Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (J. J. Abrams, 2015)

Warning – this review contains spoilers.

Well, here it is. The new Star Wars film. The first film in the series for a decade. The first good film in the series for three decades. Well, that’s what we’ve all been hoping for anyway. But once the lights go down at the cinema and everyone settles in, there’s nothing the hype train can do about it except sit back with everyone else and hope it lives up to the hype. So does it deliver? For me, the answer to that is a resounding “Yes”.

From the opening crawl, it sets its stalls out on a far more approachable basis than the prequels. It’s quite basic really. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is missing. There are two groups doing everything they can to locate him: the evil First Order, borne out of the remnants of the fallen Empire; and the Resistance, a military operation led by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) and backed by the Republic.

As the action opens on the planet Jakku, we see starfighter pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) on a mission at the behest of Leia, meeting with old ally Lor San Tekka (Max von Sydow). Tekka gives him information about Luke’s whereabouts moments before the First Order arrive and start wiping out everything in sight. It is a brutal opening sequence.

Shortly after storing the information in a small droid called BB-8, Poe himself is captured and taken in for heavy-handed interrogation by the sinister First Order leader Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). BB-8, now stranded on Jakku, is befriended by scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley) and they are subsequently joined by defector stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) and set off on a fate-driven mission to get the plans into the right hands.

forceawakensscreen01

Vast and expansive contribute to a wholly immersive experience.

Whilst The Force Awakens is not a perfect film, in comparison to the prequel trilogy it is a breath of fresh air to the extent that any shortcomings can be overlooked. The things that J. J. Abrams has got right here are enough to ensure its popularity will be maintained for years to come.

The most immediate element of success is one that directly combats one of the biggest criticisms of the prequels: the real-world setting. One of the great shots of the opening third of the film is the first time we see Rey. Having scavenged the inside of a derelict ship, she steps out into the open desert planes of Jakku, then slides down a large sand dune on a creatively-fashioned slide mat towards her Landspeeder. This shot achieves several things. Firstly, it underlines her solitude by showing her to be a small spot in such a vast open space. Secondly, there is an implied playful innocence in the way she slides down such a huge dune. Thirdly, it plants the action very much in a palpable and believable setting. This scene is also the first time the action is truly slowed down after the action of the opening sequence, forcing the viewer to take stock of what we’ve already seen and be immediately awed by the spectacular landscapes.

It is a long time before there is any obvious CGI in the film, particularly the characters inhabiting the screen. In direct response to the negative feedback for Episodes II and III, and the remastered editions of all six films where everything was perceivable ruined by over-zealous use of computer imagery, this is kept to the bare minimum for as long as possible. Indeed, when it is used, it feels like a juxtaposition against all the other good work seen throughout. In particular, the character Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o) is as a real let down. Here we have an Oscar-winning actress in a small but critical role and they’ve needlessly realised her with computers when her diminutive size and colour seemingly have no relevance to what her character is doing. My guess is that they were going for a new Yoda-type character and got lost along the way. Similarly, there was a definite feeling of disappointment when Supreme Emperor Snoke first appeared – it felt like something we’d seen previously in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and lacked the sort of dread we were being showered with by Kylo Ren.

forceawakensscreen02

The Force is strong in this one.

Which brings us nicely on to the next point. If any of the performances needs to be singled out for excellence, it has to be Adam Driver as Kylo Ren. Sinister and powerful from the start, Ren’s emotionally unstable and rage-filled actions are a real highlight, revealing a side to Driver’s acting ability little-seen before. There is almost nothing to like about him, which is perfect for such a pivotal villain. When he showed his emotional frailties towards the end of the film, before making an about turn and doing that thing, it really packed a punch (no matter how much we thought it might happen). It puts the likes of General Grievous to shame.

Another star performer is Daisy Ridley, in her first cinematic role of note. It can’t be easy to step into a universe this large with almost no experience and deliver a performance to the standard she has achieved. She flexes the emotional depths of a character scared by her new surroundings and scarred by guilt for leaving behind her former life to pursue the adventure she has in front of her. At times cocky and mixing in humour, she is something of a blend of Han and Leia and is well placed to combat the future of her character in the next installment.

Completing the trilogy of excellent performances is John Boyega, proving that this film is one for the new guard rather than those from the original trilogy. His portrayal of Finn is quite a departure from his performance as gang leader Moses in 2011’s Attack The Block, bringing in a lot more comedic aspects to the film following an intense opening sequence that gives his predicament gravitas.

In the final battles we get to see both Finn and Rey fighting Kylo individually in a much rawer manner than the polished choreography of the previous six films. It’s a refreshing take and appropriate to the story, but every time a hit is landed on Kylo there was a huge feeling of achievement – an indication of the successful portrayals of all three characters.

