Dir: J.J. Abrams, 2015
The prequels left a bad taste in our mouths. You can sugar-coat it by dwelling on the good – Duel of the Fates, Darth Maul, Order 66 – but ultimately Master Lucas squandered our trust. Of course, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull didn’t help. Yet when the green logo of Lucasfilm Ltd glimmers across the screen before the Episode VII trailers, a long-dormant sensation awakens inside us. You’ve felt it. That is because for better or worse, George Lucas is the man who introduced us to lightsabers, Millennium Falcons and the all-powerful Force and that cancels out any Trade Republics, midichlorians and Jar-Jar Binkses we had to endure along the way. The heart of The Force Awakens lies in J.J. Abrams’ recognition of that fact.
The fanfare and opening crawl gives us our first soupçon of actual plot. The Galactic Empire has risen again in the guise of the First Order and is determined to rid the galaxy of Luke Skywalker, the last remaining Jedi Knight. The Rebel Alliance, now calling themselves the Resistance, led by General Leia Organa send their most talented fighter pilot Poe Dameron to the desert planet Jakku to retrieve a map that leads to Luke’s location.
The Star Wars saga has always been style over substance. For every boy who is struggling to find a different path than the one paved by his father’s footsteps, we have a legion of X-wings and TIE fighters. Each teenager we see living in poverty, wistfully watching the horizon is drowned out by the sound of blasters and hovercrafts. Accepting this, there are no surprises in Abrams’ execution and yet there is a disturbance in the film’s structure. Cinematographer Dan Mindel’s spaceship battles are ecstatic; the practical set design brings an intimidating realism we’ve never seen before and Han Solo’s humour is back in full swing. There is plenty of joy to be had in this film. It’s the emotional spectrum that has disappeared from the franchise.
A truly astonishing realisation given that the screenplay was penned by Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan (Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Empire Strikes Back) and Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3, Inside Out). The film has no problem with inducing nostalgia overloads – the resurgence of the Millennium Falcon is a blissful set piece – but there’s only so much emotional connection you can rely on John Williams’ spectacular score for. The fundamental setback is bringing light to our three new leads, only one of whom we are properly introduced to in John Boyega’s Finn. Rey, played by Daisy Ridley, is an enigma even to herself while the motivations of Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) are described so briefly that the character’s actions seem senseless. Admittedly, this is space opera and not Shakespeare but at bare minimum we require a bold protagonist and a fearsome villain and after one film, I’m not sure we have them. This new trilogy is clearly intended as a passing of the torch but Abrams and company would do well to ensure the receiving arms can handle the weight of the Star Wars world.
It’s no secret that Abrams is a lover of the series and The Force Awakens gives us many things we’ve craved for some time. Stormtroopers being a terrifying symbol of sovereignty, the Force employed to torture and tear truths from innocent minds and some other things that I’ll allow the film to fill in. There are moments, mostly seen in the trailer, that will cause hearts to swell and a particular third act scene that will undoubtedly break the internet but many of the scenes in the film’s latter half either come across as too video-gamey or hark back to reactions from Abrams’ previous feature Star Trek Into Darkness where it was all a little bit of history repeating.
There are fascinating, fresh stories to be told in the thirty years between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens but we don’t get to hear them (yet). The last thing we need is another set of prequels and even if we’re apprised as expected in the opening scene of Episode VIII, we are still being asked to judge this new trilogy as a whole instead of as individual films and I think the fans have waited too long to be told to wait another eighteen months for their same questions answered. The Force Awakens may not live up to the hype but the hype itself was worth seeing another Star Wars film and, while significantly flawed, Episode VII may be the most fun since The Empire Strikes Back. That should be enough but for a tremendous Star Wars geek such as myself, I yearned for bigger and better.
If this is the beginning of a new trilogy paying tribute to the Star Wars of yesteryear, then truly The Force Awakens is J.J.’s A New Hope, reservedly and respectfully setting up pins for Rian Johnson’s Episode VIII to knock them all down. The force isn’t strong with this one, but we’re only just getting started.