Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Directed by J.J. Abrams
"Chewie, we're home."
Let's get this out of the way first - I was not particularly looking forward to The Force Awakens. I mean, yeah, the trailers had me excited. But I remember back in 1998 getting excited watching the trailers for The Phantom Menace. And then a couple of years later being cautiously optimistic about Attack of the Clones. And not learning my lesson for Revenge of the Sith. So, yeah. Exciting trailers all around for The Force Awakens. But, damn, I really didn't want to be a sucker one more time. Those three prequel films, they're so, so, so very bad. And I'm not some crying fanboy going clickity clack about George Lucas beating up my inner child. I'm saying they are very, very, very bad films. Very bad. Bad acting, bad writing, bad directing, bad lighting, bad editing, bad special effects, bad costumes, bad sound editing, bad craft services. They are bad in every which way it is possible for a film to be bad. Hell, I think some new ways of being terrible were created with that series. They are disastrously bad films that future generations of film makers will use them as examples of what not to do when making a film, as examples of hubris run wild, of ego out of control. They aren't so bad they're good. They're awful and you should feel bad if you enjoy them.
It's hard to describe the disquiet I felt in my gut watching that opening crawl for Phantom Menace, with its trade talks and embargoes and whogivesadamns. Jump forward six years later when I was sitting in a darkened theatre watching Darth Vader stagger around screaming "Noooooo!!!" I thought three things - 1) those were seven hours I was never, ever, ever going to get back; 2) George Lucas should never be allowed to direct anything, even non-union ads for local used car dealerships in Rochester; and 3) I was never going to be a sucker to nostalgia again. No-one was ever going to get my money again by promising to polish up my childhood again.
I was eleven, going on twelve, when I saw Star Wars the first time. Seeing that opening crawl, with its "time of civil war" and references to battles and Death Star plan stealing and an evil empire and a princess racing home, made my toes curl. That opening crawl let you know you were being dropped into the middle of a story, into something bigger than the movie you were about to see. The movie hit all the sweet spots, good versus evil, an average guy with no idea of his true potential or his destiny, a bad buy that was part robot, part human and wore a killer cape, explosions, starships, and lasers. I guess I was the target audience for Star Wars. I didn't know anything about Joseph Campbell or The Hidden Fortress at the time. But, I knew Flash Gordon serials because channel 50 from Detroit showed them on Sundays.
I never did fall too hard into Star Wars fandom, though. I never owned any merch. I fail miserably at Star Wars Trivial Pursuit. I can name two planets, Tatooine and Hoth. I don't know if Endor is a moon or a planet. I really do like the universe the stories are set in. I like Star Wars a lot. I love The Empire Strikes Back. And Return of the Jedi is like two films mashed together, one a masterpiece of tension and suspense and adult themes, the other a mess of merch ready teddy bears and sloppy pacing. So, really, when it all comes down objectively, the series has a track record of, like, two and half great movies out of six. Not a great average now that I stop and think about it.
And now let's get this out of the way - The Force Awakens is a jaw-dropping spectacle, a rich and detailed piece of film making, a strong mix of the nostalgic and the new. I really and honestly wasn't expecting a movie this much fun. And, really, more than anything, The Force Awakens is fun. There isn't a boring second in its entire two hour plus running time. That lived-in dirty universe, with its dust and grime and barely held together technology is back. The old familiar notes are there, some old familiar characters return. Harrison Ford is especially front and centre, bringing more energy and vitality to his role than he has to any other thing he's done in a couple of decades. Carrie Fisher is her feisty self. Damn, I love that woman.
But no matter how great it is to revel in the past, to wax nostalgic - to put on that bedazzled jean jacket from thirty years ago and turn up the Bob Segar and dance around your living room while your dog hides his embarrassment - no matter how great it feels, it can't be everything. This film may be the next chapter in a story going back nearly forty years, for the story to continue, something new has to be tossed into the mix. And that's where The Force Awakens really shines. The young cast is great, every single one of them. Gwendoline Christie as Captain Phasma, though given little to do in this film, is given a great introduction. I can't wait to see where her part in the story takes her. Domhnall Gleeson as General Hux has a moment when he is stirring the troops that is more overtly fascist than anything seen before in this franchise. Adam Driver as Kylo Ren, the central bad guy in The Force Awakens, mixes a very real vulnerability with a violent explosive temper in a way that is so very disturbing and troubling.
But the biggest praise has to be heaped upon the three leads: John Boyega as Finn, Oscar Isaac as Poe, and especially Daisy Ridley, who plays Rey. Ms Ridley is, quite simply, transcendent. She has a gracefulness to her movements, a physicality that is something new but at the same time harkens back to a time when actors were allowed to interact with real objects instead of green screen. With her earth tones and natural fabrics, and living on a desert planet, Rey is our new Luke. But, Ms Ridley brings so, so, so much more to the role. She is going to be a huge star. She's the entire package, everything anyone could want in a new movie star. If she and her people play this out correctly, she could be a breakout star the way Harrison Ford was when Star Wars debuted back in 1977.
I can't really get into the story or the plot here. There's bad, there's good and they go head to head. There's explosions and things go boom. There are shocking moments that left me gobsmacked. It's not a perfect film. There is a lot of cribbing from Star Wars. And some of the cribbed moments feel forced. And occasionally they direct plot moment instead of letting things happen organically. And the ending suffers from the influence of the Hunger Game with their unnecessary hanging moments. But, come on, let's be honest here. What you want to know, if you've read this far, is this - is The Force Awakens entertaining? And, damn right it is. Oh, sweet baby Jesus riding a unicycle, it is.
It really is exciting that three times in one year, with Creed, The Force Awakens and Fury Road, what should have been simple and crass nostalgic cash-ins instead are truly entertaining and fun movies. In each case the franchise has been revitalized by not only celebrating the past, but also by celebrating the new and burying some of the past baggage. And, in each case, the new elements that have been introduced have resulted in a seismic shock across pop culture, potentially changing the way other stories will be told for years to come. CGI will continue to be a story telling tool, but these three films have shown that practical effects are going to be around for a while.
And now let's wrap this thing up - The Force Awakens isn't The Phantom Menace. Thank-you, J.J. Abrams, you've done it again, sir.
And now a podcast suggestion. Are you completely obsessed with all things Star Wars? Then you should check out The Star Wars Minute, where the hosts and their guests go through all the movies one minute at a time. And they tackle the Star Wars Holiday Special. Seriously.