I went into the cinema expecting to hate this movie…
I really did. I’ve never been a George Lucas fanboy and like most of us dissenters have become sick of Star Wars being the hallmark of nerdiness. I had the lowest possible expectations when I leant back in my chair and blue text faded in bearing the message “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”. I am embittered to say that, despite my cynicism, I loved it.
Star Wars was a rollercoaster that took me from excitement to sadness to complete awe. When the credits rolled, the whole audience exhaled in relief, then burst into applause. And it was a well-deserved ovation. I could stop here and recommend that, if you don’t have a photosensitive condition (otherwise you might be in for a few nasty shocks) and have even the smallest inclination to watch it, book tickets now. But for the sake of the uninformed and curious I will breeze through the plot and explain why I think this film works where the prequels failed. (I will try keeping spoilers out of the equation and discuss only what would be seen in the trailers)
Set thirty years after the original trilogy, Star Wars VII pitches the Rebels against the First Order, a new evil that formed from the remnants of the Empire. The story follows three new heroes: the Rebel ace pilot Poe, Rey, a mysterious girl living on the scrapyard planet Jakku, and FN-2187 (or Finn) a Stormtrooper who deserts the First Order. They find their fates intertwined around a unanimous quest to find Luke Skywalker, who disappeared after his attempts to rebuild the Jedi were destroyed by Kylo Ren. Ren is the new villain, a Sith who was Luke’s pupil and has tasked himself with killing his former master. Rey and Finn travel from Jakku (a desert world) to Takodana (a jungle planet) with the help of Han and Chewy and finally to a snowy world where the Rebels try to land a blow against the First Order. The promise of a series about the ties between families is finally delivered, as this new generation finds itself connected with the most likely of individuals. We are whisked on a journey of moral choices, ground, air and lightsaber battles and a fatal encounter that almost broke my heart. Its conclusion left me excited for the sequel, but entirely satisfied with the film as a whole.
So, why did this film succeed where the prequels failed? I can think of three main reasons:
First of all, there was emotionality. Hayden Christensen’s Anakin in Attack of the Clones was lifeless. Natalie Portman as Padme was similarly corpselike and the romance between them wasn’t believable. In The Force Awakens, we have John Boyega’s Finn who is high on his first moments of freedom since birth. We have Oscar Isaac’s happy-go-lucky Poe who pulls one of the best pain-faces I’ve seen this year. Adam Driver’s Ren (though not as strong in his acting) shows a troubled Sith, who is capable of being strong and intimidating, but also reverts to being an angry man-child when things go wrong. Strength of performance hands-down goes to The Force Awakens.
Secondly, there is simply the difference between before and after. In the prequels, the characters had no way of changing what would happen: the Republic would fall and Anakin go to the dark side. It is hard to be invested in a story when you know what will happen. When you are ahead of a written history, anything can happen. The First Republic could win, the Rebels could disband and every single character could die. When the future is unwritten, every action has meaning and so we are invested in the choices the characters make.
Art by Lightsabered on Deviantart.
Finally, I think J J Abrams knows how to make a Star Wars movie. I’m not saying George Lucas doesn’t, that would be ignoring the reality of things, but I think building on the original trilogy requires more perspective than George Lucas can manage. He has shown blatant disregard for his own work, tweaking every one of his films on a bi-annual basis. Abrams captured the style of the original movies faithfully and expanded on them. The visuals, sound and fight scenes all hark back in a nostalgic and beautiful way. A lot of the dialogue is a little too dated and instead of being cool comes off as very cliché. Almost ever shot is a call-back to some moment in the franchise. This could all lead to some rather dangerous drinking games (every time someone says “the force”, every time the Stormtroopers miss every shot). The result: it gets rather close to being Star Wars fanfiction, but comes off as being more a homage than a replication.
In short, this is a damn good film. I loved everything from the first appearance of Finn to the cliff-hanger ending, which you can contemplate for yourself after watching this next and most worthy instalment in the Star Wars franchise.