First of all, you’re not going to get any spoilers here. Not even any mention of the plot. Zero. Nada. And you know my threshold for spoilers is extremely low, so don’t worry. Disney and Lucasfilm and the entire internet in general have all done a commendable job of keeping the show under wraps, and it’s because of their resilience that I enjoyed the film as much as I did. Seriously, avoid spoilers at all costs because — despite the rampant speculation across the internet — there are some surprises to be found. I actually wish now that I had skipped the relatively spoiler-free trailers.
Secondly, if there is only one piece of advice I could give to would be viewers, it would be to keep your expectations in check. I know it’s hard, considering it’s probably the most anticipated movie of all time. Some people have been waiting for the movie for years, if not decades, and the buzz surrounding it all from the second the film was announced has been out of this galaxy. But just remember that it’s still just a two-hour movie (135 minutes to be exact) and that there is no human, droid or Wookie who can make a film that lives up to the hype. Even I, more a fan of the idea of Star Wars than Star Wars itself, got swept up in the drama and had a dream last night where I arrived at the cinema only to discover that all tickets for the morning session I intended to see had been sold out (I woke up in the morning and pre-booked online immediately).
Now that I’ve gotten the formalities out of the way, it’s time for my spoiler-free review of The Force Awakens. All things considered, the film is a major triumph, a near-perfect blend of space opera and fantasy, fighter jet and lightsaber action, practical and CGI effects, mythology and nostalgia, old and new faces, drama and humour. Provided expectations are reasonable, the film will please everyone from newcomers to hardcore fans alike.
The film begins like all Star Wars movies and will surely give fans chills and goosebumps when the opening scrawl appears on the big screen. The story itself is simple to follow, with just enough exposition to allow those less familiar with the history of the franchise (like my wife) to keep up, without feeling like we’re getting a rehash of previous events.
This already gives The Force Awakens a distinct advantage over the three disappointing Star Wars prequels. JJ Abrams has clearly learned from George Lucas’s mistakes and gone back to the roots of the franchise. He said himself that he was trying to recapture the magic of the first film that entranced him when he was just a child.
Accordingly, there was — as many of you will already know — a special emphasis on costumes and practical effects, with the CGI kept to a minimum where possible. The difference in the visual experience is profound, giving the film that tangible look and feel that has been missing from most major blockbusters in recent years.
What really elevates The Force Awakens to the level of the original films, however, is the characters. Kudos to Abrams for creating and putting a lot of effort into developing the three new-generation leads: Daisy Ridley (Rey), John Boyega (Finn) and Adam Driver (Kylo Ren). All of them are kick-ass characters who have already exhibited more depth than Anakin Skywalker and Queen Amidala put together in the three prequels. I was originally worried that casting a female/black lead may come across as trying too hard, or that Kylo Ren would just be a carbon copy of Darth Vader — but boy was I wrong on all counts. All will be household names soon enough and they deserve to be.
Special mention also goes to the new CGI characters played by the king of motion capture, Andy Serkis, as well as Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o. Fans will already know who they play, but if you didn’t know they are in it you probably wouldn’t be able to figure out which characters they play. That’s one of the things I loved about the movie — it’s not about the name of the star but the character they play that stands out.
As awesome as the new characters are and as much freshness as they inject into the franchise, the movie just wouldn’t have been the same without the members of the original cast. If you’ve seen the trailers you’ll know who they are, and you can tell all of them are happy to be back. Far from just being there to infuse a healthy dose of nostalgia, these beloved characters are pivotal to the story and serve important purposes without stealing anyone’s thunder. The balance and blend of new and old must not have been easy to get right, but JJ got it as close as you could hope for.
As for the action, for my money it was at least on par with the original trilogy. Thanks to modern technology, the spacecraft sequences are sensational and make use of innovative angles and maneuvers. The prequel trilogy may have had better lightsaber duels, but they don’t mean much when the emotional connection isn’t there. In The Force Awakens, the duels actually feel like they mean something, and as a result they come across as much more powerful and impactful.
Having said all that, The Force Awakens isn’t without flaws. Not all the dialogue and humour worked all the time, and there were a couple of occasions where time appears to be stretched or condensed to fit the narrative. Apart from Kylo Ren, the villains didn’t get as much screen time as I had hoped, in particular Gwendoline Christie’s Captain Phasma and Domhnall Gleeson’s General Hux, though I do get the feeling that they are playing the long game with these two and that they will feature more prominently in episodes VIII and IX.
Perhaps the biggest complaint that has leaked out since the worldwide premiere is that The Force Awakens has too many parallels to — without being too specific — some of the previous films in the series. I admit this is true as it is something I noticed myself, though there are enough differences and new ideas for The Force Awakens to be both a sequel and a reboot of sorts — something I believe Abrams was aiming for in the first place.
In all, The Force Awakens delivers. While it didn’t blow my mind, it’s a fun, exciting experience that brings back memories, creates new ones, and sets things up magnificently for what is yet to come. As long as you can accept that it will never live up to your impossible expectations, the film might very well turn out to be one of your best cinematic experiences of the year.
4.25 stars out of 5
PS: Episode VIII, scheduled for release in May 2017, will be directed by Rian Johnson, best known for Looper and directing three episodes of Breaking Bad, most notably “Ozymandias”, arguably the show’s greatest episode. Episode IX will be directed by Colin Trevorrow (Jurassic World).