Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015)

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Contains spoilers, although hopefully not the really big ones.

force-0With the Christmas and New Year revels behind us, this week I finally managed to haul myself to the cinema and see the latest instalment of the Star Wars saga. Miracle of miracles, despite the fact that Episode VII: The Force Awakens has been on release for three weeks now, I had somehow successfully managed to avoid even a whisper of any significant spoilers in the meantime – a feat that might well end up ranking as my most successful accomplishment of the year! – and I was duly rewarded with a completely unsullied viewing experience despite my tardiness.

Rather than play games and withhold my verdict to the end of this review, let’s start with the conclusion: this is a really enjoyable film. Exciting, emotional, funny and thoroughly entertaining, it barely pauses to draw breath even once during its 135 minute running time. The Force Awakens manages to recapture almost all the magic of the original trilogy while purging all that went wrong in the prequels.

I’m confident in saying that it’s almost certainly the best Star Wars film that anyone could possibly have made in 2015. Many congratulations to director JJ Abrams for managing to both keep the same feel of the 1977 original film while at the same time bringing a thoroughly 21st century updating to the pacing, look and feel, stunts and FX. That is one incredibly tough balancing act to accomplish – actually almost impossible, I would have thought – and he’s achieved it with aplomb.

So all these things considered therefore, I have no hesitation in proclaiming Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens to be a very robust … four star movie.

force-3Wait, what? Only four stars? I can hear the squealing wheels and screeching brakes in the minds of Star Wars fans who might have been reading this post and who had been confidently presuming that I was going to join them in declaring this an all-time five-star classic of the cinema. But no, I’m afraid that’s not going to happen. It’s good – even bordering on greatness at points – but even so it’s simply not the second coming.

The main problem with the film is just how far it is content to ride on the coattails of A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back. A little bit of nostalgia in the circumstances is understandable and indeed to be applauded, but The Force Awakens dives headfirst into a bottomless pool of gold-tinted memories and barely remembers to come up for air again for the next two hours. The end effect is somewhat suffocating and distracting, and also drains away the new film’s ability to establish its own identity. Instead it ends up feeling more like a reboot, a reimagining and at times an outright remake of the 1977 original rather than something truly fresh and new in its own right.

Actually, that had always been something of a concern I had about the Star Wars universe. I was a huge fan of the original trilogy when I first saw it as a seven-year-old, but I’ve found that the series’ charms have faded for me somewhat over the intervening years – more so than for many of my contemporaries, and more than my affections for other similar childhood passions like Doctor Who, James Bond and Star Trek. Where other successful screen franchises have succeeded in growing richer and deeper over the passage of time, the Star Wars films always seemed to me to be a little threadbare by comparison, too often willing to remain stuck in the same rut. For a saga that supposedly has an entire galaxy to range over, the world of Star Wars has always felt strangely small: the same core characters and archetypes stick to the same small number of worlds, and the same basic costumes, set designs, spaceship models and dramatic themes (the eternal battle between the light and dark sides of the Force) keep recurring throughout. You’d expect more diversity from a large modern city than has often been on display in the entire cinematic Star Wars galaxy, although I freely admit that the novels, comic books and other spin-off merchandising have done a rather better job in broadening out the universe than the official films themselves have managed.

To his credit, George Lucas did try to go somewhere different with the prequels – but fans didn’t like it. Well, to be honest, the fact that those films were so deeply flawed and made of 100 per cent pre-fab CGI also played a considerable part in the antipathy they received. And in any case, even Lucas couldn’t break out of rehashing the same old tale of Kenobi/Skywalker/Vader for a second time, nor could he resist kicking off The Phantom Menace with yet another return to Tatooine even though it made no plot sense and even actively harmed the series’ logic (in all the planets in all the galaxy, why would Ben Kenobi think it was a good idea to hide himself and Luke on the very planet where Vader was born and raised? With family members? And not even change any names?)

There’s no Tatooine in The Force Awakens, thank goodness – but the desert world of Jakku is functionally exactly the same. Our first impression of new series star Rey is very similar indeed to the initial appearances of both Luke and Anakin Skywalker before her, even proving herself a mechanical prodigy and making good her boast that she can instantly pilot any ship she can get her hands on, very much like Anakin as a young child.

force-4Meanwhile a pilot with information critical to the survival of the Resistance is ambushed by stormtroopers and hides the plans inside a small droid, who eventually ends up in the hands of our lead character. The stormtroopers are in hot pursuit and soon our plucky band of heroes make a narrow escape from the planet aboard a certain derelict smuggler’s ship (“What a piece of junk!”) which brings them into contact with one Han Solo and his long-standing Wookie co-pilot Chewbacca who are fortunately able to help get them and the plans to the hidden Resistance base, just as the Empire’s secret starkiller superweapon comes in range to destroy them one and for all. Only a desperate last minute X-wing assault on a weak spot can avert certain disaster, but can it succeed in time – and who will live and who will die?

