dir: J.J. Abrams
It’s with a sense of relief more than anything else that audiences have found themselves celebrating what’s happened. The relief comes from knowing that George Lucas isn’t involved anymore. It also comes from wondering what would happen once Disney got its grubby mitts on the biggest franchise in the cinematic / merchandising universe.
As a nerd of longstanding membership of the global dateless wonders club, yes, I did really enjoy this flick. Sure it’s got a stack of issues, but at no stage are you enduring the flick (like at many, many parts of the prequel movies) rather than enjoying it.
The most hackneyed and cliché remark that reviewers are going to make is the same one I’m going to make now: Lucas was and still maybe is a visionary capable of creating not just a ‘world’, or world-building, but of creating something on the scale of a galaxy. Galaxy-building is not a common thing, or an easy thing. And yes, by ‘creating’, I mean conceiving of and representing something on a truly grand scale. At no stage did anyone confuse this with him being a great storyteller or a great director of actors.
There Lucas sits in his great man-cave (the Skywalker Ranch), muttering to himself after being shown this: “If only they’d added more lightsabers. Something with fifteen lightsabers at the same time. More 50s diners and more drag racing. Also, awkward conversations about sand and feelings…”
J.J. Abrams is a talented cinematic magpie with no specific visual tell or signature (beyond the lens flares that plagued his earlier movies but thankfully not this one), who is more than happy to pick up where someone else left off and run with something based almost purely on nostalgia. His Super 8, long held to be a homage to Stephen Spielberg, as if the most successful director in human history needed further praise, expertly appropriated a whole host of Spielbergian and other 80s tropes into a movie that was part Goonies, part E.T. and a bunch of other cultural detritus that’s never new and always familiar.
The hard work here is done by everyone else other than Abrams. All he has to do is resist the urge to stamp everything with his own signature, whatever that might be. The set design, that Star Wars aesthetic is never messed with. The aliens all look suitably alien. The Stormtroopers still look like the white clad fascists that they are. The Empire still speak with toffee accents. The heroes are all mostly scrappy, ragtag, fly by the seat of their pants types. Of course they used the first (fourth one?) as a template: I think their intention was to reassure everyone that: “This ain’t no Phantom Menace”.
With that in mind, I have so many questions that this never answered. Like, as everyone else was thinking: how are things with the Trade Federation, eh? What about all the tariffs and embargoes and blockades and such? And where the hell are the Gungans? Shouldn’t they have lucked their way into controlling the galaxy by now?
Surprisingly, or maybe not that surprisingly, not a lot is explained as to what’s been going on over the last 30 or so years after the end of Return of the Jedi, when the Emperor met his doom at the hands of his most loyal subject. We get bits and pieces, but mostly there’s not a lot of explication.
And that’s a good thing, methinks. All we know is this: the Empire never really went away; they’re just calling themselves the First Order. They still use Nuremberg / Nazi / fascist imagery and aesthetics that would make Albert Speer proud: they still build gigantic super death ray weapons with which to blow up even greater targets, they still underestimate their opponents and overestimate their ability to get the job done, and there’s a shadowy strange dude cribbing from the Wizard of Oz textbook (potentially) called Supreme Something-Something Snoke (Andy Serkis). His loyal second in command is a creepy looking dude called a few different things, but quite often he’s called Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). He not only literally tries to look like Darth Vader, he wants to be Darth Vader as only a desperate fanboy can.
As to whether he looks scary enough or not: I did watch this with my partner and our daughter, and this is her definitive take on the subject: “I was never scared of him at any time, but I was even less scared of him when he took his mask off and we could see that he was a weird guy with a big nose and funny hair”. When our daughter told me this after the film, I laughed for ages and ages.
