Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) Review

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)
Director: J.J. Abrams
Starring: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Adam Driver, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill.
Plot: A continuation of the saga created by George Lucas and set thirty years after Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983).

 The force has awoken.

The world huddled around computers to get a glimpse of the trailer, news stations went into overdrive to cover the world premiere, and once Thursday rolled around there was seemingly no stopping old and new fans of the beloved Star Wars franchise from stuffing themselves into (mostly) comfortable rooms to witness the historical reemergence of the world’s most beloved sci-fi movie saga under its new Disney banner. What J.J. Abrams delivered was perhaps not only good enough to satisfy these salivating audiences, but may just be the greatest blockbuster movie of the century and is probably the most culturally important movie you’ll see in 2015.

It’s probably safe to assume that Abrams, and his co-writers Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt, must have really felt the pressure to deliver a sequel to the original trilogy that not only entertained on a massive blockbuster scale but was also faithful to its original characters and truly in-keeping with Star Wars lore. With a franchise that has been so much a part of our cultural fabric for nearly forty years, it may have been easy to ‘play it safe’ or wield the successful Disney-Marvel ‘cheese, gloss and spectacle’ formula, but what Abrams and company did with Star Wars: The Force Awakens was beyond that of any usual multi-billion dollar franchise, it was Star Wars; the very best.

The Force Awakens somehow manages to seamlessly blend the overarching story of its six predecessors, the characters of the original trilogy, and a new generation of characters and story-strands together in a way that is not only a spectacle to behold for old fans of the franchise, but is also a hugely entertaining and moving event film for new audiences taking their first bite of the Star Wars pie. With real risk and consequences presented throughout in a way that is both mirroring of A New Hope and brand new in its own right, The Force Awakens simultaneously pays homage and forges new ground as it answers all unanswered questions while posing more questions for future installments, all of which seem worthy of your investment.

Visually, this Star Wars film is as beautifully constructed as you’d expect. Going above and beyond the now outdated CGI of the prequel trilogy (1999-2005) and using the practical mind of J.J. Abrams as a guide, the geniuses at Industrial Light & Magic merged CGI with practical effects in a way that’s almost as seamless as the story’s mix of old and new, and fits in effortlessly with the giant scope of the Star Wars universe while simultaneously offering legitimacy to more intimate and personal moments. Only in very momentary occurrences are the differences between CGI and practical effects at all noticeable, which is evidence enough of the great work the team has done with this picture. Increasingly so, it has become important that director and cinematographer work in unison with the effects team in order to produce a picture worthy of serious accreditation, and that’s what has happened here. The film’s glossy look helps to juxtapose the brutality of the deaths and explosions, yet it still offers moments of true nostalgia as some shots seem lifted out of the original via an old-school trail of thought with regard to shot positioning, shot length, lighting and colouration. The picture, in this case, really does serve to enhance the movie’s superb story and ultimately adds to every element in more than one way; making for a film with as many standout set pieces as intense character-building and fan-nodding moments.

Perhaps more important to the picture than the CGI with regard to character driven movies are the characters themselves and the actors who play them, for it is through their eyes that we are expected to see the story. In this respect Abrams and Disney again gave a nod to the originals by casting largely unknown (or on the brink of breakthrough) actors in the identifiable roles. It paid off superbly. No doubt a risk, the casting of the virtually unknown Daisy Ridley as key character Rey made for possibly the first identifiable female role in the franchise’s history, and one that was as central if not more central to the plot than any of the other characters. With that in mind, Ridley had a lot of pressure on her shoulders yet still performed with an innocent and almost juvenile grace that made her lovable but also believable as she grew as a person as the film progressed. Similarly, John Boyega’s performance as Finn was layered and ultimately likable, something that’s hard to pull off for male characters in blockbusters these days it seems; his mannerisms and naturally charismatic smile were driving forces behind his loyal character. The stand-out of the movie, in my opinion, was certainly Harrison Ford as Han Solo. For the first time in quite a while, Ford was likable and endearing, and it’s not just the old Star Wars fan in me that’s excited about this, it’s the film critic in me too, which takes me to Adam Driver…

Adam Driver is a huge critical success in television (Girls, 2012-) and has therefore had a spotlight on him with regard to a potential film career. He’s oddly attractive, sounds interesting and different, and can really perform when the moment asks it of him. His role in The Force Awakens, however, was a little bit of a disappointment. It’s not that he was bad, because he certainly wasn’t, it’s more that he simply wasn’t ‘bad-ass’ enough, nor stricken enough in the role. If any of the actors dropped the ball in The Force Awakens, it was Driver, which is a real shame given the importance of his role and the development of the actor we’ve seen occur across the years. He certainly wasn’t disappointing enough to truly effect the finished product but the critic in me expected something more that seemingly wasn’t there.

Other than the slight criticism of Driver and the momentary lapses in CGI magic, Star Wars was probably perfect. The amount of fan service it offered, from wipe-cuts to practical effects, as well as the level of effort and attention put into developing the new characters for the new storyline, make The Force Awakens a must-see movie for every Star Wars fan, fans of Sci-Fi, blockbuster movie enthusiasts and each of their friends (that’s if you want to feel included in their inevitable conversations about it, at least). This particular J.J. Abrams offering went above and beyond the rest of his work, including Star Trek, to present probably the greatest blockbuster movie of the 21st century… without lens flair! Owing to only a few minor criticisms, Star Wars: The Force Awakens misses out on a 24/24 ranking by only 1 point.

23/24