Film Review: ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ (spoiler free)

The Force is strong once more…

Starring:  Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac

Directed by:  J.J. Abrams / Written by:  Lawrence Kasdan, J.J. Abrams and Michael Arndt / 135 minutes

What’s it about?

As the evil First Order rises, young defector ‘Finn’ crosses paths with Rey, a scavenger who comes into possession of a star map that will lead them to the mythical last Jedi, Luke Skywalker…

In review

Unarguably the most anticipated cinema release of this year, perhaps even this decade, The Force Awakens – Episode VII of the Star Wars saga – is unleashed upon global audiences on a wave of positive buzz and record breaking opening box office numbers.

The Force Awakens is an important film not only to entertainment goliath Disney, following their $4.5 billion purchase of Lucasfilm, but also legions of Star Wars fans eager to see the beloved science fiction film franchise return to its former glories.  Turning to director J.J. Abrams seemed a wise move, not only a great filmmaker whose reputation was solidified when he refreshed Star Trek for a new generation with epic big screen reboots Star Trek (2009) and Star Trek Into Darkness (2013), but more significantly a life-long fan of Star Wars himself.

With The Force Awakens, Abrams and his production team have delivered a pleasing new entry in the Star Wars saga that restores much of the magic diluted by George Lucas’ overly polished, CGI littered ‘Prequel Trilogy’.  Whilst it’s all a touch familiar with several plot elements repeated from earlier instalments (mainly A New Hope) and some heavy doses of fan service, The Force Awakens reigns triumphant thanks to a rich mix of engaging characters, edge of the seat drama (peppered with a smattering of humour) and thrilling battles, bound by Abrams’ skilled direction and the quality craftsmanship on display.

Set some 30 years or so after the events of Return of the Jedi (1983), The Force Awakens presents the heightening threat of the First Order which has risen from the ashes of the Galactic Empire and seeks to continue its plans to dominate the galaxy, far, far away.  Luckily the Rebellion, which has now become known as the ‘Resistance’ survives to fight the forces of evil and it’s this conflict and the search for last Jedi Luke Skywalker that serves to reunite old heroes as well as introduce new ones.  Of the returning cast of the Original Star Wars Trilogy, Harrison Ford’s Han Solo (together with pal Chewbecca, with Peter Mayhew once again donning the fur) that is given most prominence – it’s great to see him in action once more – yet The Force Awakens really belongs to its new cast of heroes – lead by Rey (Daisy Ridley) and defecting Stormtrooper ‘Finn’ (Attack the Block’s John Boyega) together with daring Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac, villain of the forthcoming X-Men: Apocalypse) and his faithful (and adorable) droid BB8.  Feeling the draw of the mystical Force, the new generation are thrown into the path of the First Order and central villains Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who has been seduced by the Force’s ‘Dark Side’, Stormtrooper commandant Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) and General Hux (Domnhall Gleeson), their quest for galactic domination lead by Supreme Leader Snoke (a creepy CGI motion capture creation brought to life by Andy Serkis).

The new cast is great and it will be exciting to see their characters develop over the course of this ‘Sequel Trilogy’ much in the same vein as we saw the likes of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Princess Leia grow.  It’s true that some characters are given more time in the limelight than others but it’s obvious that The Force Awakens is merely the beginning and we’ll no doubt see more of them in the next instalment.

The Force Awakens is a well-crafted visual feast with J.J. Abrams leading the charge of melding CGI with practical filmmaking, the elaborate physical production design complemented by computer generated elements rather than overwhelming it.  With the era of practical miniatures largely surpassed by CGI, Abrams brings a real, weighty feeling to the requisite spaceship battles and stages some truly thrilling action sequences that will please and wow fans as well as casual viewers, from X-Wing dogfights to the Millennium Falcon’s hyperspace jumps to lightsabre duals – it’s all here and offset nicely against John Williams’ music score.  There’s also some beautiful imagery from director of photography Dan Mindel, enhanced by Abrams’ insistence on the use of physical 35 and 65mm film (the latter for the film’s IMAX sequences) with the blistering deserts of the planet Jakku being a particular highlight.

