The Fan Awakens: Review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens Untainted by Advance Publicity

When I saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens on December 16th, 2015 I was perfectly oblivious to any advance publicity. It had all started in late October 2012, when news broke that Walt Disney Studios had taken over Lucasfilm and its many assets. Kathleen Kennedy was appointed chief officer of the once Lucas-helmed enterprise and quickly proceeded to start pre-production of the seventh Star Wars installment (whilst prepping the spin-off film Rogue One in secret) . This course of surprising events made me abandon, unfollow and ignore dozens of film-related websites and social media accounts. Old habits were instantly dropped and I started distancing myself inevitably from one of my favourite hobbies, the film industry. It is therefore that I had not seen a single second, millimeter or anything of the new Star Wars: The Force Awakens, whose midnight premiere I attended on said December 16th, 2015. I went in totally blank, here is how I received a film whose marketing machinery I had ignored with monkish patience.

A fan awakens as Andreas Wanda recounts how he experienced Episode VII after a 2 1/2 year-long media sabbatical.
A fan awakens as Andreas Wanda recounts how he experienced Episode VII after a 2 1/2 year-long media sabbatical. (C) Walt Disney, Lucasfilm

Once the bewildering opening crawl has startled almost every single person in the auditorium with its introduction of an unforeseen outcome of power struggles in the wake of Episode VI, J.J. Abrams  establishes the brutal and emotionally gripping menace of stormtroopers viscerally – a first for the series and greatly enhanced by 3D – and then enthralls his audience with an extended sequence of strikingly beautiful observation of life on a desolate planet. Every science fiction film would beg to have exactly this very sequence on its scripted pages for it is a most human analysis of the circumstances capably illustrated by Abrams’s crack team of artisans. These stark visual opposites make for an exciting and dynamic sensation.

The film then tasks the brilliant Daisy Ridley to enliven what is a meaty dystopian scene with her captivating performance, grounding Episode VII on such a palpable emotional base, Ridley’s character Rey immediately commands the entire film. Getting to know her character Rey through Abrams’s direction as part of an evolving narrative fibre – rather than the trailer, poster, any pre-release material, which might have noticeably mitigated the great effort of all departments involved, is a revelation: the character of Rey does not succeed because of a brand or John Williams’s Force theme, actress Daisy Ridley carves from a franchise of many decades a most potent stand-alone character. We are not even twenty minutes into the film and already have I been completely removed from my established Star Wars routine of accepting intergalactic trade disputes.

Episode VII is about people and very interesting ones at that as John Boyega casts a riveting presence, encumbered as his Fin is with his own troubling past. It is an incredible abundance of riches to have a new Star Wars film give us not only Daisy Ridley but her and Boyega in a single film together. Fin’s story wonderfully textures the Star Wars universe in as yet unknown ways, playing off eerie stormtrooper terror and heartbreaking conflicts. I must say I was duly impressed by this layered story-telling technique that used to elude the Star Wars films in comparison to its spin-off and sequel novels and television shows, in particular the Yoda episodes of Clone Wars and Ezra Bridger’s journey towards the light side of the Force. Finally, with Ridley and Boyega in place, there is character conflict that also elaborates on seemingly irrelevant aspects of the narrative plane. It greatly adds to the experience and, once again, to have Boyega hatch the character of Fin in front of your eyes, mold it, extend and bend it without foreknowledge of his presence in the film, gives you jolts of happiness.

The cast is propelled by sharp dialogue from the pens of none other than Michael Arndt (Toy Story III), Lawrence Kasdan (THE Kasdan of Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi fame) and one J.J. Abrams that Ridley and John Boyega especially sink their teeth into; their repartee overshadows first-rate effects work that the film’s camera seems to struggle to keep up with.

All the environments and the action unfolding inside them appear most natural and not egged on by the need for another show-off piece.  On the contrary, this is indeed the very first Star Wars film that Ralph McQuarrie’s timelessly amazing storyboards are fully translated to film and not only shyly approximated; what a surprise how fully realised J.J. Abrams’s Star Wars universe is then: anything visible in the background may well eventually be explored at great length and great speed.

This evolutionary visual depth or level of detail does repeatedly lead to grand tapestries of action whereas the original Star Wars, including the prequels, were very rigidly orchestrated. J.J. Abrams therefore adopts a contemporary, and welcome, visual liberation afforded by advances in technology, but foremost because of deliberate directions that prioritise the narrative not the effects houses hired for the job.

The central villain in Episode VII works extremely well the way the film furnishes his dark introduction and then confidently probes further into the mysterious Kylo Ren to toy with familiar Star Wars tropes. This narrative generosity affords the first installment in the Star Wars sequel trilogy added value, hinting at far more greater story beats to come in future episodes. The director blocks The Force Awakens very conscientiously to meet the needs of the intended narrative, and here he launches Adam Driver into the stratosphere with a most riveting performance. It is quite rewarding to see Kylo Ren unfold in a series of striking set-pieces.

As a consequence of the stellar character work Star Wars: The Force Awakens rests upon, this film’s McGuffin pales despite being  stunningly translated to the screen in 3D. Episode VII does not admire technology, but, reminiscent of George Lucas’s direction of Episode IV: A New Hope, allows itself to take its time to observe, so much so that the villainy on display literally disrupts serene moments of near silence or communal life on alien planets. On many occasions I would have loved to linger more on a sunset here or a starfield there, yet the Force beckons incessantly.

In concluding, I wonder if my Star Wars and overall entertainment media sabbatical was worth the effort. Ignorant of everything surrounding the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens except for the title and release date, I must admit having felt almost lost and unprotected at first, exposed as I was to a film that started throwing narrative curve balls from the beginning. The Force Awakens therefore became my sole guide to induct me into an unexpected sequel universe far, far away from what I had personally expected to see.

What I gained was the unique point of view designed especially for this motion picture. Everything was meant to be a first for the audience, as indicated by the eloquent yet strikingly curt opening crawl, which must be leagues behind what trailers introduced the world to months in advance. Thus unburdened by the undoubtedly brilliant advance publicity, I do not feel consumed by a brand but a film experience. So on December 16th, 2015, a fan awakened to a rewarding Star Wars: Episode VII. Go see Star Wars: The Force Awakens now!

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