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That's not how the Force works!

Star Wars: The Force Awakens
(2015)

(SPOILERS) Is Star Wars: The Force Awakens the Star Wars movie devotees of the Original Trilogy grail have been awaiting for more than 30 years? Obviously not, or it would have Episode VII in the title. There has been much talk of fan service in respect of the picture (not least from George Lucas), and the accusation at least partly stands, although the notion of “fan service” and what fans actually want tend to be two entirely different things (usually symptomatic of giving professional fans the keys to a kingdom, here JJ Abrams, on television Steven Moffat).


On first viewing at least, this latest chapter hews closer to the Star Wars movie I’ve been hoping for since The Empire Strikes Back, its abundant flaws admitted, because it’s the first one since to attend to its characters across the board. I may not have always been invested in the plot of The Force Awakens, but I was invested in the new inhabitants of George Lucas’ galaxy. That’s no mean feat and one those operating entirely from the level of fan service would, if not forsaking, have likely paid only lip service.


Abrams has been here before with a franchise, of course. Star Trek 2009 also manufactured vital and compelling characters in the face of a disappointing plot. It’s difficult to pick the winner of the newbies between Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren and John Boyega’s Finn, but they edge ahead of Daisy Ridley’s Rey and Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron by offering something a little less expected.


And that’s not to ignore BB-8, a post-R2 droid who achieves an adorable lovability his forbear could never quite muster, and without being irritably cute or whacky (just cute and whacky). It’s a fine line, but its entirely understandable that all those remote-controlled versions are flying off shelves this Christmas; it’s rare these days to make a new piece of character design work so perfectly, particularly in a movie so scrupulously referencing the series’ history at every turn.


Private Godfrey’s great-grandniece more than delivers the necessaries to attract a female following to the franchise (or, to note the accusations concerning which Abrams inadvertently dug a hole for himself, a greater female following). As you’d expect from the director, he assembles a group of co-stars who display keen chemistry (even Ford, despite his regular uptake of snoozy drops, or other inducements to a soporific state), but it’s for Ridley to assume the mantle of new series lead.


Hampering her somewhat are Rey’s sometimes crudely etched in background notes, or rather not etched in; her background is a mystery box, to be continued; with two character mysteries presented to us (her and Finn, although it’s debatable how important the latter’s roots will be; hopefully not so much, so he’s allowed to be just another character, rather than a fated-to-be-special one) it begins to feel like a crutch, and the rate at which Rey awakens is effectively a Speed Learn version of Jedi training. While it’s clearly intended that she has markedly greater aptitude for the Force than her peers (and doubtless more midichlorians than Master Yoda), one is left feeling that Abrams (and co-writer Lawrence Kasdan) has gone for the bigger-faster-more approach at the expense of the slow, rewarding build, most typified by the hologram showing how much vaster than a Death Star Starkiller base is (and yet, only very vaguely more difficult to destroy).


There’s an element of narrative balance to Rey’s powers, at least,  a mirroring of unmarshalled Force power in Rey and Ren, and it isn’t as if either (Supreme Leader Snoke states Ren is ready to complete his training only after killing his father) is intended to be in control, hence their choppy, inelegant rage-fuelled duel (one nice touch is that, when Ren calls attention to Rey’s potential for joining him, she immediately finds her still point as a counter; Return of the Jedi rather stumbled with the Emperor clumsily alerting Luke to giving into his hate, and so having the opposite intended effect, and Abrams and Kasdan seem to be recognising the tactic as a counter-productive measure).


Rey is able to resist Ren probing her mind (Kylo may not have completed his training, but if his idol and grand pappy could have, he would surely have elicited the location of the rebel base from Leia in the same way), and quickly moves on to messing with stormtroopers’ freewill (the asides granted stormtroopers here are welcome, an effective response to the CGI clones of the prequels, and consistent with making one of their number central to the plot). But have Kasdan and Abrams made Rey a bit too damn perfect? She’s an engineering maestro (to Han’s vague annoyance) and a shit-hot pilot (Poe Dameron will have to content himself with being only the second best in the Resistance now), and it seems the only peg of future character development we can hang on her is her mysterious past. Which is a bit thin. We’ll have to see what Rian Johnson can come up with.


In contrast, Kylo Ren’s shambolic yearning for darkness has, as many have noted, made him something of an ultimate fanboy, but one with motivation. Unlike Jurassic World, where the franchise referencing was a weak meta point, with Ren it is valid and verisimilitudinous. He studies the iconography at the expense of the core ethos, unable to summon the unadulterated Dark Side and worshipping at a shrine of someone he presumably must know turned back to the light at the end. He has amazing abilities (including stopping laser bolts mid-sentence) but is plagued by terrible temper tantrums (again, very amusing to see the stormtroopers self-preserving responses; best not to go in there when the boss is having one of his mood swings).


