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