Adam Driver plays the new main villain, and it’s going to be interesting to see what becomes of him. It’s an odd place for him to start off. They’ve clearly spent months agonising over his look, a look that is deliberately derivative (I mean even within the context of the character) of Vader, with an adapted look. But it’s interesting in that Vader never wanted to look like Vader per se; the ‘look’ was thrust upon him by necessity, and by the fact that he’d been crippled after his awful fight at the end of Revenge of the Sith. He needed a respirator, and new legs, and a whole bunch of stuff that made him look like a dark Frankenstein monster out of our nightmares.
Kylo Ren doesn’t have anything physically wrong with him, and is immensely powerful with the Force / Dark Side, but all he wants is to be Vader. I never was really sure why, but I’m sure an answer is coming down the pipeline. He’s kind of funny, in a way. He’s kind of like a young Anakin, except in reverse, in that he’s a horrible, arrogant, sadistic prick who’s vaguely tempted by the Light side, but mostly is happy killing people and tormenting them in between briefly empathising with them.
We don’t spend enough time with him, but then there’s so much plot to get through, and so many characters, that it’s understandable that there isn’t time for character development for him. After all, it’s not like the first flick (okay “4th”) really spent that much time giving us complicated backstories and motivations for Vader or anyone else.
Much of the flick transpires on a new planet (new for this milieu, since I’ve never heard of it previous) called Jakku, which is basically a Tatooine retread. All desert, all-encompassing hard scrabble existence for its denizens. Upon this planet toils a young woman called Rey (Daisy Ridley) who ekes out a living salvaging parts from shipwrecks. A massive star destroyer lays on the planet like a whale carcass, and she picks through its bones. She sleeps in the wreck of an AT-AT.
A hotshot pilot called Poe Dameron (the always watchable Oscar Isaacs) is on a mission to deliver a droid called BB-8 to the Rebel Alliance because it contains a map to buried treasure somewhere in the galaxy. His plans go awry when Stormtroopers led by Kylo Ren come along and kill basically everyone in a village searching for that info.
These dudes don’t mess around. They make be complete cannon fodder, but they’re really aces at exterminating harmless villagers, just like our world’s Stormtroopers.
Of those scumbags murderising all and sundry, there’s one Stormtrooper who, even with the helmet on, conveys to us quite clearly that he’s not a fan of this genocidal stuff. He accidentally gets a streak of blood, three lines, across his helmet in case we were confused about the one dude not butchering people. It does not sit well with him.
He will come to play a great role in the story with us. He’s not only our in into the story, but he’s almost like someone from our Earth dropped in to the Star Wars universe.
Being a Stormtrooper, he doesn’t have a name, only an alphanumeric designation (how degrading), but he comes to be known as Finn. He helps the hotshot pilot out, and they become fast friends, conveniently, before they’re tragically separated.
Everyone will meet everyone else when necessary, and so Finn and Rey and BB-8 and everyone else will cross paths with everyone else in the search for that buried treasure, but what we’re really watching is the ascendance of Rey from desert planet scavenger to some kind of new Jedi messiah. Sure, we watch a lot of Kylo Ren doing painful looking stuff with his powers, but we watch Rey spontaneously be able to teach herself the ways of the Force after only just hearing about them.
This isn’t the installment of this next trilogy in which to find out lots of things about our protagonists and antagonists. What matters is that the First Order have a planet-sized superweapon capable of destroying entire star systems (so, like, trillions of people are wiped out, with barely anyone even making much of a fuss), on a scale so massive it’s nonsensical, but the more important issue is, and quite rightly so, Finn and Rey trying to help each other out against impossible odds, and trying to forge new destinies for themselves.
Sure, all anyone else cares about is where Luke Skywalker is, and what he’s been up to for the last 3 decades, or whether they’re going to destroy the Starkiller in time, but it’s about goofy over-excited people getting cocky or not getting too cocky and doing grand things together.
And, of course, there are some old friends. Some really old friends. Han is back, as is Leia, and Chewie too, and R2, and all the references and signifiers everyone craves. I guess.
