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REVIEW: Star Wars: The Force Awakens - JJ Abrams brings the prodigal home

JJ Abrams has gloriously resurrected Star Wars telling a tale of prodigal sons and daughters in the process. Jamie Cutteridge explains just why it's so good. 

There’s a moment about a quarter of the way into The Force Awakens  when it became clear that everything is going to be ok. JJ Abrams has got this. This isn’t The Phantom Menace, this is Star Wars turned up to 11, slobbering you with a sloppy wet kiss like Jabba the Hutt under the mistletoe. In fact, it’s that moment seen in all the trailers, when Han turns to Chewie back on board the Millenium Falcon and says, ‘Chewie, we’re home.’ In that instant, we’re home. We’re back in George Lucas’ universe, but this time in JJ Abrams’ safe hands.

That’s the thing about Awakens, it’s perfectly safe. Not safe in the overly-commericalised, focus-grouped-to-within-an-inch-of-its-life way that the prequels were, but safe like your favourite pair of slippers. With Abrams’ Star Wars, you know exactly what you’re getting yourself into, he’s totally nailed the feeling and texture of the original trilogy. On new planets with new characters there’s something about the film that just feels like Star Wars in a way that the more recent trilogy never managed.

Too safe?

This safety is also the film’s biggest weakness. (This next paragraph contains the vaguest of spoilers. Seriously, it’s really vague, you’re safe to read this, but if you’re feeling particularly sensitive about it, look away now.) One of the reasons Awakens feels so safe and familiar is that it hits many of the same beats that A New Hope did 38 years ago, not only in feel, but in actual mechanics and moments. There are similar events, similar plot devices and three startlingly similar locations.

This is more than just echoing what’s gone before, Abrams’ has clearly made a conscious decision to give the film a similar role to that A New Hope played in the original trilogy. At times, these similarities are genuinely distracting. In fact the feel of the film is not dissimilar to Abrams’ work on the Star Trek reboot, where familiar characters went through familiar stories to reboot a franchise in need of a kickstart. The film’s biggest security blanket ends up being its biggest weakness.

The halcyon days at the end of Return of the Jedi lasted about five minutes before life got in the way

This overdone reflection also causes problems with the film’s final act. Awakens ends with another set piece borrowed from what has gone before. It’s difficult to critique this in a spoiler-free way, but to use the example of A New Hope, while the Death Star was a looming, terrifying presence throughout, the big threat to our heroes in this film seems to appear quite late in the day, and seems more important as a plot device to bring key characters together than a genuinely gripping menace.

Basically it's brilliant

The thing is, I loved every minute of it. It was utterly absorbing, the action sequences were spot on and the dialogue found the right tone between funny but not silly (think Han Solo not Jar-Jar Binks). And while this was undoubtedly Han Solo’s film (God bless Harrison Ford, limping around on a broken leg) the new characters felt at home straight away: Daisy Ridley as Rey was an absolute star (the scenes between her and Leia ensured the film passed The Bechdel Test) and Oscar Isaac’s Poe stole each of the few scenes he was in (even if his character was just Han Solo in a jumpsuit).

The real standout though was Adam Driver as Kylo Ren, the terrifying, maniacal commander of the First Order – the new face of the Empire. It’s difficult to express just how good a bad guy he is: menacing, troubled and not-quite-right in equal measure. He’s confused enough to illicit empathy, but his actions are heinous enough to be hated. I can’t believe I’m about to type these words but: he’s a genuine, worthy successor to Darth Vader, and has the potential to soar even higher (or possibly plummet even deeper).

The prodigals return

So yes, while the film is not without flaws, don’t worry, it’s genuinely good, but what does it actually say…?

We’re all desperate for reconciliation

The interesting thing about Awakens is that just about every character is waiting for reconciliation. The way across the stars has torn families in two, taking heroes away from loved one, children away from parents and families away from home. Some are desperate to welcome others back, others desperate to be welcomed back and the film begins to put some of these pieces back together. There’s a real ache to the film, a genuine sense of loss for all of those involved before the new action has even started: from what we can tell the halcyon days at the end of Return of the Jedi lasted about five minutes before life got in the way. Awakens is a film of prodigals; over the course of the film some return home, some start that long trudge back to open arms while others turn their back on that welcoming embrace.

Perhaps the reason then, that elements of the film feel so familiar is that it not only retraces the franchise’s lineage, but our own. We’re all desperate for reconciliation – sometimes we’re walking home, other times we’re waiting at the door, desperate to see someone else trudge over the top of the hill. And while Awakens reflects many of our own aches and journeys, perhaps it’s even smarter than that. In taking us on a long walk home, Abrams is leading a pilgrimage of Star Wars prodigals: from the wildnerness of the Phantom Menace, back to safe ground. Star Wars is back. ‘Chewie, we’re home.’

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