Stephen Romei

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film Reviews -

Star Wars: The Force Awak­ens Na­tional release

It’s as though JJ Abrams was handed the keys to the Mil­len­nium Fal­con. He’s knows what it is ca­pa­ble of, but he doesn’t want to put his foot down for fear of dam­ag­ing an in­valu­able and ir­re­place­able clas­sic that’s only on loan to him. That’s un­der­stand­able but Star Wars: The Force Awak­ens would be a more ex­cit­ing film if the new di­rec­tor, the first in the Dis­ney era, had im­posed his con­sid­er­able imag­i­na­tion on pro­ceed­ings to a greater ex­tent. Af­ter all, like the fal­con it­self, Star Wars is in­de­struc­tible.

Hav­ing said that, this sev­enth in­stal­ment of the galaxy-hop­ping fran­chise Ge­orge Lu­cas started al­most 40 years ago is not just a good Star Wars film but a good film full stop, one that will ap­peal to a wide au­di­ence while also ap­peas­ing the diehard fans, es­pe­cially of the 1977 orig­i­nal, to which it pays al­most ex­ces­sive homage.

Abrams, cre­ator of the tele­vi­sion se­ries Lost and di­rec­tor of the 2009 Star Trek film and its 2013 se­quel, has the reins for this first in­stal­ment of a se­quel tril­ogy. The Force Awak­ens is set 32 years af­ter the events of the pre­vi­ous film, The Re­turn of the Jedi (1983), which saw the demise of the dark lord Darth Vader.

The next two films, sched­uled for 2017 and 2019, will be di­rected by Rian John­son ( Looper) and Colin Trevor­row ( Juras­sic World) re­spec­tively. This re­boot­ing of the Star Wars fran­chise fol­low’s Dis­ney’s $US4 bil­lion ac­qui­si­tion of Lu­cas­film in late 2012, a deal fi­nan­cial an­a­lysts are say­ing may turn out to be a bar­gain.

The Force Awak­ens opens with the fa­mous scroll and a favourite Star Wars trope: a char­ac­ter in hid­ing, or ex­ile. John Wil­liams’s mu­sic is rous­ing as ever. We are told that Luke Sky­walker, an al­most-Jedi at the end of the pre­vi­ous film, is now the last Jedi mas­ter, but no one knows where he is. A plan for him to train a new gen­er­a­tion of Jedis did not go well.

A new dark force, the First Or­der, has risen from the rem­nants of the Em­pire. There are times when Abrams lays the Nazi im­agery on a bit thick, al­most chan­nelling Leni Riefen­stahl in a rally scene. The main vil­lain is Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who wears a black mask, has a for­bid­ding voice and wor­ships Darth Vader, to whom at one point he refers as grand­fa­ther. But it’s worth bear­ing in mind that fam­ily trees are no­to­ri­ously tricky in Star Wars.

The First Or­der has con­structed a new Death Star that makes the old one look like the would-be mug­ger’s knife in Croc­o­dile Dundee. They want to crush the Repub­lic, led by for­mer Princess now Gen­eral Leia Or­gana, and find and elim­i­nate Luke. Car­rie Fisher and Mark Hamill reprise their fa­mous roles, but to what ex­tent I will leave it to view­ers to dis­cover.

The forces of light want to find Luke, too, and the mis­sion falls mainly to two new char­ac­ters, and out­liers at that: a rebel Stormtrooper who takes the name of Finn (John Boyega) and a scrap metal scav­enger named Rey (Daisy Ri­d­ley), who has a mys­te­ri­ous past we glimpse in a tan­ta­lis­ing flash­back.

A piece of a map that will re­veal Luke’s lo­ca­tion has been stashed in a droid, also a new­comer, a rolling ball called a BB-8 that is not a patch on old R2-D2, though fans will be pleased to know that both R2-D2 and C-3PO do make ap­pear­ances.

