The first of many I’m sure, teasers that is. I enjoyed VII immensely, significantly more than the disappointing Rogue One, and in there careful way this teases just enough to keep even us remotely interested nerds salivating like a Sarlacc in mating season;
Not exactly off to a punctual start of the year are we? It’s been a few weeks since I caught Rogue One, the long anticipated first wider universe film set in the Star Wars universe, and to be frank I just haven’t been able to muster the enthusiasm to collect my thoughts. Then of course tragedy struck which threw an entirely new shadow across the film, with the passing of Carrie Fisher the first loss of the primary acting talent of the franchise although we also lost Kenny Baker earlier in 2016. Just to be a hideous, privileged soul I remember sitting at Frightfest 2010 when Monsters was showing, a mere five feet from Gareth Edwards who took to the stage for a rapturous Q&A, and look at him now, one of the corralled and manageable directors that seems to be the current studio executive strategy in controlling these dollar spinning franchises – see also Disney’s Marvel imprint, Universal’s Jurassic Park behemoth, and the Warner Bros. DC Universe. I loved Monsters, a genuine achievement of a fresh new talent assembling a movie at zero budget, utilising the new trajectories and abilities of digital equipment, with a fine understanding of story, character and empathy. Something is intergalactically amiss in this film in those crucial areas as although it’s already cliche to state this Rogue One is the biggest fan-fiction movie ever made, stuffed full of lip-service and nerd nuggets for the converted to mutter and coo appreciatively, but fatally lacking in anything resembling rich and engaging characters, or even the slightest dregs of emotional drive which is so crucial to this specific franchise. I didn’t hate the film, it had its moments and strengths that we will come to shortly, but until it reached its final act I was deathly bored, and even then none of the climactic story beats detonated with any impact whatsoever.
It’s all about keeping it in the family for this franchise, and this first picture nested away from the tragedy of the Skywalker clan flirts with the same territory of estranged patriarchs and hidden secrets. A nordic flavoured opening sequence introduces us to Jyn Erso, a young woman separated from her parents when the Empire arrive and threaten her father to return to work for them on their secret, planet devouring super-weapon. After her mother is killed and father (Mads Mikkelsen) captured we smash-cut to some time later, with Jyn all grown up and played by a neutered Felicity Jones – more on that phraseology later. It’s murky but she’s either a thief or scoundrel of some sort, soon rescued from the prison camp by the Rebel Alliance in order to join the effort to rescue her father, a mission led by intelligence officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna). Eventually this chemistry free couple manage to recruit Imperial defector Bodhi (Riz Ahmed), the blind monk Chirrut (Donnie Yen) and his heavily armed grunt Baze (Jiang Wen) – all of their ideologies and motivations I perfect mystery, other than Chirruts mystical ramblings about some strange alchemy known as the force. So, from a kernel of familial strife and guilt the film warps into a mission movie, in a scrappy and fractured narrative line which fails at numerous dramatic hurdles.
The neutron core problem with Rogue One is just how manufactured it feels, how designed by committee, with a critical and fatal disregard for character. From the potentially offensive Zatochi clone and his mate I just didn’t care about anyone in this picture, just like it appears neither did the screenwriters who were clearly directing their efforts into the avenues of fan-service, references, and crafting a film whose sole purpose is to reference other entries in its own bloody franchise. None of the principals get any decent lines or tangible development moments, the first half feels very fractured and scattershot, and whilst I’d concur that the final section is a marked improvement it all comes to little too late to save this plundering product. If you compare and contrast with The Force Awakens (or indeed Episode IV or V) within seconds we given enough information to form our own ideas and backstories – Ren’s a mischievous and resourceful with dreams of getting off-world and into wild adventures, Finn’s a fractured yet spirited conscript whom is struggling with his moral compass. In this film we know nothing of our main protagonists, the prologue aside we learn nothing of Jyn’s interviewing struggle, her drive or reasoning, so when the character moments arrive they don’t land with any density whatsoever – her sudden transformation for inspirational speech orator was ridiculous. In his role as some sort of mentor / father surrogate / Afrika Bambaataa clone Forrest Whitaker is a terrible over-actor with his wheezing portentousness and husky, and quite frankly the main character we met in the trailer, the arrogant and brooding Jyn has been transformed into a much more, well, feminised archetype . There was so much they could have done here, the thriller trope of this being an assassination mission not a rescue mission, and what about the notion of Jyn, our heroine, spending her life as a the daughter of a collaborator – theres plenty of drama and tension to mine. Instead we got some limping procession from one planet to another, drizzled in flat and inspired dialogue, and some feeble stabs at humour from the reprogrammed Imperial droid K2-SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk) which missed my funny bone by about 10 trillion parsecs.
