The recent home release of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens was a chance to experience the excitement of the new movie all over again, so it seemed like a good time to bring up my impression of the film after my first viewing, all the way back in December. Star Wars is important to me in a lot of ways but to put it most simply, Star Wars was the first reason I became interested in making films and telling stories.
I spent hours watching every behind-the-scenes DVD and I devoured the Expanded Universe (I accept the new canon and all, but it still hurts to see all the old material go) I always had a Star Wars book in my bag, even if I'd read it multiple times before. I briefly wrote the fan-fiction (don't ask, none survives. I think) which kick-started my interest in writing my own fiction. The Knights of the Old Republic games, Battlefront II and Jedi Academy are still some of my all-time favorites. So The Force Awakens was a pretty big deal to me.
(SPOILERS WILL FOLLOW. If you're reading this, you've almost definitely seen the film, but nonetheless)
The first announcement was a tough one. I was excited, of course, for the chance to experience new Star Wars on the big screen again, and as an adult rather than a child or young teen. But at the same time, it meant all the Expanded Universe that I had come to love and enjoy for so long had come to end. The EU was a mixed bag for sure, with plenty of ups and downs and downright weird, but it was something I'd been attached to for as long as I could remember.
So with that in mind, I went into The Force Awakens with an open mind, ready to be impressed, to be proven that the loss of my EU was worth it. The good news? The Force Awakens was good. Like, really good. In fact, it was fantastic. It wasn't a perfect movie, but I still saw it three times (The third was an accident. I was visiting family and they were about to go see it for the first time, I could hardly say no.) To be honest, I was won over by the end of the first shot, as we watched the showed specter of a Star Destroyer slowly obscure Jakku.
Visually, I thought this was a beautiful movie, and reminded me of a lot of what I originally loved about film-making. The mix of practical and digital effects was wonderfully balanced, more akin to the Original Trilogy than the Prequels. Shots told and sold the story. The sets and locations were fantastic and totally immersive, evoking the classic designs whilst doing something new as well. The exterior scenes especially, such as Kylo Ren's hunt of Rey through the forest or their later duel on Starkiller Base, look totally real in a way that locations like Naboo or Geonosis never quite managed to achieve.
The returning players are a special treat that I never thought we'd see in cinema again, and definitely evoked plenty of wonderful nostalgia. To see Han and Chewie back on the Falcon again was worth price of admission alone. I wanted to see more of Carrie Fisher, but it was great to see her as the new general in town. But it was the new cast who won me over. Oscar Isaac's charm is an immediate win in the opening act and his chemistry with John Boyega as they flee the First Order does wonders to sell Finn as a character, as more than just a stormtrooper. In fact, Boyega manages to have great chemistry with everyone he interacts with, fitting easily into every scene. BB-8 comfortably fills the void left by the original droids, bringing something familiar but fresh to the table.
My favourite of the newcomers was, hands down, Daisy Ridley as Rey, who brings an engaging energy and depth to the character. We see her strength and capability, but also the quiet emotions simmering below the fiery exterior, especially the simple hope that both drives her and holds her back. Her belief in her family's return keeps her going in what is a hard scavenger's life on Jakku, but it is also something she has to overcome if she is ever to leave and become something more. Basically, Daisy Ridley is awesome and I love her.
Adam Driver makes for a compelling villain, with a take on a dark sider that we haven't seen in the Star Wars film saga before. He gets many impressive villainous moments that deliberately evoke Darth Vader at his most threatening, such as halting a blaster bolt in mid-air or overwhelming Poe Dameron where all his underlings had failed. But it's the moments where he loses control that make Kylo Ren more than just a Darth Vader cosplayer. In fact, that's kind of the point. His ambition to be like his grandfather shows a different kind of struggle than we're used to, showing someone struggling to actually be dark and not succumb to the light. This makes his first and final scene with Han Solo all the more devastating.
Though Kylo Ren and General Hux make for great antagonists, the film falls down with some of the others, such as Supreme Leader Snoke and Captain Phasma. For example, Finn's duel with the riot control stormtrooper is a wasted moment to me, as that fight absolutely should have been given to Phasma. We knew her character already and it would have been a powerful moment to see Finn standing up to the First Order in the form of his old commanding officer. Maybe they're saving that for Episode VIII. When you have Brienne of Tarth as a stormtrooper, you better let her do some ass-kicking at least once. I had my problems with Snoke. I do like the idea of him just towering over Ren and Hux, a different type of menace to a quite Palpatine inspired figure, and yet something with his design just doesn't sit with me. I can't quite place why, but he just isn't that threatening to me yet. I'm sure and even confident that will change when we find out more about his motivations and history in the next episodes, but for now I feel we would have been better off seeing less of him in this film.
Like I said, this film isn't perfect. There are moments that can fall flat or feel out of place, and the pacing of the film seems to struggle in the second half. The film is tightly focused, which is a strength for most of the run-time thanks to the strong characters, but it means moments like the destruction of the Hosnian system don't necessarily land with quite enough weight. There a lot of story beats lifted from Episode IV, but I feel J. J. Abrams does enough different with the story to let it slide. I understand the need to place it relatively safe, considering how long it has been since the last Star Wars and the general impression leftover by the prequels.
Overall? I left the cinema happy, entertained and eager for the next one. It stood well on its own, but there are plenty of questions left hanging and I can't wait to see them answered. And Luke. I want to see more of Luke, damn it. Mark Hamill sure knows how to give an amazing end-of-movie stare.