Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens – Review

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Merry Christmas Star Wars fans! We have our first new movie in the franchise since 2005’s Revenge of the Sith, and while the Prequels left a bit of a sour taste in the mouths of many fans, the hype train has been at all time speeds in anticipation for Episode 7: The Force Awakens. But the unshakeable question in the back of every fan’s head is this: Are we getting another OT or PT? The originals are beloved, the prequels more or less despised. How does the next in the new trilogy (Sequel Trilogy? Disney Trilogy? What are we naming these?) stack up? Well that’s what 1Up Culture is for. Below is a spoiler free review. But note that by spoiler free, I’m presuming you’ve seen the trailers that were released. If you’ve seen them, nothing here should be a spoiler. But you have been warned, if you really want to go in blind don’t read any further. If you’ve seen the movie, or just don’t care, I have a spoiler talk piece on the movie that’s now up for reading too.

This is a hard movie to talk about without spoiling, because even the trailers showed us very little. But in a careful nutshell the story of The Force Awakens follows Finn, a Stormtrooper who begins to question his path as a soldier of the First Order. That questioning leads him to Rey, a resident of the totally-not-Tatooine planet of Jakku. After some things and events they come across Han and Chewbacca, which leads to more things and events, all the while the evil Kylo Ren is on their tail. Not much of a plot synopsis, but that’s what you get for spoiler free…

The Force Awakens goes back to its roots, avoiding many of the basic pitfalls that the prequels made. The story here is much simpler, choosing to ride the classic hero’s journey trope hard. As a result we get a clear act structure, with time for both action and character development. The action is fast and exciting, but when that slows down the story doesn’t. One of the big problems with the prequels was the amount of story exposition and plot progression we got through stationary, boring scenes. Here when the story is being told it comes across natural, and it occurs within the flow of the movie. As a result The Force Awakens is so much easier to watch than any of the prequels. It’s story writing 101: show the audience, don’t just tell. This movie does that. It’s also one of the funnier Star Wars movies. The humour is used well without being forced (insert your pun here) and there are some genuine laugh out loud moments.

The lightsaber fight (It’s Star Wars, not a spoiler to mention there’s one) is intense. It doesn’t go for the flashy overly choreographed style of the prequels, but instead it’s hard hitting and feels natural. And when the Force powers presented in the movie hit, they hit hard. They have a weight to them here unlike ever before. Outside of Palpatine’s force lightning in ‘Jedi’ and Yoda demonstrating his power in ‘Empire’, The Force Awakens may be have my favourite representations of what the Force is capable of. It doesn’t go over the top with what can be accomplished, but when it’s used it is used well, and it feels real. Part of this is thanks to the acting but there’s also a clear direction here by Abrams in what he wants to see.

The acting is if not on par with the best in the franchise, then it goes above and beyond it. Harrison Ford as Han Solo is at his best, and all the new stars shine. There’s a bit more depth and character development in these characters than what we had after the first movies of the other two trilogies. It would have been easy to just play Han as he was, but instead Ford shows how Solo has grown since we last saw him, and it is great to see that progression. Yes he serves a basic role as a guide, metaphorically handing the series over to the young bloods and assuring the audience they can handle it, but it is done so within the realms of the story and is honestly handled very well. The interaction between him and Leia is great, and it isn’t hamfisted in for the sake of appeasing the fans. It is handled well and with respect to the originals.

Part of this is because it’s building off of the world already established, but I felt that Rey and Finn are both more well rounded than Luke, Han and Leia, at least after one movie. We don’t get as much of Poe, which is a shame because he was instantly likeable, but this is a trilogy, and there’s time for that. What I like about Finn is that he feels completely unique to the characters we’ve seen throughout all the movies. He doesn’t draw too much on characters who have come before him.

The other main lead – Rey – may be the best addition to the Star Wars franchise this movie makes. For young girls being introduced to Star Wars, she is just the kind of character that will give them something to latch onto. Leia was fantastic, but Rey is a little more action orientated and is allowed to do a bit more. We’ve had some characters like Ahsoka in the animated series, but with Star Wars the movies will always be number one, so getting someone like Rey front and centre could be huge for it going forward. Finn’s character stands out against the Star Wars backdrop, and John Boyenga is great in the role, but for me Rey steals the show.

BB8 was the cause of much debate when he was revealed in the trailer, but the good news is he’s more R2D2 and less Jar Jar Binks. Abrams gets a lot of emotion out of the little droid, but outside of some key scenes early on in the movie he never dominates the story or the screen like those two would.  And like BB8, the creatures and scenes of The Force Awakens feel like they’re actually there, and that’s because they generally are. You can tell Abrams and the team had a preference for practical effects where possible and oh my do they make a difference. There’s still plenty of CGI, but while the prequels were often just actors working with nothing but blue screens, you can see and feel that they’re actually in the world of The Force Awakens. The galaxy – especially Jakku – feels real and it adds so much to the immersion.

I was a little concerned about how Kylo Ren would come across. In the imagery and trailers I thought we were just getting Vader in a Darth Revan cosplay, but there’s a bit of a unique twist and edge to his character that helps steer him away. That’s not to say there aren’t parallels (the movie is full of them) but Kylo Ren isn’t the same as the villains we’ve already had. Adam Driver does a solid job portraying a somewhat atypical villain and brings the right amount of intensity when it’s required.

When I say there are parallels, I mean it. At times it feels like the movie is more of a homage to the Original Trilogy than a sequel. You can tell this was crafted by a big fan like Abrams. Whether it’s verbal remarks that will make your nostalgia twitch or scene similarities that call back to what you grew up with, it feels like a conscious effort to signal to the fandom that “We’re like A New Hope, not Phantom Menace!”. As a major fan of the franchise part of me was nearly leaping for joy with these aspects, because they’re executed well and look amazing on the big screen. But it does feel like by doing it, and doing it to the extent that they did, the movie ended up playing it safe. A little too often the immersion breaks because you begin playing ‘spot the callback’. Hopefully as the new trilogy moves forward a balance can be found between honouring the originals and becoming a strong entity within itself.

Here’s what I’m going to finish on, and it is perhaps the best praise I can give this movie. I grew up watching the Original Trilogy on VHS, so after watching one I could just pop in the next. I didn’t have to wait three years after ‘Empire’ to see what happened. When the Prequels came out I saw all of them in the cinemas, but I never remember leaving wanting more. I could wait for the next to come out. After The Force Awakens was finished, I wanted more. I wanted the story to continue, I wanted to see where the characters would go next. If I could of, I would have chucked in that next VHS like I would with the originals.

This is a great Star Wars movie. It’s also a great movie in its own right. It’s not perfect, there are flaws and the series has always leaned heavily on convenient plot events. But the good far outweighs the bad. The Force Awakens answers some questions, leaves some hanging and gives you some new ones to think about. This isn’t an innovative film, and it doesn’t stray too far from what we know and love. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that it does what it does really well. I went in with Age of Ultron levels of hype, and while I left that disappointed, once the credits for The Force Awakens appeared I had a big smile on my face. A lot of people are proclaiming Star Wars is back with this movie, and it’s hard to argue with that. May the Force be with us all.

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