So, now the dust has settled: Just how good IS Star Wars: The Force Awakens?
Director JJ Abrams - Produced by LucasArts / Bad Robot- Cert. 12A
Some spoilers, but no discussion of the second-half of the film.
So, that music starts and the familiar off-gold lettering of the written prologue begins to reel up the screen and, frankly, if some of the hairs on your body aren't standing on end and vibrating then there must be something wrong with you. Even if this is your first Star Wars film the combination of that music and the way this film chooses to open lets you know that the distinct possibility of much adventure is ahead.
The former rebels now have democracy - the New Republic; the remnants of The Empire have slowly reassembled and grown, now called The New Order (some seriously Nazi-like imagery occasionally being used - so still very much the bad guys then). In order to grow their ranks quickly their armies of Stormtroopers are no longer grown in cloning facilities and instead their soldiers are vetted and enlisted normal humans. After years of rebuilding they're finally ready for a significant offensive.
The trail of wordage disappears and we're left looking at that familiar star-field we always start these films with - holding on for a few seconds. How do you compete with a Star Destroyer roaring overhead as in the original?
You don't. The camera pans down and we see the black outline of a Star Destroyer. We can tell it's big but not how big - then part of the moon in the background is blotted out and it's bigger than we could have possibly imagined; it's obviously gigantic. We purposely do not get a proper look at it - our minds race. If you can't show the audience something more impressive than a Destroyer booming down the screen let them do the work for you; our imaginations go into overtime - just how powerful is that massive thing?
Shuttles depart, loaded with Stormtroopers. Below, a Rebel, Poe Dameron, collects some important information from an Alliance sympathiser. It's important and The New Order want it. The shuttles sweep down on the village and surge through the meager defences; once on the ground the Stormtroopers are given the order to massacre the villagers. The suddenness and matter of-fact nature of it all make this scene feel brutal, despite the lack of violent detail.
On his way to his X-Wing and escape, Poe's craft is destroyed - he realises he can't get away. The device he has just obtained with the important information on it he places in his droid, BB-8, who he tells to hide. He'll be back for him. BB-8 takes off. Poe, instead of just running away heads back to the centre of the village and manages to get a blaster shot off at Kylo Ren. Using the Force Kylo stops the energy blast in mid-air. We've never seen anything like it in these films; what else can he do? It just hangs there while Kylo assesses Poe and gives orders. It's a real showstopper. It's only at the end of the scene, when The New Order and their captive Poe leave does the blue fire hanging in the air suddenly bursts back into life and explodes on impact.
Stormtroopers not being bred and brainwashed leads to a big problem for The New Order now. One trooper hasn't fired a shot. Back on the Destroyer he removes his helmet - he's shaking and sweating; murdering innocent people isn't what he signed up for. He wants out.
Meanwhile, on the planet below, Jakku, a young woman scavenges a crashed, long dead, Star Destroyer for parts she can sell for food.
Honestly, that's Rey. You can just about make out her fighting staff.
Obviously, this serves to impress upon us the size of these craft, but the main reason to show us all these downed vehicles is to remind us how they got there - to invoke memories of the earlier films; instantly it provokes a sense of history in us. It's clever.
Rey, it turns out is orphaned. She has vague memories of her family leaving years ago. She waits, convinced they'll come back for her one day; unwilling to accept that if that was going to happen, it already would have.
On the way back with the junk in a sled - she rides down sand-dunes and then pulls it behind her - Rey meets another scavenger kidnapping a droid. It's BB-8. He is sat atop some large creature, and has the droid in a net and is trying to subdue it. Expensive droids like this one belong to someone. This is theft. We're introduced to one of Rey's main characteristics - a clear sense of what is right and wrong. Some shouted threats and posturing see the would-be kidnapper off. Once free she gives the droid directions to the village. The droid, of course, starts following her - to her annoyance.
Above, on the Destroyer, Rylo has finished Force-torturing information out of Dameron. The information is a map to the legendary hero Luke Skywalker - last of the Jedi Knights, and now he knows that map is in a droid on the planet below.
Meanwhile that Stormtrooper still wants out. He needs a pilot. Dameron has just been left tethered to a torture-rack now that he's now no longer any use. He's a pilot, and the Trooper's only option, despite the fact this man has just been put through a prolonged period of agonising pain. They instantly bond out of a shared need for each other. Poe asks his name; Troopers don't have names and instead he reels off his code designation. It starts with the letter F and N. Poe gives him his new name - Finn.
