It's been in theaters for almost six weeks now, and taken $1,948,345,219 at the international box office. I've watched it three times in the cinema and one of those screenings was IMAX, so it's about time I wrote a review...
One night in December I felt something I hadn't felt in over ten years. It was a feeling of unbridled excitement at the thought of seeing a new Star Wars movie. I work in the industry and so I was fortunate enough to be able to see the movie with a very small group of people, which was both a blessing (I could focus on the movie) and a curse (I missed the shared experience of seeing it with an audience), the night before it opened. When the credits rolled after Rey offers that Lightsaber to the aged Jedi Master, Luke Skywalker, one thought crossed my mind: now that's a Star Wars movie.
The Force Awakens had to do something no Star Wars has had to do before, it had to bring the franchise back from a low point. I'm not going to prequel bash here, but it has to be said, when Star Wars Episode I The Phantom Menace was released it followed Star Wars Episode VI The Return Of The Jedi, which was extremely popular and had grown more so in the sixteen year hiatus. The Force Awakens followed Star Wars Episode III Revenge Of The Sith which hadn't been so well received and/or reviewed, and let's face it, it had become a sport to tear apart the prequels and their director, George Lucas. So The Force Awakens had some heavy lifting to do...
What it gets right
The Force Awakens manages to deliver the thrills of the original movies at a break neck pace. The film barely stops for breath and insists you keep up. The visuals are stunning and story tight and sleek. The three new leads, Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega) and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) are extremely charming, fun characters who, dare I say it, are better defined than our original trilogy (or "legacy players") we're back in the day. If any of the new kids on the block suffer its Poe. He has frustratingly little time to shine, but Oscar manages to load his limited appearance with charisma. In fact one of my favourite moments is Poe's, "Who talks first?" banter with Kylo Ren in the opening moments. Poe is part Han Solo and part Indy, and I expect big things from him in the future movies. Finn is a wonderful character, expertly portrayed by John Boyega. His wit keeps pace with the movie's action beats and his character walks a fine line between cowardly deserter and emerging hero. It takes a special something to hold your own on screen alongside Harrison Ford and John Boyega has it, and uses it wisely.
This films MVP, by any estimation is Daisy Ridley. Rey achieves something almost all movies manage to fail at. She is a strong female character, who is really just a strong character who happens to be female. Even Star Wars has struggled to pull that off in the past. Many of the Star Wars films have fewer that three female characters, it's mostly Princess Leia doing the heavy lifting in Star Wars films, and even then the foil is 'Who will she pick, Han or Luke?' With Rey, there is none of that. Rey's central relationship in this movie is with Finn, but at no point are we asking "will they won't they." In fact it's relationship is refreshingly platonic, with Rey saving Finn's life, even when he attempts to save hers. Try to watch a second of Rey in The Force Awakens without falling in love with her, I dare you. From the, "I bypassed the compressor" line to the moment she marshals her strength against Kylo Ren, ("You're afraid you'll never be as strong as Darth Vader.") Rey is simply captivating. It's no surprise to me that most questions after The Force Awakens are aimed at Rey, the decision to leave her largely a mystery was inspired, and that Force vision (my person favorite moment of the movie) is so densely packed with detail, we will be decoding it for months! Rey, and especially Daisy Ridley's delicate portrayal of her, are worth the price of admission alone.
Then there is Kylo Ren.
Where the original trilogy had the boo hiss bad guy in black with Darth Vader, The Force Awakens gets Kylo Ren. Kylo is all shades of grey. Ren comes off as a wannabe from very early on. Especially when he removes his mask to reveal an all too normal looking young man, one who is deeply lost and damaged. Adam Driver who's portrayal of Kylo Ren is simply one of The Force Awakens' top five, at least, greatest elements, impresses at every turn. If it's commanding the screen alongside Max Von Sydow's Lor San Tekka, or retreating from a defiant Rey (Daisy Ridley), Adam manages to load his performance with pathos.
If there is a case to be made for what The Force Awakens gets wrong it's that it echoes perhaps a little too loudly, the original trilogy story points. Now, I have to say, although I noticed the rhythm of the original trilogy, I was not bothered by it. As a seasoned Star Wars fan I know that the stories echo each other. George himself once said, "It's like a stanza, it rhymes." It happened between A New Hope and Jedi even, within one of the trilogies! I had zero issue with it. In fact I built a theory around the movie being a Freeboot©, designed to communicate to audience that these films will share more in common with the original trilogy that the divisive prequel films. Which is fine. An attempt to renew consumer confidence in brand Star Wars is a good idea. No one suggests it's a catch all solution though, and unfortunately some of Star Wars fandom seems to have been lost. We can only hope that they return for the sequels, which will, undoubtedly be more original.
That being said, I loved what this movie managed to do story wise. We enter a story that's already unfolding, playing catch up the way we always have with Star Wars films. And we leave the cinema with even more questions than we entered with. It's a rare thing to leave so much up in the air, but I suppose, it's Star Wars, of course there will be more movies , why answer everything now?
The legacy players Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and to a much lesser degree (for obvious reasons) Mark Hamill, are superb here. They bring with them decades of maturity and a sense that these characters have been living whilst the cameras have been off. Han's story, even discounting how it ends, is deeply tragic. The thought that these characters had lives that didn't quite work out after the credits roll for Jedi is, simply, sad. When we meet Han and Chewy for the first time in three decades they are just this side of pathetic. We've never seen Han like this before. The grifter, living hand to mouth and struggling to make ends meet. WIth Leia, we see a leader who's lost a lot of influence, and the governmental system she help build after the Empire fell, is laying in tatters around her. Together Han and Leia struggle with loss. Not just of their relationship, but of Luke and of their son, Ben.
The close of this movie shares more common ground with Empire than A New Hope, with darkness creeping in around the edges of the frame. Star Wars '77 had to end on a high, because who knew if there would be more films? The Force Awakens has the luxury of leaving us all pondering, where will this go when it returns in two years?
Will it be faster and more intense? I'm certain it will be.
The Force Awakens is a fast paced, funny, hauntingly poignant, charming and exciting science fiction fantasy film. Like J.J. Abrams' Super 8 before it, it is a love letter to the cinema of another generation, but with its unique lead characters, it gives us something to call our own. There is an urgency to The Force Awakens that has been missing from Star Wars for far too long, and I for one, am thrilled to see this franchise return [to form].
I'm not one for awarding stars and arbitrary numbers to films, but if I had too, if I were pushed, I'd give The Force Awakens all the stars...
Thank you for reading,