|'Consistently works as both a continuation of and a love letter to the Star Wars franchise, as well as being a finely crafted piece of blockbuster entertainment in its own right'.|
That Star Wars: The Force Awakens has for the most part had the phrase "Episode VII" absent from its promotion is perhaps not all that surprising. It's no secret that the prequel trilogy - prominently marketed as Episodes I, II and III of the Star Wars saga - received at best a tepid reception overall from fans and critics alike. But the decision also feels like a statement of intent: whilst The Force Awakens is a new chapter in the ever-expanding space opera, writer and director J. J. Abrams clearly wants his film to be its own story in a way that George Lucas' last trio of films never were.
The elements where Abrams strays furthest from this intention, mostly during the middle act, also feel like the film's weakest. The director at times steers his narrative beats so close to those seen in previous films that you might be mistaken once or twice (or more) for thinking that The Force Awakens is in fact a soft reboot of the franchise rather than a direct sequel. I'll save going into specifics of any kind to avoid even mild spoilers, but these moments will be obvious to anyone with even a moderate knowledge of the series' history. Abrams also allows himself on one occasion to aimlessly fall into modern blockbuster "back from the dead" syndrome - most prominently seen in the Marvel Cinematic Universe - where doing the exact opposite would arguably have proven to be a narrative strength overall.
The problems to be found in The Force Awakens are far outweighed by the positives, however, with Abrams' largely executing a return to the franchise in a manner which many will surely have been hoping for. Gone is the endless political wrangling and stilted dialogue of Lucas' prequels, replaced with a sense of adventure regularly on a par with the original trilogy. The returning characters are wisely used as supporting roles in a story that belongs to a new set of heroes and villains. John Boyega and Daisy Ridley shine as protagonists Finn and Rey respectively, delivering turns that will surely provide a talented core for the second and third installments of the new trilogy to be built around.
Within the antagonistic First Order, Domhnall Gleeson clearly has a ball chewing the scenery as General Hux, delivering straightforward theatricality fiercely influenced by the original trilogy's Imperial officers. More complex is Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), initially presented as this film's answer to Darth Vader, but who steadily reveals layers that make him quite a different figure, arguably The Force Awaken's most intriguing of all. Abrams even manages to imbue Ren with hints of the youthful impatience and hotheadedness seen in Anakin Skywalker during the prequel trilogy and make it work remarkably well. Whilst it currently feels as though the director may have played one or two cards a little too early in his handling of Ren here, it will be difficult to know for sure until the overarching narrative continues in the forthcoming Episodes VIII and IX.
Although not perfect, The Force Awakens consistently works as both a continuation of and a love letter to the Star Wars franchise, as well as being a finely crafted piece of blockbuster entertainment in its own right. The action soars, particularly during the first act; the humour feels well placed and never overdone; and the settings and creatures within them consistently ring true. If the original trilogy is loved because of its charming if somewhat rough and ready effects, and the prequels derided for their vacuous overuse of CGI, then The Force Awakens suggests that this new trilogy will come to be recognised as the point where computer technology finally caught up with the imagination and creative zeal of those bringing the world of Star Wars to life.