As with Bond, when the villain has issues, the content itself tends to become incrementally richer for all concerned; the scope is broader, and the possibilities more extensive. If you don’t care about Vader’s interior life, there’s a dimension of the picture left unexplored, and, aside from the whining Anakin, it’s only really Return of the Jedi that consistently presented this (Palpatine’s deviousness may have been rewarding, but he was never really up against it). Ren has an inferiority complex, resentful that General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) has priority over him; it’s an overt echo of Tarkin and Vader in A New Hope, ‘youthed-up” but effective thanks to the manner in which this is foregrounded. Hux is self-satisfied and enjoys point scoring against Ren for Snoke’s trust, while Ren thinks it’s so unfair that he doesn’t have the same completely (just as he is unable to inhabit the Dark Side completely).


Ren’s interior conflict leads to repeated mistakes, ones that work for the narrative (rather than the many elsewhere that don’t); he sees no reason to find BB-8 any longer because he is in no doubt he can extract the information on Luke’s whereabouts from Rey. After rising to the challenge of killing his father, he drops his guard, because it affects him despite his pronunciations, which means Chewie can get a crossbow bolt on target. Which means, in the final fight, despite his superior skills, he is disadvantaged through injury, beating on his wound to steel himself.


While the use and discovery of the Force is central to the movie, though, and even has former non-believer Han extolling its truths, Abrams treats it in a disappointingly perfunctory manner. It’s the area where this new trilogy opener most short changes the original trilogy, rather than the frequently clumsy plotting. There’s no room for the awe and mystery of the Force here; the Force is merely currency to sell a franchise. It’s as if, despite being a fan, Abrams can’t bring himself to inhabit the mind-set of an all-powerful force controlling everything. The physicality of the Star Wars universe has returned, complete with primary, grounded locations (desert, jungle, snowy planets), but missing is the ability to let this galaxy breathe, to instil it with wonder (there are amazing shots, but they don’t linger).


In a way this is perhaps surprising, since Lost was all about a seductive sense of mystery, and Alias fuelled much of its run on the same principles, although Abrams’ movie choices have, despite the ever-present mystery box, been fairly linear affairs. It rather emphasises that the box itself is a cynical, mechanical tool. We have characters talking earnestly about the Force (Lupita Nyong’o’s Maz Kanata, a bar tender with the philosophy of a Yoda), and visions of fates befallen at the lightsabers of the Knights of Ren, but Abrams treats this awakening as something of a blunt instrument; there’s no grace or serenity.


Indeed, as far as they extend beyond the characters themselves, the moments that are narrative call backs to the Original Trilogy, be they visions, or teachings, or the death of the father/mentor, lack the resonance required for true cinematic mythmaking. Shattering events happen, and there’s an emotional rollercoaster, but the spiritual trappings are left untapped. This is nowhere truer than in John Williams’ score; where formerly he infused the life blood of the franchise, even in the prequels, with vital and compelling themes, here the octogenarian is apparently entirely uninspired, despite visuals and character cues that deserve investment on a level the prequels never warranted. The score for The Force Awakens is, simply, unmemorable, and it would have been wiser to bring on Michael Giacchino outright (assuming he gets the gig for Episode VIII).


It’s probably no coincidence that the character of Finn succeeds most on his own terms; funny, brash, fearful, regretful and very human, the decision to delve into a cinematically unexplored aspect of the saga – that of stormtroopers – bears fruit in a manner emphasising that this is what they should be doing more concertedly, rather than raking over coals. Lucas managed to pay the ethical aspect of millions of clone troopers scant regard in the prequels, despite their being crucial to the plot. Here, it might have been more satisfying if Finn’s conditioning didn’t go awry right from the moment he enters combat (so he isn’t really complicit).


But that aside, his imperfect hero, and Boyega’s playing of the humour in the character, is immensely engaging, be it Finn’s unnecessary attempts to save the damsel in distress or digging himself a hole in terms of his background and motives. Or calling Han “Solo” all the time. I liked that Finn makes the choice to save Rey at the expense of being honest at about his knowledge of Starkiller Base, thus putting the entire Resistance in jeopardy (it’s one of the many weak contrivances that he pretty much instantly extricates himself from this dilemma, however), and his have-a-go attitude, be it using a lightsaber, unskilled against a stormtrooper with a charge stick or, even more so, up against Ren.


