Star Wars: The Force Awakens
I don’t hate the prequel trilogy. There’s much in them I don’t especially care for; the preponderance of CGI, the wooden acting, the insane lengths Lucas goes to link every character and event he possibly can to the original films. But they didn’t incite me to throw my fanboy toys out of the pram. There are individual sequences or plotlines I enjoy in each of the movies. By the time The Phantom Menace came out my enthusiasm for the series was already dampened. I’d seen Return of the Jedi more than enough times to conclude it wasn’t really all that (in some ways this is more disappointing than the prequels, since, as the concluding chapter, it cannot easily be ignored), and I’d witnessed the clueless changes Lucas made to the special editions (in particular, Sy Snootles and the CGI Song floored me; the spoof of the new trailer is absolutely spot-on with regard to his discretion-free additions). The lacklustre reaction to The Phantom Menace dissuaded me from seeing it until the tail end of its theatrical run. I didn’t even bother catching Revenge of the Sith at the cinema.
And, after the debacle that was Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (I’d rather watch the Star Wars prequels any day, if it came down to it), the chances of successfully resuming once reliable series seemed dead in the water. And probably for the best. Concentrate on new things if disinterring the old brings only disappointment. It was difficult to get too excited over the announcement of the sale of Lucasfilm and the production of a whole new trilogy (and multitudinous spin-offs). J J Abrams did a great job on the 2009 Star Trek, but his wrongheadedness over the follow-up (admittedly it’s one I like more than the audible majority, but many of the decisions involved are flat-out terrible) rightly gave pause; was he a suitable choice for resuscitating a franchise Lucas had done his best to pixelate to death? Abrams may love Star Wars with a passion he never reserved for Trek, but that’s no guarantee.
Everyone and their dog has already commented on the teaser trailer. It’s a solid appetite whetter but it’s not of the order of, say, Fury Road, which instils the palpable desire to see the movie at the most immediate possible opportunity if not sooner. The most interesting aspect of the teaser is the manner in which it announces itself as a mission statement. For all that nostalgia-hound Abrams has been given the keys to the kingdom (the man who made Spielberg love-in Super 8) and for all that there is recognisable iconography in nearly every shot, the intent is clearly to establish a new trilogy with new characters for a new generation to call their own. The prequel trilogy was made to measure, to occupy a predefined space. It became even more beholden to looking inward the more Lucas focussed his attention on it. How did so-and-so start out or get built, look there’s such-and-such who has no good reason to be there. Reams of unnecessary backstory were introduced and connections made, leaving negligible space for the imagination to fill in gaps and most often sacrificing the most mysterious and tantalising or reducing them to the humdrum.
There aren’t any familiar faces in the trailer, which is a good thing. It tells us this trilogy may kick off with old timers, but they will not be carrying it. While I’m genuinely intrigued to see Mark Hamill return as Luke Skywalker (something I would never have said 20 years ago), I have next to no interest in seeing Han again (something I also would never have said 20 years ago, but that was before I’d realised Ford had stopped trying).
There are recognisable landscapes and artefacts, however; sandy locales (just like Tattooine); snowy locales (just like Hoth… well okay, not really); watery locales (just like… er, Naboo?!). But no sign of space? There wasn’t very much (exploration of) space in Star Trek either, which might be a worry. Does J J need to ground himself? There are also Stormtroopers, X-wings, a Sith Lord, a lightsaber, TIE fighters and the Millennium Falcon. The general sense is one of reconfiguring the familiar in the aid of creating something new. How that plays out, well we’ll see.
I was never much for following the extended Star Wars universe once the original trilogy was over; the Marvel comic strip was about the extent of my interest, until after a few years any hope of more cinematic outings petered out. I have no problem with the unsettled universe that seems to exist in The Force Awakens. Apart from the obvious problem that it would be very difficult to make a movie where peace reigns, a post-Empire utopia coming miraculously into being with the demise of the second Death Star always felt like a massive stretch (Lucas’ CGI celebrations at the end of the Return of the Jedi Special Edition only served to underline the unlikelihood of this instantaneous galaxy-wide collapse of the Empire). If there’s one thing the sequels did instil, it was the sense of a far from perfect pre-Empire order (Return of the Jedi looks more and more like a hasty botch job, designed to draw a line under everything and move on to more pressing matters... like Willow).
So the sight of more Empire (-ish, at any rate) forces, and more Sith, and more Rebel Alliance? On the one hand, it suggests disarray for 30 years; there’s nothing of the leap between III and IV. On the other, this may be wholly germane to the tale set to be told (rather than just a reluctance on the part of Abrams to venture into anything new); hence the awakening. Abrams also faces the challenge of making a series that has well-worn tropes seem fresh. Part of the pleasure of A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back is that they conjure a galaxy of unknown spaces, mysterious pasts and hidden depths. Once everything is set out in broad daylight, lustre is lost. If Abrams finds himself too in thrall to stir-and-repeat archetypes (the black-clad Sith bad guy, the Han rogue substitute, the Luke and Leia vanilla hero and heroine figures), even given Lucas' dependence on same in formulating the characters, he could find himself with problems. Hopefully the purveyor of the “mystery box” is cannier than that.