Overall, The Force Awakens is only hindered by that slight touch of familiarity (and to an extent it’s dangling threads reserved for Episode VIII), yet it was never intended to reinvent the wheel and J.J. Abrams and his cast and crew have delivered the Star Wars sequel many were hoping for, whilst not quite the masterpiece that A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back are, it’s at least as good as Return of the Jedi and superior to the controversial prequels and a great new start for an enduring franchise.

The bottom line:  The Force Awakens is a triumphant, if at times familiar, new entry in the Star Wars saga that will please and thrill both fans and novices alike.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is in cinemas now.

Director J.J. Abrams stages some thrilling action in 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens'.

Director J.J. Abrams stages some thrilling action in ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’.

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Comic Review: ‘Daredevil’ #1

The devil fights again…

Written by:  Charles Soule / pencils by:  Ron Garney / colours by:  Matt Milla

What’s it about?

Blind lawyer Matt Murdock has returned to the streets of New York to fight the criminal underworld as masked vigilante Daredevil…

In review

Daredevil #1 is the latest addition to Marvel Comics’ All-New, All-Different initiative and a relaunch for another of their long established characters.  Taking over the reins from Mark Waid and Chris Samnee, writer Charles Soule and artist Ron Garney reset the world of Matt Murdock post-Secret Wars and return him to New York after relocating to San Francisco during the latter part of the Waid/Samnee run.  Fans of Mark Waid’s (generally) lighter, happy-go-lucky take on the character may find this relaunch a little jarring at first as Soule and Garney bring back the grit and darkness of the days of writers Frank Miller, Brian Michael Bendis and Ed Brubaker (perhaps partly instigated by the success of the Netflix series launched earlier this year?) and as refreshing and fun as Waid’s approach was, it’s a welcome return to form for the Man Without Fear.

Given his experiences as a lawyer, Charles Soule is an ideal fit for Daredevil and seems to have a good handle on the established character of Murdock whilst deftly weaving new elements into the status quo.  Whilst Murdock is now acting as prosecutor for the state, as Daredevil he must contend with the lurking threat of new villain ‘Tenfingers’ but it looks like he won’t have to face this alone as Soule introduces us to Blindspot, DD’s new crime-fighting partner/vigilante-in-training.  Early on, Soule rightly relinquishes much of the narrative focus to this new partnership as Murdock (donning his new, darker Daredevil suit that’s befitting of the title’s overall tone) trains his ‘sidekick’ as they conduct a brutal face off with a street gang that has links to Tenfingers.  With reference to Murdock’s own training by Stick, there’s a pleasing sense that the pupil has now become the teacher with Murdock’s Daredevil playing irascible sensei to Blindspot’s misguided protégé.

Ron Garney’s rough and inkless pencils matches Soule’s writing perfectly and complemented nicely by Matt Manilla’s subdued colour palette that (the odd effective highlight aside) allows only hints of washed-out crimson and cool blues to seep through, bringing the violent, grimy and decaying underbelly of New York to life.  A far cry from the clean lines and vivid colours of Waid/Samnee’s tenure to be sure and a welcome visual refresh that’s more reminiscent of Alex Maleev and Michael Lark whilst establishing a look that’s still of its own.

As with the rest of Marvel’s All-New, All-Different relaunch, a leap of faith is required by the reader as we know nothing of what has transpired in the eight month gap following the conclusion of events in Secret Wars (which still has two issues left to go) but no doubt that in good time the missing details will be fleshed out.

The bottom line:  Marvel’s ‘Man Without Fear’ makes a welcome return to darker and grittier times that only serves for greater dramatic and artistic potential, courtesy of a promising new creative team.

Daredevil #1 is published by Marvel Comics and is available in print and digital formats now.

Cover art for Marvel Comics' 'Daredevil' #1 by Ron Garney.

Cover art for Marvel Comics’ ‘Daredevil’ #1 by Ron Garney.