Andrew Hates… STAR WARS – THE FORCE AWAKENS

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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.

★★★☆☆

Watch the trailer here.

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Andrew Hates… STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS

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Dir: J.J. Abrams, 2013

Reckless and disobedient, Captain Kirk of the starship Enterprise is displeasing Starfleet left and right with his arrogant yet benevolent methods. But when John Harrison, a terrorist with ties to Starfleet, attacks London and wages war against the Federation, Kirk and his crew are charged with hunting him down. This dangerous mission will force Kirk to question everything he knows about Starfleet, about friendship and about himself.

It’s been a long four years since J.J. Abrams made Star Trek cool again. Evidently not, though, for James Tiberius Kirk who is still the same brash, young captain that we loved in 2009’s reboot. However, Kirk has been proving his inaptitude at helming the Federation’s finest vessel by violating prime directives and snubbing authority as he does what he believes to be right. Chris Pine continues to juggle that perfect level of cockiness and charm in a role destined to prove that keeping the chair is harder than getting it. Still being brought to school by lovable father-figure Admiral Pike, Kirk’s level of growth this time around just isn’t considerable enough for another story, unless including his blossoming bromance with Mr Spock.

While Abrams brings more of the dazzling, smack-bang-wallop action set pieces that we saw in the first film, they seem more of a beautiful distraction – like a Michael Bay film with finesse – yearning to lure our focus away from a plot that involves cryogenics, nuclear reactors and a government’s unexplained desire for warfare. The film jumps in and out of characterisation briefly but overall adds little to anything we’ve seen before. The relationship between Spock and Uhura is almost forgotten and the former’s embracing of his mixed heritage jumps into warp along the way. Abrams’ time-travel manoeuvre in the previous outing allowed any and all manipulation of the Star Trek canon but here Abrams chooses to replicate entire scenes including lines of dialogue from the Shatner film series, albeit with minor tweaks.

The tender notion of crew/family that Star Trek left us with is revisited upon in name only, as many members of the cast are pushed to the back (literally for Anton Yelchin) with one or two amplified. Simon Pegg’s Scotty is expanded upon in an unwelcome, Ghost Protocol-like manner and Urban’s Bones is humorously beefed up as Doctor Metaphor. Sadly the likes of Zoe Saldana, John Cho and the previously-mentioned Yelchin are left by the wayside, making room for additional eye-candy Alice Eve, a deliciously dubious Peter Weller and of course, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Big Bad.

On that note, Cumberbatch owns the film as one of the most sinister, intense villains we’ve seen since Heath Ledger drove a man’s head through a pencil. Harrison’s cold and calculative nature paired with his undeniable strength and volatility makes Cumberbatch’s upcoming CGI appearance as The Hobbit’s fire-breathing antagonist Smaug suddenly look a little less daunting. In response to minor criticisms, Abrams follows up the tongue-in-cheek baddy Nero with a character that emanates menace whether he’s on-screen or not. Unfortunately in the last act, just when Harrison is at his most threatening, Abrams abandons the character in favour of gravitational difficulties and Trekkie nostalgia.

Abrams glitters the screen with remarkable actors, pristine special effects and a thankful reduction of lens flare. Funny, explosive and never a dull moment, Star Trek Into Darkness is indeed an entertaining space romp and by no means a failure. Into Darkness simply disappoints after its magnificent predecessor by lacking enough to enthrall new audiences and can’t help but leave you with the taste of filler in your mouth between that of Star Trek and Star Wars, the latter of which should prove to be more of the same.

★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Watch the trailer here.