It was assumed Poe would be more the Han character of the new trilogy but, in terms of wild cards, of a normal, flawed guy in a world populated by very special people, Finn better fits the bill. I just hope this continues, and that his true identity doesn’t turn out to be important to the history of the saga we know (so not Lando Calrissian’s son, thank you very much; but bring back Billy Dee Williams, by all means). And also, Finn’s interaction with Poe is the best thing about that character.


Yes, Poe. It’s a good thing they have someone of Oscar Isaac’s calibre to play Poe Dameron (still a terrible name, they might as well have called him Pob) as he’s so thoroughly a good egg, a great pilot, a noble hero, always has a nice word to say to a BB-8, that he kind of makes himself redundant. I’m not sure how they’re going to make more of him going forward, as whatever problems Rey may have in terms of being provisioned with an arc, Poe has in abundance. At the moment, he’s glowingly non-descript, like Wedge Antilles, but with more lines.


Of the First Order types besides Ren, I’ve mentioned Gleason, and I found his performance almost as enjoyable as Driver’s. The First Order might be nothing very interesting, but Gleason gives Hux a certain smirking self-regard that makes prospect of his returun in Episode VIII especially appealing. And it might just be a consequence of the chosen accent, but I liked the irony of his tones sounding rather Churchillian in an otherwise Hitler-esque speech to the First Order (that sees Abrams picking up the Leni Reifenstahl motif from A New Hope).  


Captain Phasma, though. Yeah, the cossie’s cool, but everything else, even down to Gwendoline Christie’s insufficiently modified voice, is a resounding disappointment. About the only point of comparison with Boba Fett is that both derive from designs for their trilogy’s (main) villain. Perhaps the weakest of all the plot developments in the picture (and there are a great many weak ones) is that Phasma readily complies with the instruction to drop the shields on Starkiller Base.  What kind of stormtrooper is she? She should be drummed out of the First Order at once.


As for Snoke, apart from assuming, until his hologram was switched off, that he was about 30-foot high, there’s very little to say about him. Is he interesting as a piece of CGI, as a new face of the Dark Side, or even as name? Not really, although his name would be more fitting for Garindan spy from A New Hope. This is where aping things like the master and apprentice leads to banal repetition, as we’ve had this with the Emperor, and there’s nothing thus far to make Snoke other than your standard-issue ringmaster baddie.


Obviously the main focus of attention among the Original Trilogy old-timers has been the return of Han Solo (and the peculiar absence of Luke Skywalker from promotion materials), so imagine my surprise that the best showing for any of the old characters is easily Chewbacca. More than that, it’s probably Chewie’s best showing in any of the movies. He gets wounded (and tells Harriet Walter all about it), shoots Ren, sets off the charges on Starkiller Base, rescues Rey and Finn. I was never really that fussed by the walking carpet before, but Abrams has succeeded in rejuvenating more than his nice shiny coat (Pedigree Chum aided, no doubt).


Quite rightly, given their over-exposure and indulgence in the prequels, C3P0 and R2-D2 are side-lined, the latter as a rather convenient plot point (his galvanising into action appears predicated on the arrival of Rey, which suggests she’s Luke’s daughter, which makes there one too many special Skywalkers in the universe that have absconded from the nest, at least unless Johnson handles the situation with remarkable care and flair). Luke, of course, doesn’t even get to speak, standing around on an Irish island while all around him the galaxy goes to pot. Hamill’s is the most interesting of the original characters though, so it’s both a frustration and impetus to get to the sequel.


Leia? One can only wonder why Luke didn’t teach her the ways of the Force as Yoda suggested. It makes sense that she and Han would split, though, even without the valid reasons set out in the storyline. Carrie Fisher’s okay, but nothing more. There’s no great surge of feeling to the reunion between her and Han, but that’s equally down to Ford.


Who is intermittently fine, but this isn’t the redressing the balance of Han Solo that would lay to rest his mis- (or lack thereof) use in Return of the Jedi. Ford gets his way finally, killing off his second-best loved character, and he’s awake at least (until Han isn’t), but he still seems like an old man stumbling around when he’s shooting people. Which he is, of course. He’s at his best when interacting with the younger cast (particularly Ridley and Boyega), but the big meeting with the chip off the old block is a bit of shrug really, telegraphed as an Obi-Wan-Vader moment but lacking the same wallop.


Maybe it’s that we only really believe Han and Ben are father and son because we’re told it’s so, whereas Guinness and Jones convince you undeniably that their characters were master and pupil. It’s a more difficult bridge to build anyway, though, even if Ford was operating at full powers; Han isn’t the character to suddenly flip into meaningful discourse with a son, and, while the actually details of the scene engage (Ren/Ben requesting his father to help him, but that requesting being the death of Han), the emotional core is absent.  


