I have clear memories of the 1999 midnight screening for Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. Fans full of excitement and expectation cheered loudly when the Star Wars title splashed on the screen. Of course, the ensuing fan disappointment has become the stuff of cinema legend.
Jump forward to 2015, at a similar midnight screening for Star Wars: The Force Awakens and another crowd of long suffering fans. This time when the fanfare blared and the title appeared the applause was hesitant, tinged with memories of previous disappointment, as though the fans were not willing to fully commit to this relationship just yet.
They needn’t have worried. Disney and JJ Abrams have pulled off what must have been the most daunting job in contemporary cinema. Abrams and his crew have managed to craft a worthy successor to the original trilogy, in doing so they have stayed true to the spirit and aesthetic of the earlier productions, whilst still taking full advantage of every modern technology available.
The Force Awakens belts along at a relentlessly exuberant pace, and is genuinely packed with a sense of joyful excitement that has been missing from cinema screens for too long.
There is a lightsaber battle in this film, thankfully it is real and visceral with a genuine sense of threat, unlike the perfectly choreographed but emotionally vacant theatrics of the prequel trilogy.
The new trio of young actors are excellent, Daisy Ridley as the scavenger Rey gives us a strong, likeable and utterly convincing hero. John Boyega and Oscar Isaac are also excellent, but Ridley truly shines.
It is no secret that Harrison Ford reprises his role as Han Solo, and Ford gives every impression that he’s having a blast. Mature Han is as charming and roguish as ever and his interplay with the rest of the cast is warm and amusing.
The Force Awakens is a surprisingly funny film, Abrams has wisely chosen to allow that humour to emerge from the ensemble and has avoided including comic sidekicks. I began to fear the film would veer too far into comedy, but don’t be fooled, there are a couple of moments of great dramatic intensity that give weight and meaning to the story.
Adam Driver plays villain Kylo Ren – as a character Ren fails to approach the level of Darth Vader as a cinematic villain, though to be fair this is somewhat addressed in the plot as well.
I found the most distracting element of the entire experience to be the appearance of Carrie Fishers’ Princess Leia, or General Organa as her current incarnation is known.
Fisher’s apparent facial surgery has left her with an uncomfortably expressionless face. In her youth Fisher was an animated and expressive actor – after a long absence from screen the physical change is confronting. I found myself studying her top lip in a number of shots where there seemed to be evidence of digital manipulation.
Unfortunate life choices aside, Leia and Han have a reason to be here and they serve that purpose well enough. Mark Hamill returns as Luke Skywalker and though his role is minimal in this episode it promises to be significant in future.
There is a great deal more to say, but perhaps not without risking spoilers. Rest assured the Star Wars universe has landed in safe hands. Go and experience the wonder and excitement you were hoping for, it really is there this time.
Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens opened Australia-wide on December 17.
Banner image: BagoGames, via Flickr