Belated review of Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens. Although it’s been out a few weeks I’ve been careful to avoid any plot spoilers.
The Star Wars prequel trilogy – starting with the Phantom Menace in 1999 and ending with Revenge of the Sith in 2005 – has largely been consigned to history as a turgid mess that for most is hopefully nailed inside a wooden crate and stored in the same warehouse they used at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
The tedious and rambling plotlines, set almost entirely against a backdrop of CGI by director and Star Wars creator George Lucas, created a soulless experience more akin to watching someone play a state of the art video game on YouTube. Alec Guinness added genuine gravitas to the original 1977 film, which also benefitted from unearthing the undeniable charisma of the then largely unknown Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher. The central character in the prequels, Anakin Skywalker, was played by the horribly wooden Hayden Christensen.
One of the reasons The Force Awakens has been so hotly anticipated is that it’s directed by JJ Abrams, widely credited for breathing new life into another much-loved sci-fi saga, Star Trek. Surely they couldn’t mess it up so badly again?
It soon becomes clear watching The Force Awakens that everyone involved has carefully studied what made the last three films so unsatisfying and systematically set about correcting the mistakes. First and foremost, the script and accompanying action fizz along at an exhilarating pace. There is no bloated exposition about trade wars or midi-chlorians. All you really need to know is that everyone, good and bad, is searching the galaxy for the missing Luke Skywalker and trying to get to him first.
What’s more the script doesn’t take itself too seriously, remembering that it is, after all, a kids’ film and balances the action with humour. One particular sight gag involving new droid BB-8 is laugh-out-loud funny.
Special effects have also come full circle in the film. The use of CGI is relatively moderate, real people walk around in real locations. The costumes and make-up are superb - it looks and feels like the Star Wars of old.
Crucially, the two new leads, the British pair Daisy Ridley and John Boyega, both possess a likeability and presence which connects with the audience. Of the two, Boyega plays the most interesting new character – a stormtrooper who discovers a conscience and decides to desert.
Of the returning original trio of Ford, Fisher and Mark Hamill, only Ford is really given a role that requires more than phoning in a performance for the paycheque. His portrayal of an older, but still witheringly sarcastic, Han Solo is judged to perfection.
This isn’t a perfect film though. While it’s beautifully executed, the vast majority of the plot and ideas are lifted directly from the first trilogy. The Force Awakens has done such a good job of capturing their original spirit it’s forgotten to come up with many new ideas of its own.
Ridley’s character, Rey, was abandoned on a desert planet as a child. Sound familiar? The Empire, supposedly defeated in Episode VI, has been rebranded the First Order. The Rebellion is now the Resistance. The list could go on.
There are other flaws. The original trilogy had Darth Vader, arguably the silver screen’s greatest ever bad guy. In terms of iconic movie sounds Vader breathing through that mask (his real face is never seen until his death) is right up there with hearing those two notes in Jaws getting faster and faster. The main baddie in The Force Awakens, Kylo Ren, looks the part but after his mask comes off he rapidly loses his initial menace.
For all its strong points (and there are many) ultimately The Force Awakens feels more like an extremely slick reboot to introduce the saga to a new generation than a true sequel. Thankfully, in the process it also delivers a genuinely exciting film whose two hour 15 minutes running time flies by. Abrams has put the fun back in to Star Wars.