Director: J.J. Abrams
Cast: Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega
Rating: Three stars
There are certain creative products that you cannot look at in isolation -- they must be seen in a larger context, in terms of their impact or significance, the situation of/around their making/viewing etc. The new Star Wars film -- The Force Awakens -- is one such.
It is difficult to be immune to the enormous history that the Star Wars franchise carries song with it. Few other franchises (maybe Star Trek and Lord of the Rings) can claim such a long-standing devoted and fanatic fandom. Add to that the fact that the Star Wars universe (we mean the books, films, comics etc -- not the galaxy/system within which the characters live, die, operate) is so vast and complex (not to mention, confusing), and you have a powerful, global, cultural phenomenon, and not just a set of movies.
From the very first seconds of The Force Awakens, you're immensely aware of the film's legacy. Against the iconic background of space, the words fill the viewer in on the story thus far (The Force Awakens picks up the plot 30 years after where Return of the Jedi left us). Luke Skywalker has been missing for several years after one of his Jedi apprentices crosses over to the dark side. His sister Leia is looking for him, but so is the First Order, the militia that's risen up from the ashes of what used to be the Empire. One of Leia’s trusted pilots, Poe (Oscar Isaac) manages to get a map that may lead to Luke, but before he can get it back to the headquarters of the resistance, he is apprehended by a battalion of stormtroopers, with a potential Darth Vader successor called Kylo Ren (player by Adam Driver) at their head. Ren captures Poe and takes him aboard his ship -- but not before the latter manages to hide the device containing the map on his faithful droid BB-8. The scene is reminiscent of the first ever Star Wars film, 1977’s A New Hope, which begins with Princess Leia hiding an important message on her droid R2D2, before Darth Vader can take her into his custody.
Indeed, The Force Awakens realises and capitalises on the fact that its closeness to the original trilogy by George Lucas is its greatest strength, and scenes that will take you back to those films are clear winners here. Then there's also the return of the original cast of characters -- Harrison Ford as Han Solo, Chewbacca aka Chewie, Carrie Fisher as Leia Organa, Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker and of course, old favourites C-3PO and R2D2. Every time they make an appearance of screen, the feel-good factor is undeniable.
Despite the presence of the heavyweights, the new stars who join the franchise with The Force Awakens manage to hold their own. They are: Finn (FN-2187, a stormtrooper who helps Pose escape from the First Order's torture chamber and later becomes a key player in the race to get the droid BB-8 and its precious map back to Leia. He is played by John Boyega) and Rey, a scavenger and mechanical genius on the planet Jakku who rescues BB-8 and subsequently, realises that she has a greater power than she could have possibly guessed (Daisy Ridley). Their adventures -- abetted by Han and Chewie -- carry along a major portion of the film.
The acting of course has never been the strong suit of the Star Wars films, and it isn't the focus here. The actors, even Ford, are just about competent when any emoting is called for (The reunion between Han and Leia is disappointingly lacklustre. Adam Driver as Kylo Ren is perhaps the exception; he does bring out the conflict between the forces of darkness and light within him fairly well). But the spectacle of the galaxy, of space travel and war and the desolation/beauty of it all has never been captured better. The stormtroopers here have a real menace, of a kind they didn't have in the original trilogy, and the byproducts of life in that galaxy (the space junk, for instance, that Rey salvages to exchange for food) is depicted very realistically.
By the time the film reaches its climax, you'll find yourself quite satisfied with this reboot. It gives fans of the franchise everything they could possibly hope for -- but it also updates the series for a new generation of viewers, ensuring that the Star Wars brand will continue to enthrall our collective imagination for many more years.
There's a moment when Carrie Fisher makes her first appearance on screen, and you're shocked to see just how much Princess Leia has aged since her glory days. In the fictional galaxy that she lives in, it's been three decades since we saw her last. In the real world of course, it's been nearly four decades since we first saw her, hair done up in buns over her ears and dressed in a white robe, as she sent an appeal to Obi-Wan Kenobi for help through R2D2. So much time has gone by since then, and the world has changed in innumerable ways. For a story and cast of characters to exert as much fascination over us despite all that change, is a testament to its power.
Or maybe, it's just that now more than ever, we feel the need to be swept up in what's happening in a galaxy far, far away.