May 15 2005. The last time that a Star Wars movie – Revenge of the Sith – opened in cinemas worldwide.
October 31 2012. Walt Disney announces that they will pay over $4 billion for LucasFilm, and with it, the Star Wars franchise. And not only that, but they will release a new Star Wars movie.
So now, over ten years following Revenge of the Sith, we have a new Star Wars movie to digest, to dissect, to discuss. It has awakened…
Director: J. J. Abrams
Starring: Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Daisy Ridley, Oscar Isaac, Adam Driver, Gwendoline Christie, Peter Mayhew, Domhall Gleeson, John Boyega, Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis, Kenny Baker
Run Time: 135 Minutes
Release Date: 18 December 2015 (US)/17 December 2015 (Europe)
George Lucas started the franchise, before passing the baton to Irvin Kershner for The Empire Strikes Back and Richard Marquand for Return of the Jedi, before taking the director’s chair back for the less-than-well-received prequel trilogy. Of course, George has gone now, looking on purely from the outside in, and in his place is J. J. Abrams. Following his success with rebooting the Star Trek franchise, Abrams now moves onto the pressure cooker that is overseeing the most-loved movie franchise of all-time. Lucas has gone, now just a part of Star Wars lore. It’s Abrams’ responsibility now, and the whole world is watching.
Early goodwill was achieved with the casting of original stars Ford, Hamill and Fisher, while mixing in younger talent in Boyega, Ridley and Driver. Abrams rounded out the cast in impressive fashion, adding an immediate expectation to the movie in addition to the predictable hype and expectation that will inevitably follow the first Star Wars film in a decade. As per an Abrams film, little of film’s plot was known prior to release. We got the ‘super secret’ spoiler reports, of course, but we all know how reliable they turn out to be. All we knew for sure, other than what trailers and other officially-authorised releases told us, is that Ford, Fisher and Hamill would be reprising their roles, Driver was the big bad, and Boyega and Ridley had big roles to play. So basically, we knew nothing.
“This will begin to make things right.”
The film’s first line, of course fitting in with the eventual story, though you can’t help but wonder if it was Abrams’ way of offering early reassurance to Star Wars fans worried about a repeat of The Phantom Menace, a film that successfully took worldwide hope and expectation and violently threw it back in the faces of every single person who eagerly and anxiously piled into cinemas. And from the moment that the LucasFilm logo appears and the familiar opening crawl and theme music plays, with all the doubt remaining from the prequel trilogy, you just sense that everything will be okay, that things will be made right. Keeping in the same vein as the classic originals, Abrams starts things off at a high-tempo and never really lets up; one of Menace’s (many) problems was it’s lacklustre, politically-drive opening, which set the stage for the kind of film it would end up being. That is never how a J. J. Abrams movie is going to star, especially given the response it got when Lucas did try that. We get introduced to our her band of heroes, Poe Dameron, Finn and Rey, as well as loveable droid (and apple of Disney’s marketing eye) BB-8, and straight away you feel safe with these new heroes. That really helps the movie in the early stages, even more so when we get our first meeting with one (technically, two) of our original cast, and damn it if the young Star Wars fan in me didn’t get excited to see the Millennium Falcon doing it’s thing and whizzing around like the good old days. A quick note on BB-8; much has been made of the new droid being a practical character, signalling Abrams’ intention to avoid CGI where possible. It is a genius move, with the character looking superb on screen in a way that CGI would not been able to accomplish. What’s more, the ability that the droid has to emote to the audience is astounding; this is more than a mere marketing ploy, something thrown in there to appeal to a certain market (looking your way, Jar Jar), the BB-8 is a focal character and plays a meaningful role.
Abrams is very smart to play on nostalgia throughout the film, and it serves him well. The phenomenal success of Jurassic World this year showed that tugging on familiar heartstrings with an original movie from twenty years ago and a likeable lead is a proven tool, and it totally works here. Harrison Ford is on old form as a much wiser – but no less wisecracking – Han Solo, and the humour between he and Chewbacca feels natural and works superbly, giving us two old friends that we haven’t seen in years reliving their glory years. After all, isn’t that what we want? To take those trips down memory lane, to relive past experiences or watch loved characters from yesteryear. Abrams knows this, and isn’t shy about giving us those moments. The one dampener on this is that some of the new characters suffer a little in comparison to the old crew, for while Finn gets sufficient time to establish himself in his position as the franchise’s new hero, and some of his exchanges with Solo are gold, Rey and Dameron aren’t given quite the same focus. Rey does improve as a strong character as the film goes on, but it takes some time getting there. Ridley herself is excellent, with her confidence on-screen noticeably increasing as the film goes on, almost matching her character as her story progresses. It is a wonderful performance and quite the breakout role for her.
Conversely, Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren is, quite simply, a wonderful Star Wars villain. In fact, it is not a stretch to say that we may have not just found a wonderful Star Wars villain, but possibly the best Star Wars villain yet. A more interesting overall character than Darth Vader, Ren comes with a more solid and interesting backstory. Vader remains an iconic bad guy, maybe the most iconic, but as this franchise continues, future directors have a real opportunity to make Ren into a villain that can credibly challenge Lord Vader himself for the crown. Credit must go to Adam Driver, who fully immerses himself into the character and puts forward a magnificent performance. Sticking with the bad guys, we get some time with Andy Serkis’ latest motion capture character Supreme Leader Snoke, who adds a gravitas and presence not yet seen in the franchise. Indeed, from his first scene to his last, we know this is a person you do not want to mess with. Regrettably, we do not get the same feeling with Captain Phasma, though this is more because the character is somewhat underplayed, appearing early on and then rather quickly exiting proceedings.
So while not all characters are given the full time and treatment they perhaps deserve, this is the only part when Abrams really falters. A good crux of any Star Wars movie is the air battles, and it has to be said that they do not disappoint here. As stated, seeing the iconic Falcon whiz around will excite any fan who saw the original trilogy, while Abrams also does well by limiting the airborne battles to the speed of the human eye. The action is indeed fast-paced, but not so much that you come out the other side feeling more nauseous than when you went in.
A note also about the film’s tone. The 12A certificate suggests a much darker movie than that of it’s predecessors, and those suggestions would be correct. It also works perfectly. The increased rating gives the movie much-needed breathing space to tell the story how it needs to be told, not sanitised or censored to ensure that a more-friendly rating is met.
To talk more about other aspects of the movie or script would be to spoil some of the bigger moments, and this film deserves you experiencing them fresh, watching this in the cinema. Suffice it to say, any concerns that Abrams would not be able to deliver a fresh take on a tested story, a new entry in the series that bridges the 30-year gap from Return of the Jedi, are totally unfounded. What Abrams has instead done is create a film that pays homage to what has previously taken place, as well as introduce a new batch of characters that have the potential to sit alongside the old favourites in the hearts and minds of even the most dedicated fan. Above all else, Abrams has put down a marker; for Rian Johnson with Episode VIII and Colin Trevorrow with Episode IX, this is what can be done, this is how to make a Star Wars movie that can sit alongside A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back.
Those concerns, those fears? Forget them, because Star Wars is back and this is just the beginning.