Note: The below text is RIFE with spoilers. Loads of them. LOADS. You have been warned.
The Force Awakens is an album full of covers, a giant medley of previous hits which at its best captures the brilliance of the original Star Wars, but by design can’t hope to replicate its sense of wonder or discovery. Part reboot, part re-imagining, part pastiche and part fan service, it’s a well-made reminder of how good these films can be, and how great A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back really are.
It feels, for a lot of its 135-minute running time, like a hyper-budget fan film, which of course it is. It follows the beats of the 1977 original closely, dropping in elements from Empire to create something simultaneously old and, in theory at least, new. Like Episode IV, The Force Awakens’ lead character is an unassuming emergent service worker with small surroundings and big dreams. Daisy Ridley’s Rey is in the Luke Skywalker role: a poor scavenger who dreams of both escaping Jakku and being reunited with her parents, who abandoned her on the planet decades prior.
Ridley carries the whole movie, in what should be a breakout performance. Warmhearted yet guarded, principled yet troubled, Ridley imbues Rey with a wry humour, her sense of adventure backed with a touch of wary cynicism. She’s strong physically yet wracked with sentimental weakness, and much of the human drama comes from her accepting that her old life is gone: something which proves more difficult than first imagined.
John Boyega’s Finn is a good counterweight to Rey: if she’s a stoic peasant destined for big things, he’s a cowardly deserter who puts himself first in everything, and is more Han Solo than Harrison Ford is. As a double-act, it’s gold: the leads have obvious chemistry (perhaps helped by the fact that, roles aside, they’re actually two young people in the middle of something far, far larger than themselves). Their interplay and mutual growth drives the film’s humanity, which (like in the prequels) could have been easily lost amongst the effects work. It helps that Boyega is a genuinely funny actor, who knows how to get the best out his many gallows-humour lines, particularly one with Captain Phasma, who is used so sparingly she may as well be the new Boba Fett.
Returning characters fare less well: Harrison Ford does his best to replicate Han’s roguish charm, hitting sometimes but often crossing over into grumpy old man territory, even if his work with Rey, most of it based around her knowing the Millennium Falcon as well as he does, is almost always enjoyable snappy. Carrie Fisher as Leia is a bust, sadly: lacking much of the fight and drive of her younger self, she exists here to barely enunciate her words and look glum. Fine, given the circumstances (the new Death Star, Starkiller Base, is on track to wipe them out) but you’d expect a bit more resistance from the leader of the, well, resistance.
Kylo Ren also frustrates. As with most of The Force Awakens, his character is both a reimaging and an inversion of what went before. A powerful Force user who just happens to be Vader’s grandson (by virtue of being Solo and Leia’s son), his temptation back to the light side of the Force is a key element of his character. Yet it’s manifested in a lot of angry walking, and a lot of trashing of rooms when things don’t go his way, a sulky teenager with a laser sword. His angst is meant to represent the natural conflict of the light and dark sides, but with his bunged up voice and silly Cylon/Darkwing Duck mask, he does a good job of packing three prequels worth of tiresome Anakin posturing into one film. While Adam Driver does his best with the material, watching Ren feels like you’re watching Episode III-and-a-half, as a still-young Vader gets used to his new suit and being told to tidy his room.
Ren’s plight is meant to be at least somewhat understandable, a young man in a tough situation making bad choices (albeit most of them involving blowing up planets rather than stealing cars or smoking a bit of weed), but his unlikeability sabotages what should be a key scene in The Force Awakens: Han Solo’s death. Ren kills his father to prove to himself he can go the whole way to the dark side, but the interplay between Solo and Ren is less a tragedy and more a exhausted grandad chastising a stroppy teenager. The scene has absolutely no emotional resonance whatsoever, because nothing is at stake: the Han Solo we know and love is essentially already gone, his importance to either the film or the narrative bordering on negligible.
Ford’s death is indicative of Episode VII’s biggest problem: the film aims to cater to series stalwarts, but also to stand on its own, to kickstart a new trilogy, reboot the series and bring in new fans. But it has no identity of its own, relying on former glories to drive emotional resonance when it has earned none itself. Ford’s death in Jedi would have been for a cause, a culmination of a character arc, a fitting end for a mythical figure. Here, it’s to establish a character I would gladly never see again. Yet because it’s Harrison Ford we’re expected to feel something when, in fact, I felt nothing. Everything is inferred from somewhere else, a series of echoes, and it will be interesting to see how new audiences react: will they care that Solo dies? Perhaps it will mean something to newcomers, similar to Obi-Wan’s impact in ’77.
The familiarity of it all also makes the film rather predictable, even down to the set-pieces. This is great for when you need a piss, but not so great when you want the audience to be wowed. Abrams moves the action swiftly from planet to planet, and throws in some solid action scenes, particularly the ones based around dogfighting, but we’ve seen it all before. It flattens the movie: by hedging its bets against fan backlash by strictly aping prior work, it removes the troughs at the expense of the peaks, despite the litany of excellent effects work and large-scale battles. You can admire The Force Awakens, and indeed Abrams has done a good job resuscitating the franchise. But that admiration is much the same as what you find watching a film you love back again for the fifth or sixth time. It’s so, so similar, you feel like you’re seeing something new and remembering it at the same time, a dissonance which is hard to shake.
The Force Awakens is a good movie, albeit a familiar one, and is as solid a two hours of escapism you could ask for this year. BB8 – probably the third best character in the film, which says a lot – is worth at least half the price of admission, and the final few minutes are glorious. And an honourable mention must go to Oscar Isaac (and his amazing hair), who is being primed for a more exciting role next time around. But then, aren’t we all?