December 17, 2015
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)
How is a film like that supposed to cope with that sort of anticipation? What film could possibly meet those expectations, or tap effectively into so much pent-up nostalgia? Purely by being made at all The Force Awakens is tempting fate. It isn't simply required to be as good as the original Star Wars trilogy - it needs to be as satisfying as our collective memories of it - and it is, much to my delight and surprise. We can discuss and dissect its merits for years to come, but for now - and this really is the important bit - it is precisely the Star Wars sequel I think we needed. If you haven't seen it yet, which is probably likely, then that's all you need to know. It is absolutely a Star Wars movie, and it's absolutely a good one. Stop reading right now and go join the queue.
No really, go away now. There is discussion of the film's plot and characters from here on in.
It's worth remembering that The Force Awakens has been tasked with a ridiculously ambitious mission. It needs to relaunch Star Wars for a new generation of viewers for whom the brand means a couple of CGI cartoons on Cartoon Network and Disney XD. It needs to make an awful lot of money and justify Disney's US$4 billion dollar purchase of Lucasfilm. Most importantly it needs to convince two generations of moviegoers that it's going to give them an experience that's a lot more like the original trilogy and a lot less like George Lucas' maddening prequels.
To its credit I think it is going to ably achieve all three requirements, but in order to achieve the third The Force Awakens deliberately falls very closely to the Star Wars tree. In both films an orphaned kid finds a runaway droid on a desert planet, gets chased by Stormtroopers, hitches a lift with Han Solo on the Millennium Falcon, joins a rebellion and aids in an attack on a galactic superweapon. If there's a major criticism to be made of the film it's that in terms of story it really does play it too safe. It's so closely aligned to the original Star Wars that at times it feels more like a remake than a sequel, although possibly remix is a more accurate description. All of the elements return, just slightly re-arranged into different forms.
There is actually a fourth requirement for the film: unlike Star Wars, which was produced with the expectation that no sequels would likely follow, The Force Awakens went into production with at least another two sequels already green-lit and in development. Thus it's denied the self-contained satisfaction of the original film and instead builds up to an open-ended cliffhanger and a half-dozen unresolved questions left in the audience's minds. It does this because it has been specifically tasked with franchise-building, but that doesn't entirely make up for the fact that the film ends without a clear resolution or winner, and with the slightly maddening frustration of not being able to immediately see what happens next.
So why, given that it has a recycled narrative and a wide-open conclusion, am I so impressed and happy with The Force Awakens? It's down to two things, really: character and tone. I find myself so impressed with the film's achievements in these two areas that it's relatively easy to overlook and forgive the short-comings of the plot.
Basically director J.J. Abrams has perfectly captured the tone of the original Star Wars trilogy. There is a warmth to the film that was missing in the prequels, and a sort of mad-dash panic as the story jumps from one planet to another. All of the heroes are likeable, spontaneous characters. All of the villains are intriguing in different ways. There's a wonderful line of humour running through the film, expressed as amusing quips, moments of comedy and one fabulous running joke about a young man constantly trying to come to the rescue of a capable young woman who doesn't need saving. The clever balance of humour is easily seen in a character like C-3PO, still knocking around despite being scratch-built all the way back in The Phantom Menace, and back to actually generating proper laughs here rather that putting the audience's teeth on edge as he did in Attack of the Clones.
There's a spirit of adventure to be found in the chase sequences, the shoot-outs and the space battles. They are beautifully paced and shot, and Abrams has visibly reduced his reliance on lens-flare camera effects to a bare minimum. There's also a beautiful sense of design, matching the original films a lot more than the prequels, with a heavy use of practical sets and costumes instead of computer-generated elements. This seems particularly true of early scenes on the desert planet Jakku, whose surface is littered with the wreckage of some unexplained yet massive Alliance versus Empire battle of decades past. There are some standout action sequences here, particularly an inspired climactic lightsaber duel that pretty much tops nearly every other similar scene bar Qui-Gon/Obi-Wan versus Darth Maul.
