STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: J J Abrams

Stars: Daisy Ridley, John Boyenga, Oscar Isaac, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Domhnall Gleeson, Andy Serkis, Gwendolyn Christie, Lupita Nyong’o, Max Von Sydow, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew, Simon Pegg, Billie Lourd, Kenny Baker, Warwick Davis, Ken Leung, Greg Grunwald, Mark Hamill.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens, or Star Wars VII, is probably the most anticipated film of the year so far. Often though when expectations are so high the result can be disappointing, as with recent offerings like Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2, which ended the franchise with more of a whimper than a bang, or Spectre, which failed to live up to the promise of Skyfall, the best Bond film in fifty years.

And I was a little uncertain of what to expect from the seventh film in the Star Wars series, especially as I had been disappointed in Episodes I-III. That trilogy was overwhelmed by George Lucas’ love for cutting edge technology and were swamped by an overabundance of clever CGI effects, and green screen backgrounds, which to me rendered them fairly cold and calculating and soulless, a long way from the tone of the original sci-fi fantasy which had the feel of a Saturday afternoon matinee.

Thankfully here Lucas has surrendered the reins to filmmaker J J Abrams, who did such a superb job of rebooting that other classic sci-fi franchise Star Trek. Abrams is a fanboy who understands the mythology of the series, the whole Star Wars universe, and the characters that made the original films so memorable. Here he gives fans what they want, restoring that initial sense of wonder with a reverential treatment of the whole Star Wars universe. He has also brought back scriptwriter Lawrence Kasdan, who wrote The Empire Strikes Back, which is widely regarded as the best film in the franchise. And Abrams and Kasdan have deliberately plundered the original Star Wars for many of the key plot developments of this seventh film, which gives the material a familiarity.

The big trump card though is the welcome return of Harrison Ford as Hans Solo, the intergalactic smuggler and rogue who had reluctantly been caught up in the fight with the Resistance against the Empire. He and his hirsute co-pilot Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) are reunited with the iconic Millennium Falcon for more adventures. Ford brings a touch of gravitas to the material, but he also looks about fifteen years younger and switched on for his performance here. It’s good to have him back and his first appearance on the screen was greeted with huge enthusiasm by the audience at the preview screening.

The film is set in a galaxy far, far away, and takes place some thirty years after the events of The Return Of The Jedi. Although the evil Empire has collapsed, a new sinister facist organisation known as the First Order has arisen out of the ashes and is intent on conquering the universe. Their fearsome leader is the junior Darth Vader-like Kylo Ren (played by Adam Driver), a former Jedi who has crossed over to the dark side of the Force. The resistance, now under the command of General Leia (Carrie Fisher) is fighting back. But the resistance has been weakened by the mysterious disappearance of its inspirational leader Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who was betrayed by one of his trainee Jedi knights.

There are also brief appearance from the androids R2D2 and C3PO, who bring a bit of comic relief to the material. And there is a cute little droid known as Bb-8, a wonderful creation with a distinctive personality of its own, that makes a welcome new addition.

We also get some new younger characters who are obviously going to shape the action and take the franchise into the next phase. There is Oscar Isaac (Drive, Ex Machina, etc) as the heroic fighter pilot Poe Daemon; John Boyega (from Attack The Block, etc) as Finn, a former stormtrooper disillusioned by what he is asked to do who defects to the resistance; and our new feisty heroine is Rey (newcomer Daisy Ridley), an orphan girl who ekes out an existence by scavenging for scraps in the galaxy and who begins to feel the first stirrings of the Force.

Abrams has largely eschewed CGI and digital effects for this film, relying on an old school approach with models, elaborate sets and real locations, which ground the film in a reality that was absent from Lucas’ trilogy. He also includes plenty of rousing and superbly staged action sequences, a couple of exciting light sabre duels, and there is also plenty of humour throughout, a concept that seemed unfamiliar to Lucas.

Abrams’ regular cinematographer Daniel Mindel has captured some great visuals here and brings this galaxy to life. There is one brief scene where star fighters emerge out of the sun that will remind older audiences of the classic Apocalypse Now. As with many blockbusters now, the film comes in a 3D version, although many who have seen the film in 2D have said that is looks fantastic without the added 3D. And of course John Williams delivers another rich and rousing score that is both familiar and dramatic.

Abrams has captured the feel and the tone of the original Star Wars here right from the opening crawl, and he seamlessly integrates the old and new characters and gets the franchise back on track. The Force Awakens will certainly please the fans who were left a little cold by Episodes I-III. It also sets high expectations for the next film in the series which is due to hit screens in 2017.

★★★★

 

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