Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)
For some years now I have been nurturing something of an exasperated antipathy of Star Wars, well before the likes of this was inevitably commissioned*. This position isn’t due to some pathetic notion of Lucas ‘raping my childhood’ with the prequels, nor is it some contrarian impulse to assert alternative credentials and dislike a popularly loved media entity. No, I’m just kinda exasperated of its permanent perch on the pedestal of the greatest trilogy of all time©, when by any objective notion they are fantastically entertaining adventure movies which pushed the boundaries of popular cinema, subsequently marred by their creators constant meddling and psychologically telling insistence on suppressing the original release versions. It was not always thus, I am of course of that exact generation which grew up utterly indoctrinated and fascinated with this universe as a child, although I don’t recall my first viewing of A New Hope I fondly remember queuing for Empire in my home town for many hours, my head spinning with the excited chatter regarding that revelation which provoked such an audible gasp in the auditorium. It was also the toys, comics, bed-spreads, t-shirts, posters, tie-in novels and paraphernalia which ultimately sealed the deal of course, the powerful tractor beams trained firmly on my pocket money, alongside such other magical worlds as Indiana Jones and Marvel Comics, Dungeons & Dragons and Battle of The Planets. Time passes, new obsessions come and go, yet a mild rush of apprehensive glee erupts at the re-release of the films before the new prequel trilogy is unleashed in the late 1990’s. When it comes to that sector of the legendarium there is absolutely nothing that needs saying other than RLM’s perfect deconstruction of that phase, so we’ll just leave that trilogy alone. Due to that disappointment my sensors and shields were up when the inevitable was announced, although my resistance slowly began to crumble when original Empire and Indiana Jones scribe Lawrence Kasdan was appointed as wordsmith, and further eroded by the rumblings coming from the camp about how they wanted to ‘move away from explanation and back to the emotion’ of the series. That factor alone perfectly encapsulates what went wrong with the prequels, and the fact that J.J. Abrams and Kathleen Kennedy immediately seized upon that for emphasis was an extremely positive signal. Then we learned of the commitment to practical SFX elements, the decision to shoot back in London, and then that spectacularly executed excitement campaign which culminated in that superb trailer back in October – say what you will about Disney but that mouse knows how to market the fuck out of a property. Now, after a simmering volcano of anticipation finally erupts we are here for the seventh film a mere decade after the last languid instalment, and just to be absolutely clear there will be mild plot SPOILERS, not major plot turns or anything but some general commentary on character canon appearances and some nerdy gnawing on the movie, so consider yourself warned. I liked it a great deal, it was a colossal supernova of fun but c’mon team, this ain’t no five-star work of towering genius nor should we have expected it to be.
As you may have inferred from the trailer The Force Awakens is essentially a two hander in which the mythical baton is handed to a new breed of heroine and hero. First up we meet John Boyega’s exiled stormtrooper FN 2187 or Finn as he is soon anointed, after he assists ace resistance fighter pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) to escape from the clutches of the fascistic First Order, the latest iteration of the galaxy’s darker forces that have arisen from the smouldering vestiges of the Empire thirty years ago. After fleeing to the desert planet of Jakku Finn makes a tentative connection with vagabond scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley – an instant megastar), a mechanical protégé with a mysterious, abandoned themed past. Rey has recently acquired the spherical droid BB-8, an unassuming and unthreatening unit which secretly holds valuable information of the whereabouts of a certain Luke Skywalker esq., the last remaining Jedi whose disappearance has caused much consternation among the rebellion and their struggle against the ascendant First Order. Alongside Supreme Leader Snope (Andy Serkis with some horribly rendered CGI motion capture, one of the films major stumbles) the evil guys are tyrannically led by the mercilessly threatening Kylo Ren (a petulant Adam Driver), a tempestuous devotee of the dark side who frantically seeks the droid in order to locate and obliterate Skywalker, leaving the galaxy at the mercy of their new, ominous, planet vaporizing super-weapon.
As we all know the primary influences on Lucas alongside the teachings of Joseph Campbell were chanbara Kurosawa pictures, childhood Republic serials and allegedly some French manga may have been a inspiration, a conflagration of sources which magically touched an entire generation and has defined a major pinnacle of our shared cultural landscape. There are some glaring failures and frustrations in J.J. Abrams near Xerox retread of A New Hope which cast such a spell back in 1977, but despite The Force Awakens broad lack of originality it somehow retains that mystique of wonder and adventure, and there are shards of brilliance littered along this familiar path. Through the desert planet bazaars, cosmopolitan populated alien cantinas, trench-run dogfights, droids harbouring clandestine critical information and sneaking around enemy bases we know we’ve been here before, but in a reassuring not repetitive way, the cinematic equivalent of a safety blanket that you can wrap yourself in and fondly purr with childhood nostalgia. Casting a woman and a black dude as your main players in this new phase of the franchise is quite a statement, and lavishing character development on these potential role models is a welcome 2015 update. Both Boyega and Ridley work, they have chemistry as characters in their own right and together as a team, and like millions of others I can’t wait to rejoin them on future adventures in 2017 and beyond. Boyega is epically charming, boisterous, hapless and amusing in equal measure, he gets most of the best lines in what is a surprisingly amusing script, while they teasingly withhold some elements of Rey’s patronage and destiny which confirms that Kasdan and co. have already sketched out the full new trilogy arc. The crucial family dynamics play front and centre as the nexus of character and plot, awarding the picture a purpose and drive beyond the CGI pyrotechnics and set-pieces which veer from the satisfying to the strained.