SPOILERS SECTION – Yes, Darth effortlessly scything through doomed hordes of Rebel redshirts was highly amusing albeit pure fanboy masturbation, I felt his appearances were listless and not exactly squirming with menace, and very poorly written – what the hell was that ‘choke’ ‘gag;?.\ The entire connection of this story into the opening frames of Episode IV smacks of huge executive interference, it is clunky, it is ugly, and stinks of pure incoherent ‘hey this would be cool’ rather than letting the story be guided by any inconvenient diversions such as character arcs, logic or emotional closure. Some of the other cameos were almost embarrassing – the droids moment might retain their fidelity as the central characters who have appeared in every Star Wars film but it’s just pointless and distracting. Unfortunately Hollywood still hasn’t cracked the uncanny valley as the Peter Cushing resurrection was just weird and deployed far too often, it completely threw me out of the film, although I guess it is meta-commentary amusing to see na actor who spent his entire career grappling with the undead back on the screen a couple of decades since he slipped this mortal country. I quite liked the Leia cameo though, unlike most that kinda worked for me, even with the rather clunky line delivery – although I saw it before the sad news so I’m not sure if this just won’t play as deeply disrespectful. I also quite like the idea of the two reprobates from Mos Eisley engaged in some intergalactic pub crawl after they inadvertently bumped into Jyn, I’m sure there are numerous other references I missed but this is what has just curdled in the memory banks. Just to be really picky, the decision to nuke the final battleground, considering that they hold all the Empire’s plans and numerous intelligence assets seems a little extreme, a bit like nuking the Pentagon if the generals learned that some F23’s secret blueprints had been compromised. Why did Forrest Whitaker’s character just stay in his home intoning gravely instead of getting the fuck out of dodge with everyone else, and what was the fucking point of the psychic tentacle thing? SPOILERS ENDS
Most amusingly I have recently learnt that director Gareth Edwards, also graduated from the same Surrey University as me back in the mid 1990’s, I don’t specifically remember him as he would have been on a different course, but it was a small colleague so I’m sure our paths crossed at me point. I don’t quite know why he was stalking me at Frightfest but here we are. Not wishing to psychoanalyse his intent but he’s evidently one for apocalyptic instincts, big broad metaphors like the creatures in his debut and his Godzilla remake, but like the new generation of malleable directors they serve in obvious thrall to the franchise behemoth, delivering some acceptable product with any fiscal polluting edges and controversies whittled away. Thankfully the film improves dramatically once it reaches the final stretch and the climax begins to coalesce begins, it almost transforms into an actual Star Wars movie with the cross cutting between parallel planes of action to power the dramatic crescendos, but without any genuine investment in any of the occurrences it is all too little too late. To be a little more positive I did enjoy spending some more time in this franchise world from a nostalgic perspective, seeing the ship designs and costumes was fun, including Bahamas Stormtrooper © and was that a new horizontal TIE fighter design I spied? To deny that didn’t depress some nerd buttons would be dishonest. I also did like the sense of a teeming and populous universe which the film just about mustered, skipping from one planet to the next, and I wonder if the lack of traditional wipe edit patterns and inclusion of planet inter-title introductions (which haven’t been deployed in the franchise before) weren’t a deliberate effort to distinguish this movie from the Skywalker saga. But none of this can fully detract from an imaginary realm populated with dull and uninvolved characters, a bruising lack of camaraderie or comradeship, and an utterly unearned heroes journey from jaded criminal vagabond to inspired guerrilla leader who can inspire noble souls to join her on a doomed suicide mission. Oh and a quick memo to the next film producers – decide who your villain is, for fuck sake. Rogue One has at least three villains oozing around the galaxy and cackling over their nefarious plots, which left Ben Mendelsohn flailing for any presence or nefarious heft, in a completely wasted role.
