A long time ago (16 years ago), in a cinema far, far away (Lansdowne Place), I was 11 years old and waiting with giddy delirium for the imminent arrival of arguably the most anticipated film of all-time: Star Wars Episode l: The Phantom Menace. It had been 16 years since the last installment of George Lucas’s medium-altering space opera, and a mere two years after the re-release of the much-maligned special editions of the entire original trilogy.
Looking back, the choppy CGI writing was clearly on the green-screened wall as to what the decade would hold in store for one of the most fervent fanbases in pop culture history. I left the premiere of The Phantom Menace with a muddled sense of disappointment and confusion that my young mind couldn’t properly dissect at the time. What had gone wrong?
George Lucas had retained complete creative control over the entire universe that he created. Thus, he was able create a new trilogy (set before the original three) that purely advanced his interest in the pursuit of his special effects company and nearly unlimited commercial tie-ins. Lucas — who had directed only one of the original films — is not what one would call an actor’s director. Dull, sexless, and — crucially — lacking the trademark humour of the original films, the prequels bored kids and saddened adults.
When the churning rumour mill finally confirmed that J.J. Abrams — the man responsible for breathing exhilarating new life into Star Wars’ plainer older sibling Star Trek — would be responsible for the reinvigoration of the beloved franchise, a collective cheer rose up around the globe from the devotees preparing to eBay their vast collections of memorabilia.
The much-publicized purchase of Lucasfilm by Disney had many wagging their fingers in dread of the family-baiting cash-ins that would follow. Duh. Do the Ewoks ring any bells? And Disney had already proven with their acquisition of Marvel studios that they were adroit with the portrayal of beloved, decades-old characters.
Well, breathe easy, true believers. Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens will have the faithful elated and, miraculously, not alienate the uninitiated. It is a triumph on almost every level.
Commencing 30 years after the conclusion of Return of the Jedi, where peace was achieved across the galaxy after the heroic Rebel Alliance finally toppled the oppression of the Galactic Empire, the seeds of dissonance finally sprout in the form of The First Order, a nefarious organization who, like the Empire and the Sith before them, draw their power from the dark side of The Force (for the uninitiated, the tangible energy flow that envelops all living things and can be physically harnessed by a select few more commonly known as the Jedi).
The action starts quick and fast and mercifully eschews The Phantom Menace‘s naval-gazing preoccupation with dreary, sub-Dune space politics. Though, if you seek to learn more about trade tariffs and supply blockades as written by the man who also created American Graffiti, that could be your ticket.
We journey to the desert planet Jakku where we meet the solitary Rey (newcomer Daisy Ridley, a star is born) hunting for scrap in a lush sequence that was clearly inspired by Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. Rey encounters a plucky little droid (sentient robot) named BB-8, who holds a map to the last known whereabouts of the legendary Luke Skywalker. The rotund little droid is engagingly cute and provides much of the comedic relief until Harrison Ford shows up.
The inclusion of the three original stars (Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, and Mark Hamill) has been kept shrouded in mystery. Though it signposted early optimism that the notoriously sardonic Fisher would actually endorse a new film. She has been slaying the talk show circuit recently with her withering wit and debunking claims that the portrayal of her character throughout the years was sexist.
Old George may have made many mistakes with his brainchild, but his treatment of women has always been progressive. In the briefly icky love triangle between the leads, Fisher’s Princess Leia was clearly in control. And, as any superfan knows, she’s the best shot in the franchise.
The inclusion of the veteran cast is remarkably seamless and never distracting, or in stark contrast to a supremely well-chosen roster of new talent. That we finally get to see some ethnic diversity amongst the leads is extremely refreshing in a franchise not exactly renowned for its sensitive depictions of racial diversity — other than Billy Dee Williams, there were essentially white people and aliens.
But the real success of Abrams endeavour, like his reboot of Star Trek, is its affection and enthusiasm to the source material — and not just striving to make something in the spirit of its predecessor, but to take those elements and expand upon on them.
In 1977, there were only so many ways you could depict a intricate space battle. So what do you do? Invent new technology to explain what you want to say. And that is why fans as well as critics have stood by Star Wars for so many years beyond mere nostalgia: its sense of wonder, creativity, and reliance on practical effects (props, costumes, sets) rather than contracted thespians gesticulating to tennis balls in an effects studio.
The wit has been returned to the story and, when the action wants to, it utterly sizzles.
A breathless dogfight within the intricate innards of a celestial superweapon wrings every inch out your 3-D glasses. The climactic duel in a crumbling wintery forest, illuminated solely by the primary throb of light sabres, betrays the story’s continuing acknowledged debt to Akira Kurosawa and we watch, spellbound, at the confirmation of a new classic.
A red herring signals the most tragic significant death in the timeline since Obi-Wan Kenobi. You can see it coming, but it will still kick you right in the childhood.
If it lacks the searing ingenuity of Mad Max: Fury Road, it trumps it with the shimmering optimism that made the originals such enduring intergalactic fairy tales. Faith in yourself. Escaping the shackles of your oppressive surroundings to realize your full potential. These are ideas that will never go out of style.
This is the film you’re looking for.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens Trailer #1
Star Wars: The Force Awakens Trailer #2
All photos courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.