“Star Wars: The Force Awakens”
If, like me, you were under the impression that what George Lucas has by now compelled dozens of obliging actors into calling “the Force” was something of a Spinozian God, what a pantheist might call “Nature” or “the Universe,” you will no doubt be somewhat puzzled by the title of the new Star Wars film. Why would an impersonal deity ever have been asleep? However, if you’ve come to consider the Force of the title as a metaphor for the saga itself, or the thrust that drives the movie-making monolith, the title makes total sense, and couldn’t be further from an untruth. The series has lain dormant for at least 10 years, since the release of Episode III, The Revenge of the Sith, though many of the fans (who, as you know, comprise virtually all Anglophone populations around the globe) may contend that the last sparks of the immanent divinity were seen as far back as in 1983, when The Return of the Jedi rounded off the first trilogy in the franchise.
Star Wars is – and, since its initial arrival in 1977, always has been – a cartoon on a vast scale, in a live action format, infused with the odd coupling of a mystical underpinning and a post-60s humanist and revolutionary atmosphere. What George Lucas has furnished us with has never been anything like great cinema, or even rather good cinema, but a thin escapist fantasy that mass popularity and fanboy frenzy have sustained over three and a half decades. Admittedly it’s altogether successful in this regard, even for someone as resistant as I to the whole rigmarole – I never quite forgot I was watching a vast Wagnerian puppet show, though my surroundings and my home planet faded quickly enough from my consciousness, which was just as well considering all the noisy philistines the franchise seems to attract into the theatre.
NOTE WELL: While the single spoiler that follows is well marked, if you’d like to retain the surprise of watching the film for the first time, read no further until you’ve seen the film.
Like all other reviewers, I operate under the assumption that you’re comfortably familiar with the whole series and its events and characters, and so I describe here for you what you might expect in the new film in terms of what has come before. What has engaged the attention of many film pundits is the new inclusivity of the series, and they’re not wrong: The Force Awakens is a very belated reform of the much glossed-over sexism and racism (unceremoniously highlighted by Armond White) of its six predecessors. The old trio of Luke, Leia, and Han Solo has been updated and replaced with Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega), and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), a white woman, black man, and Latin American man, respectively. Here, Rey, the woman, is the hero with whom the Force is discovered to be strong, atoning somewhat for the exclusion of Leia from all Jedi activity in the original trilogy (rather laughably, seeing as she was both the daughter and the twin sister of the two most powerful knights).
The original three, however, while still alive and shuffling along in the new film, live the lives of what we might think of as long has-been celebrities. Actually, in the Star Wars universe, they and their stories have passed into legends of Arthurian proportions, with most who hear of them believing them to be mostly, or even entirely made up. These beliefs are dispelled rather decidedly when Leia – now General Organa, leader of the rebel fighters – and Han Solo show up and shock the young newcomers with their all-too-tangible and ageing faces, but the whisperings across solar systems and galaxies of the name of the last remaining Jedi, Luke Skywalker, retain the intonations of the myth right up until the closing shots. In fact, the entire plot of this film is of the search for Skywalker, granting the notion that he really exists.
Beyond that, the synopsis is really nothing much to speak of: an orphan escapes a desert planet and serf’s existence and is found to have extraordinary powers, a trio of friends and allies aids the fight against an oppressive empire (now known as the First Order), antagonism prevails between a father and a son, a villain declaims in a deep but constrained voice from behind a cumbersome mask, an enormous spherical planet-destroying craft is to be demolished by the Rebel Alliance (now called the Resistance). If I did reveal the entire story in anything less than the most rigorous detail, you wouldn’t know whether there were spoilers or I had just recounted the plot of one of the earlier entries from the same franchise (and even then it’d be a mid-level challenge to determine which one).
