And so the mighty Star Wars franchise is back with belated sequel Episode VII led by a new studio and a new director. J.J. Abrams takes on the huge project this time and jumps into the challenge of pleasing both die hard fans of the classics and a brand new generation of potential Star Warsians.
The Force Awakens takes place 30 years after Return Of The Jedi and, while it does prioritise the introduction of fresh characters, it also checks in with some familiar faces. Harrison Ford is back as cocky smuggler Han Solo and so is his furry companion Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), both showing up about half an hour into the movie and bringing with them some welcome nostalgia. Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), now General Leia Organa, also returns though with a smaller role and disappointingly not as a Jedi and we get a fleeting glimpse at Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). Of course, droid favourites C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) are also present because, let's face it, would it really be a Star Wars movie without them?
The immortal text crawl informs us that Luke Skywalker has vanished and The Empire has given birth to The First Order, a new(-ish) totalitarian regime of sorts. Believe it or not, said regime is also predominantly run by pedantic Cambridge graduates in silly costumes along with an intimidating Darth Vader-style badass and there's also a Death Star. Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is given a map to Skywalker by an old friend (Max Von Sydow cameo!) and, before he is detained by masked baddie Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), he hides it inside adorable droid BB-8 who then wanders desert planet Jakku aimlessly. Eventually, he meets loner scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley) who protects him. Meanwhile, stormtrooper FN-2187 (aka Finn) realises he shouldn't be part of the cruel First Order and escapes with Poe's help. They crash land on Jakku and that's how Finn (John Boyega) meets Rey and the adventure truly begins.
The new characters' individual stories are definitely strong enough to hold this movie together and the new characters themselves are certainly more likeable than I, for one, expected them to be. Other additions like BB-8 and possible Yoda replacement Maz Kanata (voiced by Lupita Nyong'o) are promising also though Emperor-style villain Supreme Leader Snoke (voiced by Andy Serkis), a ghoulish CGI dude, doesn't get a chance to impress. J.J. Abrams tells those mini stories really well but we feel throughout that there's a lot we're purposely not being told, key elements which will probably only be revealed during upcoming prequels and sequels. The bigger story is Star Wars on auto-pilot: this whole Death Star-Resistance-First Order business is a scenario we've seen time and time again and this movie offers nothing new there.
In fact, I would argue that this is The Force Awakens' main problem: when aiming for nostalgia or familiarity, it tends to instead hit a tired been-there-done-that feel. The parallels with A New Hope have been mentioned by quite a few reviewers and it's true that there's a bit too much of that to the point where one wonders, a little like with Avatar, how this movie was 10 years in the making. Should Disney have taken on George Lucas' all-new ideas after all? Debatable but intriguing nonetheless. The tone of the film is also unclear as it attempts to be both bright and hopeful but quite dark and depressing as well. Rey and Finn are introduced to us as troubled loners and yet they're cracking jokes pretty quick, the humour taking you out of the movie more than anything else.
The main subplot, which involves Kylo Ren, grows into a big thing by the end of the movie and that should either please fans or piss them off royally. Whether this final clash was truly earned, I'm still not sure, but if the aim was to shock then mission accomplished. Adam Driver does a good job as Ren, I should point out, and it's refreshing to see that we are not just fed a Darth Vader clone though, had The First Order been a more valid, interesting threat altogether, that would have helped make Ren more threatening than he is. The film ends in a quiet, classy way and it really does make you want to watch what comes next.
Hard to review this one without spoiling it but, generally, I'd say it's an enjoyable, if flawed, entry into the franchise. The Force Awakens lacks the originality, the urgency of the prequels and the freshness, the epic scale of the originals. Some things it does right, other things not so much: it's a very hit-and-miss affair but as a whole, it remains an entertaining blockbuster that's worth a watch.
Looking forward to Episode VIII, which should fix a few issues.
You can find my spoiler-full review of the film on new podcast Force Majeure.
Chewie, we're home.