***WARNING! THE SPOILERS ARE STRONG IN THIS ONE!***
The following review contains spoilers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. If you haven’t seen the film yet and don’t want to know what happens, steer clear!
Click here for my spoiler-free review or read on for a more detailed, in-depth discussion… you have been warned!
Can I say it? Please, can I say it now? I’ve been wanting to scream this out loud since I walked out of the cinema…
Here it comes…
HAN SOLO DIES!
…aaaaand breathe. Phew! This is going to be a very liberating experience. The Force Awakens is so jam packed with big moments like the one above, it’s just impossible to discuss the film properly without giving at least something away. Hooray for spoiler reviews!
The first line of spoken dialogue in the film is brilliantly tongue-in-cheek: “This will begin to make things right”. Well, it certainly does that, in spades. This seventh chapter of the Star Wars saga brings the franchise back to the cinema with an almighty bang, bombarding you with familiar characters, familiar iconography, familiar… everything, really. Which is both where this film flies and falters.
I’m not going to delve into absolutely everything about the film here – mainly because I’ve already covered my general opinions on things in the spoiler-free review, so consider this an extension rather than a replacement – but to discuss one of its biggest issues is also to give away basically the entire plot. Simply put, if you’ve seen A New Hope, you know what to expect here. A droid carrying an important message from the resistance. A lost soul from a desert planet. A sphere-shaped space station capable of destroying entire worlds. A single weak point that, if exploited by X-Wing pilots, will conveniently blow up the entirety of said space station. An old guy cut down by the villain during an assault on the enemy stronghold. Someone beginning to realise they are in tune with the Force. All of that happens in The Force Awakens, and while understandably the film makers had to touch on nostalgia when relaunching Star Wars for a new generation, it does feel a little bit too similar at times. From the younger audience’s point of view though, I can see this as a good thing – the 1977 original was a fantastic introduction to the franchise, so if The Force Awakens ends up being referred to as the 2015 rendition of A New Hope, they could certainly do a lot worse. At least it’s not The Phantom Menace. *shudder*
Thankfully, that’s not quite everything that’s going on in The Force Awakens. The title crawl says it all – “Luke Skywalker has vanished”. The journey of Episode VII is a quest to find Luke, who has done what all aged Jedi seem to end up doing by sodding off into self-imposed exile. BB-8 carries a map that serves as one of the puzzle pieces to locate him, effectively making the lovable droid the R2-D2 of this new trilogy. He’s the reason that the main characters all end up together, and he’s the bounty that the First Order are seeking. Not to be upstaged though, R2-D2 is still in the film and he effectively solves the puzzle by providing the rest of the map. Too bad he was asleep up until the last ten minutes, lazy git. C-3PO is there too, but he’s pretty much superfluous, just like his new red arm.
As for Luke himself… well, I hope you’re not too excited about seeing him again, because he literally shows up at the end for less than a minute and does bugger all except turn around and remove his hood. It’s a good set-up for Episode VIII and lets you know exactly what’s going to go down when Star Wars returns in 2017, but it’ll be a bit of disappointment for some that the Jedi Master is restricted to the closing shots of the film. I imagine this will diminish on repeated viewings though, when you already know that Luke is the destination rather than part of the journey – and in this sense, his glorified cameo appearance is a success.
Now, let’s discuss that game-changing event from the start of this review. Having stayed completely clear of any spoilers before walking into the cinema, I was completely thrown by the film’s boldest moment – Han Solo’s death at the hands of his son (oh yeah, Kylo Ren is the son of Han and Leia, making him Darth Vader’s grandson. Got that? Good). Han had played such a big part in the rest of the film up until that point, it was a shocker to see him go – but I suppose that’s why he had such a big part in hindsight, to give it some emotional whammy when he did eventually get a lightsaber impaled through his chest. I mean, once the scene actually arrived, I can’t deny that I saw it coming – a face-off on a precariously narrow walkway over a gaping pit, ripped right out of The Empire Strikes Back? Something big was going to happen, obviously. But for one small moment I genuinely believed that Ben Solo was handing over his weapon to his father and rejoining the light side… only to activate it at point blank range!
It was from this point on that the adrenaline of the climax really kicked in – Chewbacca was mad, Rey was mad, everybody was mad. Guns were fired, explosives were detonated, evil bases were fled. But, out in the snowy woods, there was nowhere left to run – killjoy of the century Kylo Ren stands in their way and the lightsaber fight that we all knew was coming kicks off. I hesitate to call this one a lightsaber “duel” because, unlike in the prequels, that implies some kind of dance-like mastery – here we have two inexperienced combatants going at it in a rough and ready confrontation. Initially, Finn faces the strong if sketchy might of Kylo Ren, a battle which not only leaves him unconscious but also finally gives some purpose to those silly little protrusions on the end of Ren’s lightsaber (he uses it to singe through Finn’s shoulder a bit). And then comes arguably the most triumphant moment of the film. Kylo Ren attempts to use the Force to pick up Luke’s old blade, it flies towards him… and then right past his face and into the hands of Rey, who has been slowly realising that she’s in tune with the Force throughout the previous two hours. Similarly to Finn, she’s a complete rookie with a lightsaber but coming straight out of Han’s death there’s a lot of tension and emotion flying high – it’s a gritty, raw fight and you want nothing more than for her to beat the living hell out of Kylo Ren’s worthless existence. And she very nearly does it, using the Force to her advantage and landing some pretty devastating blows. If it weren’t for the whole planet crumbling (yeah, the new
Death Star Starkiller Base is planet-sized now) she’d probably have finished him off. This entire climactic sequence gave some much needed merit to Kylo Ren’s villain (before this, he was basically just a stroppy teenager pretending he was a badass) and, as much as I wanted Rey to slice him to bits for murdering Han, he’ll definitely bring some threat to the rest of the trilogy. The two Force users leave the site of my favourite scene from the film, heading towards their Jedi/Sith training respectively – no doubt which will act as the focus of Episode VIII.
Before finishing, I can’t not expand upon one other gripe I mentioned in my spoiler-free review, which comes from the special effects. On the whole, everything in this film looks and feels like a classic Star Wars film should, with two main exceptions. Firstly, the Rathtars. Giant, weird-looking CGI squid creatures that could honestly have been replaced by anything else and still had the same effect. It’s only a short sequence in the grand scheme, but it jarred with the rest of the tremendous creature design and unnecessarily takes you out of the experience for a moment. And then there’s Snoke. Sorry, Supreme Leader Snoke. The Emperor 2.0, basically. What on earth is up with him? For the best part of the film, you’re led to believe that he’s a giant-sized Voldemort lookalike – again, completely CGI, and again, unnecessarily so. I admire Andy Serkis and his motion capture work, but did Snoke really need to be purely animated? He’d have looked just as good if not better as an actual, physical person. I’m willing to forgive the height thing because the end revealed that it was actually a hologram (presumably enlarged for dramatic effect), but his design? Not a fan, sadly.
Right, time to wrap up then. I’m not keen on giving definitive ratings, but if I had to give The Force Awakens a score based on my first viewing? It’s a deservingly solid 8/10. I wouldn’t go as far as to give it a full five stars like some outlets have done so, but no less than four, certainly. It’s fun, it’s flawed, but it’s undeniably thrilling – Star Wars is back, and in about as big a way as could realistically be hoped. Well done JJ Abrams for kick-starting this new trilogy off in style, I give you a BB-8 inspired thumbs up! And to everyone working on Episodes VIII and IX – may the Force be with you! There’s a lot to live up to now, after all…