Saturday, 19 December 2015

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens

Obviously I'd hate to be the kind of terrific bore who sees everything through the prism of James Bond, but unfortunately I already am that guy so let me say this about The Force Awakens: it is everything I wanted from Spectre. Or at least I thought it was when I came out of the screening. On reflection, Star Wars v3.1 is actually Skyfall: a crowd-pleasing, carefully-calibrated blend of the old and the new, lighting a new fire of excitement under a franchise I had genuinely become concerned about, and featuring a winning performance from Daniel Craig. Competition isn't fierce, but it's fair to say that what we're dealing with here is the best Star Wars film since The Empire Strikes Back.
"This will begin to make things right," The Force Awakens announces with its very first line of dialogue, in a statement of intent that boasts Death Star-sized balls. It's some indication, were it even required, of all that's at stake here, and that Disney were absolutely determined not to make an absolute Christensen of their new project. And so director JJ Abrams, with co-writers Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt, have delicately crafted a loving tribute to the original trilogy which all but ignores Episodes I-III: there's no reference to any prequel-specific characters, no mention of midichlorians and a ruthless targeting of middle-aged geeks that shows up George Lucas' claim that Star Wars must be aimed at children as the poor excuse for infantilising the saga that it is.

There's a danger that, in appealing to the fanbase as hard as they do, Abrams and co might have gone a little too far. A lot that happens in The Force Awakens is suspiciously familiar: a hero entrusts vital information to a droid and packs it off to be unwittingly discovered by a simple youth with untapped, supernatural potential; a motley band of rebels attack the spherical, planet-smashing base of an evil army; the de facto leader of that army force-chokes minions and chats to his boss via hologram; fathers and sons have issues that are worked through traumatically, and so on. The film could have done with a little less of this and a little more Oscar Isaac, but to be fair that's true of almost any film ever made.
What's new is what's worth celebrating, because it's good enough to forgive the script its occasional obsequious nod to the glory days, and the first thing to say is how unutterably brilliant it is that the protagonists of a multi-million dollar Hollywood blockbuster - which has the potential to become the biggest film of all time - are a woman and a black man. It's ludicrous that we should even be discussing this in 2015, but here we are, so let's at least appreciate the moment: Daisy Ridley and John Boyega pull off their unspeakably high-pressure roles without the script ever needing to make reference to the fact that they're not white men, and it's impossible to overstate how important that is. Not just that, but they're both bloody great at what they do: Ridley carries off the confidence laced with subtle confusion that her character demands, while Boyega proves his action hero chops and effortlessly displays the lightness of touch required to make the humour work.

Other new characters are equally successful: Adam Driver's Kylo Ren, who could easily have been Diet Vader, is a fascinating addition. The childlike petulance that bubbles away beneath the surface of his fearsome warrior makes him thrillingly dangerous, and his connection to the saga's existing inhabitants adds invaluable emotional depth; a key scene uses literal and metaphorical light and dark to devastating effect. Meanwhile the embarrassingly-named Poe Dameron is the charismatic hero the prequels so tragically lacked, and Oscar Isaac and his magnificent hair have a ruddy ball with him. Speaking of balls, new droid and blatant Christmas toy ad BB-8 is delightful, although he does seem to have ported his vocal software over from a Waste Allocation Load Lifter (Earth class) he evidently met on his travels.
Then, of course, there's the school of '77-'83, of whom Harrison Ford is, quite rightly, front and centre. It's an utter joy to see Han Solo back in action, and almost makes you wonder if J-Jabs shouldn't make Indy 5 his next project. Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill have less to do, but their very presence is enough to warm the cockles of even this stone cold excuse for a heart. Audience investment in these guys is so high that Abrams could, arguably, have just had them stand there for a bit and shuffle about, but he uses each of them with the appropriate reverence - and irreverence - and, thankfully, doesn't try to give C-3PO much to do beyond, well, standing there for a bit and shuffling about. Enormous props too to costume designer Michael Kaplan, who's designed a set of iconic outfits for the ages (Poe Dameron's jacket now, please) and - obviously - John Williams, whose score is the equal of everything else he's done for this cinematic universe. I got chills at two very specific moments: one boosted by an incredible new theme, and one gloriously recalling an old one.

A near-relentless chase movie with a genius MacGuffin and character beats which span every emotion you ever felt watching these films, The Force Awakens successfully completes its primary objective - not to fuck itself up - with knobs on. Its own backstory may be a little vague (the genesis of both the evil First Order and the Resistance are glossed over with troubling alacrity), but what it lacks in exposition it makes up for in just being really, really Star Warsy. Arguably its greater responsibility, though, is to ramp up the demand for two further episodes, plus the Anthology films that will briefly, and hopefully, take the franchise out of its comfort zone. Well I don't know about you but post-Episode VII, four more Star Wars films doesn't feel like nearly enough. I am frothing at the cock for more, and I'm not sure it's a froth I can easily contain. The force has indeed awakened, and it's testing my underpant elastic to its limits.

Are you remotely interested in what I thought about Episodes I-VI? Then step this way, you weirdo



  1. I wish this was a 4-hour film, with an intermission where this films ends, so we can see more of Luke Skywalker. I was disappointed that there wasn't more of Luke.

    It was good, but I'd rather watch Spectre again before watching this one, though.

  2. I agree with a lot of what you say but I have a fair few problems with it. Perhaps I'm a cynic but I felt that whilst the new additions were all very good the film rode far too hard on its nostalgia to the point where it wasn't far off a shot-for-shot remake of IV.

    Spoilers from here on out: Rey is, obviously, a re-imagination of Luke, and Solo takes over Kenobi's role as the old man/guardian. And - seeing as the story follows the exact same structure as IV, as you pointed out - it doesn't take long to realise that Solo will die, tragically, at the hands of the villain of the piece. When you find out that Kylo Ren is Solo's son, it just becomes even more obvious. Whilst the formula is definitely proven becuase IV is an amazing film, I was hoping to be presented with something completely new.

    Perhaps it is just impossible for this film to live up to the insane hype that it has received and I'll enjoy it more on further watches but I don't think it was better than any of the original trilogy. And I'm not sure, but I might even prefer Sith. "Better than The Phantom Menace and Clones" doesn't sound very good, in my head.

    Anyway, I digress. I'm glad Han Solo is gone, because now we can focus on the new characters without being held back by the 73-year old trying to squeeze every penny out of the franchise before he dies. Ridley and Boyega do a fantastic job and I'm looking forward to seeing their characters build further, especially under the training of Yoda - I mean, Luke.

  3. I'm pinching "frothing at the cock".

    Superb film. Yes, it rehashes a bit too much from A New Hope but not in a bad way. It's the most Star Warsy feeling Star Wars film since Jedi, however one gripe. It misses having the screen fades and swipes which were such a big part of the original trilogy. I know that's more of a Lucas directorial decision which understandably JJ perhaps wanted to avoid but nevertheless, it was noticeable as a self confessed geek.

    Great review though.

  4. There are loads of wipes all over the shop. Go and see it again, I command you.