You doubtless won’t need me to tell you that I’ve essentially just recapped the main plot of A New Hope; except that it’s also genuinely the plot of The Force Awakens too. You can get away with that sort of thematic homaging if you make the accompanying details sufficiently different to maintain diversity and variety, but this film is simply too in love with its source inspiration to stray too far and instead there’s barely a scene goes past that doesn’t include some sort of big knowing wink to the past. I don’t think for a minute that this is lazy or accidental on the part of the film makers – it’s clearly absolutely intended. They understandably want to recreate the same sense of excitement that people felt back in 1977 and 1980 and in the process purge once and for all the bitter after taste of the prequel films, but for me they over-egg the pudding in the process. The one scene that seems to encapsulate this the best is a rare quiet moment on board the Millennium Falcon when you realise that a character is sitting at a very familiar table: we all smile with recognition that this is where R2-D2 played Chewbacca at holo-chess before ultimately deciding to “let the Wookie win.” Unfortunately the film can’t leave this as a sweet grace note, but has to have the holo-chess accidentally activated to really ram home the point for fear we might miss it on our own. Only when the grace note has been used to hammer us over the head for ten seconds is it turned off again, but any of the initial subtlety and sweetness has long been emphatically beaten into insensibly by then. That’s soon followed by a completely gratuitous re-rendering of the famous classic cantina scene for absolutely no good narrative reason.

In the odd moment when there’s nothing on screen to remind of us the past films, there’s always the score. John Williams returns to composing and conducting duties, but here he eschews the moves he made to anything more inventive that he tried in the prequel films and instead appears content to stick to reworked versions of familiar themes and motifs from the original trilogy. Although apparently even this was not enough for Abrams, who reportedly decided that one of Williams’ newly written cues for The Force Awakens for a key late scene in the film should be replaced by a more familiar passage of music from the A New Hope soundtrack. If true, it seems a strange way for the director to treat the work of such an iconic music maestro like Williams.

Of course, not all of the nods to the past are unwelcome, not by any means. Early sequences in which we see Rey scavenging for junk in the belly of a scuttled Imperial Star Destroyer are quite superb, as are the carcasses of wrecked TIE fighters we see half-buried in the sand and the fact that Rey herself has made her home in the hoof of a toppled AT-AT Walker. All of these speak eloquently and without the need for any further verbal exposition about the battles that must have waged decades ago amid the turmoil and chaos that would have taken place during the collapse of the Empire following the events of Return of the Jedi.

force-5The recreated Millennium Falcon is also quite something. At first glance it looks precisely the same as we remember it, but look closer and you can see some brilliant set design that has aged the ship so that it wears every one of its thirty extra years of hard service firmly on its sleeve. It also matches perfectly with our first sight of Harrison Ford as Han Solo – clearly the same man, but also looking bone-tired and much older. While there’s still a last trace of his boyish swagger and bravado remaining, the overall impression you get of the character in this film is that here is a man who has finally reached the end of the line and run out of dodges and lucky escapes, and also that he’s been ground down over the years by disappointments and setbacks and tragedies. It’s a fine and nuanced portrayal by Ford, his best work in years, and it is entirely matched by Carrie Fisher returning as an older and wiser (and infinitely sadder) Leia Organa. One sight of them tells us that there was never any happy every after here. Rather than choosing to have the characters trapped in amber and trotted out as just one more piece of an avalanche of the mountain of nostalgia cluttering up the film, the 21st century Han and Leia are in fact the first tangible sign that the franchise is indeed still fully capable of authentic growth, development and change.

And that’s perhaps the reason why all the nostalgia overkill annoys me quite so much as it does – because it gets in the way of what really works best and most triumphantly of all in The Force Awakens, which is pretty much all the actual new material on offer.

That is best illustrated by the outstanding new young members of the cast. Even more of an unknown coming into the Star Wars franchise than Mark Hamill was in 1977, Daisy Ridley is really quite wonderful as Rey. She gets a far better written and more interesting, rounded character to portray than Hamill did in the original film, and she runs with the opportunity and delivers on every aspect of her character’s arc in the film to bring real heart and pathos to the endeavour. Starting off as an abandoned orphan who has survived on her wits and by developing a hard shell, she thaws out in Han’s company and their all-too-brief interplay in the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon is really very sweet for both characters – her broad smile of childlike delight after she fixes the ship’s malfunctioning stardrive will surely melt any heart.

