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Thursday, 17 December 2015

Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens

(M) ★★★★

Director: J.J. Abrams.

Cast: Harrison Ford, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, Peter Mayhew, Domhnall Gleeson, Lupita Nyong’o, Carrie Fisher, Anthony Daniels, Andy Serkis, Mark Hamill.

"It's George Lucas! Run for it!"

IT is increasingly likely that at some point in the future, every film will be remade.

Even the seemingly untouchable and iconic ones – like, say, Star Wars – will get a re-imagining centuries from now.

If someone 100 years in the future is bold/stupid enough to remake the original 1977 saga-spawning game-changing sci-fi classic, they would do well to check out J.J. Abrams’ sterling effort with Episode VII.

This new addition to the franchise is, in many ways, a remake. While it’s actually a sequel, a bit of a reboot, and a definite passing of the torch, it follows similar story beats and even specific plot points of Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope.

This is not a criticism – it’s a compliment and part of the secret to its success. Abrams and his co-writers Lawrence Kasdan (who wrote episodes V and VI) and Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine, Toy Story 3) have tapped into many of the core elements that made the original work, as well as the structure and pacing, to build something that is both fresh and familiar.

This nostalgic skeleton and classic storytelling approach has been fleshed out with great new characters and new twists on old favourites. Incoming masked baddie Kylo Ren (Driver) is a fantastic villain, taking the imposing nature and deathly style of Darth Vader and combining it with real flaws, such as a wild, brattish temper and a niggling sense of self-doubt and inferiority. He is a true threat yet also feels like a well-rounded character, and he’s one of the best things in The Force Awakens.

Not to be outdone though is Ridley as Rey – the shining heart of the film. Her character merges traits of Luke Skywalker and Leia Organa (that’s not a comment on her lineage, by the way). She has Skywalker’s wide-eyed naivety and earnestness, and it is through her eyes we see much of the universe, but she also has Organa’s can-do attitude and brashness. Rey continues Hollywood’s welcome recent run with strong female action leads (The Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen, Mad Max: Fury Road’s Furiosa) – she is not a damsel in need of rescuing; she is more likely to free herself and save everyone else in the process.

The other big tick for the casting agents is Boyega as Finn, a stormtrooper trying to find his place in the galaxy after deciding that slaughtering the innocent is not his cup of tea. He delivers a good mixture of drama and humour, and shares good chemistry with Ridley and Ford.

The latter returns as Han Solo, older, a bit goofier, and far less sprightly than he used to be. Ford slips into the role like it's a comfy old leather jacket and helps balance the fresh elements with a sense of history and occasion. The character has also evolved sensibly – he is wiser for his experiences and also tired of it all.

Less well handled is Fisher’s return as the promoted General Leia Organa. While Leia and Han’s relationship is well played, the writers and Fisher don’t seem to have figured out exactly who the princess has become.

One of the most notable things about The Force Awakens is that it does the prequels no favours. While episodes I, II and III have their moments, they’re shown up as being the green-screen-heavy toy commercials they truly are when compared with Episode VII. This is a real film, set in a real-seeming tangible lived-in world, with real-seeming people you care about, and the majority of the movie doesn’t look like a computer game.

Add in the fact this has the best acting, best dialogue, best direction, and best cinematography of any film in the entire franchise, and the prequels don’t stand a chance. It doesn’t have the myth-making quality of the original – nothing can – nor does it have a stack of classic moments, but nonetheless this is technically a better crafted film than any of its predecessors.

There are flaws. An extended set-piece involving tentacled creatures loose on a spaceship plays badly, while some key moments in the third act feel rushed. Gleeson is also miscast and saves Fisher from the ‘worst on ground’ award.

There is also a dark air to this that, while certainly no darker than the deepest pockets of episodes III and V, stamps this as a film for the older fans. The slapstick of Jar Jar Binks and twee annoyances of young ‘Ani’ Skywalker are nowhere to be seen, thank the maker. It’s largely bloodless, but its M rating is warranted.

All in all, The Force Awakens is deeply satisfying. It’s as good as fans could have hoped for and better than we deserve. It is a fine successor to the original trilogy that knows what it needs to do, packs in some fantastic and emotional surprises along the way, and impresses on so many levels that many will want to go and see it again.

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