This was what fans had been waiting for. After the divisive Prequel Trilogy, the Star Wars franchise was born anew with The Force Awakens, a film effectively blending the old with the new. Arriving in December 2015, The Force Awakens felt like the perfect early Christmas present: a brand-new Star Wars movie featuring Leia, Luke, and Han.
But if fans were expecting a direct continuation of the Original Trilogy, then this was not the sequel they were looking for. Instead, The Force Awakens used appearances from the likes of Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher to set the wheels in motion for an altogether different, but no less entertaining, Star Wars story.
Three decades on from Return of the Jedi, things in a galaxy far, far away are far from happy thanks to the emergence of the First Order, a decidedly Imperial-looking militant outfit led by the decidedly Darth Vader-inspired Kylo Ren, played by Adam Driver in full-blown moody teenager mode. They have developed a decidedly Death Star-like weapon called the Starkiller Base, a planet converted into a super-weapon capable of destroying entire planetary systems, and they intend to use it. A lot.
An extra layer of drama is added when it emerges that Ren is the estranged son of Han and Leia, having betrayed his teacher Luke and joined the Dark Side. So much for that Skywalker victory in Return of the Jedi.
There is another new hope, though, in the form of Daisy Ridley’s mysterious Rey, a resourceful orphan from Jakku with natural affinity to the Force, who joins the resistance after a chance encounter with John Boyega’s defected Stormtrooper Finn.
Together, they embark on a new adventure that not only reunites fans with Han Solo, Chewbacca, and the Millennium Falcon, but also brings Leia into the mix as the Resistance hatches a familiar-sounding plan to destroy the Starkiller Base via a haphazardly exposed thermal oscillator.
Along the way, Kylo Ren comes face to face with Han, fatally striking him down in a moment that has echoes of various points previously played out in the franchise, while Rey enjoys a Luke Skywalker-style awakening to the Force before finally tracking down the man himself.
Eager to move on from the prequels of the previous decade, Disney’s purchase of Lucasfilm sparked a major change in direction for Star Wars, with the biggest shift coming with the decision to effectively jettison George Lucas from work on the new films. While Lucas remained onboard as a consultant, the reins were largely handed over to Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy and J.J. Abrams, who served as producer, writer, and director. Abrams was fresh from breathing new life into the Star Trek franchise with an approach that mixed the old with the new, and applied a similar touch to The Force Awakens.
Though much of the film follows a similar narrative structure to A New Hope – a Jedi emerging from nothing to fight for the Resistance, a mentor dying halfway through, and a giant superweapon destroyed thanks to a design flaw – these elements play out more as a homage than repeat, bolstered by a raft of new additions and fresh ideas.
One the most successful of these came in the form of Finn, who injects a decidedly different narrative perspective into the movie as the everyman rogue stormtrooper who’s forced to confront his cowardice and becomes a hero in the process.
On the flip side, Driver’s dark and brooding turn as Kylo Ren is among the most complex in the entire Star Wars saga with the actor, then best known for his work on the HBO series Girls, imbuing the character with nuance that sees him switch from wounded teen to vengeful Sith at the slash of a lightsaber.
Ridley also deserves credit for delivering an impressive female heroine and yet another fresh take on the ways of the Force, even if many of the details behind her character remains shrouded in mystery.
Allied to the impressive performances is a script that avoids the pitfalls of the previous sequels. The action zips along at a considerable pace and is exciting and, crucially, fun. The state-of-the-art effects create some of the most vividly realized planets and space battles seen in the franchise which, when complemented by John Williams’ score, make for irresistible viewing.
Though the Original Trilogy’s pined-for past is a prominent feature, it doesn’t come at the detriment of a new and exciting story, as demonstrated in scenes like Finn and Rey’s first encounter with Han Solo and Chewbacca or Kylo Ren’s fateful meeting with his father.
Not everything is perfect, of course. Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron feels like a Han Solo knock-off, with his limited screen time doing little to change that perception, while Domhnall Gleeson’s scenery-chewing turn as the villainous General Hux belongs in an entirely different movie. But The Force Awakens feels like an awakening in every sense of the word, injecting new life into the franchise with an entry that is both sentimental and entertaining.
