Note: This is a spoiler-free review of The Force Awakens for those who haven't seen it. For those who have, who still believe it's a good movie and who want to try to put their case, I wrote a spoiler-filled version for my Star Wars I-VII Runthrough earlier in the month at http://apocalypselaternow.blogspot.com/2016/01/the-force-awakens-2015.html
Oh dear, oh dear. The Force Awakens, which is the seventh feature film in the regular Star Wars series, even if it doesn’t include an episode number in its title, is a stunningly safe retread of the entire original trilogy, a complete mess of a story that actually gets worse the more we think about it and, in many ways, a worse film than The Phantom Menace. And, now that I’ve upset everyone who saw it six times and adored it more every time, please calm down and let me explain.
My theory is that J J Abrams was a Star Wars fanboy who adored the original trilogy and went to see the prequels with the sure knowledge that they were going to be the best thing in the history of ever. As we know, they weren’t, though recently watching all seven films in order in seven days suggests that they’re not as bad as we remember. However, when he was given the task of making a new first entry in an official Star Wars trilogy, he knew that he couldn’t make the mistakes that George Lucas made so emphatically with The Phantom Menace, and so proceeded to make the safest film he could to make the fans happy.
And they were. While people went back to see The Phantom Menace again and again because they were unable to accept how awful it was, they went back to see The Force Awakens again and again because it felt like a Star Wars movie and that felt good, dammit! Abrams certainly got the feel right.
Thirty years after Return of the Jedi, the Empire has fallen and been replaced by the First Order, just as the Rebel Alliance is now the Resistance. The same fight is on that we’re used to seeing, merely with different names. Things are a little shakier, a little darker, a little grittier. But there’s Max von Sydow, a very cool new droid called BB-8, a brutal massacre in the Lidice style led by a snappier Darth Vader by the name of Kylo Ren and some intriguing scenes with a stormtrooper catchily named FN-2187.
And then there’s the planet of Jakoo. It's a desert planet littered with Imperial wreckage: downed AT-ATs, downed TIE fighters, even a downed Star Destroyer. A whole community of scavengers has grown up to loot this equipment for parts to trade for food. I adored the scale, which is beautifully shot, as much as the detail. I adored the dirt and the open spaces and the fact that broken things fell out of the sky, all anathema to George Lucas. It’s quintessential Star Wars but all shot in a way we’ve never seen before that pulls at the heartstrings and makes us want to cheer J J Abrams for finally doing it right.
The downside creeps in with the progression of the story, because it feels rather familiar. Von Sydow is here because he has documents stolen from the enemy. He gives them to a member of the Resistance who, under fire from the First Order and their dark helmeted commander, secretes them into a droid and lets it loose on a desert planet to seek help. Yes, this is A New Hope all over again, but it doesn’t stop there. Without trying to throw out spoilers, it proceeds through The Empire Strikes Back and ends up in Return of the Jedi territory with the Resistance aiming to destroy the shield generator to Starkiller Base, which is a gigantic superweapon the size of a planet.
And so those millions of us who grew up on the original trilogy start to wonder if they actually wrote a new script or just changed a bunch of names in the old ones. We already know that the First Order is the new Empire and the Resistance is the new Rebel Alliance. Well Jakoo is the new Tatooine. Kylo Ren is the new Darth Vader and Supreme Leader Snoke the new Emperor. Poe Dameron is a male Princess Leia and BB-8 is a round R2-D2. Starkiller Base is the new Death Star, just even bigger and even more dangerous. Rey, the movie’s lead, is a female Luke Skywalker, even if she isn’t let in on much of why during the film and has to figure a lot of it out for herself. FN-2187, soon renamed Finn, could even be a new Han Solo until the real one shows up.