The other reason its taking me so long to pull this together is that I didn’t want to start the year on such a tepid, negative posture, but for me the Scorsese season starts in earnest tomorrow with a screening of Silence so I need to disintegrate the back-log, no matter how distasteful. The film was subjected to reshoots before release which is par for the course these days, almost all major films do this so it’s not necessarily a warning sign, but the shift of emphasis from that original trailer alongside rumours and whispers coming out of the set smacks of Executive molestation a la Suicide Squad, where certain key moments have been culled to the cutting room floor to actively change the pace and tone of the narrative and the characters – ‘this will play gangbusters, so who cares about the plot’ is the corporate mantra especially with more receipts coming from overseas. Then again, apart from a few of us rare dissenters everyone seems to be loving this, or at least giving it a pass as fun couple of hours and upon reflection I can’t necessarily disagree with that for a major blockbuster, a distraction from the increasing ominous shift of the culture. Fine. Maybe I was in a bad mood when I saw this as I wasn’t particularly excited about it, as I’ve said before I’m of the generation that grew up with and was obsessed with this universe when I was a kid, but those pangs have faded partially due to its unearned ubiquity in the cultural landscape, but while I’m always down with some fun big dumb SF opera my exhaustion with this series is becoming overwhelming. So maybe it’s not for me and that’s fine, if people are throughly loving this then great, more power to you, the world is lacking in enthusiasm and genuine enjoyment these days, and perhaps a message of committing to fight against the darker forces in our world, no matter how futile as it might just make a difference isn’t such a bad shell of message to offer. Churning these out every year will inevitably tarnish the brand however, the appearance of a Stars Wars film was a major event for good or ill, and inevitably when we get to the Chewbacca: The Early Years dregs of the series it will have amassed enough in merchandising trillions to justify a reboot of the whole Skywalker saga again, from A New Hope, just in time for a 2027 50th anniversary treat. Rogue One is better than the I-III trilogy but then rampaging case of necrotic syphilis also occupies the same dubious qualities, so on that note ‘Beam Me Up Scotty’!!…wait, that’s the right franchise, right?;
Jesus fucking Christ. What else is there to say? I always liked how funny and self-deprecating she came over in interviews, as well as gently poking fun at the whole furore that orbited the franchise. Well, I know everyone else will be posting the obvious stuff and quite appropriately as she became an icon, I’ll just post a reminder that she had some roles out of the franchise, and I was always uniquely amused by this odd little number that I remember seeing as a teenager – although I doubt a remake is on the cards, somehow;
Another trailer, but this one’s a death stared doozy. I can’t be the only lapsed Star Wars fan to have been coaxed reluctantly back to the fold with some of the elements of Episode VII, with a cool suspicion of these so-called side universe films and the associated world building that is fragmenting Hollywood cinema into the mediocre and actively terrible. Rogue One however looks fantastic with a genuine tone and spirit coursing through the previews, I just hope that energy pulses in the final mission;
In other news my long cherished dream for a modern day update to Elite has finally been realised. There is no way I am purchasing a copy of that, as it would essentially dominate my life / career / reason for existence over the next, say, two or three decades. Must resist……..
Whats this? The director of cult creature romance Monsters and the mildly successful 2014 Godzilla reboot has a new film hitting theatres at Christmas? Cool. I think it’s part of yet another franchise or something (rolls eyes), but this might be good fun, yes?
So this is in the same continuity and set before Episode IV, huh? That was a good trailer as trailers go, just the right balance of footage and intrigue, and I think Felicity Jones looks strong. Also featuring terrific support in the form of Mikkelson, Forrest Whitaker and Ben Mendelsohn, and allegedly shot at my local tube station? Roll on December, and let the nerding commence…..
