The bravest thing about The Force Awakens is that J.J. Abrams jumped into the director’s chair in the first place to create the beginning of a new trilogy that, over a decade in the making, had to be so many things to so many people. In trying to appease everyone so as not to spoil the party, Abrams goes with two assumptions: that the ‘new’ prequels weren’t very good and that a lot of people – rightly or wrongly – adore the original films. What results is a well-meaning, yet slavish honouring of the old trilogy that appears more concerned with not being a bad film than it is being a great one.
Following A New Hope’s template isn’t an irredeemable crime, sure, but it is a lack of ambition that seems emblematic of The Force Awakens. Not just your standard battle between good and evil as one would expect of a Star Wars film, it is also an inadvertent battle between the old and new guard, with the former – namely: Han Solo (Harrison Ford) – getting a little too much screen time at the expense of the debutants.
It is a shame, because by and large the new cast of characters are all interesting and well acted. Daisy Ridley quickly grows into her role as the pleasingly self-sufficient young upstart, Rey. Her character spends much of her time scavenging around the beautifully rendered desert planet, Jakku, with absolutely no mention of sand or how its coarseness irritates her. It gets everywhere in a place like Jakku, of course, but Rey isn’t boring enough to stop and think about it out loud.
Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), is an intriguing villain toeing the line between black and slightly less black, BB-8 is terrific, and a special mention must be made for the remarkable Max von Sydow for his short stint in the film. An irrepressible acting machine still stealing scenes at 86-years-old. I can only bemoan the missed opportunity to have grinned haughtily from my cinema chair at the obvious Bergman reference having Sydow and a chess scene occupying the same film presents.
But of all the new characters it is stormtrooper-with-a-heart Finn (or as his work colleagues like to call him, FN-2187), played by John Boyega, that is on paper the most promising of the bunch. But he is eventually lost in the shuffle somewhere in between Rey finding her Jedi feet and a mediocre family drama starring Han Solo and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher). The prospect of a Stormtrooper defector snatched by the First Order as a baby could have added a unique edge to proceedings but it never seems to go anywhere.
Maybe that is the problem for a film effectively setting up the pieces. It’s possible The Force Awakens’ true quality won’t be known until after the trilogy can be viewed consecutively in a short space of time, perhaps as a necessary stanchion from which the other two films may end up benefiting. (6)