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USA 2015
Directed by
J.J. Abrams
136 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Chris Thompson
4 stars

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Synopsis:  Thirty years after the Jedi defeated the Galactic Empire, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has gone missing but young rebel fighter, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and his droid BB-8 have recovered information that might lead to the old Jedi master. But before he can return to his base, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) evil leader of the new dark force, the First Order, captures him. Things look grim until a lone Stormtrooper (John Boyega) finds he can no longer tolerate Ren and helps Poe escape. Taking the name Finn, he and Poe crash-land on a desert planet but only Finn appears to have survived. He manages to get himself to a nearby settlement where he meets Rey (Daisy Ridley), a tough scavenger who has acquired BB-8 and the secret information. When the First Order come looking for the droid, Finn and Rey escape in an old Junker spaceship – which they soon discover is the Millennium Falcon. Before long, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) have repossessed the Falcon.They join forces with Finn and Rey and set out to bring the information to the Resistance, led by General Leia (Carrie Fisher) so that they may find the whereabouts of Luke, the last of the Jedi Knights.

On a hot summer afternoon in 1977, the only three tickets left in the Rosebud cinema for the new Star Wars film (as it was then called) were in the front row where we craned our necks to look up at those shimmering blue words; A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…then the John Williams fanfare, the yellow text crawling away into the screen’s vanishing point, telling us that, weirdly, this was Episode IV and then, finally, came the Star Destroyer bearing down on us from the top of the frame until it filled the screen. All these sounds and images, which seem so familiar now, were incredibly exciting and new that afternoon, and the movie world had suddenly changed a little, and forever.Star Wars had become a standard by which other films could be measured. In 1979, Milos Forman’s take on the Broadway musical 'Hair' was released and on the poster it said "The Star Wars of Movie Musicals".  Around the same time, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey was re-released with advertising material telling us that before Star Wars, there was 2001. (I must admit, I always felt sorry for anyone rushing off to see 2001 for the first time thinking it was going to be anything like Star Wars). And the whole concept of merchandising was suddenly a very real thing in film business. It seemed like Star Wars was a lens through which everything in the past, present and future was to be viewed.

That was almost forty years ago and, like any long term relationship, the audience and the fans (I count myself as one) and the Star Wars films have had their ups and downs. So it was with some trepidation that I waded through the hype to see the latest episode in what is set to become a trilogy of trilogies.

It’s clear that J.J. Abrams has a talent for dusting off an old series of films and reinvigorating the idea in a way that brings a new audience to its well-worn world without alienating the rusted-on fans. His reboot of Star Trek (2009) boldly went exactly where the previous films and TV series had gone before but in a way that made Gene Roddenberry’s brainchild feel fresh and alive again.  And with The Force Awakens he’s pulled off the same trick but with even more success. Perhaps the Abrams film that holds the clue to why that is, is Super 8 (2011).

When George Lucas created Star Wars he wasn’t really inventing something new. He was reworking the essential elements of great films he knew from the past including the Flash Gordon serials of the 1930’s. Abrams did a similar thing with Super 8, harking back to the sensibilities of the kinds of ‘kid-centric-sci-fi-horror’ films Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante, Chris Columbus and Richard Donner had made in the 1980’s. Like Lucas with Star Wars, Abrams tapped into the spirit of those films he’d grown up with thirty years before, allowing them to imbue the story he wanted to tell.  Again, that’s what he’s done with The Force Awakens only his sources here are much more self-referential – they’re the original trilogy, particularly Episode IV, the bones of which resonate with great delight throughout the entirety of the new film.

They key to why Abrams new film works so well is not special effects and whizz-bangery (although they’re fantastic!) – it’s good old fashioned story and character. George Lucas knew that when he made episodes 4, 5 and 6, but he somehow forgot it when it came to making the trilogy of prequels.The Phantom Menace (1999) Attack of the Clones (2002) and Revenge of the Sith (2005) all suffered from lack a story we could engage with. The irony is that Lucas did such a great job of building all that backstory into the first trilogy that there was really nothing new to say in the prequels, so all that was really left for us was a lot of actors walking around talking about stuff we already knew like the backs of our hands, against the backdrop of some pretty ordinary CGI effects. Oh, and there was Jar Jar Binks as well, and that didn’t help.