Whilst I’m fairly sure that the world has not exactly been plunged into a hideous famine of Lucasfilm related parodies this is very well done, right down to the sound editing and use of exploitative marketing pull quotes;
Well, what else is there to talk about in this final stumble to Christmas? There sure as hell ain’t much else showing at the multiplexes due to this intergalactic behemoth dominating screens, in both 2D, 3D and IMAX wide wallet gouging domination. The vast majority of on-line discourse has naturally been focused on the biggest movie event of the decade predictably shattering every possible box-office record imaginable, and it hasn’t even opened in the world’s 2nd biggest market yet where I predict it will obliterate at least another $500 million from that evolving landscape, maybe even a cool $1billion – after all there is a lot more screens and disposable income in the hemisphere than there was in 2009. I’ve seen The Force Awakens again for the more technical review now that the initial excitement has subsided, and it has been a lot of fun catching up with the various movie podcasts and discussion boards getting all giddy with excitement and expressing some of their objections and frustrations in a well humoured and good natured manner – there’s a lot of love out their for this picture with the naysayers few and far between. So in that spirit from the start we shall be going full, 100%, third-act and every plot revelation SPOILER in the most nerdy, geeky and embarrassing way possible, I really don’t care as its fucking Christmas and I wanted to get at least one more post up before we break-up for mince pies, alcohol poisoning and random acts of domestic violence;
As I alluded to in my review just the opening sentence of the opening crawl seems to have been enough to provoke tears and plunge viewers back into this beloved universe – ‘Luke Skywalker has disappeared.’ immediately raised hackles as we finally had central plot machinations confirmed, not to mention the thankful lack of tax disputes, vaguely racist caricatures or senate machinations which biliously pre-bloated the prequels. The second time around it’s just easier to relax into the movie and appreciate the achievements a little more, while the faults and frustrations are a little more diminished, just a little less jarring and disappointing. That said I still cannot believe the whole Snope creation managed to disintegrate any sort of QC threshold – for a start that has to be the most pathetic, stupidest name for an evil character for even a kids comic book movie that I have ever heard, ‘Oh no, Snope is after us’, or ‘My god, this was Snope’s evil masterplan all along’ isn’t quite as menacing as Lord Vader, Sauron or even Voldermort now is it? I was always the sort of kid who cheered the stormtroopers and booed the Ewoks, so the whole visage of the Hitler youth impresario’s marching around angular designed Starships evokes some of the better memories of the design choices of the original testament. Abrams directing style is quite erratic, I did notice this on the first viewing but actively started pushing away from being in ‘appraisal’ mode and just enjoy the film for what is was on a first digestion, he likes to throw his camera around within scenes to whip and pan from character to character as dialogue is barked or purred, even racking focus within the frame which is quite an old-fashioned technique of coverage. This alongside the editing is how you build a sense of energy and momentum which explains the films breathless pace, an apt directorial choice for the material which as perhaps the worlds finest franchise emulator he seemed born to (re)make.
The main mystery of the film, and the most frustrating unanswered questions revolve around Rey, her patronage and ancestry which that oddly ameliorated flashback sequence has ignited. I’m sure you’ve heard that both Yoda (Frank Oz) and Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor and an engineered Alec Guinness line reading from A New Hope) are heard in the husky voiceover to the sequence, in what I thought was actually the most ambitious and risky facet of the entire movie. I could be wrong but I’m relatively sure this is the first flashback sequence in any Star Wars film, a franchise whose narrative designs are usually built around exposition and dialogue which fills in the gaps as the plot hyper-speeds from one planet to another. The speculation and chatter has predicted that she is Luke’s daughter which would explain her powerful Force abilities, although many have groaned at this device being too obvious which seems strange for a series which is narratively built around patronage, heredity destiny and brooding birth-rights.
