It takes a lot just to make a good movie. When it comes to extending or re-launching a movie franchise so beloved as to have become its own brand, the level of difficulty gets even higher. We’ve seen plenty of examples in genre cinema where sequels crash and burn with little to show besides the blatant greed to milk every last drop out of a proved formula or, in a sincere but misguided gesture of reverence, filmmakers go over-the-top with mythology-building and dramatisation that are supposed to add gravitas but only spoil the party.
Cut to Star Wars, the mothership of them all, a bona fide cultural phenomenon that has inspired fanaticism and redefined the term blockbuster since 1977. It’s clearly a thankless job to attempt to introduce new chapters to the original trilogy, worshipped by countless with religious fervor. The fact that not even the mastermind behind the series, George Lucas, could repeat the magic with his now infamous Star Wars prequels, speaks volumes about the complexity of the task.
Along came J.J. Abrams, who actually pulled off the impossible feat and, with this chronologically latest installment, delivered something renewed but classy, calculated but not overwrought, serious in every aspect of its endeavor but at the same time, so much fun.
Things get moving right away after the legendary opening crawl informs us of Episode VII’s premise: 30 years after the events in Return of the Jedi, both the resistance and the Galactic Empire’s militant reincarnation – the First Order – are looking for a certain person to advance their cause. It’s the most basic of setups with a well-defined mission and easily identifiable conflicts, but also one that you can hold on to nicely while getting up to speed with a brand new cast of characters. Further into the movie, familiar faces start to pop up and join in the action. Together the colourful bunch will roam the galaxy, uncover truths about themselves, fight the eternal battle of good and evil – accompanied by John Williams’ ever-heroic score. In other words: it’s just like old times.
Indeed, the clever, finely-tuned screenplay incorporates prospective storylines into the indelible sci-fi legacy famously. There are plenty of new leads, including clues and unanswered questions that widen up a variety of future possibilities, but they are embedded in the same narrative of adventure and quest for freedom the world has come to know and love. Also reminiscent of the original trilogy is the fact that the film, amidst all the mayhem and adventures, doesn’t shy away from humour or variations of its Hamletian themes. So expect a heady, highly entertaining mix of laughs, tears, thrills and nostalgia. Meanwhile, this altogether lean piece of writing is confident enough to paint its players in strong, simple strokes and allow the plot developments room to breathe, leaving a refreshingly uncluttered impression seldom shared by tentpole movies of comparable caliber.
For that sense of restraint, Abrams’ direction is equally to be credited. While some of the earlier scenes might come across as blunt and betray a trace of sensationalism or indiscipline, he eventually eases into gear and tells the bulk of the story with superb flow and an almost vintage grace. Yes, the digital technology of today has enabled optical tricks unthinkable four decades ago, and Abrams more than passes the test with numerous fluidly shot, precisely edited and seamlessly visualised chase or battle sequences. But even more impressive than his ability to stage these spectacular setpieces is probably how he reins it in during many of the film’s quieter moments. Be it a lone rider speeding across the horizon, two lovers gently saying goodbye or an unlikely lightsaber duel symbolising a war carried over to the next generation, it’s the classic grandeur of these scenes that elevates the whole picture to greatness.
Without getting into the fates of their characters, it’s safe to say Ford and Fisher are better than ever, reprising their iconic roles with seasoned repose. Of the younger cast, Driver (as “Kylo Ren”) and Isaac (“Poe Dameron”) show considerable charisma that makes them appropriately unreadable/believable. Boyega (“Finn”) and Gleeson (“General Hux”), don’t fare as well, both their performances marred by a degree of overzeal. Nyong'o proves to be a weirdly off choice for a motion-capture part (“Maz Kanata”), mainly because she doesn’t convey the supposedly ancient age with her chime-like enunciation. Then there’s Ridley, who, as Rey, dazzles with a disarmingly open face that speaks innocence, defiance, doubt, an entire past.
All things considered, The Force Awakens is one of those rare cases where a sequel is not only a tremendous movie on its own terms, but an organic continuation of the saga it succeeds. Epic in scale, thoughtful in composition, loving in tone, it’s Hollywood studio production at its wowing, rousing best. Yoda would have approved.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens | Directed by J.J. Abrams (USA 2015) with Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Adam Driver, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Lupita Nyong'o, Domhnall Gleeson. Starts December 17