Star Wars: The Force Awakens – J.J. Abrams keeps the spirit of the original films alive in this fun, exhilarating sequel

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

Ok, let’s address the Bantha in the room first. Until recently I had never seen a Star Wars film. Ever. I’m unsure how I avoided them for so many years being the self-confessed film geek that I am, but I managed to do so with the stealth of a Jedi Master. However when stellar director J.J. Abrams stepped up to helm the latest sequel, Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), I decided to take a leap of faith. After all, Abrams had already proved he was more than up to the task after the successful reboot of another iconic sci-fi series (Star Trek). While some might have prepared for the momentous occasion by catching up on all the other Star Wars films, I decided on a different angle: could the sequel impress someone like me who was unfamiliar with the franchise? Let’s just say I became a hardcore fan way before the end credits had even rolled…

Indeed I was actually surprised by how much I enjoyed The Force Awakens. While it began with the usual title screen and scrolling text sequence (which at the time I only knew about from millions of film and TV references), it was immediately infused with a thrilling boldness that had me hooked from the very first scene. Abrams dives right into the Star Wars universe and the story, kicking it up a gear with impressive action sequence after action sequence as we join the forces of good on a frantic race to prevent a map that will lead to the location of Jedi Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) from falling into the hands of the First Order, led by new villain to the series Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Introduced to us in an unexpectedly terrifying moment, Driver’s is unlike many other villainous performances, his solid turn adding a poignancy to the role that makes him all the more menacing, particularly in a later scene that is guaranteed to bring a tear to your eye whether you’re a fan of the originals or not.

The superb Daisy Ridley as Rey (with adorable droid BB-8 in the background)...

As dark as the story is though (and it does get very dark at times) Abrams and the other scriptwriters Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt are keen to keep the balance by injecting plenty of humour throughout – comedy moments that are often a welcome relief to the intensity of other scenes. Focusing on fun with a capital ‘F’ ensures this is always watchable and exciting, particularly during earlier scenes between Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Finn (John Boyega), two other new main characters who find themselves unexpectedly tasked with keeping the map safe. Both actors excel in their individual roles, each of them instantly creating well-rounded and iconic characters to add to the Star Wars canon, especially Ridley who is endlessly impressive in a breakout role. Yet the action becomes the most gripping whenever the two are together, their chemistry superb in many laugh-out-loud moments, with Boyega proving himself to be a master of comic timing as a Stormtrooper on the run.

While the inclusion of new characters might make this seem like The Force Awakens is moving away from the Star Wars universe everyone knows and loves, Abrams is careful to invoke the original films from the 70s and 80s (the less said about the prequels the better) in other ways. It’s not just the familiar plot of good vs. evil or that some of the characters from the original films make an appearance or the use of John Williams’ classic score. It’s not even the inclusion of those screen wipes that writer-director George Lucas originally used. Instead it’s more of a deliciously old-school style to the overall film – a gritty, realistic edge that the older films also had to them (before Lucas inevitably tampered with them for re-release). Abrams favours real effects over CGI, with puppets, make-up effects and impressive production design all cleverly merging to create as much of the action onscreen as possible. Yet whenever CGI is added it is always well-disguised or used sparingly. Even complete CGI characters are motion captured to perfection and brilliantly performed, such as Lupita Nyong’o as the small, bespectacled Maz Kanata who helps the heroes on their journey. The one anomaly to this rule is Andy Serkis’ Supreme Leader Snoke: while Serkis gives a reliably great performance, this gargantuan character seems at odds with the more subtle CGI moments, and as a result is about as terrifying as a fluffy Ewok.

Finn (John Boyega) meets Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac)...

Yet this a rare flaw in an altogether near perfect film. Enjoyable from the off, the action is endlessly exhilarating, as are the quieter moments that are all the more impressive for solid, often emotional performances. And the introduction of some new characters (in particular Oscar Isaac as the dashing Resistance pilot Poe Dameron, Domhnall Gleeson as the ruthless General Hux, and the cute spherical droid BB-8) alongside iconic ones from the previous films ensures the story is never tiring. Many fans of the series have decried certain aspects of the plot, but overall Star Wars: The Force Awakens reinvigorates a series that had lost its way, and is one that acted as a pleasingly fun introduction for me to this exhilarating series (and yes, I’ve now watched the original films, and I loved them all. I’m avoiding the dreaded prequels for now though – I’m not that much of a fan yet). Ending on an almost literal cliffhanger, the wait for the next film is certainly going to be a long one.

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~ by square-eyed-geek on April 18, 2016.

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