somewhat uncertain, but I largely feel that the comfort of those old tropes stands as an incredibly effective counterpoint to the ways that director JJ Abrams and his fellow screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan (you know, the guy who co-wrote Empire and Return of the Jedi) and Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3! The Hunger Games: Catching Fire! Little Miss Sunshine!) use that very comfort to sometimes pull the rug right out from under us.
More even than specific plot points or characters resonating to the original films, it's really the overall gut feel of the film that makes the Force Awakens so unmistakably Star Wars. Abrams largely forgoes his signature directorial style for what comes across as a much more technically proficient adaptation of George Lucas' style. There's some lens flare, to be sure, but there's also plenty of those Star-Warsy dissolves and sweeping camera work. Abrams and his teams' attempts to use CGI as a complement to physical effects rather than a replacement, also plays a huge part in giving the film that ragged, handmade feel that gave such tactile flavour to the original films.
Most crucially of all, though, Star Wars film or no, The Force Awakens is driven by generous dollops of wit, humour and a huge beating heart that pulsates through every scene. It's seriously compelling stuff that brings “the feels” in all shapes and stripes and leaves you breathless for more by the end of its 135-minute running time. It is perhaps too overstuffed – though maybe to its credit? - as the basic bud-guy plot is relegated to a McGuffin that's really there just to set up the new status of the Star Wars universe and to get us invested in the new heroes and villains and reinvested in the old.
The cast itself is pretty spectacular, as we get the likes of Harrison Ford throwing his all into a role that for years he insisted he had long grown out of but fits him better than ever and a troop of excellent up-and-comers who do sterling work, no matter the size of their part, but it's really the way that the film makes us care almost as much for the new characters as we do for the old that truly impresses. That this is easily the best acted of the films is probably no surprise, but that the film manages to squeeze so much characterisation out of our main players in the face of a gigantic cast and plenty of the required (but very well done) action scenes, is rather less obvious and all the more impressive.
In particular, three of the four new main characters (Oscar Isaac is typically great as “Red Leader”, Poe Dameron, but his role will presumably be expanded in later films) are wonderful additions to the saga. John Boyega is pretty much instantly likable as Finn, a (ROLE RETRACTED) and Adam Driver as Kylo Ren, proves once again that no one does slimy bastard quite like him; effectively channelling Hayden Christensen's whiny teenage Anakin from Attack of the Clones but replacing all of that tooth-grinding angst with real hateability and menace. And there's Daisy Ridley who may look an awful lot like Keira Knightley but easily and quickly makes her own mark as, presumably, the main hero of these new films, Rey. Though Rey Who? That is the question.
Now, these are my feelings having just seen the film. I might think more or less of it in time but all I can say is that I fully intend to pay to see it again tomorrow in glorious 2D (unsurprisingly, the 3D is a waste – though I'm sure it kicks ass in IMAX) to kick off two years of counting down the days for Episode VII to come along. Too nerdy? Tell me that after you've seen how The Force Awakens ends.