I think J.J. Abrams has achieved a real find with lead actor Daisy Ridley, who plays a young scavenger named Rey. She expresses a wonderful intensity and a strong will, not to mention a fabulous ability to fly spaceships, run for her life and take down enemies in a fight. She's clearly the new Luke Skywalker: our point of view character into the new saga. Also great are John Boyega as Finn, a runaway Stormtrooper more concerned with escaping the First Order (basically the new Empire) than with helping to save galaxy, and Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron, a skilled X-Wing pilot and pretty much the most dashing and friendly guy in the universe.
Four new villains emerge in this film, each set up I suspect for further villainy down the road. They each have their own style and purpose. Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) is basically our new Boba Fett: designed to look cool and inspire cosplayers, but not actually given that much to do. She certainly does look the part, and I hope she's better exploited down the line. Domnhall Gleeson plays General Hux, basically our new Moff Tarkin. He actually gets a great sort of bitter sibling rivalry with the third villain, the Force-using Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), for the affections of the overall villain Supreme Leader Snoke. It's very early days I suspect to judge Snoke, voiced and performed via motion capture by Andy Serkis, but certainly he gets a very imposing entrance and offers a lot of intrigue. It really is Kylo Ren who stands out, however: he is a highly disturbed devotee of Darth Vader, but lacks Vader's cold angry menace for the sort of petulant fury you get from an unhappy teenager. Part of it feels as if it shouldn't work, but Driver's performance and Michael Arndt and Lawrence Kasdan's screenplay manage to make him a highly volatile and frightening enemy.
In terms of the original cast, Harrison Ford is basically given second billing in the story after Daisy Ridley. He's masterfully re-introduced, keeping the same tone and personality but adding a few decades of poor decisions and regret. I wondered how the film would cope with using an actor in his early 70s - it turns out Abrams' solution is to simply make the character old. He's a little slower, maybe a little crankier, and certainly a lot more weary and sad. It's a similar case with Princess Leia, now going as General Organa and continuing to command a rebellion from a military command centre. There's something very sad, I think purposefully so, about the idea that Leia is thirty years older and still trapped fighting Stormtroopers and shooting down Star Destroyers. She's sacrificed so much and received so little reward. The brief scenes she shares with Solo are remarkably melancholic for what is otherwise a quick sharp and funny action film.
The nostalgia hits hard and heavy in this film, whether it's beloved characters - or starships - returning after so many years, or repeated lines of dialogue (of course somebody has a bad feeling about this), or deliberate echoes of shots from the original film. It's basically like slipping on a comfortable pair of jeans; despite an overly familiar plot, the film simply feels right. It all feels in lock-step with the three original films - you know, the great ones. I think there's a pretty solid reason for that familiarity.
George Lucas originally developed Star Wars as a broad pastiche of pop culture: a bit of Flash Gordon here, a bit of A Princess of Mars there, storylines cribbed from The Hidden Fortress and Where Eagles Dare and Ben Hur's chariot race, all doggedly pulled together with a keen dedication to Joseph Campbell's theories on myth. The achievement of his films is that they knowingly took many old things and turned them all into one fused-together new thing. What J.J, Abrams and producer Kathleen Kennedy do here is actually quite different. They're not fusing together assorted elements of pop culture into a science fiction setting. Rather they're fusing together assorted elements of Star Wars itself. It's second-generation textual poaching. It's now a pastiche of a pastiche.
I think that's fine. Disney is building a house on top of this property, and with The Force Awakens they have carefully constructed a very solid and immensely entertaining foundation. I'm sure future sequels and spin-offs will begin stretching the limits of what Star Wars can do, and I'm already very keen to see Gareth Edward's Rogue One war movie coming out for next Christmas. This feels good. This really feels like it's going to work. My inner seven year-old can not believe his luck.