Star Wars: The Force Awakens (12A.)
Directed by J.J. Abrams.
Starring Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis and Mark Hamill. 135 mins.
Struggles for control have always been the foundation of Star Wars, battles between the light and the dark side for a character's soul. Here the fans have effectively wrested control from its creator George Lucas and have made almost exactly the Star Wars movie they dreamed it would be. Of course, giving people exactly what they want isn't always the best way to go about things but as Star Wars fans probably haven't been given what they wanted since The Empire Strikes Back, 35 years ago, the filmmakers can be forgiven for playing it safe. The missing ingredient turned out to be fun, the element that was squeezed out of the films when Lucas turned to the dark side. Force Awakens is unrelentingly jolly; the hope is that everybody will have such a good time they won't notice that it is basically a remake of the first two films.
The film opens on a desert planet, just like the original did, and has a seemingly ordinary young person Rey (Ridley) stumbling upon a droid that contains vital information, just like Luke did in the first film. Before the screening Disney were very insistent about people not giving away spoilers, but it is kind of redundant because in the Star Wars universe the options are so limited that no surprise ever really comes as a surprise: somebody will be unexpectedly revealed to be somebody's relative; people will be tempted to cross to the dark side; people in tin helmets will be evil; ordinary people will quickly reveal themselves to be bold and heroic; and there will be a climatic lightsabre fight. Force Awaken has one genuine surprise but because it is so bluntly set up (and because the whole film suddenly comes to a stop to look on as it happens) the shock of it is thrown away. The only spoiler worth caring about is does J.J.Abrams use his trademark lens flare in this new project and the answer is, Spoiler, he does not.
Director Abrams has always been good with other people's ideas. He saved the Mission Impossible series with his third installment, and rebooted Star Trek for the big screen. This though is a very different feat, an act of impersonation rather than reinvigoration. And he does it really well. Rather than the cartoony milieu of the Prequels, this looks like real people doing real things in real places. He hasn't tried to be too smart either, it keeps the basic silliness that was part of the original appeal. Even the dialogue is in character. Harrison Ford is supposed to have complained to Lucas on the first film that, “You can type this shit, but you can't say it." The dialogue here retains that blunt, to the point, straightforwardness but Abrams and co-writer Lawrence Kasdan tweak it just enough to get the jokes in and stop it being too jarringly awful.
The new elements work fine too. Our new heroes are unknowns Ridley and Boyega, and I think audiences will warm to them and be happy to follow them through Episodes VIII and IX. Boyega, whose previous biggest role was in South London Alien invasion flick Attack The Block, has acquired a very nice mid Atlantic accent that should stand his career in good stead. Ridley though is so thoroughly English that you'd half expect the big surprise to be one of the film's many Darth Vader substitutes lifting off their helmet to reveal Keira Knightley underneath, giggling, “Hey Rey, I'm your big sister!”
Even as someone who is not in any way a Star Wars fan, there is something incredibly moving and stirring about seeing the Star Wars logo blast up on screen, to hear John Williams' score strike up and to have the A Long Time Ago In A Galaxy Far, Far Away scroll start to ascend the screen. The film is impressive in many ways but, if you are not a die hard fan, it isn't really any great leap beyond the top level action movie blockbuster of the last few years. It is funny and busy but doesn't really get to grips with its dramatic potential. It's a lot like a group of friends having great fun playing at being Star Wars. Although there is a lot of it, the Star Wars universe is surprisingly small, made of simple notions and gestures. Perhaps this is why Lucas made such a hash of the prequels: his efforts to give it more substance, more subterfuge, were working against the spirit of his creation.
The Force Awakens is a great film for right now: it will sate the fans desire to see proper Star Wars again, engage a wider audience and it won't leave a giant Phantom Menace pong in cinemas. Having paid $4 billion for Lucasfilms and the right to not just make the last trilogy but churn out spinoff films every year, Disney will be content with such a sound start up.
There is though something quite depressing about the way the Force Awakens nullifies the happy ending of Return Of The Jedi. It's only supposed to be thirty years after the previous film but the triumphant Republic has already lost its grip on power, threatened by the First Order, a new Fascist group that seem to have got their start by buying up a job lot of old Empire gear at knock down prices.
The message seems to be that all victories are fleeting, which got me thinking about how The Force Awakens will be viewed in a few years. We may come to look back on it as quite a frivolous film. For now though it's the end of Return of the Jedi and we are all smiles and celebrations because Star Wars has been saved. Will the triumph last this time? This film should be enough to make up for the episodes I to II (Revenge of the Sith is a good film) but does Disney have the ability to take it on, or will they be revealed to be just another evil Empire?