The open­ing ac­tion se­quence is a faith­ful-tothe-fran­chise bat­tle scene that echoes the orig­i­nal film’s post-Viet­nam War con­cerns. “Kill all the vil­lagers,’’ the Stormtroop­ers are or­dered. It is amid this car­nage that the Stormtrooper who will be­come Finn deserts. But it is 20 min­utes in, when Han Solo (Har­ri­son Ford) and Chew­bacca (Peter May­hew) board the Mil­len­nium Fal­con, hav­ing mis­placed it some time ago, that we hit light speed. (Their un­likely hap­pen­ing upon the ship, in the vast­ness of the galax­ies, is one of those Star Wars co­in­ci­dences that hold the whole she­bang to­gether.)

“Chewie, we are home,’’ Han Solo cracks, and he could be speak­ing for the huge and pas­sion­ate Star Wars fan base. Ford is such a star, and he com­mands ev­ery scene with a rogu­ish charm. It doesn’t hurt that his smug­gler turned free­dom fighter has all the best lines writ­ten for him. When he and his furry friend are about to spring to ac­tion in snowy ter­rain, the Wookie says some­thing and Han looks at him lev­elly and says, “Oh, really, you’re cold?”

Han also fea­tures in the film’s only truly shock­ing twist, one that will leave au­di­ences reel­ing and which, of course, I will not re­veal here. The dra­matic and emo­tional pin­na­cle of an oth­er­wise patchy nar­ra­tive, it’s one of the great­est Star Wars mo­ments and is alone worth the price of en­try.

Abrams wrote the script with vet­eran Star Wars scribe Lawrence Kas­dan, build­ing on an early version by Toy Story 3 writer Michael Arndt. That’s some writ­ing pedi­gree and it shows in the char­ac­ter­i­sa­tions, with Finn and in par­tic­u­lar Kylo sat­is­fy­ingly nu­anced char­ac­ters, com­plex and con­flicted. There’s a lot of hu­mour and warmth be­tween the main char­ac­ters. The plot, how­ever, is a bit dis­jointed (which some might say is a fur­ther homage to the brand).

There are some sig­nif­i­cant re­veals along the way, prin­ci­pally in­volv­ing Han and Leia. Let’s just say that kiss at the end of The Re­turn of the Jedi may have a lot to an­swer for. As with Luke and Darth Vader, the fa­ther-son re­la­tion­ship is at the heart of mat­ters. And by the end we have re­ceived enough hints to know there is much more to come in the next two films.

It’s ter­rific that the two new lead char­ac­ters are a young woman and a black man, al­though I found the per­for­mances of the younger ac­tors a bit one-di­men­sional, their de­fault po­si­tion be­ing a look of sur­prise. But per­haps they will grow into their roles as the se­ries con­tin­ues (those who sur­vive, that is). And act­ing has never been the strength of Star Wars (in six films, there has been just one Os­car nom­i­na­tion for act­ing, for Alec Guin­ness back in 1977).

Story and spec­ta­cle are what count, and Abrams de­liv­ers the lat­ter with deftly re­alised reprises of favourite scenes (a stand-off in a weird bar, for ex­am­ple) and thrilling set pieces, such as a near-ground-level dog­fight in­volv­ing the Fal­con. He has favoured old-school spe­cial ef­fects over com­puter-gen­er­ated im­agery, which adds to the au­then­tic feel but per­haps re­duces the bang fac­tor. The Wa­chowski sib­lings’ space fan­tasy of ear­lier this year, Jupiter As­cend­ing, is more vis­ually stun­ning, for ex­am­ple.

In the end, all roads lead to Luke. “Luke Sky­walker? I thought he was a myth,’’ says Rey. Just how far that frus­trated farm boy has come is man­i­fest as The Force Awak­ens draws to its pow­er­ful con­clu­sion, which will leave au­di­ences im­pa­tient for Episode VIII. Abrams’s faith­ful film rein­vig­o­rates the best of what Star Wars has to of­fer, and fires the imag­i­na­tion as to what will hap­pen next. When it comes to space mis­sions, the launch is the most ner­vous mo­ment for all in­volved. In this case, we have lift-off.

Har­ri­son Ford as Han Solo and Peter May­hew as Chew­bacca in Star Wars: The Force Awak­ens

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