Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens (2015)

Star Wars The Force Awakens Theatrical Poster.jpgJ.J In the Stars With Droids

Director: J.J. Abrams
Running Time: 135 Minutes
Starring: Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Issac, Lupita Nyong'o, Andy Serkis, Domnhall Gleeson

It began with a $4 billion deal.

In October 2012, Disney added the popular Lucasfilm franchise to their acquisitions, as they promised to bring one of the most popular franchises off all time back to the big screen. Fans were wary, due to the majority opinion of the prequels, but needn't be, considering their success with the Marvel films. 3 years later, the result feels like a natural sequel to the Original Trilogy.

It is 30 years since the defeat of Emperor Palpatine and the Galactic Empire. A new threat arises, as The First Order, led by the mysterious Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), attempts to take over from where they left off. With the help of the resistance, it's up to scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley), ex-Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) and ace Rebel Pilot Poe (Oscar Isaac) to thwart their plans.

The task of distilling 30 years of back-story, and off-screen history, into a film over 2 hours long must've been daunting. Luckily, J.J Abrams is more than up to the task. Utilizing a method which worked with 2009's Star Trek, the film goes back to the roots of what made the long-running franchise work, while persevering ahead for the franchise's future.

At first glance, it can appear as though J.J has merely made a polished remake of 1977's Star Wars, but if you look a little closer, you can see so much more. For a weapon which bears similarities to the Death Star, there are scenes which show it's more destructive power, and more imposing figure. These touches help to make it feel like these characters not learning from past failures, and more like Kylo Ren adding more touches to his promise to finish what Vader started.

What's really effective is how the story unfolds, as important pieces of information and backstory are told at regular intervals. It's effective and refreshing to witness the information regularly drip fed to the audience, with none of it is delivered through chunks of exposition. The film is also unafraid to engage with darker moments, with instances like the force being used for torturous purposes. One scene showcases characters returning from a successful mission, engaging in cheers, but this isn't the scene's main focus. Abrams wisely focuses on singular characters, struggling to deal with the previous events that have left them changed.

Adam Driver was an intriguing choice to portray Kylo Ren, the film's antagonist who wields a cross-guard lightsaber. Whenever he appears on-screen, intimidating presence in tow, you know the character's in good hands, but what makes the character even more interesting is the emotional turmoil he carries inside. As this boils over, he acts out in a rage which should make him come off as a whiny brat, but becomes chilling to view.

The character was already a terrifying presence, but adding a temperamental streak along with the character information revealed? It makes for a compelling character that's masterfully done, and one of the franchise's best villains.

But that doesn't mean you should count out the film's other villains. Andy Serkis' Supreme Leader Snoke is an imposing figure, filling a role similar to that served by The Emperor in 1980's The Empire Strikes Back. Domhall Gleeson gives a performance reminiscent of Adolf Hitler, turning General Hux into a chilling figure. A slight niggle is how Captain Phasma gets little to do, despite Gwendoline Christie making quite the impression. But that's similar to Boba Fett in the Original Trilogy, and neither dampens the overall films.

I won't say that Harrison Ford slips back into his role with ease. A more accurate statement would be saying he's so at home in the role, it's as though he's never stopped playing the character since his last cinematic appearance over 30 years ago. Him and Carrie Fisher are clearly at home in their roles, sharing a chemistry which hints at how the years have been difficult for them, and had an effect on their relationship. As for Mark Hamill, there's a reason he's been noticeably absent from the promotional material.

As important as it is to reintegrate the returning characters into this world, it's as important to establish the new leads. As the Stormtrooper having a crisis of conscience, John Boyega greatly conveys the inner conflict Finn harbours, after his first mission as a Stormtrooper. His need to establish his role in this world is shared by Daisy Ridley's Rey, as the two share great chemistry (the latter's a real gem among the cast. Expect big things from her). Oscar Issac brings a confident swagger to his role, reminiscent of Harrison Ford in his hey-day.

One of the best additions is BB-8. the new droid that's been showcased all over the marketing materials. An adorable little scene-stealer who proves useful wherever possible, providing laughs and a new iconic character for a franchise with so many already. It's refreshing to see how natural C-3PO and R2D2's inclusions were, especially with how forced they were in the prequels.

A good method of telling apart each trilogy is their approach to effects work. While the original trilogy relied on impressive practical effects, the prequels were notorious for an overuse of glaring effects that were clearly computer generated. This saga makes it's own mark, utilising both practices to showcase more more corners of this galaxy and it's inhabitants, helped by how polished the computer effects have become in the past 10 years.

From a thrilling chase on Jakku, to a lightsaber battle that's breathtaking in its brutality, the ambition is evident. These scenes manage to set a new bar for this franchise, delivering action that will be remembered by the franchise's end. But A real surprise is how genuine the humor is, as Abrams takes wise steps away from outdated slapstick, focusing on the character's and the fantastic chemistry they share. As they bounce the dialogue off one another, it helps how they share such a sharp delivery of their lines. There's plenty of gorgeous cinematography for the eyes to feast on, working especially well with John Williams' beautiful score.

It could've been easy for Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens to be another lazy blockbuster Thankfully, the film is a true sequel to 1983's Return of the Jedi, managing to pay respect to what previously came before, while laying the groundwork for the remaining entries into the trilogy. From the moment the familiar opening comes on-screen, you'll feel like a child once more. It's one of the years best films.

Rian Johnson, you're up next.