Force Awakens

Certificate 12A, 135 minutes

Director: J.J. Abrams

Stars: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is Episode VII of the Star Wars series is set an indeterminate length of time after the evens of Return of the Jedi, but definitely decades have passed, probably the thirty-two years since that film was released. Luke (Mark Hamill) has disappeared and has been missing for years, and Leia (Carrie Fisher), a General in the Resistance, has sent her best pilot, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac, Drive, Ex Machina, X-Men: Apocalypse), to the planet Jakku to follow up a possible new lead on his location.

Lor San Takka (Max von Sydow) gives Poe a map that apparently gives Luke's location, but before Poe can leave, Imperial Stormtroopers led by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver, Midnight Express) arrive and attack. Kylo Ren wields a lightsaber, and uses the force, but it isn't clear as to whether or not he is a Sith. He definitely follows the Dark Side and, from the conversation he and Lor San Takka have, is either a known face who has turned to the Dark Side from the Light, or one who has a connection to the Resistance in some way. Ren also has Vader's melted helmet, which Luke burned in a fire, along with his father's body, on Endor, which leads to the question of just how he managed to obtain the helmet.

Star Wars: The Force AwakensCredit: Emperor and Vader may have died at the Battle of Endor, the second Death Star and much of the Imperial Fleet destroyed and the New Republic may have arisen, but this does not mean that the Empire itself was destroyed. Even with the control of the Emperor, there were still presumably others of power, and the ashes of the Empire have become the First Order, led by Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis, Burke and Hare, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey) - like Vader, Kylo Ren is merely a servant, not the master.

Poe fails to get away, and is captured by the First Order, but before he is, he gives the map to his astromech droid, BB-8, who leaves. One of the Stormtroopers who participated in the attack on the village, FN2187 (John Boyega), seems rather reluctant and, back on the Star Destroyer, takes his helmet off - not something Stormtroopers usually do. FN2187 is a bit different, though; he seems to have broken his conditioning. He wants to escape the First Order, and frees Poe to help him, but they end up crashing back on Jakku.

On the planet, Rey (Daisy Ridley) is a scavenger, and one who has a past that, although not gone into in this instalment, hints at being important in the future. She makes a living by scavenging pieces from a crashed Star Destroyer, and lives in what appears to be a broken AT-AT. Rey meets BB8, and sort of befriends him. At the nearby settlement, FN2187 - now going by the name Finn, given to him by Poe - encounters Rey and BB-8. The initial meeting does not go smoothly, but when Order forces attack, the pair are forced to flee the planet in a rather familiar looking Corellian YT Model freighter that hasn't flown in years. Before they can manage to leave the system, they bump into Han Solo (Harrison Ford, Ender's Game, The Expendables 3) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew). Han does not appear to be with the resistance any longer, or with Leia; indeed, the impression is given that something happened that badly affected him.

The objective is to get the map back to the Resistance so that they can find Luke. With Luke gone, there are no more Jedi - the return did not last for long - but there are still users of the Dark Side, and a counterpart is needed to oppose them. Why Luke disappeared is revealed later on. Once again, an unlikely team of individuals form with the intention of defeating the Dark Side, and once again, the Force is strong in at least one of them.

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The question is not whether or not the film will be a commercial success, as the Star Wars fans are strong and even those films that are less than brilliant - Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace springs to mind here - can be successful. The question is whether this latest instalment, a decade after the end of the prequel trilogy, is actually any good. Fortunately, the answer to this question is yes. The Force Awakens is by far superior to The Phantom Menace - and, quite frankly, the entire prequel trilogy.

Supreme Leader Stroke has an unfortunate (and, as it happens, not that surprising) resemblance to Gollum from The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. If it wasn't for the fact that he only appears as a larger than life hologram, this would probably have been even more noticeable.

The film is available in both 2D and 3D, with the 3D version being the one watched. 3D films frequently don't work that well and add very little when the film in question is a live action film. Whether or not it works is often down to the amount of computer special effects used, and the type. The Force Awakens is the type of film it works on. There are space and aerial battle scenes, huge ships - having the prow of a Star Destroyer pointing out of the screen is impressive and quite ominous - and views down big drops; exactly the sort of things that work well in 3D. There are some excellent starfighter combat scenes, and some lovely, detailed images of Star Destroyers. Even the crashed Star Destroyer is impressive; to a degree is actually more impassive than the one which is intact, as it's on the ground, and the scale can be appreciated more.

There are quite a few, probably deliberate, similarities in scenes, locations and characters to the original Star Wars. There are even scenes where you actually expect to hear Vader's breathing, and it comes as a bit of a surprise when you don't. Jakku is a desert planet and really, really resembles Tatooine in both appearance and culture. Kylo Ren is a tall figure dressed in black, with a red lightsaber, a cloak and a helmet, from which he speaks with a computer modulated voice. The original film had the Death Star, a battlestation the size of a moon. The First Order has Starkiller Base - why stop at a moon when you can modify an entire planet? There's a scene with X-Wings and Tie Fighters flying through a trench with lasers shooting at them. There's even a bar with a striking resemblance to the Mos Eisley Cantina. There are, of course, differences too; it isn't simply a rehash of the original. Ren's lightsaber is a bit more impressive, and dangerous looking, and Starkiller Base is bigger and more impressive. The similarities seem to be a homage to the original, although there are definite similarities in the story too.

The film is visually quite stunning, with the Star Destroyers looking improved and Starkiller Base looking much, much more impressive than the Death Star. Perhaps because it is a planet that has been massively altered, not simply an artificial construction. The new characters work well, and you get involved with them, especially Finn, the reluctant Stormtrooper turned reluctant hero. BB-8 is a probably deliberately cute new piece of merchandising... err, character. There are familiar faces - and helmets - and new ones too. It's not just the old characters doing the same things; there is a new group of both foes and allies to continue the story. There are moments of triumph, and of disaster too. There are many questions which are left unanswered, as this is definitely the first in a trilogy (for one thing, if the New Republic has arisen, why is the Rebellion still a separate force?), but it's a good opening, far better than The Phantom Menace was. All in all, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a brilliant opening to the new trilogy of films, and hopefully the momentum will continue in the next in the series.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens egdcltd 2015-12-17 4.5 0 5
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