Warning: This review contains spoilers.
Breathe a sigh of relief; The Force Awakens is not going to embarrass you at parties. The latest instalment is fun, comfortable, even exciting in places. It is eager to be liked, commits no major faux pas, but at the same time it never inspired me or made me feel anything more than entertained. At least on this first viewing. Odd to admit, but the first and second trailers on Youtube affected me more deeply than the ultimate movie I saw on the big screen.
Perhaps it is not so surprising however. When I went to see Star Wars back 1978 with my dad and sister Gail, I came out a little disappointed. After all the hype and reading the novelisation twice before I had even been to the cinema, Star Wars was good, just not overwhelming. George Lucas’s creation has been one of the big influences on my youthful imagination, probably second only to Doctor Who. For years, I saw other films through the prism of a galaxy far far away. I can see now it was the whole universe that excited me. For me, Star Wars was always more than just the movies, but the action figures I created more stories with, the novels and comics, even the not-quite-Star Wars products that came in its wake like Battlestar Galactica or Starlord comic.
I am not surprised that JJ Abrams initially turned down to the film. The Force Awakens has to satisfy middle-aged fans who want a film that will stroke their nostalgia, whilst containing enough sophistication in the story and characters that they do not feel embarrassed to be watching an essentially childlike SF fantasy. Episode VII also needs to find and thrill young audiences for whom both trilogies are something from their parent’s/siblings’ distant past. Oh yes and launch a new Disney empire of spin-off movies, TV series and a tsunami of merchandise. Amazingly I think he has managed to deliver that film. The only drawback is that he has had to play it very cautiously indeed.
The biggest surprise is how deliberately Episode VII resembles Episode IV in story moments. A cute droid with vital plans for a vast superweapon. A desert planet. A bar filled bizarre aliens. Said superweapon having one vital weak spot requiring a X-wing raid, whilst another commando group sneaks about the gleaming corridors. Not to mention shout outs to the ice world of Hoth, the green forests of the rebel base on Yarvin’s moon and a supreme leader who favour dark robes and appearing as a giant hologram. At times it feels alarmingly more like a reboot rather than a continuation, that the team are relying a bit too heavily on the imagery of the older films to reach our emotions.
There is progress elsewhere though. More women taking part and a wider ethnicity is welcome, as is Kylo Ren, a villain who is not quite as straightforward as usual. His struggle for his identity and unwillingness to believe in or accept forgiveness for his crimes is a believable motivation, one that also ties in with the series’ mythic storytelling. In fact throughout the movie, casting younger faces in the bad guy roles pays off well, making the First Order feel more like an extremist movement of a radicalised generation.
Interesting that the only famous faces in the movie belong to the original generation of Star Wars. This franchise does not need celebrities or A-list stars and it is the better for casting relative unknowns in all the major roles. Daniel Craig’s cameo appearance as a Stormtrooper is all the better and funnier for being revealed only in the end credits crawl. JJ Abrams has come up trumps in choosing Daisy Ridley, John Boyega and Oscar Issac as his new trio of heroes. Three charismatic young actors who just like Hamill et al can the comic strip bubble dialogue off the paper and make it feel real and human. As for the veterans, they all do more than simply phone it in, as they could easily have. Ford especially is such a good actor he actually makes Solo look like he is having a good time. Plus it is sweet to think of Peter Mayhew back in the furry suit as Chewbacca, at least for the growling scenes.
Great to see the dirty, rusty lived-in universe of the original trilogy back and the green screen work kept under control. BB-8 is a wonderful robot design that lends itself to an impressive amount of expression. For me there is still not been a spaceflight sequence to match the asteroid belt battle in Empire Strikes Back, achieved with models and opticals, but the fight through the wreckage of a star destroyer is beautifully choreographed. The battle with the hideous tentacled Takodana monsters are probably the best surprise in the film, a frenetic corridor chase which takes the franchise into Alien territory for a few moments.
Generally, the plot held few surprises for anyone who has seen many Star Wars-inspired films. I was generally correct in guessing what came next, although the reveals of the Millennium Falcon and that Kylo was Han and Leia’s son were genuine shocks, which I enjoyed.
Ultimately, JJ Abrams and writers Michael Arndt and Lawrence Kasdan understood that Star Wars always owed more to Greek legend and the Brothers Grimm than to science fiction. The Force Awakens is at its best when it puts tragic destiny at its core, of heroes making bad choices with terrible outcomes. It also adds more detail and richness to the Star Wars world’s future, without alienating newcomers and boring them with continuity. Maybe it does not take too many risks itself, but it has built a foundation for future instalments to be bolder.
- Note: I wish cinemas would sign some kind of agreement to limit adverts and trailers to fifteen minutes. Is it necessary to advertise so many summer blockbusters, which will not be with us for six months or more? Half an hour of cinematic adverts and epic superhero trailers made me feel exhausted before the two hour plus movie had even begun.