Now that the hype has settled down somewhat, it might just be possible to step back and take an objective look at the latest instalment in the Star Wars saga, The Force Awakens.
After Disney’s takeover of Lucasfilm, the reigns of the colossal franchise were handed to JJ Abrams. Having created TV shows such as Lost and Alias, as well as overseeing the Star Trek reboot, Abrams was tasked with steadying the ship after the much maligned prequel trilogy. Considering the magnitude of the franchise, and the fervent nature of the Star Wars fandom, this was no mean feat.
From the off, The Force Awakens is inextricably linked to the saga’s beginnings, with the opening shot of a huge star destroyer harking back to the series’ very first shot in A New Hope. This act of balancing the old and the new is handled tactfully by Abrams, as he manages to move the series forward whilst allowing the fans those moments of nostalgia that they crave. A downed AT-AT lays in the sand, a malformed Vader mask serves to inspire new villain Kylo Ren and ball-shaped droid BB-8, like R2-D2, communicates in beeps and bloops.
Giving Star Wars fans new heroes to root for is a difficult undertaking, so ingrained in popular culture are the archetypes of the original trilogy. Luke, Leia and Han are huge characters in cinema and, similarly, they are almost mythical figures to the new protagonists in The Force Awakens. Scavenging dreamer Rey, turncoat storm trooper Finn and accomplished rebel pilot Poe Dameron take the lead and look set to drive the narrative of the new trilogy. Much like Abrams taking inspiration from the original trilogy, our new heroes take heart in the stories of Han, Leia and the absent Luke felling the Empire.
Visually, the film makes satisfying use of practical effects, remaining true to the aesthetic of the original trilogy and moving away from the overuse of CGI which plagued the prequels. The new characters and locations are fresh, without looking out of place in the Star Wars universe. The huge, holographic General Snoke is, perhaps, the only misstep, although it may be wise to reserve judgement on that front until we learn more about his identity.
Though the film remains visually consistent and engaging throughout, it lacks singular images as striking as some of those in the original trilogy. Perhaps time will render certain shots iconic, such as Kylo Ren confronting his father in the waning light of a disappearing sun, but on initial viewing, nothing carries the impact of Luke, accompanied by John William’s stunning score, gazing upon Tatooine’s twin suns. As well as the lack of memorable images, Abrams’ fondness for tight-framing often diminishes the sense of scale we might associate with Star Wars.
There is something of a pacing issue as well, a lack of breathing room. Despite the film’s considerable running time, over two hours, there is no pause for reflection. Maybe it’s a symptom of the modern blockbuster, but the original trilogy allowed for space between set-pieces. Room for relationships to grow and characters to develop, giving the eventual action even higher stakes. The Force Awakens remains immensely entertaining, and the running time flies past, but the breakneck pace lessens the viewer’s investment in the fates of Rey and Finn.
Rey, Finn and Poe are fresh characters, superbly acted, with potential to become as memorable as our original heroes, and Adam Driver’s turn as Kylo Ren portrays the angst of youth better than Hayden Christensen ever did, but the plot of The Force Awakens feels all to familiar at times. The parallels to A New Hope are numerous and obvious, and certainly deliberate, but Starkiller Base is effectively a third Death Star and The First Order are the Empire 2.0. However, the familiar narrative can be forgiven to some extent, as Abrams took chances with the new characters, whilst utilizing the stable foothold of familiar plot points to develop them.
The Force Awakens isn’t breaking any new ground in cinema, but Abrams has achieved what he set out to do, modernizing Star Wars for a new generation, without alienating the fan-base who made the series a cultural juggernaut. This first instalment in the new trilogy plays it safe, understandably after the disastrous prequels, doing exactly what it needs to re-establish Star Wars in the hearts of the public. If the sequels build on the foundations laid by Abrams, then we may have a trilogy to rival the originals.
And if you don’t feel something when Han and Chewie set foot on the Millennium Falcon after all these years, there’s just no saving you from the dark side.