Their escape should be tense and an anxious affair but instead is thrilling and fun with no sense that there is any danger of capture (to balance out the torture scene we've just watched). Finn holds a rifle to Poe and they just pose as a guard and his prisoner on their way somewhere under orders. They find their way to an empty TIE Fighter which they unfortunately quickly find is tethered to a re-fueling hose. While Poe keeps gunning the engines trying break free Finn is trying to figure out how to fire the cannons. Once he gets the hang of it he joyously starts obliterating TIE Fighters, random areas of the hanger-bay - anything in targeting range. They finally break free. They take out some of the weaponry on the outside of the Destroyer, but not enough. On their descent to the planet they get hit by cannon fire, and they plummet planet-wards, out of control.
Finn manages to eject and land safely on the desert planet; he frees himself from his parachute and can see smoke in the distance billowing from the crashed Fighter. He starts running. At the wreckage there no sign of Poe but his jacket is in there and Finn is still in his Stormtrooper gear - a change of clothing is very necessary. He ditches the armour and heads into town.
Meanwhile Rey's new robot companion is attracting unwanted attention. The scrap-dealer purposely gives her a low offer on the gear she's brought to sell and encourages her to sell the droid to him. The amount of food on offer is more than she's ever seen in one place before and there's a moment where she allows herself to dream - but it's never going to happen; she turns the offer down. That doesn't stop the dealer wanting that droid and he sends a couple of huge thugs after her to get it.
Finn finally makes it into town, in desperate need of water. No one's willing to help a stranger. Finally he spies a gigantic work-animal drinking from a pool of liquid. On his hands and knees he starts drinking fast - it's foul, but he needs liquid.
Suddenly, commotion amongst the stalls in the covered market. Rey has been lifted clear up in the air by one of the heavies while the other obtains BB-8. "Oi, get offa me!" shouts a suddenly very British sounding and unladylike Rey. Finn starts running with the idea of helping her, but he needn't have bothered. Rey breaks loose and sets about beating the two big idiots into the ground with her staff.
This is no princess in need of rescue.
Getting closer Finn recognises what must be Poe's droid, and approaches. BB-8 freaks out because Finn is wearing his masters' distinctive jacket and electrocutes Finn several times while Finn quickly tries to tell his story. They escaped the Destroyer, crashed and Poe's gone missing. Rey assumes Finn must be part of the Resistance for him to have done all that. Finn seizes upon this - yes, I definitely also work for the Resistance - as, let's face it it's easier right now than trying to explain the reality.
The New Order arrive again and start strafing the town from the air. Finn takes the lead and keeps grabbing Rey's hand as they run for cover which she repeatedly tells him to stop doing. Quite why he thinks it's best that he's the one out in front is a mystery, as it's clear which of the two is better in a fight.
They run for the Junker's shipyard. Rey makes a straight line for a decent-looking craft up in front of them. "What about this one?" says Finn gesturing off-screen at a nearer ship. "That one" shouts Rey "is junk", whereupon her chosen escape vehicle explodes in a huge ball of fire. They're stuck with the junk. The camera pans around and...
It is, of course, the Millennium Falcon.
Rey gets airbourne and Finn climbs into the blaster turret. What follows is a fantastic action scene. Finn manages to take a couple of TIE Fighters out during the pursuit; Rey using her familiarity with the area to her advantage to dodge and weave. Finn's turret takes a direct hit - the weaponry still works but it's jammed, locked in a forward position; they can't fight back. There's still a TIE Fighter on their tail and its' weapons are just fine.
I love scenes that use information previously given to us and then use it in intelligent, unexpected, and thoughtful ways. It could have just been a standard chase scene where Rey repeatedly dodges random objects and squeezes through suddenly appearing narrow gaps in mountains until her opponent just loses control and crashes. We see that sort of thing so many times. But no, not here. She heads for the dead Destroyer we first meet her in, a place she knows well - she knows this is a place she can get this ship through, the layout, and how they can use it to defeat their enemy. This is intelligent writing.
They make it to the exhaust port of the downed, massive, wreck and weave their way at full pelt through all the debris inside. They make their way up through the husk of the giant ship, TIE Fighter getting closer, and then shoot out through a giant hole in the hull booming skyward. Rey cuts the engines and the Falcon goes into freefall, Rey wrestling with the controls... and suddenly we and Finn understand what she's done. We can't move our weapons turret? We'll just position the whole ship so the enemy is in our crosshairs. Finn gets a lock and blasts the hell out of their pursuer and then Rey guns the engines just in time not to smash into the ground and they rocket away to safety. It's a fantastic scene.