Where the film gains in pacing successes it loses its way in lacking clarity and a few presumptuous jumps in character development and inter-character relationships. One example of this is when Poe and Finn reunite towards the end of the film. They had previously successfully escaped from the Starkiller Base, which would undoubtedly have brought them together to some extent. However, when they are reunited later in the film they act like the oldest of friends with a lifetime of shared history. It was one thing that had to be taken at face value.

However, it’s difficult to compare this character development to that of the previous films. Surely once we have seen the next two installments of the main storyline their relationships will grow further and therefore this won’t seem so over-friendly. If the compromise is that we got to see a tightly-packed and intensely entertaining action film, then it’s an agreeable trade-off.

The biggest criticism the film should expect will come from the biggest fans of the original. The way this film deals with the Force is bound to upset a few people. It took Luke a whole film to develop his Jedi powers in The Empire Strikes Back. Anakin took an entire trilogy. Both were at the side of two great Jedi masters. In this film we’re being asked to accept that Rey was able to gain this knowledge and understanding… how, exactly? Just by touching Luke’s lightsaber? It’s bound to be seen as disrespectful to the franchise but to develop properly the film needs to find its own space to breathe. This route was far more convenient to create a fast-paced finale.

These are minor criticisms of a film that will inevitably be over-analysed forever more. They shouldn’t detract from the overwhelming feeling of joy I had when I left the cinema. The film finishes on a cliffhanger,with a hugely rewarding two hours tying itself together to a reasonable position before dangling a thread of things to come for our main hero Rey.

J. J. Abrams has managed to pull off a minor miracle. In just over two hours he has erased most of the memories of the prequel trilogy, reminded us of the best of the original trilogy and set up a new storyline that has the whole world anticipating where the next steps will take us. The prospects for the future of the franchise all of a sudden look extremely rosy.

The Force Awakens is showing at cinemas worldwide for the foreseeable future. 3D IMAX is well worth the additional price to experience the full effects of the Force.

Star Wars Articles

If you’re in need of even more of a Star Wars fix this week, you could check out some of these past articles here on Cinema, Etc., all related to Star Wars in some way.

Film Reviews
THX 1138 (George Lucas, 1971)
The Star Wars Holiday Special (Steve Binder, 1978)
Secret Cinema Presents: The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kirschner, 1980)
Caravan of Courage: An Ewok Adventure (John Korty, 1984)
Star Wars: Episodes I-III (George Lucas, 1999-2005) – Guest reviewer!
Elstree 1976 (Jon Spira, 2015)
Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens

Video Games
Star Wars (Lucasarts, 1991)

The Force Awakens
The Force Awakens – Do Your Homework
The Force Awakens – It’s Going to be Good, Right?

The Force Awakens – Do your homework

The original Star Wars film was released on 25th May 1977. In the intervening years the dialogue, costumes, storylines, goofs, action figures, trading cards and just about everything else has been cross-analysed and dissected to the minutest of details, leaving the world full of Star Wars nerds always willing to provide you with an additional piece of information to “impress” you. Fans of the films hate being left behind on the details and the dedication to all things Force-related has subsequently reached unrivalled levels.

However, as Star Wars Fever grips to world again in the run up to the release of The Force Awakens, it’s difficult to stay on top of the facts of the new films. There are a few familiar faces but for the most part it’s new characters, creatures and worlds. Whilst the only way to secure your status as Force Awakens Trivia King is to watch the film several times when it hits cinemas, the film is over three months away from the big screen. What if there was a way to get ahead of the game?

Thankfully, this article is on hand to provide the lowdown on the best previous acting efforts of the main characters of the film, meaning you are familiar with their body of work and can show off your wider cinema knowledge closer to the time.

JOHN BOYEGA AS FINN
Essential viewing: Attack The Block

C'est Finn

C’est Finn

Surnameless Finn is the lead character in the new film, seemingly the good guy with a dark past as a stormtrooper. The scant details we’ve had on the character is mirrored by the limited previous performances by the actor portraying him, John Boyega.

His biggest role by far was in the much-celebrated Attack The Block (Joe Cornish, 2011), the British sci-fi coming of age action film where Boyega played Moses, the leader of a gang of youths fighting back against an alien invasion. It was an impressive turn and as a newcomer garnered him with a lot of attention, and rightly so.

If you want to go that extra mile you could seek out the wonderfully gritty British drama Junkheart (Tinge Krishnan, 2011). He has a small role as Jamal in a film that’s really all about its two lead characters, but you will get to see a fantastic film and out-nerd all your friends.

Of course, all of this will be dwarfed by his appearance in The Force Awakens and he is entering a world of super-stardom along with Daisy Ridley, another relative newcomer.

DAISY RIDLEY AS REY
Essential viewing: Star Wars: The Force Awakens Trailer

Who Rey?

