Before we get to the review I want to give it a little context. This was written based on my initial thoughts after a midnight screening on release day. For a film that is part of a series that has genuinely meant a huge amount to me over the years I realise aspects may be skewed by this, on top of which I have done my utmost to avoid any ‘spoilers’ – so without further ado my thoughts on The Force Awakens.
Simply heading into the cinema for the first midnight screening in living memory in Guernsey would have made this an exceptional event. The fact that the film that had sold our modest four-screener was the new film in the Star Wars saga made it something entirely other.
The Lucasfilm logo, that opening sentence in blue on black and then John Williams signature orchestral blast and the yellow words floating before a star field and instantly it was clear everyone in the cinema was back in the far off galaxy, but here is where the real nerves set in.
The ‘opening crawl’ of the (rightly) much-maligned prequel trilogy had very much set the tone for the poorly written, pointlessly over complicated, story of the fall of Anakin Skywalker. Here though, as soon as the first sentence appeared it was clear things were as they should be and the air of relief was nearly palpable.
From there, epic space opera reigned for two and a bit hours as we charted the exploits of the Resistance against the First Order, loosely mirroring the Rebel Alliance and Empire of the original, classic, trilogy. This is something that is a trademark of The Force Awakens.
Throughout, from characters to locations to plot points, there are reflections of what is already familiar. The real trick that makes them work is these reflections are twisted just enough to balance familiarity with something new, vibrant, energetic and modern. In many ways exactly what director JJ Abrams did with his Star Trek movies, but here even more successfully – as if his previous big screen blockbusters had been something of a warm up act.
As with the original trilogy it is the characters that stand out and our trio of ‘new recruits’, Rey, Finn and Poe Dameron, echo their earlier counterparts of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia Organa and Han Solo in unexpected ways, while that original trio also make a return.
Again the art here is in balance, enough homage is paid to the characters we already know but never at the expense of the new set who all come to the fore and are as relatable and engaging as they could be.
Along with this Rey (Daisy Ridley) shows signs of becoming a true blockbuster movie heroine the likes of which I really don’t ever remember seeing in such a mainstream family movie (the nearest potential touchstone is Ellen Ripley in the Alien series).
When it comes to the villains there is a host of English accented First Order officers and then there is Kylo Ren. Ostensibly this movie’s Darth Vader it soon becomes clear that is to do a disservice to both characters as Adam Driver brings an entirely different presence and take on the dark side of the force to anything we have yet seen, hinting at even more development of the light vs. dark dynamic than ever before.
Of course it wouldn’t be Star Wars without droids. Two droids were the linchpin of the original trilogy and it seems a new astromech is here to add to them in the form of ‘ball droid’ BB-8.
On a technical level the apparently mostly physical prop is amazing and I still can’t quite work out how they made it and where the lines of real and CGI are.
In terms of character BB-8 is a genuinely effecting, adorable and above all fun character who, much like R2-D2 did nearly 40 years ago, becomes as integral a character as any of his human counterparts.
Humour is another strong factor in The Force Awakens as, while it is arguably one of the most emotionally intense films in the series, it is also by far and away the funniest.
A particularly striking thing about this is, rather than coming from a designated ‘comic relief’ character, all the hero characters have light and shade in this area, echoing Han Solo in the original films, and in fact here, as Harrison Ford seems to not just be playing ‘General’ Solo but is the Corellian smuggler in a genuinely uncanny way.
In terms of plot it’s hard to discuss much without spoiling things (and I really don’t want to be the guy who does that), but it takes a similar arc to A New Hope with the Resistance working to stop the First Order in their plan to regain control of the galaxy. Again though this is all twisted just enough to make it fresh, exciting and genuinely unpredictable at points.
All of this combines to create something truly special the like of which I haven’t felt in a very long time. Not only is The Force Awakens an epic science fiction/fantasy, it takes every aspect of filmmaking and combines them in the best way a blockbuster picture can.
The performances are pitch perfect (though a few take time to build and coalesce), the script is the right balance of exposition, fun and thrilling suspense and the special effects are second to none.
With this, almost most importantly, the sense of the world in which all the action takes place is one that even its creator once seemed to have lost as JJ Abrams truly returns us to the Star Wars world for the first time since 1983 and, in doing so, shows up the Marvel movies, Transformers and any other of their blockbuster ilk as the pretenders that they are.
All this said, The Force Awakens is, of course, not quite perfect – there are a few intriguing plot holes and occasional clunky exposition – but it is as close as it likely ever could be and, as well as being an exciting picture in its own right, sets the scene for potentially even greater things to come.