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Published on December 21st, 2015 | by Brad

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens – Spoiler-Free Review

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It might not have escaped your notice that there’s a new Star Wars film out. Some ten years after the disaster that was the Prequel Trilogy and thirty-two since our heroes defeated the Empire and saved the galaxy to begin with, a new saga begins in Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. Replacing George Lucas in the director’s chair is J.J. Abrams, and The Force Awakens unites its new heroes and villains with returning stars Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill et al. You probably already knew this. This version of the review is going to steer clear of spoilers, as the movie’s only been out for a few days, and then I’ll post a more in-depth look at some of the plot developments next Monday, after more people have had a chance to see it. So; could Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens possibly live up to all the hype?

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I think the key issue Abrams and his team faced was getting the tone right. The Prequel Trilogy has a lot of good ideas in there, and some of the craftsmanship is pretty spectacular, but its chief problem – from which all its other myriad issues stem – is that the tone feels way wrong. This is apparent from the opening lines of the text crawl; “Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic. The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute.” Star Wars is, at its heart, a Western with samurai wizards, set in space. It’s meant to be fun. There’s nothing fun about disputes over taxation of trade routes. The lack of fun permeates every aspect of those films, from Anakin being the capital-C-capital-O Chosen One to his would-be sweeping epic romance with Padme to the introduction of a pseudo-science-fiction explanation for The Force itself, rather than the mysticism of the Original Trilogy’s description. So it was crucial that The Force Awakens get the tone right, as pretty much everything else would follow from there.

Fortunately, then, J.J. Abrams and co. have the tone here down to a tee. The Force Awakens is a grand, swash-buckling adventure, it’s fun, it’s funny, it’s exciting, it’s emotional, it has great characters and performances, spectacular action sequences and outstanding special effects, both practical and computer-generated. I have a few minor – to the point of being nit-picky – issues with it, which I’ll get into more in the spoiler review next week because I don’t want to give anything away, but suffice to say I’m really happy with the film.

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From a nostalgia point of view, there really is a lot to love. At times The Force Awakens is almost a remake of Star Wars, so closely does it reflect the original plot, but I don’t really have a problem with that any more than I did Return of the Jedi doing the Death Star again. Bringing back the cast of the originals was absolutely the right move, as they allow the new cast a way into the classic mythology that putting old names on young faces never really achieved in the Prequel Trilogy. Of particular note is Harrison Ford, stepping back into Han Solo’s shoes like he’d never been away, and giving perhaps the very best performance of his entire career. If there’s a campaign for Ford to win Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars, sign me up. The moment that Han and Chewie step back onto the Falcon for the first time is the moment where any lingering fears I had were brushed aside and The Force Awakens really kicks into high gear. From then on it’s just sensational.

Though the nostalgia factor was palpable, what was vital to the series going forward was the new cast. We gain eight new primary characters in The Force Awakens, four heroes – lonely scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley), conflicted Storm Trooper Finn (John Boyega), hot-shot pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and scene-stealing new droid BB-8 – and four villains – military leaders General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) and the mysterious Dark Side wielders Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) and chief villain for the film Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Dameron, Phasma, Hux and Snoke are all relatively small roles, all well-played – particularly Dameron and Hux – but the focus is very much on Rey, Finn and Kylo Ren. The film – and indeed, the future of the Star Wars series – pretty much lives and dies on their performances. Thankfully, they’re as well-cast as Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford were back in the day. Daisy Ridley is superb as Rey, delivering what could be a star-making turn in her first leading role. John Boyega gives a really endearing performance as Finn, carrying off his vulnerability but also delivering the majority of the film’s funniest lines. And in Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren, they’ve crafted the best Star Wars villain since Iain McDiarmid’s Emperor Palpatine first stepped from his shuttle in Return of the Jedi. As Episodes VIII and IX begin to emerge, with May 2017 and 2019 release dates respectively, these are the characters that are going to shape the drama, and on the evidence of The Force Awakens they look well up to the task.

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The other crucial aspect to The Force Awakens is the return to the Original Trilogy’s grubby aesthetic. This is a galaxy that looks lived-in, a little grimey round the edges. There’s still plenty of CGI, but for the most part here it’s to enhance the physical effects and costumes, rather than to create the entire galaxy in a computer after filming had finished. It’s so much more pleasing on the eye to know that you’re looking at something real, rather than something that just isn’t there. The integration of the CGI effects into the real world looks pretty seamless, too.I’m in a place with The Force Awakens where I really want to talk every plot point to death, but at the same time I have no desire to spoil so much as a single line. I’ll have a more in-depth look next week with the spoiler-heavy review, but for now all I can do is recommend that you see it. Star Wars is good again. Star Wars feels like Star Wars again. I can offer no higher praise than that.

Brad

Brad

Consumer. Scribbler. Occasional drunkard. Nice beard, though...
Brad

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