The Force Awakens a hit of nostalgia

Before the 17th of December the world was in overdrive with speculation and we all wondered whether J.J Abrams could deliver on the hype. After the disappointment of the prequels many fans were sceptical of a new Star Wars movie especially with the recent acquisition by Disney a brand who has always focused on targeting a younger audience. The involvement of the original cast helped convince many of us that “The Force Awakens” was going to be different as it suggested a more respectful approach to the original movies. Ultimately this is what Abrams has been able to deliver a continuation from “Return of The Jedi” that feels like a Star Wars movie and generally gives a balance between something new and a strong shoot of nostalgia.

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This mentality is obvious from the film’s opening scene to the start of the credits elements of the story, settings and even specific shots are all reminiscent of the originals but slightly different. The perfect example of this without giving anything away is Jakku, a sand covered backwater planet that looks remarkable like Tatoonie. The film draws the similarities together through the establishing shots of the scenery and the costume design of its inhabitants while emphasising the differences like the remains of a past battle. The result is a setting the conjures up memories of “A New Hope” while not simply reusing the same familiar places like Episode 1. A trend continued throughout the film, this is the Star Wars we know but different.

The overall storyline of “The Force Awakens” follows this same principle as it obviously borrows elements from all of the original films. The overriding structure of “A New Hope” mixed with the intensity of a character driven story like “The Empire Strikes Back” and just a dash of “Return of the Jedi” finished off with a couple of changes to make it different. It’s a combination that works well for most of the film as it allows fans to get comfortable, embrace new characters and be satisfied with a thoroughly genuine Star Wars experience. However, it’s a difficult balance which shifts a little too far for my liking in the films climax and just needed to be a little more unique to deliver the same intensity of the original trilogy. This is less of a problem with the more personal part of the storyline which tries to deliver a few twists and surprises much like “Empire”. Overall this part of the plot is done well yet, personally I found a few of these surprises a bit more predictable than Luke’s parentage and perhaps removing some of the sign posts would have increased their impact for the audience.

The main source of originality in “The Force Awakens” comes from the introduction of a new cast and well developed characters. Daisy Ridley gives an especially praiseworthy performance as Rey the resourceful scavenger on Jakku ends up being thrown into the conflict between the Resistance and The First Order. The character is unique in the Star Wars universe as she distinguishes herself from Leia through her background, resourcefulness and the profound sense of abandonment which Ridley doesn’t overplay as is the custom in many Hollywood blockbusters. Rey’s backstory is only partially revealed in the film suggesting that her history is going to be a focus for the rest of the trilogy however these gaps were well thought-out and don’t leave the audience feeling let down like something was missing. Rey’s struggle against the First Order is well supported in part by Poe Dameron played by Oscar Isaac whose delivery of refreshing one-liners makes sure he leaves an impression as the ace x-wings pilot. However, it is Rey’s more direct sidekick in Finn a Stormtrooper with a conscious fleeing the First Order (John Bodega) who threatens at times to steal the show. Bodega does well early in the film to portray the character’s sense of fear through a rushed and panicked demeanour but is equally effective in representing the characters shift to a more driven antagonist. The strength of these characters are at the core of “The Force Awakens” positive reviews as they are a noticeable improvement on a key failure from the prequels and don’t fit into any preconceived imitations of the existing characters.

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On the other side Kylo Ren is possible the most well characterised villain in Star Wars history as he has a well-defined backstory, clear motivations and inner conflict. This is in stark contrast to the prequels which failed to even give Darth Maul anything resembling a character. Perhaps the only downside is that Ren’s backstory develops so quickly that the film loses this possible source of tension. Despite this he is well-conceived as weaving in a helmet and voice distortion that resembles Darth Vader gives the character presence and ultimately fits well with his motivations so that it doesn’t seem like the filmmaker just tries to capitalise on the past success. Adam Driver was well cast to fill the role as he seems to personify the uncertainty that plagues the character and is equally believable earlier in the film with youthful confidence in his abilities. Unfortunately, Ren is not as well supported by his fallow First Order leaders, General Hux is given some clear characteristics as the traditional soldier in uniform who follows orders and clearly resents Ren for his methods and position but he is only really partially defined. Next to Hux the characterisation of Supreme Leader Snoke and Captain Phasma is non-existent and perhaps are the result of the filmmakers fixing plot holes or developing a means of introducing information. In the case of Snoke this is a clear limitation of the film and may have been more effectively introduced while Phasma is an opportunity lost as the idea of a female Stormtrooper was intriguing. Hopefully, these failings can be improved upon in Episode 8 as without any support from existing characters The First Order needs to be more clearly defined.

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Importantly it is these characters rather than the old favourites that carry the film at the start as Abrams obviously recognised that an audience needed to be invested in Rey, Finn and BB-8 before the appearance of familiar faces. The current internet buzz about Rey’s backstory demonstrates the overall success of strategy. When it happens the introduction of the old heroes generally works well as Han Solo is as roguish as ever and C-3Po still wins the prize for worst timing awards. The only miss step is the films use of Princess Leia as her role in the Resistance is poorly defined and she doesn’t seem to add much to the story. Conversely, the appearance of Luke Skywalker was perfect as the central hero of the original trilogy he more than anyone needed to take a step back but still remain important. The result is a clear point of suspense for the next film and a good starting point to transition Luke into a mentoring role previously filled by Obi-Wan and Yoda.

The other main element that has contributed to “The Force Awakens” success in the past few days is the return to practical effects. This was the hallmark of the original films using models and wires rather than the modern CGI which nearly destroyed the Star Wars universe in the prequels. Embracing these techniques means that Episode 7 feels and looks like a Star Wars movie and not just any big budget action flick made in the last 15 years. It does mean Maz Kanata does standout a little for the wrong reasons but overall the different elements are blended well by a director with a history in science fiction including Star Trek, Fringe and Lost. This feel is capped off the customary John Williams score and the sound team who bring the universe to life.

Overall “The Force Awakens” is a very successful continuation of the franchise that uses nostalgia effectively to satisfy existing fans and introduce the new characters that will drive the series forward. It’s not perfect with a few plot holes and some characters that aren’t properly defined but these don’t detract too much from the whole package. I’ll be definitely going back for a second viewing in the coming weeks and might update this review with a few more specifics so keep checking. Until then let me know what you think as I’m always keen to discuss anything Star Wars or check out these reviews over at the movie guysThe .

8.5/10

Jono

 

About jgbarry

A teacher, poet, novelist and causal tech guru I am always keen to share my thoughts. A firm believer in critical thinking I rarely rush a decision without any research and once made my mind is primed for a good debate.

Posted on December 19, 2015, in Movies, Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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