Rey’s function in The Force Awakens seems clearly and intentionally analogous to that of Luke in A New Hope. Arguably a more unusual and therefore more interesting role in the proceedings goes to Attack The Block’s John Boyega as stormtrooper FN-2187, who on his first deployment on Jakku has a crisis of conscience (and frankly nerve) and seeks to escape the military life. Has any stormtrooper in history defected in such a way before? It’s certainly exceptional enough to be raised at the very top of the chain of command with the matter even brought before General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson.) In many ways the ‘awakening’ promised by the film’s title could apply equally to FN-2187, soon renamed Finn by grateful Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) whom Finn helps break out of Imperial custody.

Boyega has the most fun role to play in the film and brings considerable humour to the role, almost stealing the film in the process but ultimately sharing the limelight in a careful balance with Ridley. By contrast, Dameron is left distinctly underdeveloped in this film and exists purely as the Peter Perfect Pin-Up Boy of the Resistance – the bravest and bestest pilot and undercover agent and all-round good guy, who even cheerfully lets Finn keep his purloined jacket. In any other genre film he would surely be the leading heroic character but here he would barely rate as more than a second-tier extra if not for the sheer megawattage star power of Isaac’s on-screen presence. Hopefully the next films in the series will allow Dameron (and Isaac) a welcome larger share of the spotlight.

As Hux, Gleeson gets more screen time than Isaac but he seems an odd choice to play what is in essence a very one dimensional bad guy. He starts off with a performance that appears to echo Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin but is then called upon to shift into full blown levels of Hitlerian fanaticism when addressing a Nuremberg rally consisting of massed ranks of stormtroopers. Gleeson does at least get some extra mileage out of his simmering inter-office antagonism with fellow bad guy Kylo Ren: Kylo is played by Adam Driver, and for me he is the unexpected stand-out turn of the entire film. When we first see him swish onto the screen in his black mask and low-rent robes it’s easy to dismiss him as a painfully obvious and inferior copy of the iconic Darth Vader except that the genius of the film’s concept here is that this thought is actually precisely the key to the character. Kylo himself is tormented by the idea that he’s just a pale wannabe imitation of the notorious Sith Lord, and the fact that he’s wracked not by his conscience over all the evil acts that he’s committed but rather by doubts that in fact he’s not evil enough to fulfil what he sees as his destiny is one of the film’s true strokes of originality and genius. His adolescent temper tantrums are quite spectacular and unique in the genre, and one of the funniest moments in the film is the sight of two stormtroopers coming down the corridor as Kylo goes into his latest destructive rage whereupon they immediately turn on their heels and walk off in the other direction: you can practically hear them trying to whistle nonchalantly as they go. How much extra texture does that one scene give to the sense of the reality of everyday life within the First Order?

Along with Kylo’s backstory (which I won’t reveal here), it is this that finally starts to add back some much needed extra new heft to the otherwise too well worn tapestry of the Star Wars universe. Along with Rey, Kylo is at the centre of what I consider the single best scene in the film (and here you probably do want to skip to the next paragraph if you’re avoiding detailed spoilers): Rey has been taken captive and Kylo swaggers into the detention cell, confident in his Force-given abilities to rip the information he needs out of her while Rey cowers in fear. But as the scene progresses, the balance between the two characters starts to shift – imperceptibly at first, but some brilliant acting, writing, directing, editing and music combine to convey how the power slowly shifts from one to the other so that by the time the scene ends there has been a complete reversal that is shocking to both the two characters and also to the audience. In fact my one major concern while watching the film was that having set up such a fascinating and compelling character as Kylo, he would then be killed off at the end in the style of Darth Maul at the climax of The Phantom Menace (always a big mistake by Lucas in my opinion.) I’m not going to reveal here whether he is or not, but I don’t think there’s any great surprise if I say that it’s clear from early in the film that both Rey and Finn are very much in the franchise for the long haul.

force-2Oddly almost the only new character I didn’t take to was new droid BB-8, which I know is a sentiment that will be heretical to many ardent Star Wars fans. To me though he seemed to offer little new – he’s a simple updating of R2-D2 performing exactly the same plot function as the little astrodroid did in A New Hope. The new technology that enables him to be a practical effect rather than computer-generated is certainly fascinating and quite brilliant, but in personality terms he’s just a babyfied version of R2 who himself is sadly sidelined for virtually the entire film as a result of the newcomer’s arrival. In fact, I’ll go further: since he serves primarily as the film’s comedy cutaway character, BB-8 is little more than The Force Awaken’s equivalent of Jar-Jar Binks – only this time he’s undeniably cute enough to escape the audience backlash that befell the utterly misconceived CGI Gungan.