I admit openly that seeing Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford on screen again as their aged selves brought tears of gratitude out of me. There is not in any way any sense of (for me) embarrassment, or of desperation in making these people take on these roles again (by offering them lots of money, of course). There is, despite all the money and mercenary impulses governing everything Disney does, no sense that this had to be done, or like it’s a last shameful cash grab by senior citizens trying to cash in on faded glories. Their purpose is to usher in the new characters and firm up the bona fides of the new story arch, and then let them handle it, and they all assay their characters fine.
Watching Ford especially be this cheeky rogue again was hilarious. They give him the lion’s share of the good lines, though a lot of characters nail a lot of funny stuff. One of my favourite gags (apart from almost every time Finn desperately tried to represent something that he clearly wasn’t) was when Poe Dameron is first confronted by Kylo, and both nervously and nonchalantly (somehow) starts muttering, “So… uh, are you going to talk first, or am I going to talk first?”, which achieves that perfect scoundrel-like ethos that’s been missing since the first and second (okay, fourth and fifth) films.
The greatest similarity betwixt this one and A New Hope is that all of what happens seems to happen over the course of a day or two. I know it’s probably much longer (like, maybe, a week?), but you have these characters go from zeros to slightly more than zeros in the space of hours, without even reaching for anything as desperate as a training montage scene. Watching Rey almost accidentally fall into her powers felt almost cheap and easy (from a plot convenient point of view), but somehow they really make it work, or at least she does.
Daisy as Rey is a welcome addition to these movies. She’s an enjoyable character to spend time with, and her enthusiasm is infectious. But she’s also not afraid to put a bit of meanness into the performance, which certainly helps as matters get much darker the further the story proceeds.
If I have niggles, miniscule complaints, well, I never claimed it was going to be perfect. They’re so minor as to barely warrant complaining about. Of course I’m sure there are comic-book guys who’ve been swearing blood vengeance on everyone because of these infinitesimally small things, but, hey, whatever keeps them warm at night.
Gwendolyn Christie, best known for her superlative performance as righteous knight Brienne of Tarth on Game of Thrones, is completely wasted as Captain Phasma here. Sure, she has a shiny Stormtrooper uniform, but she does nothing throughout the entire film. She could have been played by me and it would have made as little difference.
Poe makes a seemingly miraculous escape from ‘certain’ death (I didn’t believe it for a second, since he’s so awesome), and it’s resolved in a manner so token I was surprised when someone asked him “But how did you…” that he didn’t say “A wizard did it!”
Snoke is not a convincing villain or terrifying presence just yet. I guess the Emperor was a nobody in the first version of the first flick, but it would be nice to have some idea of what the hell is at stake, other than someone randomly blowing planets up because they restrict his view of his golf course or something.
They’re about the only complaints I have. Quibbling about super-weapons the size of planets in Star Wars movies is pointless: it’s like saying there were too many references to the Force or something: they come with the territory. It would be nice to see their galactic problems resolved without having to blow something up at the end of every flick, but I’m not holding my breath. Doubtless they won’t be in the next (8th?) flick, and then they’ll have to blow up something the size of ten planets in the 9th flick just to stick with the order of things.
Whatever. I think The Force Awakens strikes the right balance between all the elements necessary for these kinds of flicks (even if I’m not sold on the so-and-so is so-and-so’s father, so-and-so is probably Luke’s so-and-so), and the fact that it leaves us with more questions than it answers is a wonderful thing. Yes, it’s frustrating to always be teased with the next flick in a series, promising something even greater in a couple of years’ time.
But oh my stars, that final shot. How simple and amazing. What a stunning way to finish it, even after the amazing fight between some good people and an evil sonofabitch in the snow, in a forest, in a world about to tear itself apart.
What a time to be alive, when good Star Wars films are coming out. What a time.
8 times I want a lightsaber with fifteen smaller lightsabers coming out of it out of 10
“There's been an awakening. Have you felt it? The Dark side, and the Light.”- I felt something, but I’m not sure, give me a sec – The Force Awakens