NB: This review will discuss character and plot details only in vague terms, and is therefore as spoiler-free as we can possibly make it. May the force be with you.
So that’s the contract: no spoilers. With that in mind, what can possibly be said about a pop culture event like Star Wars: The Force Awakens? Rather than talk about plot specifics, let’s look instead at one tiny little scene – a snippet, really, from the film’s beginning.
We’re on the planet Jakku, a lonely backwater where the sand is coarse and gets everywhere. Strewn with the wreckage of a fallen Empire, the bones of old Star Destroyers provide slim pickings for penniless scavengers like the young Rey, played by Daisy Ridley.
We watch as Rey picks among the remains of a once mighty death machine before starting off home across the endless desert. She puts her clattering bag of salvage on a piece of scrap metal – a flat, oblong thing, roughly the size of an Earthling’s car bonnet. We immediately realise Rey’s made a makeshift sled, a means to glide effortlessly down Jakku’s dunes and back towards her ramshackle town.
It’s a moment introduced so casually that it could almost be overlooked. Yet it’s this scene, wordless and economical, that exemplifies the best aspects of The Force Awakens’ storytelling: Rey’s a loner. Practical and resourceful. Filled with potential that could be fulfilled if she wasn’t scratching away on some half-forgotten rock.
After the verbose and decidedly uneven prequels released between 1999 and 2005, it’s refreshing – perhaps even a little startling – to return to the kind of cinematic Star Wars film that tells a tale through quietly imaginative visual moments like these.
The Force Awakens marks a new chapter in the Star Wars saga, both in terms of its ownership (it’s the first film since Disney purchased Lucasfilm in 2012) and its overarching story; set some 30 years after the events of Return Of The Jedi, it’s the start of a new sequel trilogy that George Lucas hinted at more off than on over the years, but never quite got around to making.
In Lucas’ stead, along comes director JJ Abrams, bringing Empire Strikes Back and Jedi screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan (rewriting an earlier script by Michael Arndt) and the incomparable John Williams with him for the ride. Together, they’ve managed to forge a Star Wars film that feels both classic and modern – it’s knowing, dryly witty and fast-paced, but still filled with the wide-eyed wonderment of the pulp space operas that Star Wars was channelling in the 1970s.
Importantly, The Force Awakens’ makers haven’t overthought the plot too much. A random act of kindness leads Rey into the firing line of a new army of space fascists, the First Order, represented by the masked, mysterious Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and the officious General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson). Where there are oppressors, there are resistance fighters, whether they’re seasoned fighter pilots (Oscar Isaac’s X-wing flying ace Poe Dameron), battle-weary strategists (Carrie Fisher’s General Leia) disillusioned ex-First Order soldiers (John Boyega’s Finn), or adorable droids (BB-8).
The two sides clash, and the resulting sparks are represented in timeless Star Wars fashion: the lion’s roar of TIE fighters, the whoosh and hum of lightsabers, the pew-pew of blasters. In terms of drama and set-pieces, Abrams barely puts a foot wrong for The Force Awakens’ opening hour. Here, Stormtroopers seem positively dangerous again. Kylo Ren emerges as a true force to be reckoned with. His voice is hushed and insinuating, as though he’s snuck up behind you and whispered something murderous in your ear. He’s more than just two-dimensionally evil; he’s powerful, strange and impulsive. Brilliantly, Ren seems to be locked in a galactic game of middle-management one-upmanship with the grasping General Hux. That both of them seem to be living in the shadow of an earlier generation of long-gone dictators seems to be a conscious (and witty) in-joke on the part of the writers.
There are flaws to be found in The Force Awakens’ second half – it’s probably safe to say that even its most ardent supporters will admit that when the time comes. Later aerial sequences don’t quite have the balletic beauty of the earlier ones; a few returning faces (among them Harrison Ford’s Han Solo, Peter Mayhew’s Chewbacca, both as loveable as ever) feel under-used. Some developments appear rushed, skipped over or out of place.
(If you really nitpick, you could also say that The Force Awakens feels almost exclusively influenced by its own predecessors rather than other classic movies. Where George Lucas hungrily gathered chunks of David Lean, Akira Kurosawa and Alex Raymond to create his rich stew, Abrams doesn’t appear to forage far beyond the Star Wars galaxy.)
Yet even these are the kind of things that coalesce in the brain after the lights come up, or when you’re driving home. In the darkness of the cinema, when John Williams’ music’s soaring with the X-wings, The Force Awakens has just the kind of giddiness a Star Wars film desperately needs. It helps that there’s such an infectious chemistry between the young cast. Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac and Adam Driver are all impossible to fault. The scenes between them crackle with energy, humour and tension, whether they’re meeting as new-found friends or bitter enemies.
That chemistry between the characters arguably drove the original trilogy as much as the special effects. It also proves to be The Force Awakens’ lifeblood.
Which brings us back to Rey, sliding down a Jakku sand dune on her improvised sled. Like the original Star Wars from long, long ago in 1977, The Force Awakens captures the same sense of what it’s like to be young – that half-remembered time when your home town or city really did feel like an entire planet, and when adventure and new possibilities seemed to be waiting just over the horizon.
As a sequel and an event, The Force Awakens does everything you could ask of it, and maybe a little bit more. The Star Wars saga is nearing its 40th anniversary now, but this new entry proves that, as a pure, grin-inducing cinema experience, it’s still got it where it counts.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens is out in UK cinemas on the 17th December.