It’s hard to be objective about Star Wars. The franchise is so undeniably pervasive and fundamental to our modern day popular culture, that it is difficult to remove its status as an artefact of mainstream film-making and apply critical thought. And this is not coming from a life-long fan. Perhaps thankfully, I was born too late to fully experience the hullabaloo of the prequels. Whilst rabid fans tried tenaciously to convince themselves that The Phantom Menace (1999) was deserving of the Star Wars name, as a toddler I favoured Toy Story (1995). My mind was blown when the revelation that The Evil Emperor Zurg was, in fact, Buzz Lightyear’s father occurred in the 1999 sequel, until I of course discovered that this was an oversaturated reference to another sequel that came almost two decades beforehand. George Lucas’s passion project has wriggled its way through almost every form of modern art and culture, and for this reason it’s nearly impossible to view a new Star Wars film as anything other than history in the making.
With this in mind, it was a rather pleasant surprise when I discovered that, before I sat down to write this article attempting an objective and critical view of the new film, my job had already been done for me. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), rather than being hailed as the second coming—which was what I was expecting-—has instead been met by very appropriate, sensible applause and sighs of relief. It’s good, and it seems that audiences are learning to become unbiased towards Star Wars as its fans have grown up.
Yes, there are some who have experienced pure ecstasy in the cinemas—even after their tenth visit—and die-hard fans of the deeper lore explored through novels and comics have denounced it as a disgrace to the now non-canonical “Expanded Universe”. But, honestly, I see this as no great loss, as JJ Abrams’ addition to the Star Wars saga is just as admirable and credible as any written word follow-up to Return of the Jedi could hope to be. Without wanting to spoil too much for readers who may not have seen it yet (though, to those who haven’t, take this as a recommendation), the film explores and subverts the themes of legacy, servitude, religion and good vs evil that are present throughout all six films in the series, whilst crafting a backdrop that is exciting, visually stunning and brimming with well-choreographed action. And that’s as far as the praise goes, and should go. It’s not the best film of the 21st Century, or even 2015, and anyone who was disappointed that it wasn’t is quickly dismissed for unrealistic expectations. Though The Empire Strikes Back is genuinely excellent, the Star Wars films are not three of the best of all time, simply some of the most influential, and this remains with The Force Awakens.
It is therefore with a sense of apprehension that I address the film’s problems. The overall structure is very much a retread of the 1977 classic A New Hope: an adorable droid finds himself on a desert planet and meets a plucky, unassuming hero who dreams of larger aspirations, and shares with him/her vital information that will provide the catalyst for the destruction of an oppressive galactic government. And a huge, globular space weapon wreaks some destruction before its demise in the third act. It’s certainly familiar ground, but, luckily, in contrast to other belated sequels driven by nostalgia- Jurassic World (2015) and Terminator Genisys (2015) – The Force Awakens is boosted by compelling characters led by a cast of impressive talent. Oscar Isaac is enormously watchable as X-Wing pilot Poe Dameron, channelling Harrison Ford who also returns as crowd favourite Han Solo in his most enthusiastic performance in years, but it is Finn (John Boyega) and Rey (Daisy Ridley) who really shine. Impressively portrayed by relative newcomers (Boyega had an entertaining lead part in 2011’s Attack the Block), the two are immediately intriguing, as a mysterious scavenger and ex-stormtrooper respectively.
Although, for reasons I shall not disclose here, the endearing Rey is an obvious parallel to Luke Skywalker, Finn is an entirely new concept, a combination of breathless enthusiasm and fearful opposition to the First Order. In a universe that revolves around temptations to the other side of morality, it’s pleasant to see this subverted through Finn, a mirrored image of the iconic Darth Vader character, who spends the majority of the original trilogy as a nefarious Lord of the dark side only to be redeemed by the climax of Return of the Jedi. Here, the opposite is true, with Finn introduced as a quasi-villain at first, only to instantly redeem himself. Both Finn and Adam Driver’s menacing and fascinating Kylo Ren are immediately far more complex than Darth Vader initially was in the first film, who is frequently cited as one of the best cinematic villains in film history, despite his defining traits being for a long time a threatening voice and a frightening suit.
Character and casting is evidently the film’s strong point. In fact, other than a particularly dire action beat involving CGI creatures called Rathtars which reeked suspiciously of “high-jinks” – and wasted the stars of The Raid films (2011-14), Yayan Ruhian, Iko Uwais and Cecep Arif Rahman, in brief cameo roles- the only scenes that were a chore to sit through involved the original cast, namely Carrie Fisher. Any scenes between Ford and Fisher’s Han and, now, General Leia are thankfully quite brief, but are sadly quite telling of Fisher’s minimal acting abilities. It’s almost a shame that Disney felt the need to include members of the original cast. Despite Harrison Ford being more entertaining and enthusiastic than he has been in years, with promises of Luke Skywalker having a larger role in the subsequent films, the franchise is growing worryingly crowded, Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron already shafted somewhat in this instalment.
Indeed, the one praise for The Force Awakens that is undeniable is the acting talent displayed by the stellar cast of new faces. Star Wars, of course, gets a free pass, especially for the first film, but the franchise does include some particularly ropey performances. Mark Hamill tries his best though frequently comes across as whiney, despite Hamill in more recent years embracing his inherent hamminess, and it is clear, especially come Return of the Jedi, how tired both Harrison Ford and Alec Guinness are of the franchise. It’s well documented that Guinness despised Star Wars, and Ford was campaigning to have his character killed off midway through the series. But Finn and Rey are magnetic. Daisy Ridley manages to exude warmth, curiosity and defiance in her first, dialogue-free five minutes with rare competence, winning the hearts of the audience the second she places an old X-Wing pilot’s helmet over her head. Comparisons to Keira Knightley have already been made, and I’d dare say that Ridley seems a far more bankable talent at this point than Knightley, who was considerably wooden in her earlier roles.
Although a comparison between The Force Awakens and the much inferior Jurassic World is not entirely unfair, as both films explore familiar ground with some nostalgic nods and references, it’s easy to see where the former succeeds where the latter failed. The key here is character and casting, with Jurassic World wasting Chris Pratt on a highly generic action lead with little personality, and casting supporting actors with none of Jeff Goldblum’s charisma or Richard Attenborough’s twinkling charm. Ironically, its director will be helming Episode IX of the series, following Rian Johnson’s (Breaking Bad, Brick, Looper) Episode VIII, which inspires far more confidence. With The Force Awakens, its rich and diverse cast exceeds that of the original trilogy and I would discourage any fans of the original trilogy from thinking this as blasphemy. It’s time we saw Star Wars as an enjoyable, culturally significant yet flawed franchise and, in these respects, The Force Awakens is a worthy addition to its lineage.