Star Wars has been there for me during some of the best moments of my life and some of the worst. It's a friend to me.
This past Saturday, I felt privileged to continue a tradition started by my father when my son Xavier (9 years old) and I went along to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens here in Adelaide. The significance of the moment was not lost on me and Xavier agreed that this was a pretty special day for us both.
So, given that there has been a 32 year absence of the key characters and situations that captured my imagination as a kid, how did I feel being drawn back into that galaxy far, far away?
Star Wars: The Force Awakens is nothing short of a master piece.
It successfully captures the spirit of the original films and unashamedly tosses in a number of call backs to those films which inspire nothing but affection. The Force Awakens has an energy and a sense of fun that graciously recalls the spirit of the original trilogy and it also - albeit it subtly - offers nods to the prequel trilogy, acknowledging its historical importance in shaping galactic events and characters in this third age. Guided by the stellar direction of J.J. Abrams, the story telling by Lawrence Kasdan, Michael Arndt and J.J. Abrams and the visuals captured by Dan Mindel, the production of The Force Awakens dispenses with the sterility of the prequels both in terms of direction, story and visuals and returns us to a kind of Star Wars that is immediately engaging, robust in it's story arcs and tactile in its visuals.
The film is primarily geared towards introducing a new cast of characters in order to drive the story forward anew but this new cast is satisfyingly enmeshed with the legacy of the original cast and it is one of the most successful examples of this kind of story telling I've seen in recent years.
While I had high hopes for the new cast, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Issac, Adam Driver, Domnhall Gleeson et. al, never in my wildest dreams did I expect them to offer what they did.
(image credit: StarWars.com)
Daisy Ridley, as the enigmatic Rey, carries the film. She is a actor who infuses her character with wit, intelligence, charm, guts, strength and gravitas. Make no mistake, the efforts to bring strong female characters to the Star Wars universe has been fantastic in recent years, but Ridley's Rey wipes the floor with her performance. I would go as far as saying that Rey outshines Leia.
John Boyega, as a conflicted and defecting First Order Stormtrooper Finn, brings an infectious sense of fun to the film - as well as moments of poignancy, courage, loyalty and quick wit. As was hinted at in the trailer, Finn is a young man who realizes that the cause he has been raised for is not the cause he wants to be a part of and this is established early in the film in one of the first scenes that evoked an emotional response in me. It is a brief moment when one of his squad mates is shot dead during an intense fire fight. Ridley's and Boyega's scenes together give a clear indication of the strength of their off screen friendship and it translates clearly into the fictional space.
(image credit: Movieweb).
Oscar Issac Poe Dameron - a roguish Resistance X-Wing pilot- is the heart throb element of this new set of principal actors and the character who I compared the most with a certain classic "rogue". Issacs' scenes are smaller but essential to the story. He brings to them an old school sense of heroism and I couldn't help but be reminded of the old Kenneth More films like "Reach For The Sky" & "A Night To Remember" whenever I saw Poe on screen.
(image credit: Wikipedia).
(image credit: Star Wars.com).
Adam Driver's Kylo Ren turned out to be one of the biggest surprises for me in the film and how his story ties in with the Star Wars legacy will be thee thing to observe as the new trilogy unfolds. Driver's Ren is satisfyingly psychopathic, chaotic and as dangerous as any antagonist I've ever witnessed in the Star Wars universe and I am so pleased that the build up we got to this character paid off so handsomely in the finished film.
(image credit: StarWars.com)
And then there is the legacy cast of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Peter Mayhew and Anthony Daniels.
(image credit: SDCC International.)
Well Harrison Ford and Peter Mayhew as the classic double team of Han Solo and Chewbacca steal the show in what I think is their best performance together. They steal every scene that they are featured in and within those scenes it is actually Mayhew who runs perilously close to stealing Ford's thunder. Chewbacca is a character that relies so much on non verbal cues to convey emotion and Mayhew is able to do that from behind the mask so convincingly. His big eyes and the subtle movements he makes with the mask are just wonderful to behold.
Harrison Ford brings 30 years of unknown story to Han Solo in a way that feels so right that it's ridiculous. In a few short moments after his reintroduction, we are brought up to speed with his story - not necessarily through the story itself, but in the physical appearance of Solo, the way he carries himself, the graveliness of his voice. And, as the wider story of The Force Awakens unfolds, we bear witness to a surprisingly robust tale of love and loss that orbits Han Solo which makes his trajectory in the film one of the most emotional I think I've ever seen in a Star Wars film.
