We settle in – an extended family of ten, ages ranging from just 5 years old to mid sixties – at a packed Saturday afternoon screening. We booked our seats long ago. There’s a struggle over who’ll get the premium aisle seat of the row we’ve booked out and then who sits next the youngest and potentially least invested of us, potentially most distracting. My wife draws the short straw and the tiny Darth Vader fan starts off on her lap, moving to her Daddy, the toilet and finally a little scared and squeaky for the dark conclusion with her Mummy. When the droids are on my niece is quietly rapt, during other parts wriggly but surprisingly focussed and on exit to the lobby she seems uncheated by the few mere scraps of long dead Vader action held within. She ruins no one else’s trip to the cinema by giving up on the experience we were all looking forward to for nearly 30 years. A Star Wars sequel. The return of Han, Leia, R2D2, C3PO, Chewie, the Force, the Millennium Falcon and Luke Skywalker.
JJ Abram’s triumphant revival of modern cinema’s most beloved universe starts faithfully. I am surprised at how much I felt the lack of the the Fox fanfare (it’s as embedded in the SW experience as anything replicated here) but then the silence dominates as that setting defining title card reappears. John Williams pipes up, the latest screen climbing, yellow prologue starts its ascent. This time, however, the précis isn’t political gobbledygook but a declaration that our hero Luke Skywalker has long disappeared and everyone is still searching for him including the even longer defeated Empire’s replacement baddies – The First Order. The expected establishing shot of a mega (this time planet eclipsing) spaceship fills the screen. I’m not underwhelmed or overwhelmed. The goosebumps still are not there but happily there’s also no feeling of dread that George Lucas’s misguided prequel trilogy brought on over three opening weekends between 1999 and 2003.
Max von Sydow pops up as a desert hermit who has a map with Luke’s location. Like Samuel L Jackson and Liam Neeson he seems to be an Oscar nominated actor who is in a race for as many different genre franchise appearances as possible in his long career. Who is he in this narrative? What is his back story? How has he got this map is still a mystery. Such an icon finally making an appearance in the SW universe gets the attention. There has to be more to him than a lost property clerk for the resistance surely?
JJ is the current master of more questions than answers. He was instrumental in the creation of Lost, he got us to see and treat the original concoctions of Cloverfield and Super 8 as blockbusters based on obtuse, hyped up trailers. The Force Awakens is full of such unanswered posers… some that fans have picked up on, some they haven’t. How did C3PO get his red arm? Why don’t we see Poe Dameron’s escape from the wreckage in Jakku? Who are Rey’s parents and why was she abandoned? Is shiny Captain Phasma really disposed of down a trash compactor or will she return? What made Finn the stormtrooper abandon his brainwashing – heart, or a more ‘forceful’ influence?
Maybe we’ll get solutions or explanations in the sequel or expanded universe media of games, comics, novels and TV. Maybe we won’t… But like its source material, The Force Awakens plonks you into the narrative midstream and only explains what is pressing. Abrams is a more decisive and swifter storyteller than Lucas, his shorthand to move things along creates even more puzzles than the above wrinkles but it also obliterates the exposition that killed the prequels. We are back in a Star Wars where the plot is kinetic and rocket propelled. Luckily the cast bring their components in this efficient machine to life beautifully.
Our four new heroes are fine creations. Primarily Daisy Ridley’s Rey is an almost supernaturally capable woman on the verge of adulthood. She is introduced heroic but striving. Decent with a sense of wonder but in a world that is gritty and unsympathetic. There’s a nice sense of childish adventure: the pew pew noises she makes with a salvaged blast helmet on in some downtime; a homemade X Wing pilot doll among her meagre belongings. She is a less whiny and more proactive hero in waiting than Luke Skywalker was when we met him. There’s no Uncle Owen or Aunt Beru to coddle her or to rebel against. Rey’s survived by herself and in all the subsequent action sequences she is in the mix and exceeding our expectations. Those Abram’s ‘wait and see’ mysteries surround her. How does she know the workings of the Falcon quite as well as she does? If the force is so apparently strong in her why is she not thought of a Jedi? All this hints to an unspoken past somehow interlinked with the original trilogy’s tangled family tree as by the end of her journey she is a victor and a Jedi in training with neither an Obi Wan figure to direct her nor a Han or Leia have her back en route. Tantalising stuff and a star is born all in one.
