The Force Awakens.
I wasn't actually planning on watching this film until it came out on DVD, because I'm not tremendously keen on cinemas, and I don't have quite the nostalgic attachment to Star Wars that a lot of people do. While I've always enjoyed it, including the prequels please don't stab me, it was never a shimmering moment of my childhood, not least because Return of the Jedi came out nearly a decade before I was born.
I was eventually persuaded primarily by the fact that people around me wanted to talk to someone about it and I am a sucker for conversation topics. Love some good conversation topics. Love 'em.
Set some time after the original trilogy, The Force Awakens follows tech scavenger Rey on the junkyard world of Jakku, who has to go on the run with defected stormtrooper Finn after she comes into possession of a droid targeted by the First Order, an organisation that rose out of the Empire and idolises Darth Vader, who want to find Luke Skywalker. Fleeing Jakku, the three end up throwing in with Han Solo and Chewbacca as they make their way across the galaxy to try to find the Resistance, a New Republic backed group that fights against the First Order. Meanwhile, under the command of Sith Lord Kylo Ren, and the draconian and ruthless General Hux and Captain Phasma, the First Order unveils their new weapon - a battle station set into a planet, which can destroy any world from anywhere in the galaxy.
So, I did actually really like this film. It's technically very strong, combining excellent pacing, concise writing, and sharp dialogue with a variety of beautiful landscapes and a cast absolutely chock full of excellent actors.
|See? You're fine with the mask, dear.|
By which I mean chock full. The name recognition of Star Wars and nostalgia value means that there are veteran actors in even minor roles, such as Daniel Craig as a stormtrooper with two lines, Thomas Brodie-Sangster as a random Imperial officer, and Freema Agyeman as 'startled woman on Coruscant.'
The central cast, meanwhile, are all near-newcomers. John Boyega and Daisy Ridley, Londoners who play Finn and Rey respectively, have both never been leads in a major blockbuster film before; Adam Driver and Oscar Isaac, playing main villain Kylo Ren and deuteragonist Poe Dameron, are more prominent actors, but not by much. They're all incredibly strong actors, hitting both comedic and dramatic beats perfectly - the only one that I would say is a problem is Adam Driver.
Driver's Ren is fine when he's wearing his mask, not least because when he's wearing his mask, his voice is filtered to make it sound mechanical and echo-y. When he takes it off, however, he does not come across as a compelling villain: I have never encountered an actor less intimidating, and every maskless Ren scene is slightly painful to watch, as he acts like Hayden Christensen's Anakin magnified to the power of ten.
|There's a lot to take in here.|
Maybe that was intentional: Ren, after all, isn't meant to be an out-and-out villain, but a villain in the making, manipulated by people more powerful and cunning than he is. Certainly Driver was intentionally playing up the vulnerability and youth of the character for effect. It doesn't really work, though, since the performance just kills any intimidation factor the character has. There are ways to balance 'tortured character struggling with their own morals' and 'intimidating villain' - that was Vader's schtick in Return of the Jedi.
It's a nitpick in a film which is startlingly strong. It's not a lifechanging film, and let's face it, it was never intended to be, but it is a fun, deeply enjoyable action film with two very capable and engaging leads. I will happily watch Finn and Rey (and Poe) run around the galaxy for two more films. Happily.
But it does kind of play up the nostalgia factor a bit too much, to the point where it actually feels almost cynical rather than joyful. It's a joy seeing Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher back, but the film overuses Ford a shade, and makes a smidgeon too many references back to previous films, with the result being that it feels like there was a nostalgia quota the writers had to fulfill.
|Apparently I am just as awestruck by Gwendolyne Christie's terrible radiance and talent|
even when it's just her voice.
What did surprise me, but which I can't decide if I like or dislike, is the film's willingness to cut and burn parts of the universe. Coruscant, setting for almost all of the prequels, is destroyed, and the New Republic with it; Han is killed off; the New Jedi Order are gone again. These are massive changes, and on some level, that made me uncomfortable, even though as a genuine entry in the franchise with an equal standing to the six other films, the film definitely can make those huge sea changes.
All in all, this is probably a candidate for my best film of the year, and I'm very much looking forward both to Rogue One and Episode VIII. I will be absolutely delighted to see Finn and Rey back, and I am very much interested to see where their story goes. And also to see Kylo Ren never remove his mask again ever. Also, to see more of Gwendolyne Christie. I have many hopes and dreams for this trilogy.
Also, Ren's lightsaber is still impractical, sorry.