Other new features include a new Supreme Ruler (less menacing and less determinate in species than ever before), a Weasley brother masquerading as a General for the First Order, a Stormtrooper with a face and backstory (that’d be Finn, one of the new trio of friends), and the new orange and white droid, named BB-8. BB, as he is known to the characters, has a wider range of beeps and whizzes than R2-D2 before him, and is closer to having what can be believed to be a comprehensive and communicable language. Alas, no progress has been made on the Wookiee front of linguistics, nor in the astonishingly narrow range of expressions of Han Solo and Princess Leia, thus reinforcing an already strong link between the first trilogy and the new film.
Thankfully, our new hero refreshingly does not come from the same family as any previous character in the franchise, renewing some of the fast stagnating bloodlines of the saga; the villain, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), on the other hand, does. (SPOILER ALERT) While Rey shimmies herself into the role of adopted daughter of Han Solo, it’s soon revealed that Kylo Ren, the evil apprentice of the Supreme Leader, is Leia and Solo’s actual son, and while only the faintest of Elektra complexes threatens to stir up between the newly united girl and veteran, a full-blown Oedipal conflict rages through the centre of the film. Leia, though she desperately wishes to, never lays eyes upon her son in this film, though that may be for the best, since when he’s done fighting his father, one feels the marriage to his mother is somewhat inevitable, in true Star Wars tradition.
The director of The Force Awakens is J.J. Abrams, a fanboy himself raised on a diet of Lucas and Spielberg, and rejuvenator of the Star Trek film series. He brings with him a clarity to the action sequences which has always been lacking from the Star Wars films, and yet I was still dissatisfied with them. I think this might be attributed to the very simple matter of what I found to be an overreliance on firearms in fights; we see shooting in every single action picture every year. What Star Wars has on its side is the distinctive weapon the lightsabre, and the only truly rewarding action sequence is the lightsabre duel near the end, this time with a female participant.
What Abrams also bears with him and endows his entry with is a clear affection and nearly awestruck reverence for George Lucas’s original trilogy. Abrams renders an homage to its ineptitudes, which, because deliberate and done so lovingly, turns its gaucheness into pop art. In the current Hollywood system, post-New Hollywood, there isn’t room for what used to be called a B-movie, the class that Star Wars used to fit into so very comfortably. We have only Hollywood blockbusters, Hollywood genre films, Hollywood prestige films, and independent films. Abrams has been forced to steer away from B-movie vulgarity to blockbuster spectacle, yet manages to yield a film markedly close to the original: what Pauline Kael called “an epic without a dream”. That movie, later renamed A New Hope, excited extreme nostalgia in many of its viewers, then and ever since, both for the simplicity it recalled of childhood movies and the B-movie tropes it plundered from the 40s and 50s. This movie has triggered an even more acute nostalgia, but not for anything or any time earlier than 1977, when Lucas’s New Order was configured. In the vein of those earlier films, the action is rapid and streamlined – Abrams is nothing if not efficient – yet the movie continually feels slack, because the movement of thought is lamentably slow. Abrams’s film is precisely calculated to deliver exactly what the fans want – no more, no less – and thus gives rise to no mystery, no surprise, no real thrill anywhere between the swaths of dialogue detailing the plot, the lurches in energetic action, and the waves of sentiment. In short, Abrams’s considerable skills and talents, when stacked up and tallied, do not amount to artistry.
Disappointing as I found it as blockbuster fare, which is often capable of reaching electrifying heights of thrill and ardour, The Force Awakens will no doubt please millions of fans and probably even draw a significant number of new devotees. One important reason for this is that it’s not The Phantom Menace, and hope persists for a sequel trilogy that is not a dismal parody as the prequels were; the other is the desire to return to one’s childhood, even without its sense of vast and incalculable wonders. No doubt audiences cheer to be whisked off to galaxies with the most easily delineated political underpinnings and clearest moral simplicity. I, for one, don’t mind it, but would prefer the richer trappings of ideas, marvel, and beauty that have always attended the outings of the more substantial imaginations in Hollywood.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens is currently playing in theatres.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens is directed by J.J. Abrams; written by Lawrence Kasdan, Michael Arndt, and Abrams; music by John Williams; director of photography, Dan Mindel; edited by Mary Jo Markey, Maryann Brandon. Running time: 135 minutes. 2015.
STARRING: Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis