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Film Review – Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015; Directed by J.J. Abrams)

The Force Awakens, the seventh film in the Star Wars franchise and the first to hit theatres in 10 years, is overtly concerned with delivering the sort of involving but fundamentally uncomplicated escapist entertainment experience that George Lucas’ epochal first Star Wars film did in 1977. This overriding mission, at once nostalgically conservative and hopefully progressive, has transgressed the previously non-permeable boundaries between a film’s marketing image-making and its cinematic text. The Force Awakens is hyper-aware of the expectations of its audience (and of its corporate sponsors) and the weight of its predetermining legacy, and director J.J. Abrams decides to make that awareness a key component of his film’s thematic undergrowth.

In a daring move (the most daring move of this sometimes over-familiar movie by far), the expectations and weight of that portentous legacy are injected into the film’s narrative and its characters, and it saves The Force Awakens from becoming a merely repetitious homage. In this generational saga (which Star Wars has always been), the younger characters are aware of the legendary exploits of the older characters just as the fans watching are. These new heroes and villains are fans too, or at least their relationship to the events of the Original Trilogy mirror our own. This shared vector to that beloved saga endears them to us almost instantly, grounds us in their fantasy reality in a way that Lucas’ overwrought political world-building in the reviled-by-fandom Prequel Trilogy failed to achieve (a world-building that this film barely bothers with). The Force Awakens heralds a new trilogy that may not be as, yes, fresh and unique as that infamous Prequel Trilogy, but it’s miles more likable. It’s miles more Star Wars in the classical sense, which might be the more vital point.

The Force Awakens goes ahead and Star Warses itself all over the screen, on a scale that is tremendous and intimate when it needs to be, really when you would want it to be. It’s got lightsaber fights and blaster shootouts and swooping space battles and planet-sized superweapons and weird alien beasties and painful losses and raging Oedipal psychodramas and clearly-drawn moral dichotomies and a cute little droid. It’s Star Wars, so it’s almost completely lacking in any sense of subtlety. There are many deeply satisfying or affecting or memorable moments in the film, and pretty much none of them cannot be seen coming 12 parsecs away. Somehow, this blatant telegraphing of the film’s big beats, nearly all of which are purposeful echoes of those from the reified Original Trilogy (and occasionally acknowledged as such with a post-modern meta-wink), does not make them any less satisfying. Miraculously, it doesn’t make them dull or predictable or shameless pandering either.

What’s the secret of this needle-threading success? A fondness for the material, certainly, for its engaging pulpy appeal, for its richly-earned cheap thrills. George Lucas has always been a little uncomfortable with his creation’s legacy, which was demonstrated by the Prequels and their rigid insistence on telling fans that what they thought Star Wars was, what they felt it was, was wrong. Only George Lucas knew what it was, only he had control. But now fans, in the proxy form of Abrams, have control, and they were going to show other fans what they both wanted to see: the fun stuff, the lightsabers and the blasters and the chases and all the rest.

But The Force Awakens accomplishes its mission in other ways, too. It enters a Hollywood marketing atmosphere characterized by nervous desperation and risk-aversion, where practically the entire plot of a movie is revealed in trailers lest any element blindside and alienate fragile moviegoers. The Force Awakens advertising withheld numerous key details of the movie while dribbling out teasing details with tantric discipline, which has ramped up interest while preserving surprise (which lessens pretty quickly within the film itself, honestly). It seems like a sideline point, but it demonstrates how key the selling of a movie can be to predetermining its meanings and emotional appeals. When was the last movie, no matter how massively marketed and breathlessly anticipated, for which spoiler warnings were considered so significant? Millions would have seen this movie anyway, but its revelations (which I had intended to delve into more deeply but whose unuttered state I have respected up to this point but not much further, I warn) undeniably have more impact for being revealed in the properly-weighted moment.

Another important factor in the film’s success is that it doesn’t make things too easy for its characters, young or old. The Prequels featured so many experienced and high-powered Jedi and Sith contending with each other on an often impressive but also sterile, lofty and impersonal level that its stakes were unreal, its drama inert and uninvolving. In The Force Awakens, like in the Original Trilogy, our heroes operate on a level of semi-skilled desperation in a grimy, rusty, rundown lived-in universe. Following the example of the casual improvisational rogue Han Solo (played again by Harrison Ford, who hasn’t been this lively for decades), newcomers Rey (the compelling Daisy Ridley) and Finn (Attack the Block‘s John Boyega) are thrust into unfamiliar and highly dangerous situations and draw on their narrow (but not shallow) experience reserves to get through them.

Rey is a self-sufficient scrap scavenger, prodigal tinkerer, and innately capable pilot who can handle herself in hand-to-hand combat (more than a little like a certain fair-haired boy from a Tatooine moisture farm, whose older self has a very brief cameo here), while Finn is a relentlessly drilled warrior stormtrooper who refuses to conform any longer with the brutality of his masters, the sinister post-Imperial First Order. These two ally-less drifters are thrust together and pursued by First Order forces on the desert planet of Jakku after a droid (the toy-ready soccerball roller BB8) carrying secret plans falls into their company (like I said, pretty familiar stuff). They escape by commandeering a pretty well-known ship, whose controls Rey can barely handle and whose guns Finn struggles to master, and run into Han and his sidekick Chewbacca, who are always up for wild, skin-of-their-teeth escapes. Even Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), an expert pilot for the anti-First Order Resistance led by General Leia (Carrie Fisher), finds himself fleeing in a TIE Fighter and being amazed at its jumpy speed.