Yet she is not alone for this adventure. John Boyega’s Finn is a next generation stormtrooper turned good guy. The most fully rounded of the new class he hesitates at the opening village massacre and the film follows his escape from the regime to fully fledged member of resistance. By the end of the film he has kind of outlived his usefulness – he uses Poe to escape, hooks Rey up with the resistance (exactly how long have they been resisting various factions now?) and leads the charge into the new Death Star with his defector’s intel and desire to rescue Rey. In Episode VIII, he’ll be in most need of a fresh plotline or he risks being a mere romantic interest for newly minted Jedi Rey.
The most established of our reboot crew is Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron. A cool and cocky pilot ingrained in the resistance. He orbits the action and does so with a fair amount of swagger and aplomb. He symbolises another stark gearshift from Lucas’s last failures. Abram’s and SW veteran Lawrence Kasdan understand these characters need to be above all fun, not dour and serviceable. We learn little about him but he’s a hoot whenever he’s on screen.
In fact the dialogue is often markedly breezy and fun banter. I read a 1999 interview with Lucas where he excused The Phantom Menace’s turgid script by saying his mythical world couldn’t co-exist with the flip ironic modern action movie joking that audiences now prefer. The Force Awakens proves him wrong. The snappy interplay works just fine – Poe’s opening sass to our new villain being a standout, and a running joke (literally) about hand grabbing during dangerous set pieces is a constantly rewarding gambit. Only a few moments with Finn break you out of the movie’s spell. His delivery and vernacular just don’t seem right for a child raised as a brainwashed killing machine until 24 hours before. A minor wobble.
But the real stand out among the new “goodies” is young droid BB8. He slots into the mythology and Star Wars dynamic perfectly and is invested with as much personality and likability as R2 or good ole Gold Butt. Nothing gives you a sense of scale in this reality as a little vulnerable droid fulfilling his mission loyally for creatures whose motivations, emotions and values he probably doesn’t share. In a movie where so much is gotten right, the design, use and delivery of BB8 ranks highest. He brings out the kid in all audience members, faithful and casual.
The plot that introduces and binds these new elements together will be very familiar. An orphan on a desert planet comes in contact with a droid with valuable information embedded inside it. On delivering BB8 to this resistance Rey hooks up with a gang of new friends and old heroes, leading to a full on assault to a planet-destroying super weapon. I’ve read many grumbles about how faithful the plotting is to A New Hope (itself already retrodden by my personal favourite entry Return of the Jedi) but that familiar line represents the tightrope the new filmmakers had to carefully walk.
A completely revolutionary adventure would not have felt like Star Wars, while the strong echoes from the past add to the sense of a core mythology and give all the new characters a bit of safe time to make their mark. The resurrection of the old familiar tale risks alienating the fan base the least and provides a strong framework for the new crew to indoctrinate a new generation into the universe we love. When it comes to SW fans you are dammed if you do and dammed if you don’t. The remix of the old standard plot feels like the correct step forward in sating grumblers who will always find fault. All they can really say is we were given exactly what we we wanted. Old school Star Wars again.
In fact the movie visually spells out its intent in the stark ruins of derelict Stardestroyers and AT-AT of Jakku. Rey is introduced mining the past, recycling the wreckage of a 30 year old battle for begrudging returns. It is an epic piece of scene-setting evoking Lucas’s original touchstone of David Lean. But as a neat piece of new world building its message is very clear. The Star Wars trilogy we embraced in our youth has left a war torn universe of exploited orphans and devastated landscapes. Then within an hour we have our first thrilling set piece: the Millennium Falcon itself being chased through the derelicts by a new crew we already care about. The villains themselves are youths, lost boys and girls, aping the Galactic Empire that no doubt killed their parents. A Force Awakens is a fatherless generation mimicking the glory of thirty years ago. Message received: Lucas may have conceived this playset but his spiritual children have their own ideas over what to do with the toys.