At its best the Star Wars series was always about fulfilling your potential, of the family ties that bind and the weight of expectations and destiny. Lucas obliterated these core elements, the essence of what made these films so universally appealing across cultures and generations with his trite midi-chlorians concept, a who shot first? level stake through the heart of the franchise on every possible level in those execrable prequels. The notion of the Force™, an ethereal essence that ‘binds us and the universe together’ always had vestiges of some rather irritating Californian new-age, yoga, finding-your-inner-strength crystal shaman worshipping nonsense but it still worked as a magical ideal in the best of the films, as a unifying propellant of the characters evolution and turmoil. One major achievement of The Force Awakens is to restore some balance to this concept, injecting a level of emotional heft and magical wonder that was suffocated in the prequels green screen paraphernalia and dreadful scribing. This instalment culminates in a genuinely thrilling duel between the new characters which has genuine dramatic heft, is beautifully rendered in a stark, petrified snow draped forest, with a brutal and aggressive density that is the equal of the pivotal melee’s in Jedi or Empire. However in terms of pacing and structure I felt that The Force Awakens only really gets blasting in the final act, while it champions a quivering conclusion, one crucifix symbol arrangement of lightsabres reflected on a characters eyes during a key moment an example of the mythic invocations that the film wields with confidence.
That takes us neatly to a final positive before the movie’s grievous faults struggle to the surface. Adam Driver may have been blessed with the most complex villain in the franchise, sinking his teeth into a juicy role with furious aplomb, bringing to mind obvious quips like We Need To Talk About Kylo due to his adolescent tantrums.His intemperate and fluctuating broadsword says as much about his position and control of his world as any dialogue splutter could hope to imagine, and reminds us of the importance of these phallic tools in this psychic universe. Wretched though was Domnhall Gleeson’s General Hux who was so good in Ex Machina, an almost Spaceballs parody of an EVIL VILLAN, further demystified with the horrendous introduction of the poorly rendered Supreme Being who oozes about as much dark charisma as a Hoth chilled lettuce. There is no grasp of the SF political framework which Episodes IV – VI easily mustered, and the reveal of yet another Death Star 3.0 clone induced a shrug rather than a symbiotic shudder. Gwendoline Christie from Game Of Thrones barely registers as Captain Phasma, I guess maybe they’re saving her for the sequels, and while Oscar Iassc’s Poe Cameron is a likeable new roguish inclusion (‘Who’s going to speak first?’) his disappearance and handwaved reappearance is just ugly and incompetent screenwriting.
Most regrettably the old gang, when they finally appear should be a major movie moment, right? We’ve waited to see this since we were little kids haven’t we? To me they all looked kinda uncomfortable with some terminal line readings, although Han and Chewie do grow into the movie after a very flat introduction that feels like it escaped from one of Abrams Star Trek reboots. Carrie Fisher was especially wasted as the newly promoted leader of the resistance, would it be too much to ask to have at least two or three scenes with Han and Leia interacting and emoting? Nevertheless like other Abram’s joints you roll with the punches as it hyperdrives along with barely a chance to catch your breath, the old school wipes and John Williams score papering over the narrative cracks, robustly retaining that sense of swashbuckling adventure which follows a familiar template – land on planet, exposition chat then oh no an Empire attack!! Flee to planet, mess about, oh no a
Empire First Order attack! Some of the major plot turns are clearly telegraphed and don’t feel particularly earned through structure, intellectual investment nor symbolic strength to earlier episodes – without getting into spoiler territory some montage flashbacks could have supplied some sense of the events of the intervening three decades that would have successfully cemented the scale of the current crisis and peril. Nevertheless these characters are so iconic, there is so much affection for them that certain events still retain a powerful charge, and Abram’s milks them for all they’re worth on simultaneous narrative and thematic levels which should be interesting to contemplate as the new guard replaces the old.
The Force Awakens is a reformulated rollercoaster of a film, drenched with enough universe detail and callbacks which don’t overwhelm the new inclusions, and its clear that if we didn’t like spending time with Rey and Finn this project would have been scuppered from the start. Technically it musters a formidable array of designs, creatures, vehicles and weapons which are enough of a pleasure to wallow within, although the emphasis on practical effects diminishes into the usual CGI maelstrom in the final act, but in broad brushstrokes the series and franchise seems to be heading in the right direction now that the property is free of George Lucas’s tyrannical, controlling clutches. Here is a fine primer and here is the legendary Marcia Lucas article, arguing that her enormous influence on the original movie has been criminally airbrushed from history, while this is a perceptive but spoiler tainted review. Alas we have an agonising wait until Episode VIII drops, helmed by the talented Rian Johnson in the summer of 2017, but until then we have a side universe film next Christmas, and no doubt every year from now until the end of time. I enjoyed The Force Awakens a great deal, I’ll buy it when it hits shelves but I wasn’t immediately inclined to go and see it again. That initial reaction has waned since Thursday so I’m up for a revisit once the queues have quieted down. Like millions of others I had that shared weird sensation as the lights dimmed and the opening crawl blazed across the screen, sans the famous 20th Century Fox logo which we all know signals a pavlovian twinge of childhood nostalgia, while both the things I admired and disliked about this long-awaited picture have both amplified and aligned. The last word is this, and you’ll forgive me as we don’t get many chances to fully embrace the cliché but fuck it I’m going there, as in the final analysis yes, the force is strong with this one;
*David Thomson, for the uninitiated is one of the worlds leading cinema commentators / critics / writers, so that’s not just the hack attack piece you might think at first glance. Although this is the guy whose writing has become increasingly personal about his subjects personal lives rather than the work itself over the past fifteen years, and whom hilariously boldly predicted that Avatar would be a monumental Ishtar level flop back in 2009…..