Star Wars: The Force Awakens – Review (****)

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FORCE

Where is the line between homage and rip-off drawn? How you approach answering that question will likely define how much you’ll enjoy J.J. Abrams’ long-awaited, much-anticipated Star Wars sequel, which is on one hand a riveting space opera overflowing with charm, and on the other one that plays things relatively safely and feels overtly indebted to the one that started it all – A New Hope.

Without detailing much of the plot, The Force Awakens kicks off some three decades after the destruction of the Death Star. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has vanished, and General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) has sent the galaxy’s most skilled pilot, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), in search of a map which apparently leads to his location. As the villainous First Order, led by the masked baddie Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), also attempt to seek out the map, a scavenger named Rey (Daisy Ridley) and a remorseful former stormtrooper, Finn (John Boyega), are drawn into the hunt along with lovable rogue Han Solo (Harrison F0rd) and his trusty ally Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew).

The main question most Star Wars fans both casual and hardcore will be wanting an answer to is this – does the film redeem the series after three passable-to-terrible prequels? And unequivocally, the answer is yes; Abrams’ silky smooth direction wipes the floor with George Lucas’ uninspired, green screen-obsessed tomfoolery, and a script co-written by original series writer Lawrence Kasdan certainly doesn’t hurt.

Free of the child-pandering, merchandise-peddling characters, cringe-worthy dialogue, abundance of tedious space politics and overly busy action, this is a thoroughly entertaining sci-fi flick with plenty of humour and heart to go around, bolstered by a plethora of excellent performances, especially from Ford (who seems awake and comfortable in a movie for the first time in years), Driver (fashioning easily one of the series’ best-ever villains), and newcomers Ridley and Boyega.

Though on these terms the movie is a wild ride, it’s also worth saying that the script is easily the worst thing about it. Simply, The Force Awakens is in effect about as disappointing as a four-star movie can get; Kasdan enthusiastically regurgitates far too many plot points from A New Hope in particular and cribs series tropes left, right and center. Though the execution throughout is no doubt grand, it doesn’t so much feel like Kasdan is lovingly recalling these moments as he is just lazily rehasing them because the safest route possible is to just remake the shell plot of the movie that launched the franchise in the first place. That’s without even mentioning the overwhelming abundance of convenience that propels the plot forward, though if one removes their nostalgia goggles for a moment, the very same thing is true of the original films.

Given the prequel controversy, it’s easy enough to give all involved the benefit of the doubt this time, that they made a risk-averse movie just to ensure the fanbase was going to show up, but if Episode VIII explores similar narrative terrain, there won’t be anywhere near the same level of forgiveness.

Even so, the seventh Star Wars film will largely have fans smiling from the opening crawl until the final tantalising set-up for what’s to come. It’s far from perfect and could’ve been a legitimate masterpiece had the script branched out further, but it hits the viewer in the gut when it needs to, and gets the series back to fighting shape.

****

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is in cinemas now

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