“Give the people what they want.” It sounds simple doesn’t it, but try telling that to George Lucas.
Because what we want is something both fresh and familiar. At the same time, nostalgia fills in the plot holes and edits out the clunkier dialogue of the original trilogy, so even those films aren’t a patch on the rose-tinted brilliance that we choose to remember. We’ll accept a bumbling fish as an Admiral but only if we were six-years old when we first met him. Ewoks were a bit silly and a necessary evil. Gungans however, are somehow the harbingers of the apocalypse. Three prequels later and that “simple” mantra now looks harder than Jango Fett’s baby boy. And so, over 30 years since the Return of the Jedi credits first faded, our heroes return to battle not just the sinister “First Order” but also near-impossible expectations.
So, the most incredible thing about this movie? It actually delivers. As a big fan of the original trilogy and a reluctant apologist for Episode 3, I went into The Force Awakens with a mix of dread and cautious optimism. I came out simply delighted.
The pace is relentless. Opening on Jakku, we are quickly introduced to the new cast and treated to secrets plans, slaughter and space battles before our popcorn has time to cool. From there it’s daring escapes, chases, battles and dastardly plans all the way. Exciting, captivating, fun and with a crucial sense of peril that was inevitably missing from the prequels. The story is also a good one (although occasionally quite familiar) but it’s the stuff that is not said that made the movie work for me. Who is Snoke? Why is Kylo Ren so angry? How does a Space Pirate get stuff for her basement? Hints about what has happened, what is to come and of a deeper, more complex universe. As one character puts it, each is “a good question for another time”.
While there’s been an inevitable focus on the returning cast, it’s the new characters who really shone for me – particularly in the opening section where the film leans on them heavily. As I had hoped and suspected from the first trailer, BB-8 is simply brilliant – conveying more with a tilt of the head than Hayden Christensen managed in two movies and nailing the tricky sidekick role that can be so Jar-jarring. Finn (John Boyega), Poe (Oscar Isaac) and Rey (Daisy Ridley) are also bang on the money, and the chemistry between Finn and Rey is fantastic – a spot-on blend of sparky banter (of the sort that Richard Keyes and Andy Grey would surely appreciate) and progressive gender roles (as, one could imagine, they might not). I had feared that the new trilogy would rely solely on nostalgia but this time fear, thankfully, led to nothing at all.
Over on the dark side, things are a little patchier. The highlight is definitely Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) menacing, interesting and with plenty of places to go from here. It was always going to be challenging to fill Darth Vader’s boots but the writers have found a very clever solution and I’d say he’s one of the film’s biggest successes. General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) seems to be getting lots of stick elsewhere but I only partly agree. Yes, he came across as less of a General and more of a whining, snivelling douchebag but I thought that was kind of the point – a slippery and political leader to counter-act Ren’s more, err, hands-on approach. In fact, the only character that I really felt missed the mark was Supreme Leader Snoke whose size (perhaps) felt like it was overcompensating for any real sense of menace. Maybe it will all pay off in later episodes but for now I’m simply underwhelmed.
What else didn’t I like? Well, not a lot really. At times it’s true that The Force Awakens veers VERY close to some of the previous films but I didn’t object to this in the way that some others seem to have done. I don’t see the film as a re-make or even a remix of what’s come before but I do hope the bad guys will now try to mix up their strategy from this point on. It’s a case of fool us once, shame on you. Fool us more than three times and we’re bloody idiots not ever likely to take over the galaxy. Yes there are also the plans hidden in droids, children abandoned on desert planets and showdowns on high bridges but generally it’s really just broad themes that are the repeated. Masters and apprentices, improbable rescues, lightsabre duels and uncomfortable family dynamics? This is both classic Star Wars and a fantastic new adventure. I loved it.
It somehow lives up to the near-impossible expectations. Not as good as my memory of The Empire Strikes Back but maybe even better than the reality. JJ Abrams has proved that his flair extends well beyond just lenses and fans can have a new hope. Roll on Episode VIII.
But what did you think? Whether you agree or disagree, let me know in the comments section. Spoilers welcome but please tag them, especially if sharing to Facebook!