Best lightsaber bit: The topsy-turvy battle between Kylo Ren and a combination of first Finn and then Rey on the suitably atmospheric snowy forested mountains of the Starkiller Base. Set at night with the glow of Kylo Ren and Rey’s respective red and blue lightsabers dominating the screen as a neat visual contrast, it’s a thrilling cat-and-mouse affair, with the Sith’s superior swordplay initially leaving both Finn and Rey running for cover. Rey manages to turn the tables, though, channelling the Force to realize her true destiny as a Jedi in a dizzying and dazzling turnaround.
Best non-lightsaber bit: “Chewie, we’re home”. Most fans never thought they would see the return of Harrison Ford as Han Solo but 32 years after Return of the Jedi, he was back. Though Solo’s return proves short-lived, he makes the most of it, with Han and Chewbacca throwing Rey and Finn headfirst into a thrilling setpiece aboard the Eravana freighter involving the Kanjiklub and the Guavian Death Gang. Facing off against a band of gangsters baying for Han’s blood, matters are complicated further when Rey accidentally releases a couple of Rathtars, one of the most dangerous alien beasts in the galaxy. A fun bit of alien-horror action ensues.
Jedi Wisdom: Jedi wisdom is few and far between in The Force Awakens, with Luke largely absent and Rey yet to fully embrace the ways of the Force. Thankfully, the Force-sensitive Maz Kanata is on hand to deliver some Yoda-like advice to Rey with the line: “The Light – it’s always been there. It’ll guide you.”
Rules of the Force: During the stop-over on Takodana, Rey is drawn towards a collection of ancient artifacts in Maz Kanata’s pirate castle. Rey soon spots a lightsaber which, upon touching it, sparks off a string of visions depicting events from the past, present, and future. Rey sees Cloud City, Luke Skywalker, and R2-D2. There are glimpses of her family abandoning her on Jakku and an eventual confrontation with Kylo Ren. It’s the most vivid and wide-reaching Jedi vision yet and greatly expands the rule book in this regard.
Who has a bad feeling about this? Han Solo brings the old classic back with a bang during that scene aboard the Eravana. Realizing the two Rathtars have been set loose upon the feighter, Han utters the iconic line. He’s not wrong, either.
Galactic stop-offs: The Force Awakens begins on Rey’s home planet of Jakku, a frontier desert world home to an eclectic mix of thieves and other scavenger types. Previously mentioned in the pre-sequel novel Aftermath, this marked the planet’s first film appearance. Next is Takodana, home to pirate queen Maz Kanata. A scenic world bursting with greenery, the planet’s most striking feature is its ancient castle, which serves as a gathering place for the galaxy’s various smugglers and spies. There’s also D’Qar, another lushly green planet and base for General Leia Organa’s Resistance which featured in another of the spin-off novels, Lost Stars. The cosmopolitan world of Hosnian Prime, seat of the Republic, makes a first appearance alongside four other unnamed planets occupying the Hosnian system, though they aren’t around for long thanks to the Starkiller Base, the film’s giant Death Star-like weapon which masquerades as a snowy, wooded planet. Last but not least, there is a first glimpse of Ahch-To, the mainly water-based planet where Luke resides.
Who wins? It’s a big win for the Dark Side, despite a few casualties along the way. The First Order’s Starkiller Base succeeds in destroying the planetary system of Hosnian Prime, taking with it the New Republic’s capital and Senate, along with a hefty portion of its fleet. That’s a pretty major score. Kylo Ren also dispatches arguably one of the Resistance’s biggest assets in Han Solo, just as he was about to re-enter the fray.
They didn’t have it all their own way, of course. The Resistance did manage to destroy the Starkiller Base eventually. Their leader, Kylo Ren, also gets a bit of a kicking and comes away from the whole experience with a pretty major scar across his face, courtesy of Rey. There’s also the prospect of Luke Skywalker’s return to contend with, too. Even so, it’s a big win for the boys in black.
Listen to the latest Star Wars Blaster Canon podcast: