Within seconds of the opening crawl, The Force Awakens is filled with reassurances of its Star Wars-ness. There’s covert operation, a cute droid and a small, desert village that gets decimated by an oppressive military, all revealing the basic gist of a plot that is itself a giant echo of the original trilogy. Although the homogenous nature of the production has hardly been a secret with J.J. Abrams wilfully choosing to make the film with the same sort of production approach as George Lucas had along with having several of the original reprise their roles as major parts of the narrative, the basic story here is one that becomes very familiar very quickly; a new Empire worshipping military group called the First Order are working towards complete command of the galaxy while a rebel force, the Resistance, are holding them off with both leaders having a more vested personal interest in the outcome. There’s subplots and lots of other little moving parts, but that’s the point at which the film both begins and ends and, though it does certainly throttle its own nostalgia a little bit, it works because of its own legacy.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a sequel 30 years in the making made by huge fans acquired in that time. Abrams is quite clearly deeply excited by the notion of seeing the same things we are on screen by virtue of how much of the movie is a retooling of what works from the original Star Wars but with new flair and a more modern eye. There’s rarely a quiet moment or subtle frame in the whole film as every second has been clearly pored over to maximize what it does and what it adds. Every chance the film gets, there’s a wide action shot or big fight scene that delivers the kind of Star Wars we all thought we were seeing the first time. But this time, there’s an added tinge of violence as the special effects show where shots land and there’s a visible body count after every stormtrooper encounter.
The aerial sequences have graduated from being an occasional attraction to almost punctuating the piece, with the Millenium Falcon and X-Wings and Tie Fighters zooming around the screen in focused arrangements as if composed by John Williams himself as his new score lifts and dives with them. Even the smaller scenes of exposition in the open feature a background selection of alien creatures, also reaping the benefits of the practical effects as the alien races are a seamless blend between tangible and ridiculous that gives off a gentle ebb of otherworldly-ness to the film’s locations and planets.
The cast, too, are a selection of diverse actors that have been given complicated characters that mix well with the returning veterans but don’t sit well with the same archetypes themselves. Daisy Ridley and John Boyega, who play new heroes Rey and Finn, in particular have a chemistry with a kinship and dialogue that carries the movie effortlessly. They’re even shouldered with having the most time with Harrison Ford‘s returning Han Solo and Chewbacca and manage to not lose an inch of presence during any exchange. They, along with Oscar Isaac, who turns in an almost show-stealing co-star performance as ace pilot Poe Dameron, are the new poster heroes for this new trilogy, though you wouldn’t think that from their performances and ease with the material. They all stand alongside Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford et al without looking one bit out of place within the universe and canon, which is a testament to their and Abrams‘ commitment to creating bold, distinct characters.
But even with the new found bombasity and passing of the torch from forebears to new blood, The Force Awakens is one of the darkest Star Wars movies yet. Kylo Ren, this trilogy’s central antagonist Sith, is driven home by a scathingly dark performance by Adam Driver. Ren is a different kind of Sith to any we’ve previously seen. He’s unpredictable, moody, clearly emotionally imbalanced and has a strain of sadism through him that overshadows every scene he’s in. Complimented by Captain Phasma, a Stormtrooper captain played by Gwendoline Christie and Domhnall Gleeson‘s General Hux, the actual military leader of their base, Ren’s own darkness is taken and paints over every scene set among the First Order. What’s more, the First Order is largely untouched in the main story with only the mood and off the cuff remarks hinting at their history, along with some of the bigger set-pieces. The version of the dark side at play here is one that is deeply personal, unstable and fatalistic and one that is undeniably terrifying and a wonderful recreation of the mood of Darth Vader’s more iconic moments.
In contrast, the light side is a little more aloof for this film. We don’t have a central Jedi counter-part to Ren which is something the movie gently sidesteps without stating it explicitly until a final, tense showdown. The Jedi are once again on the backfoot but in a story in which their religious nature is at its most incompatible with the absolutism of the regimes that allow them. The long-play game here is as simple as the original trilogy in action but feels much more complicated in ramification thanks to the huge curtain of mystery over the First Order and their history and intentions.
There’s a loveable moment between R2-D2 and C-3PO in which C-3PO turns to a just reactivated R2 and says “Good to have you back old friend!” and I can’t think of a better summation of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. If we were all to be candid, the prequels loomed large over these new films with a deep sense of foreboding dread. This could’ve been the death knell for Star Wars and all we love about it because had this failed, we were out of options for companies that would throw money at the franchise to try again. But that’s the opposite of what happened. Instead we have a film which proudly leans in hard on its history with more than a wink and a nod, playing it safe where necessary and throwing caution to the wind where justified. Some storylines are given less time than maybe I’d like for one movie, but that’s okay because in 18 months we have another chapter coming, with a more story-focused and darker director attached to march this new, more focused and darker Star Wars ever forward. Star Wars, we’ve missed you, it’s good to have you back old friend.
Unadulterated cinematic magic.