Who Rey?

If a small proportion of Star Wars fans had heard of John Boyega before they announced he’d bagged the lead role, an even smaller proportion had heard of Daisy Ridley. Outside a handful of one-off appearances in the likes of Casualty, Silent Witness and Mr Selfridge, she also acted in The Inbetweeners 2 (Damon Beesley and Iain Morris, 2014) only for her scenes to be deleted. She has voiced Taeko Okajima in an English dub of Japanese anime おもひでぽろぽろ / Only Yesterday (Isao Takahata, 1991), though that hasn’t been released yet (there is a perfectly good version already available on Blu-ray and DVD should you want to check out a fantastic film).

So that brings us to the one thing she has been in that’s readily available to us all: the video to Wiley’s track “Lights On”, which you can see below.

There’s also an interactive film at the Life Saver website, though you’re going to have to play through parts one and two to get to part three.

OSCAR ISAAC AS POE DAMERON
Essential viewing: Inside Llewyn Davis, Ex Machina, A Most Violent Year

I knew the new Star Wars film would get an Oscar.

I knew the new Star Wars film would get an Oscar.

If there’s one actor in the new film you’re going to get a lot of joy out of, it’s Oscar Isaac. He has a filmography covering a wide range of genres and they’re mainly hugely enjoyable. Your starting point should be Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2013). It’s especially good if you’re a huge fan of folk music, but his performance in the title role as a struggling and troubled artist is a great example of the depth he can bring to a character.

Ex-Machina (Alex Garland, 2015) should be a high priority. Not only does it tick two The Force Awakens actors off your list (Domhnall Gleeson also stars), it is an excellent piece of science fiction cinema.

A Most Violent Year (J. C. Chandor, 2014) shouldn’t be overlooked. Whilst it isn’t one to make an immediate impact, it was critically acclaimed at the time and shows another side to his abilities.

He’s had featured roles in a number of big-budget films, though you may, in hindsight, have forgotten he was in them. Agent Number 3 in The Bourne Legacy (2012), annoying Prince John in Robin Hood (2010) and the hammy Blue Jones in Sucker Punch (2011) all fall into this category. You could track down the film In Secret (2013), which is largely terrible and features Isaac in scenes of an erotic nature with Elizabeth Olsen. One to forget.

ADAM DRIVER AS KYLO REN
Essential viewing: While We’re Young, Girls (TV)

Kylo Ren looks pretty badass in everything we've seen so far.

Kylo Ren looks pretty badass in everything we’ve seen so far.

Kylo Ren has been the subject of much speculation, perhaps more so than any other character. He’s dark, he’s mysterious. The anticipation is similar to that of Darth Maul in The Phantom Menace (one thing they did get right in that film). The fact he’s hiding behind a mask helps, and his role is probably set to be similar to that of Darth Vader, with Supreme Leader Snoke as this film’s Emperor. Maybe.

As stars of the new Star Wars film go, Adam Driver strikes a friendly balance between having done enough films to show off his talent without having too many to watch to ever get on track. Additionally, for anyone who was longing for the Noam Baumbach film series action figures (strangely yet to appear), you can finally get your hands on a Driver action figure – actually the Kylo Ren Elite Series one is one of the coolest on the market (especially when it is in cosplay).

For a fantastic look at how two-faced he can make a character, then While We’re Young (Noam Baumbach, 2015) is essential viewing. He starts the film as a seemingly innocent and eager filmmaker, only to later turn out to be wholly manipulative and power-hungry individual. It’s likely light-going in comparison to The Force Awakens, but as it’s a rom-com you might be able to have a quiet night in with your other half without them realising you’re researching the new Star Wars film.

He had a brief appearance as a musician in Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2014), which is covered in more detail in Oscar Isaac’s section. Driver has a cameo as a deep-voiced musician and his role is almost entirely covered in the clip below, which also features other Star Wars key player Oscar Isaac (as well as Justin Timberlake!).

The quintessential role for him thus far has in fact been on the small screen with his role as Adam Sackler in the series Girls. His role is the boyfriend of the lead character, but it has been celebrated critically and he has received three Emmy nominations for his efforts.

Elsewhere, he had a cameo of note in Lincoln (Steven Spielberg, 2012) as Samuel Beckwith, a brief appearance in another Baumbach film Frances Ha (2013) and recently starred in the lead role in indie film Hungry Hearts (Saverio Costanzo, 2015). There’s plenty to choose from and it won’t be difficult to get up to speed with his work.

ANDY SERKIS AS SUPREME LEADER SNOKE
Essential viewing: The Lord of the Rings, King Kong, Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Welcome to the Serkis

Welcome to the Serkis

If Kylo Ren is a bit mysterious, then Supreme Leader Snoke is a stealth ninja, The Third Man of Star Wars villains. Who knows what he’ll look like? Probably quite a few people by now but they’re all tight-lipped. Let’s say he’s somewhere between a small green goblin creature, a 25 ft. tall colossal gorilla, a seafaring merchant marine captain and solid sound.