In the flurry of ‘getting the band back together’ for the new film, perhaps the smartest move Abrams made was getting Lawrence Kasdan back on board. One of the great contemporary screenwriters, Kasdan was there in the Star Wars heyday. He wrote Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) with Leigh Brackett and Episode VI: The Return of the Jedi (1983) with George Lucas. Here, along with Abrams, he’s working with Michael Arndt (who wrote 2010’s Toy Story 3) and the cocktail of these three fertile minds works a treat.

Yes, the old familiar faces, like Han and Leia and Chewy are back, but not before we spend a good deal of the first part of the film with some new faces that we’re pretty sure will be our touchstones in the latter parts of this trilogy; a new female hero who is more Han Solo than Princess Leia in the way her actions progress the story, a new hotshot pilot who easily fills Luke Skywalker’s boots and who, interestingly, is sidelined shortly after his thrilling introduction and hardly seen for the rest of the film. But we’re in no doubt that he’ll be back – Abrams and his team know the meaning of delayed gratification. And, of course, there’s the Stormtrooper with a good heart that turns his back on the ways of the dark side and finds himself fighting the good fight. It’s a pretty strong band of new characters who are much more than a bunch of pretty young things – these guys have the substance to make us care about them and want to watch their stories unfold, even when they’re competing for screen time with the veterans. And there’s a new baddie, of course, who has a pedigree worthy of Darth Vader even if his scary black helmet isn’t quite as impressive.

The advanced years of actors like Ford, Fisher and Hamill means that the story needed to be set in a time when the victory of the Jedi over the Empire is history - something that happened before our new heroes were even born. In fact, they even need convincing that these legends were real, that Luke Skywalker is worth searching for, that the force is a power to be reckoned with. All this adds to the sense of mythology and the enjoyment of watching the awakening of familiar powers and allegiances within a new generation. It also allows a good deal of backstory to have taken place – Han and Leia have been married but are now estranged – like Obi-Wan before him, Luke has been betrayed by a young Jedi in training and has turned his back on the force – old favourites, Chewbacca, C3PO and R2D2 are pretty much the same as when we last saw them.And it’s all set to the glorious, soaring strains of John Williams (who reportedly turned down Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies to write new themes for  the this film).

The familiarity of all this might sound like a bit of plagiarism and, at times, it skirts very close to simply remaking the original film. But Abrams has always got his eye on the story to come and that’s where the energy of the film is focused. In a way, the homages to the original serve as a neat shortcut to get us all back on track after the duds that were Episodes 1, 2 and 3, and to refocus our minds onto what made these films great in the first place so that he can take us to new places we haven’t even dreamed of yet.

As good as the new cast is, it’s still a treat to see the old hands back in the saddle. Fisher brings a gravitas to her role that she’s never really had before and Ford’s performance has more life and spark to it than his last half a dozen films put together. And the scenes with the two of them are emotional and touching. And Mark Hamill? Apart from having acquired a very wise and elderly looking beard, we don’t yet get much of an opportunity to gauge how he fits into the new scheme of things. That seems to be a treat that awaits us in Episode VIII.

The only disappointment around the new film is how much the press has devoted to its pulling power as a franchise; how much it’s taken at the box office – closing in on the record held by Avatar they say  So what? When did we cross that line where how much money a film makes means more than whether it’s a good or not? Let’s leave the money to the bean counters and talk about how great this film is. It’s every bit as thrilling and inspiring and funny and iconic as the original film was. I’ll even admit to a tear or two and, when you see the film, you’ll know exactly when.

2015 has been an interesting year for films where everything old is new (or is trying to be new) again. In addition to Star Wars we’ve seen The Terminator, Jurassic Park, Rocky, James Bond and Mad Max all return to the big screen. With the exception of George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road - a remarkable film in itself, but for entirely different reasons – The Force Awakens is the only one of this old guard that feels genuinely new again. For a moment there, I was back in the front row of the Rosebud cinema in 1977 feeling like a teenager all over again. I can’t wait for the next one.




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