Which is not to say the film isn’t respectful to what we loved for all these years. Han and Chewie are reintroduced with a fun (again!) and silly set piece of chaotic tentacles and smuggler shenanigans. There’s a pure and incomparable joy in buying a ticket for Harrison Ford in a film you actually want to watch again. He revels in the old scoundrel’s boots.
And is given a fitting send off. His own son stabs him in the heart, to fall into the synthetic abyss of another super weapon. Emotional, and against his better instincts, as always in an attempt to do the right thing (people ignore that Han always chose the quest rather than Leia and Luke, who through the force, were destined for it) he walks to his death in the slim chance of saving his son. That soft hand on the face of his estranged Kylo Ren as he is slain by him rather than a quip or fighting back. A gracenote proving that for all his cool bluster, Han was always quietly the character who needed the relationships the series threw up the most. Ford once pushed for the space pirate to take an early bath in Return of the Jedi claiming “He’s got no momma, he’s got no papa and he’s got no story” yet when we leave him it couldn’t be further from the truth and that’s what makes his demise so powerful, not our long term investment in Solo cool.
Han Solo is the boy who grew up in space, not on a planet surface with a family, and he embraced his partnership with Chewie, his romance with Leia and friendship with Luke more proactively than any of his contemporaries, albeit hidden in braggadocio. Han has already had adventure and found a family throughout the films. His attempt to hold that family together at all costs is his undoing here and his death at the hand of his own child proves the most affecting of any death in what is an always kill-happy series.
Should the coolest character in the galaxy have gone out in a blaze of blaster fire? Or be mourned more? No – this death felt in the moment and right. He ain’t no Jedi, no mumbo jumbo is bringing him back. Ford probably begrudgingly did one more IF it was just one and the adventure moves on without him. His legacy… The Falcon and (always excellent value ) Chewbacca passed onto Rey. We have a big bold reminder that the nerfherder-ish rogues are as important to this franchise as the Jedis. And Adam Driver’s adolescent Sith is set up as a conflicted but genuinely dangerous central villain. He kills his father, and finally we know this disciple of grandad Darth Vader has passed the point of no return rather than hesitating on it. He may not have full control of the force yet but he’ll be an established threat when we buy a ticket to VIII. Redemption appears unlikely.
So fun, efficient, epic and faithful – yet it is not a perfect film. A mid section on Takodana to meet Maz Kanat and learn their destinies manages to feel truncated yet overlong, misdirected and superfluous. The final battle to destroy the new Death Star is also a bit wobbly. The space dogfight is distracting from the drama and hand to hand combat on the surface; the final laser explosion feels too easily won when we now care about the small scale but high stake lightsaber battle so much more. Niggles for sure, but in a year when Mad Max and The Martian were near flawless popcorn confections of similar size and breadth, you can’t give a film a free pass merely because it’s a great Star Wars movie again… And at last.
JJ Abrams does career best work and his standing in Hollywood as the voodoo witch doctor for terminal franchise reboots and redesigns is now unparalleled. Yet, as a fan of Super 8, can we not give him a few more original drawing boards to start his next intricate blueprint, rather than another redrafting exercise? He leaves the franchise in rude health. Even managing a neat final scene set-up that means we can start Episode VIII with Rey as fully trained Jedi, ready to kick First Order ass and take names, rather than have to sit through training again.
If Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens resembles any film it is closest in spirit to Goldeneye. The film that realigned Bond for a new generation and set of creatives, while satisfying and exceeding the expectations of a loyal but ageing fan base. The mythology is moved forward, key new essential pieces are in place. So it isn’t as brilliant a film as it could be but it wears its small risks and needed compromises on its sleeves with no need to apologise for them. Well done to everyone involved, the force is strong in you all.