From 2012 onwards, before developing this blog, I wrote a multitude of reviews on the website Letterboxd. In this irregular series called From the Vault, I’m going to haul these earlier reviews out of mothballs and re-purpose them here.
This one is from December 17th, 2015, as we close in on Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker…
A million voices suddenly cried out, not in terror, but rather jubilation, upon watching Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. The most hyped, anticipated and promoted motion picture probably in the history of cinema came with enormous expectation and pressure on JJ Abrams, an oft-divisive filmmaker (though heaven knows why), to equal the original Star Wars trilogy by George Lucas, which again are probably three of the most beloved, iconic movies in the history of the form.
What people wanted perhaps even more, however, was the lingering stench of Lucas’ three prequels to be expunged, having disappointed an entire generation of fans with three stilted, lacklustre additions to the Wars canon. Upon Disney’s purchase of LucasFilm three years ago, and Lucas’ subsequent relinquishment of the reins to his creation–having long insisted he would never make sequels to his original trilogy, even claiming so much as no plans ever existed (a blatant lie)–the universe lay open once again, ripe for reinvention and reintroduction. In a world of Marvel cinematic universes and multi-film franchises, Star Wars returning to claim global cinematic dominance was an inevitability. Multiple generations now, from kids new to the world to grandfathers who saw the movies as children themselves, all asked one unified question… would the Force be with a new trilogy?
The answer, resoundingly, is yes.
While nobody should ever denigrate George Lucas for what he created in such a vibrant, beautiful and exciting world with Star Wars, he has never been a filmmaker capable of reconciling character development with style, production and narrative. He can construct a world wonderfully, but his greater creative hand in the prequels proved his limitations in wielding the power of it.
Abrams, conversely, is the modern Spielberg with that touch of Lucas magic; he has long been able to command spectacle, beautiful visuals and exciting set pieces with meaningful, emotional character work, and those aesthetics he brings wonderfully to The Force Awakens. More than anyone involved in what is all-round a glorious production, Abrams deserves the most praise; as the ringmaster, he’s commanded a brace and wealth of elements to deliver what was for me the most joyous cinematic experience since my days as a child watching James Bond or Star Trek or Indiana Jones films or action epics such as Independence Day and being overawed by their spectacle.
Too young to enjoy the original Star Wars at the cinema, the prequels were visually arresting but frustrating, hollow experiences, and largely continue to depreciate with age. What Abrams gave me was a sense of awe, a sense of wonder and sheer open-mouthed joy at what was unfolding on screen, even when critically or creatively it’s not cinematic perfection. Joy is such a rare feeling to experience as an adult especially, and for a movie to deliver that should be massive appreciated. Abrams here made the Star Wars film he wanted to see, what the child in him would have been marvelled by, and rarely has any filmmaker achieved so well such a mission statement. The reason, pure and simply, is that he’s not strayed very far from what Lucas marshalled three decades ago.
When you break The Force Awakens down, in truth, it’s very much akin to A New Hope, the first Star Wars film from 1977. The first shot is of an arresting, gigantic space craft, a representation of power and substance. The story begins on a desert planet (here Jakku rather than the legendary Tatooine). One of our main characters, Daisy Ridley’s Rey, looks up at the stars and dreams much like a young Luke Skywalker did, if for different reasons. Our villain, the malevolent Adam Driver as Kylo Ren, is a masked spectre of darkness hunting for the macguffin here of a map rather than plans for a doomsday device. An evil empire–or rather the splintered vestiges of one in the Nazi-esque First Order–have a doomsday weapon in Starkiller Base which they intend to use to blow up planets, led partially by Domnhall Gleeson’s vicious General (replacing Peter Cushing). Brave fighter pilots of the Resistance (rather than Rebellion) fly dangerous missions. Droids hold the key to messages and truths. Plus a myriad of young strangers from very different lives come together in pursuit of a greater purpose.
Thematically, in its DNA, The Force Awakens and A New Hope are the same story, and that parallel is much more beautiful than you may expect. Abrams understands the elements of that original film that struck such a chord; the sense of hope, of wonder, of love, of humour and warmth and fun, and finally of pulpy adventure. He and co-writer Lawrence Kasdan throw a million ideas into the pot and, remarkably, almost all of them stick. Each one retains those joyful elements that made the original Star Wars so beloved by millions.
Crucially, also, Abrams manages to create compelling new characters while not ignoring the older, legendary ones we all wanted to see. Indeed he spends the first hour almost exclusively allowing us to enjoy Rey’s spiky chutzpah, or Oscar Isaac’s flyboy charisma as pilot Poe Dameron, or John Boyega’s conflicted, morally decent Finn as he embarks upon an entirely new life – plus the film, and the franchise’s breakout star, new droid BB-8. He is a revelation, and immediately will likely inspire love and affection from multiple generations. By the time Harrison Ford grumbles his way back in as Han Solo with Peter Mayhew’s glorious Chewbacca by his side, you’re enjoying being with these new creations so much the elder statesmen only serve to add to the concoction rather than rescue it.
The story mythologises them within the context of the world itself, almost, and that just makes their return and the events of the previous pictures even more tantalising. Granted, Ford gets much more to do than Carrie Fisher’s wizened now-General Leia and especially Mark Hamill’s Luke, but there are understandable and logical plot reasons as to why. Abrams drip feeds the magical, original characters back into the story and seamlessly fuses them alongside our new heroes, and that’s a remarkable feat in and of itself. All the while he keeps the wheels of narrative turning, rarely stopping for breath. Nothing is wasted. No character beat. No action moment. It’s engrossing while heartfelt, funny while moving, and it contains more than enough moments likely to be held up as classic Star Wars moments to rest alongside the original trilogy. Who can say that about any of the prequels?
The other captivating element is the production design, because Abrams brings Star Wars back as it was meant to. Gone is the copious reliance of green screen and CGI creations from the prequels, and back is the world on screen as Lucas delivered in 1977; desert markets, hives of scum & villainy, real world locations with genuine vistas, all tied up with action and spectacle that works in the context of character drama. The only primary CGI addition is Lupita Nyong’o’s Maz Kanata–positioned almost as a new age Yoda potentially–but she too isn’t overused. You feel immersed in the world once again and visually are captivated by the on-screen spectacle.
Admittedly, there are one or two issues – perhaps a dash too much is left open for future successive ‘Episodes’ that might have benefited with some contextualisation, while the mid-section has a touch of superfluousness in a Han & Chewie subplot, but these are nitpicks and you have to look very hard to find these elements. On the whole, it’s a truly thrilling and marvelling ride, one which builds to an ending where you feel these characters have truly been transformed on a journey that will only continue across the sequels… for most of them at least.
One of the biggest plaudits The Force Awakens deserves is that with so many plot threads and characters and concepts and worlds and planets and aliens, it manages to remain a singular story you feel is told by the end credits. JJ Abrams without doubt tees up multiple movies with a myriad of threads that naturally spool out from this picture, and indeed there are more than a few cliffhangers to some extent, but come the finale you feel satisfied that you’ve experienced a complete story, a beginning that feels like a construct in itself. That’s remarkable given what’s on screen.
Blowing away any memories of the prequels, The Force Awakens, for once, lives up to and perhaps even betters the hype. It is, simply, the Star Wars movie you never knew you deserved, and I’ll be Bantha fodder if it doesn’t hold a special place in the hearts of generations of new and old fans. If the next two films are this good, we’ll end up with two classic trilogies instead of one. Bravo!