There are seven mini-sequences shown here (seven for Episode VII), separated by black frames for maximum epic impact and import (which has its mirthful side when the droid is introduced). I don’t know how many worlds they cover, but I’d hazard a guess that at least five of the sequences take place on the same planet. John Boyega’s Stormtrooper (if that’s what he is; it depends how tall he is) pops into the frame of a desert establishing shot (this in itself has more the sense of a Spielberg-esque visual cue than a Lucas one, even given the Cantina sequence in A New Hope; or maybe it’s just a Lost trick recycled). If the verbal cues are anything to go by, he represents an awakening in the Force. Or maybe Boyega, Daisy Ridley and Oscar Isaac all experience an awakening since we see them before the next piece of dialogue; the ball droid too, for that matter.
The bouncy ball droid announces that yes, this trilogy will have humour, but hopefully nothing approximating Simon Pegg’s wacky little alien pal in Star Trek. At a guess the droid belongs to Ridley, who is riding around this planet, presumably in a nearby desert region to Boyega's desert region, on a rusty old speeder (the lived-in universe is back). It doesn’t look like the most comfortable of jalopies. So that’s three new characters (I’m counting the droid, who will have a hilarious altercation with R2D2 at some point).
Isaac is piloting an X-wing across a lake (or ocean?). The X-wings are further evidence of Abrams game plan; a familiar design, slightly modified, in an environment we haven’t seen before. Isaac isn’t wearing the best fitting of helmets by the look of it. Either that or his head has swollen up like a balloon from the recent fight he has evidently been in (that’s what comes of heckling), I wasn’t certain it was him initially, as I’d read he was piloting the Falcon.
He may, or may not, be part of the gorgeous and giddy last sequence in which we see the Falcon evading and being intercepted by TIE fighters over both land and water. Is Boyega in one of those TIE fighters (I’d have guessed not; the pilots have their own special clobber, don’t they?), but it wouldn’t surprise me if Abrams were dividing up only a couple of sequences to make it look like there’s more going on here than there is. Keeping as much back as possible wouldn’t be unusual for him.
Then there are the shaky-cam Stormtroopers on a drop ship, no doubt off to battle a xenomorph. It’s an atmospheric shot, with flickering lights and a nice new livery that lends them an extra-imposing bent (except for the short one, who is…) It’s true that handheld camera doesn’t exactly evoke the classically-defined Lucas universe but, since the busy busy prequels established not only an entirely unlived in universe but one that wasn’t even physically there, it’s not something that seems particularly sacrilegious (the moment in the prequel trilogy where I concluded Lucas had thrown the baby out with the CGI bathwater was when he staged a scene of Padme talking to a CGI clonetrooper in close-up). There’s enough diligence towards the established look of the original trilogy to be confident Abrams is adding a new colour to the Star Wars palette rather than discarding the old paints entirely. And, as far back as The Empire Strikes Back, Kershner was adulterating Lucas’ vision, enhancing the creator’s rather utilitarian stylistic choices with a considerably richer and more satisfying approach.
The only element here that really gives me pause is the Sith. The guy we see in the woods amid the snow with the red sparky lightsaber, the one with love handles (the lightsaber, not the Sith), is apparently Adam Driver (it would make sense for it to be a new character, as the others all are). The shot is atmospheric and all, even if the saber itself seems on the unwieldy side. The voiceover, though. There was speculation as to whether it was Cumberbatch, or Serkis or even Max von Sydow. Cumberbatch was the first person I thought of, but it seems it belongs to Serkis. Unfortunately, it’s the most generic sounding of villainous vocals. If they’re doing Sith they’d be better off following the offbeat path go the urbane (Christopher Lee) or weird-ass (Maul), rather than going down the throaty-raspy Emperor route. That’s three time I’ve said vaguely good things about the prequels! It would be unfortunate if this is a movie where everything falls into place except the bad guys (unsatisfying villains also encumbered both Abrams’ Star Treks)
There's a persuasive accumulation of movement and urgency in all these shots, yet without any clear narrative trajectories. That's Abrams for you, leaving a few breadcrumbs and so creating anticipation for something more tangible in terms of drama and conflict. And, in the absence of definables, a different kind of tangibility is the trailer’s major trump card. The effects, the world(s), the elements; they are palpable, solid. This is identifiably the same universe as that of the original trilogy. Just a little shakier and with a touch more flare.