It’s easy to list what’s wrong with the prequel trilogy – poor characters and non-existent character development, nonsensical and boring political plots, over use of CGI and green-screen – but harder to pinpoint why they went wrong. Looking back on the whole saga, it seems the original movies were probably more of a collective effort than cultural consciousness would have us believe, and that Lucas by the late 90s had surrounded himself with yes-men who let his worse creative tendencies run wild. You get the sense Lucas lost his grip on what made the original movies work, and that he completely misjudged why the public liked them. The prequels then, serving as a benchmark for how not to do Star Wars, have probably helped influence The Force Awakens for the better. The plot runs on from Return of the Jedi as though the prequel trilogy had never happened; there’s been a concentrated effort on the parts of Abrams, Kasdan and Disney to distance The Force Awakens from those later movies. It almost feels like an apology. The Force Awakens brings the series back to its roots and brings the magic back. This is a fun, exciting movie and hugely enjoyable to watch in the cinema.
There’s a sense here of giving fans what they want, and then some. Abrams reacts to the criticisms of the prequels by doing the opposite, which conversely, makes The Force Awakens feel more like the original movies. A lot of the newer lore introduced in the prequels is completely ignored; for example, Stormtroopers are no longer clones, they’re just workers, as they were in A New Hope. There’s a throwaway line to cover this, but it doesn’t feel important – indicating how little an impact the prequels had on the series as a whole. This is a movie which seeks to recapture the excitement and adventure of the first couple of movies, and it completely succeeds. The cinematography has a calibre not seen in the series since The Empire Strikes Back; The Force Awakens looks like real, solid movie – some of these shots, particularly in the opening desert, are absolutely beautiful. John Williams returns with a more mature and subdued score which matches the emotionally core of the movie.Subtly returns too – Rey wears a helmet in one scene and just sits looking into the desert; that image saying so much about her drive for freedom in adventure; you get the sense Lucas would have just had her say it out loud. And Kylo Ren hitting himself in a wound to leverage the pain of the Dark Side, and make himself a stronger fighter. These kind of subtle moments really bring the world to life. We’re back to shooting in real locations too, which puts the reality back into the series, and there’s an effort throughout to use practical effects as much as possible; the days of awful green-screen are gone, and the new movie feels so much better for it. Indeed the weakest special effects in the movie are the brief motion-capture ones. There’s a sense of heft and weight to the proceedings here, the action sequences are incredible throughout and backed by stunning sound design. Crucially the action feels heavy and real-again, culminating in one of the best lightsaber battles in the entire series; gone are the computer-game jumps of the prequels, we’re back to tight, dangerous close-quarter fights supported by characters we actually care about.And that’s important too. Abrams introduces a host of new characters in The Force Awakens and makes us like and care about them all. There’s a great deal of heart to this movie. Daisy Ridley’s Rey walks the line between wide-eyed, early Luke Skywalker naivety and competent resourcefulness. We grow to care about her very quickly, and she’s a warm, likable presence in the centre of the movie. She has backstory, and drive – a far cry from the shallow, forgettable characters in the prequels – try and describe Natalie Portman’s character for example, without mentioning how she looks (thanks to Red Letter Media for this). Rey’s paired with John Boyega’s runaway Stormtrooper Finn – a different character than we’re used to in these films, but again, very likable, very funny. On that note, The Force Awakens has a lot of strong comedy in it too – it’s actually funnier than most straight comedies, and skirts the line of self-parody without ever going too far. Boyega and Ridley have amazing chemistry together and we really do care about them. It’s fantastic also, to see a huge studio film where the leads are a woman and a black male, and neither is defined by their sex or race. That’s wonderfully refreshing for this kind of movie – and it helps too, that Rey and Finn’s relationship seems geared towards friendship and not romance. Osacr Isaac, steadily building out a career as one of the best young actors of this generation, is fun as cocky but loveable Poe Dameron, best pilot in the galaxy. BB8 has a lot of personality and stands alongside Aladdin’s carpet or Totoro as one of cinema’s most loveable dialogue-free characters. It’ll be great to follow these characters through future instalments. It’s surprising just how engaging the new cast is – we do get the old cast, but in supporting roles. Harrison Ford gives us best and most game performance in years as Han Solo, and Carrie Fisher’s Leia is a sagely and motherly figure in the centre of the film; these two ground the series in its roots, but don’t hold things back – The Force Awakens really belongs to the young cast and there’s a sense of the old passing on the mantle to the new. It’s likely Episode VIII will take this even further.There’s a sense throughout of looking back to move forward. This is a nostalgic film, designed as a mirror to A New Hope; the plot at its core is structurally very similar, but the difference here is tone. There’s a sadness behind the humour here, a sense of the mistakes of the past infringing on the present. The power vacuum created by the collapse of the Empire creates the First Order; Luke’s failures create the next Darth Vader. The past will come back to haunt you. The Star Wars series has always been about legacy, about fathers and sons, and nowhere are these themes stronger than in this movie, especially in the character of Kylo Ren, who stands as the best villain in the series since Vader. He’s a kind of inverse of that character, conflicted in other ways, but still just an angry little boy, trying to use the purity of the dark side to mask his own pain; it’s a refreshing and unique take, and Adam Driver plays the tormented character amazingly, stealing the movie. The character makes a nice contrast to Rey’s Light and it’ll be great to see how the two intertwine in future.The best Star Wars movie since The Empire Strikes Back. A fantastic movie which appeals to both old and new fans, and a great 70s-throwback in the cinema.
Check our my thoughts on the original trilogy here.