Stripped of the overtly political rhetoric that dragged the prequel trilogy down, The Force Awakens is a barnstorming tribute to the movie that kick started the whole phenomenon: 1977’s A New Hope.
The original was a futuristic fairytale, the story of a young man searching for a lost princess. Make no mistake – there’s no damsel in distress to be found here. This time around, our intrepid heroes are on the hunt for that young man himself: Luke Skywalker, now a jaded former Jedi master, is living as a recluse after one of his students (Kylo Ren, a magnificent Adam Driver) turned to the dark side. When lonely scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley) and defected stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) find a small droid which holds the map to Skywalker’s whereabouts, they set off to return it to Princess Leia’s Resistance, encountering Han Solo and his trusty companion Chewbacca along the way.
As with any long-awaited sequel, a huge part of the joy of this film lies with the return of some familiar faces. Cameos from CP-3O and R2D2 are guaranteed to raise a smile, but the movie’s real triumph is the return of the three main players from the original trilogy. Despite the thirty year gap since he last piloted the Millennium Falcon, Harrison Ford gives a performance worthy of any leading role, whilst Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill (albeit in much smaller roles this time around) both turn in fine performances.
Even with the draw of these legends, the new generation are unquestionably the stars of this movie. Oscar Isaac exudes charisma as the maverick pilot Poe Dameron, with his growing friendship with Finn one of the highlights of the film. Having to step into the Luke Skywalker role would be a difficult task for anyone, but Ridley plays it with such confidence that her legitimacy as the protagonist of this sequel trilogy is never for one moment questioned. Yes, at times Rey may lean a bit too close towards becoming a ‘Mary Sue’ character with her unending list of skills and abilities. Nevertheless, she is such a complex and likeable character than these slight flaws in the writing can be forgiven.
With Darth Vader a looming figure throughout the preceding movies, creating a new villain in the place of one so culturally iconic was always going to be a difficult task. Though Vader’s spectre still haunts the characters, Kylo Ren makes his presence felt in a big way. Ren is a tortured soul, a very human character who has fallen to the lowest depths man can sink. As the movie unravels so does Ren’s history, adding layers of poignancy and horror to the unfolding events.
In places, it can seem as though the ghosts of the original are holding Abrams’ vision back somewhat. Maz Kanata’s (Lupita Nyong’o) castle has more than a few echoes of the original’s famous Mos Eisley Cantina, and with a large plot strand revolving around an attempt to destroy the First Order’s ‘Starkiller Base’ — essentially yet another improved Death Star — it can feel in places as though The Force Awakens is treading old ground. For the most part however, Abrams manages these homages with a deft hand. The throwbacks, though numerous, do little to hinder the film’s narrative progress; rather they serve as a testament to the endurance of Star Wars and imbue the new trilogy with a renewed sense of energy.
One thing that The Force Awakens definitely doesn’t disappoint on — something that is practically guaranteed in any Star Wars movie — is the abundance of sumptuous visuals. From the sprawling desert planet of Jakku to a particularly stunning fight scene beneath tumbling snow, The Force Awakens is not short of dazzling set pieces. For all the criticism that may be thrown at it, there is no doubting the fact that this film is an aesthetic masterpiece.
Faced with the task of resurrecting a tarnished franchise, J.J. Abrams does an admirable job. Despite creator George Lucas having virtually no impact on the making of this movie, Abrams has managed to produce the closest thing to the original trilogy since – well, since Return of the Jedi. With The Force Awakens firing on all cylinders, there is no doubt that the Star Wars franchise will once again be an international phenomenon for years to come.