I however, and I’m bravely nailing my colours to the mast for 2017 here, I assert that she is Kylo Ren’s sister, ergo Leia and Hans daughter, a similarly obvious conclusion for which the evidence is more overwhelming. First of all the flashback clearly shows her as being involved with the Knights of Ren, and she was obviously hidden away on Jakku to cloak her from their malignant influence just as Luke was on Tattooine between III and IV. Evidently this would also explain the latent force powers, and it is strikingly apparent that a) Kylo has known about her when he intentionally captures her alive and subsequently interrogates her, and he had tellingly gone mental earlier in the movie when a unfortunate lackey advised him that the BB8 unit was in the possession of a young woman, b) Han acts weirdly around Rey, there is some connection between them and he even offers her a job after about ten minutes of screen time and c) Leia immediately goes to Rey to comfort her after Han dies, not Chewie who is just standing their quivering – who was Han’s oldest and closest mate exactly? Poor old Chewie, always the bridesmaid, never the hairy bride. Quite amusingly this reasserts the entire Skywalker clan as the most abusive family in cinema history, repeatedly abandoning their kin to dangerous wastelands and betraying their children as they inflict patricide, matricide, torture and maim each other with ruthless abandon, with just a smudge of child genocide in the prequels via a PG sanitised bloodbath which would make Genghis Khan blush with embarrassment.
Official Blade Runner commentary there my learned friends – oh boy. Anyway, some of the more sober reactions have articulated something I couldn’t quite put my finger on after the initial view despite how colourful and fast paced the film is, despite the swashbuckling intergalactic adventure The Force Awakens is actually quite melancholy and muted on a narrative level, when you consider the holistic situation our heroes are in. Han and Leia’s enduring romance has failed in the worst way possible, with their son falling to the dark side, splitting them asunder and threatening the entire galaxy with a new tyrannical darkness – an argument for interstellar contraception if ever there was one. Luke, distraught at his failure in training his nephew has cowardly withdrawn from the galaxy, abandoning his friends and consigning the guy who saved his life during the Death Star run to die. Like I said no-one gives poor Chewie a hug when his best friend is killed and he doesn’t even get a chance to mourn before he’s on taxi duties in the penultimate scene of the film. The usually chirpy R2-D2 has withdrawn into a depressed, narcotic fugue and slaying one of cinemas most enduring heroes is surely a downer, even if you can sense it parsecs away if you know anything about Ford’s antipathy toward the character, his apparent glee on the press circuit at finally being rid of the albatross around his neck, and the clear foreshadowing embedded in the picture. I’ll admit it, the cinema got a little dusty when it became apparent he was going to go, a little part of your childhood speared by the conventions of modern cinema psychosis, slain by Star Wars most complex and fragmented villain.
This struck me as a particularly 21st century invention, an incongruous stab at psychic realism which doesn’t necessarily sit comfortably within a Star Wars universe of heroic archetypes and mythic adventure – you didn’t see Aragorn on the Freudian couch because his father abandoned him in the wilds of Angmar. No doubt Kylo Ren will appeal to disenfranchised youths worldwide who might empathise with a ethically stricken anti-hero, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s on a finally redeemed and dies sacrificing to save his sister arc for Episode IX, just to complete the circle and everything. I wasn’t sure Han’s death scene quite reached immortal status or will be a player in the ‘greatest scenes in movies’ lists in the years and decades to come, it is quite well written, acted and Han’s little moment to graze his sons face was a gentle little touch, but the second time around it plays much better, and might be one of the defining moments of the entire series. It also seems a shame that we will never have another scene in the franchise with Luke, Han, Leia and Chewie engaging and bantering on screen at the same time, that seems like a real shame, but I guess the story is all and if that’s where the story goes then so be it. Despite your frantic prayers Han ain’t coming back by the way, being speared through the heart by your sith son, falling into a cavernous trench to the molten core of a planet which is subsequently is obliterated in a supernova which can be seen from the
Tannhauser gates (opps, wrong multiverse) salt mines of kessel is a pretty spectacular way to go, although I guess we might, we just might get a flashback in Episode VIII.
