Leonard Sultana – An Englishman In San Diego – gives his SPOILER-FREE thoughts on the latest chapter in the epic STAR WARS saga. Don’t forget, there’s plenty here that was born and bred here in the UK and therefore gets our CUP O’ TEA Seal Of Approval – check out the names in CAPITALS to highlight the Brits…!
Congratulations, Dear Reader – you finally now live in a STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS world! It’s been a long four years since Disney took out its not-inconsiderable cheque book and forked out $4.5b for the Lucasfilm vaults (yet to be fully ‘raided’, if you get my drift) and announced its intentions for a whole new series of adventures in a galaxy long ago, far far away.
But every adventure beings with a first step – and if the first effort is a mis-step, then Disney knows all that outlay will be in vain. It’s one hell of a burden to put on the shoulders of one man and a mighty challenge – thankfully, we can report J.J. Abrams has not only risen to that challenge but exceeded it, wholeheartedly.
The first six STAR WARS films, while helmed by a number of directors who had dominion over the texture and the character of those movies, were tonally determined by one man: series creator George Lucas, who set certain rules for how a SW film should look, move and behave. Camera focal depths, colour palettes, costumes and design were all filtered through that one voice and when you see the six films together in a box set, they are recognised as one saga, completely.
What Abrams has done is create his own film, crafted and honed in a totally different style. Yes, STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS is a Star Wars film, absolutely – and not just because it has the characters, the back story, the spaceships and the John Williams score thundering overhead (Williams especially does magnificent work here). Halfway through this film, you find yourself sitting back in your cinema seat, relieved that the franchise that you loved as a kid is back – it’s bigger and bolder than ever, but still, you feel it: it’s a ‘Star Wars movie’. But here’s where Abrams has made his very clever move, taking the core ingredients and making from them something fresh and different. A classic dish, cooked in a exhilarating way for a contemporary audience.
To keep with the cooking analogy, let’s start with the basic meat-and-vegetables: this is a perfect meshing of characters, new and old(er) with familiar faces, running, jumping and diving away from creatures and explosions alongside a roster of young talent. And those old favourites are not just being paid lip service and showing up for a cameo, either: Harrison Ford (Han Solo) is an integral part of the plot, dragged back into the spotlight and falling across young turks Oscar Issac (Poe Dameron), JOHN BOGEYA (Finn) and DAISY RIDLEY (Rey) who find themselves facing down the latest evolution of the franchise ‘black hats’: the First Order, born from the ashes of the Empire.
The Empire aren’t the only ones who have had a brand redesign in the intervening years: the Rebellion is now the Resistance, led with firm zeal by General Leia Organa, played by Carrie Fisher, the one cast member who is perhaps showing the most years between the Original Trilogy and this new series. However, the old guard shake off the cobwebs and everyone on screen equates themselves well, making it satisfying to see that the Star Wars chemistry we knew and loved back in 1977/1980/1983 is alive and well. (And, let’s make this clear, THE FORCE AWAKENS is absolutely a sequel to the Original Trilogy, prequels be damned, even totally ignored!)
If the chemistry remains intact, so does the balance between warm, fuzzy chuckles and a stark, dour threat. The former is supplied by the return of fan favourites Chewbacca (PETER MAYHEW) and C-3PO (ANTHONY DANIELS) who more than hold their own after all these years against new upstart BB-8 – but, I tell you, it’s a close call. BeeBee, like R2-D2 before him, is the glue to the film and if he hadn’t have worked as a concept, fans could have had a Jar Jar-sized mess on their hands. Thankfully, this is not the case – BB-8 is a strong addition to the Star Wars Universe and is destined to become a fan favourite for years to come.
When it comes to the shadows that fall over our heroes, then, thank goodness we also have strong elements driving the story there, too: Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is set up from the get-go as the film’s Vader 2.0, driven by dark desires and feelings which it took a whole movie and a half for our favourite Lord Of The Sith to get established. Ren is younger, stringier and more tightly wound and, unlike Vader – who was a creature of control, clenching his fist and dealt out blows when required – our new baddie comes off more as a petulant teenager, wilder and a lot more unpredictable, that feeling that Ren could blow up at any time a wild and exciting thing to watch.
As are all the orbiting characters, filling out the cast list: DOMHNALL GLEESON is particularly slimy as First Order ladder-climber General Hux, ANDY SERKIS maybe buried underneath CGI and shadow but his brief appearances set up his Supreme Leader Snoke as a nasty piece of work, Lupita Nyong’o is likewise hidden behind some dramatic motion-capture but she comes close to exerting a Yoda-sized influence on the film – I hope her wonderful Maz Kanata returns again.
We can’t have it all our own way, though. And so to: the niggles.
Those flies in the ointment certainly show up, the further you get away from your cinema seat with the ringing dying down in your ears. Happy coincidences of plot and character which tie themselves into a knot which will be damned near impossible to untie in future episodes (although it will be fun to watch them try – the currently untitled Episode VIII, helmed by Rian Johnson, due out in 2017, don’t forget). Questions posed that should be enigmatic markers of mystery, instead leave you shaking your head in mild bewilderment. The sheer feat of logistics which are THE FORCE AWAKENS‘ numerous engines of death and destruction that, frankly, leave the covert building of the Death Star a weekend hobby, built in the garage!
Also, on a personal level, the let downs to the film’s cast are the awful waste of talent that is Max Von Sydow (Lor San Tekka), barely getting the screen time that a man of his stature deserves, and I have to bemoan the tragic lack of Captain Phasma (GWENDOLINE CHRISTIE). Anyone expecting more from that striking character design, imposing the trailers and previews, need to dial back their expectations of Phasma, immediately. She’s another character I hope we see more of in future instalments – lord knows, we don’t see enough of her in action here! I wants my Phasma!
All-in-all, this is a thrilling and exciting rollercoaster that J.J. Abrams has concocted – but, like all films that could be put under this much scrutiny, you have to cover all the bases to fully hit it out of the park. Yes, Abrams does his damnedest with THE FORCE AWAKENS… But it’s almost reassuring that he just about catches a floodlight or two as the ball flies out into the distance, it makes the film less than a corporate entity and more of a human creation.
But the stark reality is Star Wars is an animal of commerce – the one thing I guarantee Disney will be most pleased about is that THE FORCE AWAKENS sets Star Wars back up as a vital, energetic prospect, inviting a baying (paying) audience back the box office, opening up the universe again when the Prequel Trilogy appeared to close the circle firmly shut, permanently (Lucas’ intention, I guarantee it). Abrams has given the series a definite ‘out’ and shown that Star Wars can indeed barrel on relentlessly, setting the new series of films off brashly and confidently, making the idea of seeing future episodes all that more enticing and inviting prospect. Which I’ll bet, after MENACE, CLONES and SITH, you never thought could be possible again.
STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS is a Walt Disney Pictures/Lucasfilm/Bad Robot production, written and directed by J.J. Abrams. The cast includes original trilogy stars Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher, as well as new additions Oscar Issac, JOHN BOYEGA, DAISY RIDLEY, Adam Driver, ANDY SERKIS, DOMHNALL GLESSON and Max von Sydow. The Force Awakens is set approximately 30 years after the events of Return Of The Jedi: young scavenger Rey (Ridley) comes across First Order deserter Finn (Bogeya) and ace Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Issac) and, with the help of some faces old and new, sets off on an adventure to piece together the puzzle of the Last Jedi. The film was filmed at its homebase of Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire, and was released internationally on 17th December 2015