Warning: contains spoilers (though you’ve seen it by now, right? Of course you have)
I imagine that, by now, a whole Starkiller Base’s worth of words have been written online about The Force Awakens, Episode VII in the ongoing, and possibly endless, Star Wars franchise – but I couldn’t let 2015’s most eagerly anticipated pop culture moment pass without having my say, now could I?
Lest you, dear reader, think I sound jaundiced, let me say that I am an unashamed fan of the series, even if this occasionally got me beaten up at school, and meant I sat through the prequels several times. Both of these horrors I endured manfully. It is because of my generation, now in our forties, that George Lucas is so mind-bogglingly wealthy (well, strictly speaking, it’s because of our parents, who gave us the pocket money that we spent on figurines of Han Solo and Darth Vader, and AT-AT toys the size of small dogs).
So, of course, I had to see the new movie twice, because the first time I was just too giddy with excitement – and indeed I enjoyed it a lot more the second time around, when I could take in more of the detail of JJ Abrams’ vision of What Happens Next to Han, Leia, Chewie, and the rest.
Back in 2011, Abrams made a film called Super 8. Set in 1979, it was to all intents and purposes a love letter to the early work of his mentor, Steven Spielberg, and even had the look – as well as something of the plot – of Close Encounters or E.T., with only the perfect dentition of the adult actors giving the game away.
With The Force Awakens, the director does the same job for George Lucas, who has now handed over creative control of his imagined universe to Disney, and so this film is, essentially, a piece of (very superior) fan fiction. After all, in story terms, there’s no need for a sequel to Return of the Jedi, is there? As Lucas himself has made clear, Star Wars Episodes I – VI are about the fall and final redemption of Darth Vader. In the end, Vader dies, balance is restored to the Force, and the evil Empire is defeated. It’s a fairy tale, and fairy tales don’t require sequels.
But fans (and accountants) do – and surely the greater part of the excitement generated around The Force Awakens is to do with the disappointment many felt with the prequels: there was too much CGI, too much nonsensical exposition, too many daft characters (step forward, Jar Jar Binks – or, on second thoughts, don’t), and too little of the things that made Star Wars such fun in the first place – wit, well-chosen locations, a certain epic grandeur, Harrison Ford.
Has JJ Abrams redeemed the series to the fans’ satisfaction? I would say both the official and unofficial responses so far would indicate an unambiguous Yes – and yet, and yet… There are niggles. I always have niggles.
Firstly, the positives – and there are plenty.
It was a very smart move to hire screenwriters of the quality of Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3) and Lawrence Kasdan, especially as the latter worked on the scripts for both The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. His fingerprints are surely all over the wittier exchanges in The Force Awakens, and a commitment to tight, coherent storytelling (at least compared to most modern blockbusters, which are often way too long, and have no discernible narrative to speak of) means the film is built on solid (if not entirely original) foundations.
Secondly, it looks beautiful – cinematographer Dan Mindel contrasting the light, open dunes of Jakku (Abu Dhabi) with the shadowy, sterile interiors of the First Order’s ships, and the chilly landscape of Starkiller Base (Iceland). Real, unusual locations, like Puzzlewood in the Forest of Dean, and Skellig Michael, are used cleverly, and Lucas’s “used future” design is everywhere, with sumptuous sets and CGI blended seamlessly. Top marks.
Thirdly, Abrams really knows how to direct actors (a dying art in Hollywood blockbusters), and gets the best from his cast – newcomers Daisy Ridley (as Rey) and John Boyega (as Finn) hold their own beside the veterans, and made me care about their characters from the off; and Harrison Ford demonstrates why he’s getting paid so much more than anyone else – his lightness of touch and easy command of every scene he’s in reminds you why he became such a big star in the first place. His exchanges with Daisy Ridley are genuinely affecting, and make you wonder what the true relationship is between Han and Rey. On second viewing, I also warmed (if that’s the right word) to Adam Driver as Kylo Ren (though a disgruntled American walking out of one of the screenings I attended said he thought he looked like a “preppy shithead” when he took off his mask!). Poe Dameron, Oscar Isaac’s character (the new Han Solo?), was underwritten, I thought. They’ll have to give him a love interest and encase him in carbonite in the next episode, give the guy something to work with.
I thought the scene where Rey has a vision of her own (and her family’s?) past beneath Maz Kanata’s bar, where she first discovers Luke’s lightsaber, was really powerful, too. It makes sense that she would run away from her destiny, before finally, reluctantly, accepting and confronting it.
So now, the niggles.
I’m not going to complain about the questionable physics (how many suns exactly is Starkiller Base able to destroy?), as this seems churlish for what is, after all, a fantasy film. And I know some people don’t like BB-8 – one reviewer comparing him to Scrappy-Doo – but I thought he was fine, and it was also a good decision to use a physical puppet rather than create him digitally in post-production.
However, on both first and second viewing I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that the whole film was essentially a remake / reboot of A New Hope: frustrated young hero(ine) from a distant desert planet becomes embroiled in intergalactic intrigue, goes off on a quest with a cute robot companion, encounters a wise-cracking smuggler, discovers (s)he has a hitherto untapped aptitude for using the Force, falls in with the Rebellion / Resistance, and ends up playing a crucial part in destroying the enemy base…
I’m sure, my friends, that you have already made these connections, but they’re worth spelling out again anyway – this is not so much a sequel to the previous Star Wars movies as a tribute to them, and of course there’s nothing wrong with that. I just didn’t expect the connections to be so obviously marked.
Also – was it really a good idea to kill off Han Solo, the series’ most popular character? And at the hands of his own son? I know Harrison Ford is getting on a bit, but he could have taken a kind of back seat role in the sequels – they didn’t have to slice the poor bugger up! He was unarmed, too – at least when Darth Vader killed Obi-Wan Kenobi in A New Hope he had a lightsaber. Crikey. In Star Wars‘s moral universe, Ren will surely have to die for that one. And somehow the shock of Solo’s death wasn’t given the full emotional weight it deserved – the film continued to gallop on, and the attack on Starkiller Base was both lengthy and (very) noisy (I know, I’m getting old – and I did see the film in IMAX).
But I did enjoy this film, and, dammit, Abrams has got me – I want to know who Rey and Finn are, how Han and Leia’s son went over to the Dark Side, where Supreme Leader Snoke comes from (is he really that big? Why does he have such a silly name, even for Star Wars?), and how Luke Skywalker has been keeping warm on chilly old Skellig Michael (Force firelighters?).
The saga of that galaxy far, far away’s most dysfunctional family continues. I’ll be saving up my pocket money for the next instalment.