After his turn in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, this is pretty much the Ford performance I was expecting, to be honest, so I wasn’t disappointed per se. It does mean his Blade Runner 2 return as Rick Deckard will be at about the same level as the original, so there is an upside to all this. One thing I wasn’t keen on was handing Han cheap gags, like never having used Chewie’s crossbow before (or call backs concerning trash compactors). It’s too self-conscious, and no more fitting here than if, in The Empire Strikes Back, he had observed “These lightsabers are really cool” and summarily went off with Luke’s.


But the main sticking point in The Force Awakens is the degree of contrivance and coincidence required to get this plot in motion, even in a galaxy with the Force binding everything together; so much so, characters are required to call attention to the sheer unlikelihood, presumably because the writers think that makes it more palatable. Rey is hiding out on a desert planet (and obviously related in some way to someone important in the mythos), coincidentally living in the vicinity of the Falcon, and coincidentally she just happens to bump into BB-8 who is looking for Luke Skywalker, and then coincidentally bumps into Finn (at least in A New Hope they arrived where they did because Ben himself was being looked for). Han is coincidentally searching for the long-missing Falcon and happens to be doing so just at the moment it lifts off. Luke’s lightsaber just happens to be residing in a box on the rounds he is doing (and what’s the story there; who picked it up from Cloud City?)


The cumulative effect, along with another big planet-destroying weapon, is a little on the patience-testing side. Without the character work to support it, it would be a bust, frankly (whereas, in the main, the reverse was true of the prequels; they had solid plots – whether you appreciated them or not – but failed miserably with character). There was also surely more than enough material to play with here without the Starkiller Base, and excising it would have enabled room to breathe and get one’s bearings (and a sense of atmosphere). It’s quite possible the big fearsome weapon was a mandate enforced on Abrams and Kasdan, but the final attack itself, including Poe, is as redundant as the one in Return of the Jedi; as in Jedi, and The Phantom Menace, other finale threads are required to do the heavy lifting.


The stir-and-repeat of Starkiller Base extends to the reformed ham of the First Order, and the New Republic, and the Resistance. It’s very so-so, same again, without furnishing us with any clear understanding of the circumstances. There’s a whole New Republic (I didn’t even realise the Senate Home world gets destroyed) but the will and means to combat the First Order effectively escapes it? So to counteract the slight-versus-might (the First Order being very much junior in scale to the Empire), the Resistance needs to be a vulnerable offshoot of the New Republic. The construction is rather unfocussed and lopsided, smacking of lacking the will to come up with anything better because, well, it’s the characters that are important.


I don’t mind most of the visual and character shout-outs, be it Admiral Ackbar or Nien Nunb, and I actually very much do like the return of the used future with the partially-forgotten Empire’s derelict spaceships littering the landscape. Some of the action/effects conceits Abrams comes up with are ingenious and have just the desired effect (the Falcon needing to be in just the right position for Finn’s locked guns to destroy the TIE Fighter), but others smack of the kind of sci-fi silliness Abrams inflicted on the transporters in Star Trek (Han’s hyperspace special jumps from any place, anywhere), “Wouldn’t it be cool if?” fan spit-balling that serves to unravel the overall tapestry.


And, while the opening scroll emphasises the importance of Luke in defeating the First Order, it ultimately proves not to be the case. Which rather emphasises his status as a MacGuffin, since they instead needed (Luke’s daughter) to get the Resistance to a place where they don’t need Luke. While The Force Awakens certainly commits fan service a tad too much, it also shows commendable restraint and shrewdness at points; keeping Luke boxed-up until the last two minutes is something surely no one else would have had the self-control for; Ren’s dad isn’t a Luke-Vader reveal, it’s a matter-of-fact beat in a discussion between Snokey and his bandit apprentice; the suggestiveness of the embrace between Leia and Rey, without committing to why, that perhaps they share a familial bond (although, against this, Rey is early told she must choose between Luke and her family, so we’ll see). And why was Max von Sydow in the thing for all of two minutes? I have absolutely no idea. I’d like to think his importance at the start is significant as Luke’s at the end, but I didn’t really get that impression.


Star Wars: The Force Awakens is some way from being the bright new dawn of the franchise, but it does serve to clear the decks for a new cast of characters, all of them with potential (well, we’ll see about Poe). And it’s never less than invigoratingly directed by Abrams, whose compositions are exactly what you’d hope for from a continuation of the Original Trilogy. What Episode VIII really needs though (and then Colin Trevorrow’s IX, but let’s not dwell on that just now) is something as fresh in terms of plotting as the characters Abrams and Kasdan have devised. It isn’t immediately obvious how Rian Johnson will do that, but as of now he’s the saga’s new hope.



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