What we do know is that Andy Serkis has been involved in a lot of motion capture in his time, receiving many awards and accolades for his efforts. It’s fairly easy to pick a handful of films to get you started, so much so they’re hardly worth mentioning. If you haven’t seen him as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy (Peter Jackson, 2001-2003) then stop reading this and immediately go and watch them. All three. Extended versions if possible. After this he put in a criminally underrated performance as the titular King Kong (Peter Jackson, 2005). He also starred as Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Rupert Wyatt, 2011) and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeves, 2014). There are six huge films there, a great weekend to be had by any fan of cinema. The reason he works so well in motion-capture roles is his level of acting and the way that translates to the big screen. One thing’s for certain – Snoke will be a dynamic character with a believable drive.

If you ever get to see the episode of Pie in the Sky titled “Passion Fruit Fool”, you will see the origins of a great actor in a completely throwaway role. Actually don’t. It’s awful.

DOMHNALL GLEESON AS GENERAL HUX
Essential viewing: Ex Machina, Black Mirror: Be Right Back

He must be evil. He has a British accent.

He must be evil. He has a British accent.

Little is known about General Hux at this stage. He’s not really featured much in the trailers and none of the merchandise has featured him prominently. What we do know is that he’s part of the Dark Side, a senior figure in the newly formed First Order – an organisation build from the embers of the downfall of the Empire in Return of the Jedi.

Whilst Gleeson might remain a bit of an unknown to the wider public outside his appearances in the two Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows films (David Yates, 2010 and 2011) as Bill Weasley, he has actually been in a plethora of excellent films since then.

The pick of the bunch is going to be the afore-mentioned Ex Machina (Alex Garland, 2015). It’s a no-brainer as you get to see excellent performances from both Gleeson and Oscar Isaac. Frank (Lenny Abrahamson, 2014) is worth watching, despite its pitfalls as a way of ruining the legacy of a well-regarded British entertainer. British romantic comedy About Time (Richard Curtis, 2013) is one to avoid. The Black Mirror episode Be Right Back (Charlie Brooker, 2013) is a short slice of ingeniously dark satirical comedy and a great way to spend an evening.

You can also see the whole of the Academy Award-winning short film Six Shooter (Martin McDonah, 2004), in which Gleeson cameos as a trolley cart attendant (his first ever role), below.

He’s an actor of real ability and will undoubtedly deliver a haunting performance despite the fact he’s such a nice chap in real life.

By the way, you pronounce his name as if& it is spelled “Donal”.

GWENDOLINE CHRISTIE AS CAPTAIN PHASMA
Essential viewing: Game of Thrones

Phasma girl

Phasma girl

If you’ve been living under a rock for the last few years then you may not have heard of a little show called Game of Thrones. If you’re THAT person, then please leave this blog straight away and catch up with the rest of the geeky world. Brienne of Tarth is a key character from the second series onwards and is also a fan favourite.

Outside of this, her most prominent role to date, Christie has also featured in two Terry Gilliam films – The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus and The Zero Theorem – though only in minor roles. She will also appear in the new Hunger Games film, Mockingjay (Part 2) as Commander Lyme. So now you have a legitimate reason to go to a screening of that film other than the strangely taboo reason that they’re all excellent films. The Force Awakens will be her biggest film role to date.

LUPITA NYONG’O AS MAZ KANATA
Essential viewing: 12 Years A Slave

Spot the difference

Spot the difference

Maz Kanata is, apparently, a female pirate who resides at Maz Katana Castle. The castle serves as a base for other pirates and smugglers and will undoubtedly play a big part for our heroes’ journeys as they beg, steal and borrow the MacGuffins to get to their end goals.

Lupita Nyong’o is a wonderful actress. Originally from Mexico but with a Kenyan father, she had her breakthrough role as Patsey in Steve McQueen’s excellent 12 Years A Slave (2013), for which she won an Academy Award for Best Actress (the first Kenyan and Mexican Academy Award winner). There really isn’t much else to look back on throughout her career (she breifly appeared in the film Non Stop in 2014), but if you’re going to be picky you might as well get an Oscar for your first big role then land a part in one of the biggest events in cinema this century.

Check out a clip from her amazing performance below.

The only reservation about her character is that it is completely CGId. Unfortunately there will inevitably be some CGI in the film but they are rather sneakily completely playing all of it down due to the negativity around Jar Jar Binks. A quick glance back to the Marvel Cinematic Universe films and Guardians of the Galaxy prove that Disney probably won’t get it wrong.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens will be released in the UK on 18th December 2015.