Director: J. J. Abrams
Stars: Harrison Ford, John Boyega, Daisy Ridley
This is one of the toughest reviews I’ve chosen to write for this blog. How to position my stance on the hugely hyped and already widely loved latest entry in the Goliath Star Wars franchise? A film which, for a while there, didn’t seem likely to exist at all. Reviewing The Force Awakens requires being cagey with details about actual content, lest invisible legions of fans who’ve yet to see it but can’t resist a few lines of copy throw their arms up in dismay. “You’ve ruined everything!” (Perhaps I quite clearly overestimate my audience…)
The problem is greater than the troubling aspect of lacking actual content for the sake of keeping the film’s unsurprising secrets veiled. And that’s because, the truth is… the truth is… there’s a club I’m not a member of. A party I’m not turning up for. I haven’t been waiting for this film for an eternity. I didn’t grow up with this franchise.
I’m not a Star Wars fan.
There I said it.
Funnily enough, growing up I wasn’t exposed to that many films. My parents certainly weren’t cinephiles and we had perhaps only one or two VHS tapes in the house. So I wasn’t exposed to Star Wars at an impressionable age. It was the late 80s / early 90s. Star Wars wasn’t a big deal at the time. It had simmered down. My friends didn’t know about it. Or they certainly didn’t talk about it fervently or memorably. Geekdom wasn’t really a thing to us. It wasn’t present in our lives.
And, as we reached puberty, we reached not toward fantasy but toward adulthood before our time. Alien. Akira. The Silence Of The Lambs. The Evil Dead. These were the films we wanted to see. We were exposed to them years before we probably ought to have been. By the time the prequels came around and we felt obligated to catch-up, we were cresting our late teens and early twenties. I was about 18 when I first saw Star Wars. A degraded third-hand copy on VHS. I wasn’t filled with awe. It was a shabby copy and it looked bad. And my first impression was that it was a kid’s film. Babbling friendly robots and men in robes swishing across gangways with women in their arms. We’d been watching Fight Club. This? This was… well… silly.
And then the prequels happened. And they were fucking awful. All of them. ALL OF THEM.
And now it’s 2015. I’ve watched episodes IV, V and VI numerous times, trying to capture the love. The wonder. The enthusiasm. Better copies. Hell, I’ve bought them. But still it escapes me. Granted, The Empire Strikes Back is the best of the bunch, tackling more mature themes than those that surround it. But even then it’s not perfect. Earlier this year I participated in a group event (yes, on May the 4th), watching all three of the ‘proper’ films (y’know, the real ones). And still, by the time the Ewoks turned up in Jedi it was all a bit much. A bit… yeah… silly.
And I’m sorry if this admission offends you. I’m not saying you’re wrong to love Star Wars. Fandom is fun. It’s great to feel passionately about something. Honestly, without sounding patronising I hope, more power to you for your love. What I’m going to great lengths to establish is, I’ve tried with these films. I really have. But I just can’t quite connect with them. I don’t get excited. I haven’t been waiting with bated breath. Hell, the marketing campaign for The Force Awakens has been draining. A year of trailers. As if nobody was going to turn up.
All of which sounds rather like me desperately trying to flesh out a word count for a film I can’t really talk about in specifics. Unless… unless we agree that, after the image below, I can talk about the film? Yeah. I’ll put a picture in. Something random, like some guinea pigs or something. And everything after the guinea pigs is fair game. Yeah? Okay. Here we go.
It’s all right.
If I’m not a fan of Star Wars I’m even less of a fan of J.J. Abrams. Star Trek Into Darkness is one of the few films I’d give an unflinching 0/5 to. I flat-out hate the way he makes films. So his attachment here gave me great reservations. Fortunately, I had nothing to worry about. Though The Force Awakens belts along, it’s somewhat anonymously directed. Abrams defers to the material that got so many people loving the series in the first place, and approaches it respectfully.
Somewhat too respectfully. For The Force Awakens is a full-blown remake of A New Hope. Seriously. Every beat is here. In sequence. Sure, it has its own kinks, quirks and features. But in a universe of infinite possibilities, this sheer level of barefaced unoriginality is maddening. It goes beyond fan-service. This is hedging your bets as much as possible. The shadows of the prequels understandably loomed over this project. So Abrams and his writers have played it so safe as to avoid all risk of darting down blind alleys. They’ve simply rehashed old ground. To the letter. To the point that you can see major events coming down the road full acts before they happen. Because that’s how it happened before and gosh-darn it, that’s how it’s going to happen again.
There’s a good argument that this is the point. That the film acknowledges that, without our best attention, history threatens to repeat itself. And there’s also an element of manifest destiny about the actions that take place within The Force Awakens.
But that over-familiarity cripples the film. It zaps it of excitement. Because you’ve seen this story before. It doesn’t help that Abrams and co have also sought to replicate Lucas’ vaguely hammy, crappy history of that’ll-do dialogue and cheesy one liners that pepper all six previous films. The script here is frequently garbage. Granted some of these elements can’t help but work and work well (bleeping cutesy droid BB8’s version of a thumbs-up is priceless), but it’s very hit and miss.
Fortunately, the film soars where it breaks ranks from Lucas’ version of A New Hope, and that’s in the treatment and exploration of the new characters. Daisy Ridley has been given a gift of a character in Rey and she’s evidently game to make as much of her as she can. That prim English accent seems somewhat off-kilter with the gutsy, capable scavenger with whom we’re introduced, but in a year that’s been exemplary for strong female leads, Ridley’s endeavours feel like a victory lap.
John Boyega is eminently watchable as Finn the former Storm Trooper. One of the film’s most interesting angles is pulling in a good character from the dark shadows of the First Order like this. Freewill in Storm Troopers wasn’t something the series had explicitly shown before. His emergence is profoundly enjoyable to see and probably the film’s most heart-warming element.
In contrast (and the film’s greatest coup) is Adam Driver’s scene stealing work as Kylo Ren (possible review subheading: We Need To Talk About Kylo). Is it early days to say we have before us a more fascinating villain than the series has afforded us before? He’s certainly a maelstrom of conflicting impulses. A far more animated and less predictable presence than Vader. While elsewhere returning veteran Harrison Ford puts in his most spirited work in well over a decade. I thought Han Solo was going to drop in and out of this film, tipping his hat to the fans and adding little more. He’s actually a key player and thoroughly welcome.
Also worth championing, as has been echoed elsewhere many times, is how Abrams and his effects team have blended CG work with practical effects to make Star Wars feel dirty and earthy again. It adds so much and it underlines how dead the prequels all felt. Occasionally a CG alien will draw the eye and look a little too (what’s the word…?) shit. But overall, the film feels legit. And sounds it too. John Williams’ score is playful, adding new elements while warmly recalling old favourites. The fans can breathe easily.
But… It’s that club I’m not a part of. That party I can’t quite show up to. I want to get it. But I don’t. As a Hollywood adventure film, this is fine. It’s done well, even. And it promises more in the future, and I will be back. But as much as to see where the adventure goes next, I’ll be back to try yet again to find that special something in Star Wars. That something I’m always missing. That something that, much as I wanted it to, A New Hope, sorry, The Force Awakens didn’t give me.
It’s just a film. A good one. But nothing more than that for me. Insert a witty Star Wars quote here that applies to this situation. You’ll have to tell me what it is, because I don’t know it. I’m not trying to be the cool guy going against the grain. I’m not the cool guy. I’m the guy looking for the party who hasn’t got any phone service. Hello? Hello? How the hell do I get out of this dubious metaphor?
Fuck it, have another guinea pig.