Review: Star Wars The Force Awakens

star wars the force awakens rey and finn

“There were stories about what happened,” Rey (Daisy Ridley) says wide-eyed to Han Solo (Harrison Ford), now himself so much legend and myth in a galaxy far, far away. The force of story-telling, on the surface derivative of all the Original Trilogy, is nevertheless strong with Star Wars The Force Awakens. Sometimes, to quote James Robertson in And The Land Lay Still, “We don’t know what the story is when we’re in it, and even after we tell it we’re not sure. Because the story doesn’t end.”

Nostalgia permeates not just this new installment, but George Lucas’ original space saga, so it seems churlish to bemoan familiar elements threaded throughout this film. We have a young lead, Rey, a young woman this time, adrift on a desert planet (Jakku, a long forgotten battlefield where star destroyers and Walkers litter the dunescape) who longs for something out there. Crucially, unlike Luke Skywalker, she’s afraid to leave, believing her family will one day come back for her. This isn’t the first inversion of familiar tropes in the film, some major, some minor. A nice quiet moment to me neatly sums up her character, and acts as a bridge to all iterations of Star Wars: as she consumes her evening meal after a day of hard-won scavenging, she gazes wistfully at the sunset, and plops on her head a junked rebel space helmet (shades also of young Anakin and Ezra, from Disney’s Star Wars Rebels animation).

Rey teams up with the film’s macguffin and secret weapon in the *hugs* stakes, rolling ball-droid BB8 (R2-Who Now?) and defecting stormtrooper with a conscience and accidental hero, Finn (John Boyega). Other new lead Oscar Isaac (Resistance pilot Poe Dameron) is sidelined for  quite a bit, but when he’s on screen, he’s terrific, a wise-cracking, Errol Flynn like dashing hero – kind to his droid, witty, loyal, “The best frikkin’ pilot in the galaxy” as Isaac himself quipped. His interactions with Finn and villain Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) are brilliant. I defy you not to get swept up in the feel-good action and excitement as Finn cheers on the strafing Poe during a Resistance counter attack on The First Order (we’re back in a side-lined fight, with the Empire defeated and the First Order akin to the remaining Nazis regrouping in Argentina, as director J.J Abrams put it, and the New Republic covertly funding Leia’s (Carrie Fisher) Resistance).

I said earlier that Han Solo is back, and he bridges the gap between Return Of The Jedi and this film, set thirty-odd years later, wonderfully. He’s animated, gruff, worldly-wise, and in his scenes with Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), like one half of an old married couple (I chuckled as Chewie handed him his parka before going back out in the cold). There’s also a history to him and Leia now, which has major ramifications for the saga to come.

But it is the new characters that have to sell this film, which sets a course for new adventures, acting as a gateway, a safe, yet thrilling step into a larger world. What director J.J Abrams, veteran screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan (working from the skeleton of Michael Arndt’s first draft) and LucasFilm head Kathleen Kennedy have done is nothing short of a miracle. We care about, and are invested in these new custodians. They are compelling, funny, quirky, scary, conflicted, relatable.  Finn is so damn funny – watch him try and “rescue” Rey, then step back and just watch, abashed, as she capably thrashes BB8’s attempted kidnappers. “Keep calm, keep calm” he says in his stormtrooper armour and helmet, about to defect. “I am calm, Poe replies. “I was talking to myself.”

Adam Driver as Kylo Ren is how Anakin Skywalker could have been played, had Hayden Christensen not been straightjacketed by George Lucas’ direction. His voice, in and out of his mask – wheedling, sardonic, puffed-up, needy and proud. A Darth Vader acolyte, an impersonator who wears a mask to hide his vulnerability and conflicted nature, as much as to strike fear into foes.

But it’s Daisy Ridley who is the revelation here. She is simply amazing in the role, and a wonderful inspiration for girls and boys everywhere. Don’t pay attention to that Mary Sue bullshit Max Landis has been sourpussing about on Twitter – she can’t do everything, she’s talented, brave, (“I can handle myself,” she drily smacks down Han), kind, but still full of doubt. The climactic confrontation between our heroes and Ren will have you on the edge of your seat with trepidation. Nothing comes easy to anyone in this film.

The heart and soul have been returned to the Star Wars saga with The Force Awakens, the title itself a metaphor for the world-wide resurgence of interest from not just die-hard fans and Prequel-apologists (I told myself I wouldn’t use them as a kicking post, but despite some undeniable spectacle, they are a withered shadow of what we first loved). The kicker for me was the final scene that brought a lump to the throat – pure cinema, sans dialogue, swelling John Williams score (welcome back, maestro!), loaded with meaning. “Chewie, we’re home”? No, for me, this was when I was home.

I’ll finish with another quote that reflects on both characters in the film, and we viewers, entranced in the magic, by Terry Pratchett:

“People think that stories are shaped by people. In fact it’s the other way around.”

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