Carrie Fisher's return as Leia Organa-Solo - the General is a really satisfying one. I was one of those who was concerned with just how her performance might play out but I need not have been. Fisher brought back that same pluck, dedication and humor we all know of Leia. And yet, Organa-Solo is older and wiser and war weary too. Fisher doesn't shy away from portraying that. Her history in the aftermath of Return Of The Jedi, so entwined as it is with Han Solo as we'd all hoped it would be is one of the best qualities of the story. The moments she shares with her estranged husband and Daisy Ridley's Rey are beautiful and affirming.
Mark Hamill's return as Luke Skywalker is one of the briefest returns ever seen for such an iconic character but, in the short time he appears on screen, Hamill delivers something undeniably powerful - and just in facial expressions! A whole gamut of emotions passes across his wearied visage in those moments that hint at a powerful backstory that will unfold in Episode's 8 and 9.
John William's score for the film is as much a character within the film and it is a victorious return for Williams whose previous entries into Star Wars lore during the prequel era suffered from a creative lethargy that typified those films. And that's not to say that there wasn't memorable moments in those scores. I still regard Duel Of The Fates from Episode 1 and Anakin vs. Obi Wan from Episode 3 as stand out moments from the prequels. The score here in The Force Awakens is dynamic, emotive, rousing and fun. It is clear that Williams had fun with the music and I am so glad that it is Williams who guided that most essential of ingredients for cinematic Star Wars.
And yet, with all of this praise for the film, you're probably not going to believe this but, I did not think that The Force Awakens was a perfect film. I did actually have problems with it.
Max Von Sydow's appearance in the film was one that was highly anticipated from the moment his casting was announced and the fan community discussion ran wild with speculation as to who he might play. At one point, it was even suggested that he might play the notorious bounty hunter Boba Fett. In the end, his role was ridiculously small and confined to just a few moments in the opening of the film. While I can appreciate the story motivation for the presence of his character - THIS WAS MAX VON FREAKING SYDOW!! I came away wishing that he was somehow more connected to Rey - maybe as a Ben Kenobi styled guardian - but the character of Lor San Tekka (Sydow) was essentially a throw away one and a huge disappointment for me.
Gwendoline Christie's Captain Phasma, the silver armored First Order Stormtrooper, sent fans into the stratosphere when her casting was announced and her character was detailed both on paper and visually. However Phasma turned out to be one of the least compelling characters in the film. She just wasn't given that much to do and, while she wasn't consigned to an inglorious demise (a'la Boba Fett in the original trilogy), Phasma turned out to be not all that compelling. I do have hopes that her role will be expanded in the next film but, here in The Force Awakens, I wasn't impressed with Captain Phasma.
When the first teaser trailer premiered earlier in the year at Star Wars Celebration, the moment when Han Solo and Chewbacca appeared on screen in the famous "We're Home" scene at the end of that trailer was, arguably, the greatest moment in Star Wars history. It packed an emotional punch that reduced me to joyful fanboy tears in among all of the thousands of fanboy and fangirl tears all around the world. Well, that scene - as it was presented in the final film - WAS NOT the same scene from the trailer. Sure, it was an approximation of the same scene but it was a different take altogether, one that lacked the gravitas of the one seen in the trailer. I'll go further and say that there were many scenes in that trailer as well as the subsequent trailers that were either different takes in the final film or they were missing altogether. So much of my anticipation for this film was built on those trailer scenes so to have them missing from the final product was a disappointment.
(image credit: Amazon).
I have to say, the novel is an amazing companion to the film because it fleshes out a lot of things that were hinted at but not expressly put out there. One thing that has become abundantly clear to me - and I can't believe I'm saying this - is that the politics of the post Jedi Galaxy are actually fascinating. In the novel, we get an expansion - through Leia's eyes - on why the Resistance exists, where they stand with the Republic and, how Leia Organa-Solo is seen by the Republic. I can sort of understand why they couldn't include all of it in the film but man, I reckon another 15 minutes would probably have helped without bogging down the narrative
But that's it.
Star Wars: Episode 7 - The Force Awakens is a stunning rebirth of a franchise that I admittedly thought could not be resurrected. Back in 2012, when the deal between George Lucas and Disney was announced, I was one of those people who actually said "What the Fuck???" I could not see how they would be able to pull it off. Leaving the theater on Saturday afternoon, I could not believe that I had ever thought that way.
Abrams The Force Awakens is a brash and bold piece that seamlessly continues the legacy of Star Wars. It acknowledges the history of the originals and it's prequels and it catapults us all forward into a third age filled with promise, thrills and spills, tragedy and triumph. But most of all...
P.S. - Two podcasts that I highly recommend if you're wanting to understand the underlying themes of the film are Steele Wars' post screening show and Full Of Sith's round table discussion of the film. Click through to each via the images below.