This recurring motif of apprentices and novices thrown into adventures that they pull off with help, luck, and bursts of untutored skill and ability is applied not only to plucky heroes but also to the main villain. Kylo Ren (Adam firstorderDriver) is a fanatical devotee of Darth Vader, with whom he shares a close connection. Although he has been trained in the use of the Dark Side of the Force by the First Order’s Supreme Leader Snoke (a deformed creature on a distant throne, seen only in holographic form and mo-capped and voiced by Andy Serkis), Kylo is still quite young and rough around the edges. He wears all black and a mask over his face, though he doesn’t need it to breathe like Vader, so it’s all for show, a reverent game of dress-up, a costume of assumed identity.

When he doesn’t get his way or fails at something (which is fairly often), he throws a petulant tantrum, losing his temper and trashing rooms with his jaggedly glowing red lightsaber, cross-shaped like a crusader’s insignia. He’s overconfident in his still-developing abilities, and is thrice surprised by the emerging Force powers of Rey, who righteously kicks his black-clad butt in the film’s snowy forest climax with a lightsaber that she’s never held before (her acquisition of it is the pinnacle of those totally satisfying but completely telegraphed cheer moments mentioned earlier). Unlike his hero Vader, who is as strong as he ever will be at the start of Episode IV, Kylo is still undergoing growing pains as a Dark Side Force master; his embryonic state, like that of Rey and to a lesser extent Finn, makes him less imposing but more human, more relatable, and in some ways more dangerous.

But what really makes The Force Awakens a resurgence for the pure popcorn-movie crowd-pleasing dream of Star Wars is J.J. Abrams’ ambitious vision. Working from a script he co-wrote with Lawrence Kasdan (screenwriter of The Empire Strikes Back) and Michael Arndt, Abrams displays a skill with visual composition and awesome scope that seems to awaken like Rey’s Force prowess. From his opening shot – the triangular shadow of a First Order Star Destroyer falling over a planet – to his unforgettable last helicopter sweep, it’s clear that this is going to be a wonderfully-shot film full of indelible images. Abrams and his cinematographer Dan Mindel utilize the familiar visual vocabulary of this universe to hasten along the storytelling, to give it impact, verve, energy. The recognizable Imperial and Rebel crafts of war vanishing into the sands of Jakku as monolithic wrecks, for example, imbue Rey’s establishing scenes with a tremendous elegiac melancholy, the echoes of a turbulent past picked clean for subsistence scraps by the vulnerable mortals left in its wake. Images create meaning, buttress themes, deepen implications, suggest kinship with faded legacies.

Even when their hand is a touch too heavy, the result is galvanizing: witness General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson, powerfully capping a year in which he stepped into the considerable shoes of his master character actor father, Brendan) delivering a pre-attack speech to assembled First Order armies with red-eyed fascistic fervour, both Hux’s rhetoric and the geometry of state power on display invoking Adolf Hitler’s Nazi propaganda rallies in a much more on-the-nose fashion than Lucas, whose Empire was inspired by war-movie Nazis, ever did.

The Force Awakens has its flaws, to be sure, but they are not flaws of inattention or lack of skill on the filmmakers’ part but usually down to slight excesses of the consistent approach and practices described already, which are far more frequently successful. References to the Original Trilogy can be just slightly too arch, repurposed plot or character elements too recognizable, key moments too telegraphed, wider political machinations and factional relationships left too vague. Boyega plays Finn as a fearful (yet brave) soldier more than a little out of his depth, and one might suspect that he’s embodying those characteristics so well because he is out of his depth (the American accent he has to use for some reason doesn’t do him any favours; Ridley can speak British English, why can’t he?). Driver, too, can be a bit off, and his Kylo sometimes suggests the pissy sullenness of Hayden Christensen’s young Anakin in Episodes II & III. It’s an underwhelming moment when he removes his helmet for Rey, although their weird sexual tension in her interrogation scene salvages it considerably.

reybb8Speaking of salvaging and Ridley, much more work would have been necessary in other quarters to make up for a movie without her. Her Rey goes beyond reductive quasi-feminist terms like spunk or “girl power”. She’s a fully-formed person, forged by isolation and survivalist needs into a tough, tech-savvy cookie but not without a certain sadness, a mournfulness for the parts of herself that she has had to lose in order to eke out a living, and a guilt at being abandoned by a family she does not know. She forges strong attachments quickly, as if she won’t get another chance at it, but will not be led by the nose or taken advantage (or care) of. She’s a glorious find and a new evolution of heroic woman protagonist at the centre of a massive Hollywood blockbuster, and this new trilogy will remain worth following with Daisy Ridley at its heart, no matter where it goes.

Where will it go? A two years’ wait stands between audiences and that discovery, but for the first time in decades, Star Wars fans will be glad at the anticipation. The Force Awakens was made by fans, for fans. It cannily textualizes its project of revivifying the franchise’s pulpy popular appeal after a fallow period and a divisive tangent. The Force that awakens in The Force Awakens is not merely the magical energy field that governs the universe in these films but the magical energy field that its audience can feel emanating from Star Wars at its best.

Is Abrams’ film embedding familiar and even repeated elements with regularity, rendering it more like a remake than a sequel? Maybe, but then so did the original film in 1977, with its potion of Kurosawa samurai and roguish pirates, Dune settings with archetypes and set-pieces out of war movies. Star Wars always carried in its recipe the borrowed flavours of its pulp-cinema antecedents, the serials and genre pictures of George Lucas’ youth. Now its newest iteration carries the flavours of its new creative team’s collective youth, which happens to be Star Wars itself. Originality is laudable in theory, but Star Wars has never been a rich soil for it. Its re-tilled earth offers prodigious growth opportunities for genre adventures of broad and sometimes even transcendent imagination, however. The Force Awakens is most certainly one of those, and keeps hope alive that more such escapist entertainments await us.

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Categories: Film, Reviews
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  1. January 1, 2016 at 10:07 am

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