While the Falcon roars away from Jakku Finn is sticking to his story of being Resistance and being able to get BB-8 to them, but he's running out of time and ideas fast. It's not a problem for long though, as the Falcon finds itself captured in a tractor-beam, pulled into a giant freighter and boarded. Finn and Rey hide under some floor panelling, but no one's going to remain hidden long on this ship - not from the owners of the thing; Han Solo and Chewy. They've been trying to find their old ship for years, but it's only now that it's out in open space that they've been able to track it.
Before we know it Solo's ship is boarded by not one, but two gangs whom he's double-crossed in some deal. So, business as usual then. Both are very unhappy (the second gang are lead by three of the lead actors of The Raid 2, which I loved) a fight breaks out and our five heroes escape in the Falcon. The gang leaders immediately report their sighting of the droid and the fact it's with Solo.
Finn's still sticking to his "I'm in the Resistance" story and getting away with it and Solo agrees to take them to where they need to be. Which means taking them to now General Leia Organa, who he hasn't seen in years. Once there, and after a brief reintroduction we're back down to business. BB-8's map is missing a vital piece. If they are to win this war, they need Luke Skywalker, and to find him means finding that piece...
It's fantastic seeing the old characters again and them being exactly as we'd expect them to be 30 years on from when we last saw them.
But It's a film that's basically a two hander between an unknown - Daisy Ridley is a fantastic in her role as Ray; and an almost unknown, John Boyaga (previously star of UK indie sci-fi horror, Attack the Block) who is an absolute revelation. His is the biggest story arc and most effective. He's a normal person who just wants to live normally but there's something in him that keeps pulling him back. He finds himself in situations he would have run from, but finally being on the right side and having a cause and people who care about him; it changes him. It makes some his actions toward the end of the film absolutely enthralling. The sense of someone overcoming true fear and still somehow managing to do the right things is rarely something we see done well - here it, and he, are utterly convincing. Poe and Ray are naturals to this, he isn’t, but he’s still there with them. That’s true heroism.
You can't imagine anyone else in the role, it's the performance of the film, absolutely believable. He's already one of the great Star Wars characters, as is Rey.
An unknown young actress and an almost equally unknown (to this audience) young black man starring in what will surely be one of the biggest films in history. And both of them knocking it out of the park, Everything about this film is fantastic.
If there's a deficiency, it's that Poe Dameron is pretty-much sidelined here. He's clearly going to be important going forward but doesn't get too much screentime in this episode. Expect him to feature more heavily in the next one.
A good adventure film needs a good villain, and this one has a great one. He's an inferior copy of what went before him, Vader (at least for now) - and he knows it. Immensely powerful already, some doubt remains in him as to whether he's chosen the right path - but more than that is a sense that he'll disappoint his adopted, dark-side, father figure (Snoke). Mix that with a combination of a lust more more power and a vicious streak that can break out at a seconds' notice and you have a dangerous Sith apprentice. Adam Driver conveys all of that, and a conflicting latent humanity, extremely convincingly. When the film needs him to burst into a fit of rage the film isn't afraid to show it; and you believe it. And the few moments that you're reminded that he's someone's son with actual feelings; you absolutely believe them too. The character, and Driver, had big boots to fill - if we don't feel threatened by him none of this works. But it's a nuanced well-crafted role and he does admirably with it; he's so unpredictable and wild there's a very real sense of danger about him. It's terrific.
Marvel have done wonders with some of their blockbusters. The Winter Soldier showed you could have a fantasy action flick that was intelligent, left the audience with moral questions and was genuinely thrilling ; Guardians of the Galaxy proved a fantastic script that deviated from normal conventions and took a whole bunch of risks could pay off spectacularly, but as much as I love those films (and I do) -
… They're not The Force Awakens. It's a Masterpiece. I don't use such a word lightly; if you do they lose their meaning. But as someone who has written scripts and can see the craft and appreciate the multiple, layered, achievements here, and then for them to be pretty-much realised and executed perfectly in the actual film - I can only give it it's due. It's fantastic.
It's superior to A New Hope, easily. As for how it compares to Empire…
It would take a year of me living in a cave on a mountain top considering nothing else for a full year to possibly answer that. Actually, some questions can't be answered.
But this latest film in the series - incredible.
And think ahead for a moment and visualise Rey fully in control of her Force powers and launching a one woman attack on Rylo Ken and beating the hell out him. I want to see that. Badly.
I don't know where the next two films are going, but clearly they're in safe hands - they're being made by people who love and understand them and know how to make them.
It's a film for the ages - just like the originals and likely to be just as thrilling for those who don't know the series as well as those who do.
It's a real achievement in every aspect.
All rights with regards to promotional material LucasArts / Bad Robot