Some random observations and nuggets; Young CGI yoda clone Maz Kanata was terrible, there are rumours her role was changed at the last minute as Lupita Nyong’o just couldn’t master the motion capture techniques for a solid performance, a claim which Abrams has vehemently denied. Just like the Snopes thing why didn’t they just stick some prosthetics on some highly accomplished actors, maybe augment them with a little CGI finesse and still retain this practical effects grounding and density that the rest of the film was so committed to maintaining? As soon as these images appear on screen they throw you out of the picture, they are not remotely convincing and still look like computer game cut scenes, which seems odd since Cameron seemed to surpass these challenges six years ago. How did she get Luke’s lightsaber which was last seen tumbling down to the mists of the gas giant Bespin forty years ago? This better be explained. Apparently the chess board creatures that Finn accidently activates on the Falcon seem to be concluding their combat from 1977, as the small little yellow thing twats the bigger guy thus achieving his revenge in 2015 – so how’s that for nerdy observations eh? In the same scene it’s amusing to consider that Han utters ‘The Jedi, the force, it’s true….all of it’ seen in the trailer occurs at almost exactly the same location that in 1977 he was asserting ‘ancient ideas and hokey religions ain’t no substitute for a good blaster at your side kid’. If you had forgotten as I did that the acrobatic guys from the Raid movies were cast in this then they were among the pirates in the walking Sarlacc action sequence, another wasted opportunity it seems. Apparently Daniel Craig is the Stormtrooper (with the call sign JB-007 on the call sheets, because…) who suffers the force manipulation from Rey which seems like an amusing cameo, I like incidents like this as it makes it sound like a lot of fun was had on set for such a high-stakes media product.
The Force Awakens clearly feels and was designed to be the first part of a trilogy, a film which intentionally teases unanswered questions and queries as opposed to A New Hope which mostly wrapped itself up with a big triumphant cheer, although Lucas was canny enough to leave Vader alive just in case his small little weird film somehow found a modest audience among the SF fans of the era. Alongside the flashbacks it is quite cleverly knowing, it knows that the baton is passing from one generation to the next (quite literally in the final scene), and the wonder and glee with which Finn and Rey set their star-besotted eyes on Han (‘You…you’re the Han Solo?), Chewie and Luke has its overflows into the real world, and our rediscovery of this iconic characters again. Maybe I’m getting old but in the era of declining cinema attendance – and more on that phenomenon in my imminent annual year round-up Menagerie fans – of Netflix, streaming and the proliferation of other consumption models it is quite heartening to see people so enthralled of the cinema experience, of an eye-wateringly vast screen, a roaring sound system and a shared, communal event. Apparently in the US crowds were going berserk and cheering the appearance of characters and cooing with appreciation at some of the story-beats. This news made me grin, being British one doesn’t tend to endorse such public displays of affection, they are after all quite vulgar and one could be in danger of spoiling one’s hipflash of Earl Grey, but I can forgive them this disruption this time around considering the intensity of the hype and high-pressure attention. Boyega’s gentlemanly handling of the whole situation has been nothing short of brilliant, from his dragging the A list cast to some Peckham watering holes (apparently) during production and his brilliant reaction to the pathetic racism, while Daisy Ridley is gonna be a huge, huge star, although this whole ‘Mary Sue‘ meme is patronising and ridiculous. Second time around this is a better film for me, that lightsabre fight is absolutely breath-taking with the moment where she force pulls the weapon, fires it up as the camera pushes in and the score whelms up….well, it’s among the high points of the whole series. Wow. Roll on the Blu-Ray release and the first Episode VIII teaser trailer in what, the summer of next year? It starts shooting in earnest next month so calibrate your excitement meters accordingly;
The only review that matters, courtesy of the RLM crew. Full of spoilers as you’d imagine, and they broadly concur with most opinions – some nitpicks, some issues with the old cast, but overall an absolute blast with some great new characters;
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…..
It’s a dangerous game if you’re spoiler averse as I am, to even look at the internet on the eve of possibly the biggest movie event of the century thus far, and certainly the biggest Hollywood blitzkrieg since Avatar six years ago. I’m seeing it tomorrow lunchtime and will certainly be maintaining radio /social media / web silence from tonight until I exit the theatre, and there is a certain level of feverish anticipation warping through the electronic air. I’ve prepped all I can review wise and will do my best to craft my thoughts late in the afternoon, before I head into town for a few celebratory Xmas drinks with a fine old friend. Until then let’s just remember the peaks and troughs of this media maelstrom, a franchise that has its cosmic constellations and devilish black holes – Happy Life Day everyone;