When the script finally tears itself away from its wholesale copying of the plot from A New Hope and overdosing on nostalgic revelries, and concentrates instead on establishing all these new characters and setting up intriguing plot lines for future films to pick up and run with, the screenplay by Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt at last starts to fire on all cylinders. However it’s still best not to look too closely at the finished article because there are an awful lot of holes here – not below the surface either, but right out there in plain sight. It quite brazenly isn’t interested in giving even the most basic explanation of things such as who Lor San Tekka (a cameo from Max von Sydow) is or how he got hold of the secret map everyone’s after, or who created that map in the first place and why, so don’t even ask. More seriously, the plot is cluttered with the sort of ‘coincidences’ that verge on the laughable – you might be able to get away with one of these per film such as the way Han and Chewie just happen to be in the neighbourhood at the very moment when Rey and Finn take off from Jakku in the Millennium Falcon, but to immediately follow that with a flight to a remote location where Luke’s lightsaber happens to be lying around in a storage backroom just snaps credibility beyond breaking point. (And if you’re going to say “the Force moves in mysterious ways,” then I offer you the death of all hope for narrative cinema in exchange.)

Other storylines are clearly being deliberately withheld for later development and dramatic reveals, and that’s absolutely fine. Examples include Rey’s background, the identity of Supreme Leader Snoke and what exactly happened to drive Luke Skywalker into exile just when the galaxy urgently needed him to train up a whole new generation of Jedi Knights if there is to be any hope of restoring balance and order. However the next film does urgently need to bring some clarity to the geopolitical situation in today’s Star Wars universe, because as things stand they really don’t make much sense. The Empire has apparently fallen, but the reinstalled Republic is strangely absent from this film and seems to have quickly fallen back into the old bad bureaucratic habits like those that afflicted it in The Phantom Menace. But what exactly is the First Order? In strict plot terms in Episode VII it’s a like-for-like replacement for the old Empire, but Abrams hesitates to imply that the events of Return of the Jedi effectively ended in failure. There’s a suggestion that the First Order is a fanatical splinter group of Imperialist die hards, yet how does that square with them having the resources to create a superweapon that eclipses even the original Death Star that represented the very pinnacle of the old Empire’s vast military and financial power? Meanwhile, General Organa is apparently back as (or remains) a leading light of the Rebel Alliance, now called the Resistance, but who exactly are they resisting and what are their objectives, numbers and strength? This murky and confused political backdrop is far less satisfying than the classic, easy-to-understand “Big Evil Empire Versus Plucky Little Rebels” Lucas set up in the original trilogy: it’s a transparently under-thought-out attempt by Abrams to restore some semblance of the former scenario without necessarily backtracking and upsetting the feel-good finish of 1983. Unfortunately it’s a trick too far even for him to pull off and so it urgently needs further work to feel remotely credible or intelligible. Still, it’s nothing that a little work in Episode VIII can’t accomplish.

force-1All of which is why in my mind at least, despite probably being the best Star Wars film that could be made in 2015, The Force Awakens is still not quite up there with A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back and is therefore simply not a five-star classic. It is however the first film in the series to warrant even being talked about in the same breath as those movies, and moreover it both reenergises and reinvigorates the franchise for a new generation of both characters and fans while laying the ground for more interesting things to come in Episode VIII. So while The Force Awakens may not itself be the second coming, I now have genuine hope and expectation that it could well herald the imminent arrival of the entry in the series that is.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★

Postscript: One of the big unanswered questions I have about Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens is why it’s been given a 12A certificate. I saw nothing in the film that warranted it being given a higher rating than its predecessors. In terms of intense action thrills I would still say that A New Hope (rated U) is at least a match for anything here but only Revenge of the Sith finally nudged into a 12A. Even so, in terms of emotional upset and trauma, that film came nowhere close to equalling the dark and disturbing The Empire Strikes Back which was passed with – rather unbelievably now – a U certificate in 1980. I feel rather sorry for today’s generation of seven-year-olds that they will miss out on their own Star Wars moment of childhood thanks to overly protective film censors and overanxious parents, especially when you have ITV thinking that Jekyll and Hyde is suitable family fare for early Sunday evenings.

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens is on theatrical release around the world, and will available on DVD and Blu-Ray after Easter.

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