Which he does. And it feels awesome. This is what Abrams does in The Force Awakens. He feeds us a lot of recycled material, but watered down to make less sense. But he does it with cinematic style that awes us. And then he throws another bone to the fans to make us happy. A bunch of favourite characters are brought back and every one of them is re-introduced in an entrance that combines emotion and style. The Millennium Falcon gets the first cheer, rescued from a junkyard and immediately put through its paces. Then it’s Han and Chewie, who have been working as smugglers again because it’s what they know best. Then it’s Leia, now serving as the leader of the Resistance. Then it’s a chipper C-3PO and a drained R2-D2. Eventually, it’s Luke, who’s the MacGuffin of the piece rather than a player in it. I adored every entrance and wanted to cheer at the screen.
And then I thought about what I was watching. Nothing here makes sense. In the original trilogy, those stolen documents were the plans to the Death Star, an unprecedented superweapon. Here, they’re the map to Luke Skywalker. Now, who the heck makes a treasure map to a person? Who can move around whenever he wants. Who would give it to the bad guys? And break it into two parts? Why would anyone even care, given that the majority of the universe apparently believe that the Jedi order and even the Force are mythical stories. This is all clearly ridiculous. Why are the Resistance fighting the First Order, given that the Republic is apparently back in play? Who are the Resistance if they’re not the Republic? What’s going on in this universe? Did we blink and miss a movie? Is this Episode VII or Episode VIII?
A little less ridiculous is the story of Rey, which is completely unexplained and left for the next movie to cover. She’s an orphan, having been dumped on Jakoo as a child, where she’s grown up to be a talented scavenger. As things happening around her start to drag her in, she turns out to be something more. A Jakoo scavenger wouldn’t be able to fly like that, for a start, and a Jakoo scavenger wouldn’t have a wild connection to certain things that I won’t spoil. She’s clearly someone important but we aren’t let in on that secret yet.
Fortunately, Daisy Ridley, who plays Rey, is a revelation. Her character may be nothing but a new Luke or Anakin, but she nails her role absolutely and dominates the film. She’s better than Mark Hamill and much better than Hayden Christensen. In fact she’s the best actor in the entire franchise who isn’t an old white man. I’ll be seeking out her previous work because she’s definitely going to be a huge star.
Her co-star is Finn, the one original idea in the movie as a stormtrooper who can’t be part of the opening massacre and tries to get as far away from the First Order as he possibly can. He’s a great character as he’s a blank canvas for morality to paint on. He’s not the bad guy they want him to be but that doesn’t mean he’s the good guy he could be. He spends the film trying to run away only to find that he might be more than he ever thought possible. John Boyega, who was so great in Attack the Block, is just as great here too.
Sadly, the other major character for the trilogy looks like being Kylo Ren, who’s supposed to be the new Darth Vader but comes across more like the new Jar Jar Binks and that’s not good. I don’t think it’s really Adam Driver’s fault as the actor stuck in the Vader Halloween suit, but he’s acutely embarrassing and often laughable. It’s like Darth Vader, the personification of evil for an entire generation, was revealed to be nothing but a spotty little oik. Kylo Ren is Alan Partridge playing Severus Snape with a vague Tom Hardy as Bane voice, less effective than Rick Moranis as Dark Helmet. My better half burst into giggles every time he took off his helmet because she expected him to introduce himself as Vinnie Barbarino.
Kylo Ren excepted, I understand why Abrams did what he did here. He made something that pleased the fans and got them on board for the Disney trilogy. All the old guard got another moment in the spotlight, Harrison Ford in particular being better than ever as Han, and BB-8 is going to make toy companies rich. But this is a glorious facade that hides an astounding lack of substance. It’s like a gigantic chocolate egg of goodness that looks amazing but only shows us that it’s hollow after we take a yummy bite.
Surely the next film, Episode VIII, will be more substantial and it’ll get the crowds that Attack of the Clones missed out on, having to follow The Phantom Menace. I want to know what Finn gets up to. I want to know who Rey is. I want to see Kylo Ren’s arm cut off, though I’d prefer that it be his head that meets a lightsaber. But I also want it to not suck. So I’m going to go with my fingers crossed. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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