Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Movie Review: Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens

I was sitting waiting for The Force Awakens to start, and in that moment of semi-darkness before the adverts roll, I found myself worried about my own reaction to a film I hadn't yet seen. The thing is that I wanted The Force Awakens to be good, I'd been told it was good, the trailer had pre-sold me on the notion that it would be good, and yet I'd spent a long time trying to hold back that hope for fear of dissapointment. I'm not someone who hates the prequels - I'm rather fond of Revenge of the Sith, for a start - but they are flawed and dissapointing, only sporadically capturing what is so attractive about the Original Trilogy. So my fear was simply that if The Force Awakens showed even a pretty basic level of competance, some sort of dam would break in my head, and any critical thought would be washed away in gleeful enjoyment.

And yeah, thats pretty much what happened. A couple of days on I think I'm capable of a more balanced appraisal, but beware, all the spoilers await below.

In some ways it is wrong to think of The Force Awakens as just a movie, as it really has a lot more to do than just entertain for two hours. Whether its fair or not, the Prequels have developed a toxicity that the new film has to dispel; it's got to introduce new characters and let audiences know what happened to old, iconic ones; it's got to tee up a whole new series of movies that we'll come back for year-on-year; its got to make everyone remember why Star Wars was a big deal in a way other than merchandise and pop-culture gags. It's not a surprise then, that what we get is a rousing crowd-pleaser that is light on story, and strong on character-driven nostalgia.

The story, such as it is, is totally in service to re-aquainting you with this world, and these characters. In a very real sense it's a mash-up of themes and sequences we've seen before, stuck together in a new order and with new faces, but still rooted in "what works". We've got dogfights and chases, and captures and rescues. We've got a bar full of aliens, a super-weapon, a desert planet. These are all new, but all familiar at the same time. By the time Han Solo swaggers onto the Millenium Falcon, we're all right at home with him. But to an extent, worrying about the thinness of the plot is missing the point (and overstating how important plot was to the original series, lets face it); we're here for the characters, so lets look at them. 

For me the stars of the film were the two main newcomers, Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Finn (John Boyega). The moment after their frantic escape from Jakku, when the two of them basically hug each other with excitement about how exciting it all was, the moment I think I fell in love with the pair of them, and their dynamic is strong throughout the film. Both characters have similar arcs built around emotional challenges rather than physical ones, Rey's isolated self-reliance and Finn's conflict between redemption and escape, which feels new and interesting, and a setup for the future. Oscar Issac's Poe Dameron steals every scene he's in, and has a cool paint job on his X-wing, but I do feel we need more of him as a rounded character next time. 

And then we have the old guard. It's great to have Han and Chewie back, bickering and as fun as ever. It was a relief, as much as anything, to see Harrison Ford seemingly engaged with a character he's known to be pretty ambivalent over, and one can't help suspect that his death - and therefore limited ongoing commitment - was a part of the price of getting him on board. But by focusing on only one of the returning cast, the film manages to avoid falling too far into the Black Hole of Nostalgia, and his arc is rooted in the need to pass the torch to a new generation in both the film, and the wider needs of the franchise. Carrie Fisher's smaller role is pretty pivotal, and I do sort of like that Han and Leia were ultimately too different to really make it work in the end, and faced with tradgedy and loss.

One of the nicest surprises for me though was the First Order, and Kylo Ren. With the trailers making the First Order look like a thin copy of the Empire, it was a nice surprise to discover that is actually the point of the First Order, to a degree. They are intentionally aping the Empire, in awe of it, desperate to emulate it. Ren especially, literally worshipping his Grandfather, is a pale imitation who knows he's a pale imiation, all that posture and bluster hiding a fear that he's not good enough. Even his lightsaber - which some mocked for being a bit silly when we first saw it on a trailer- is a bit silly, is an overcompensation. As with Rey and  Finn, there is some clever character work done that, which the story of The Force Awakens doesn't pick it out, gives you hope for the future. 

Ultimately then, hope for the future is what The Force Awakens is all about, ending as it does with a final, tantalising glimpse of Luke Skywalker in exile. As a movie it has to offer fans both new, lasped and long-standing hope the franchise is in good hands; that it's new owners understand what they need to do with that, but also give us new heroes for the 21st century, away from the near uniformly white-male universe presented way back in 1977. And it does all that, in rousing, fast paced style. So that's the first hurdle passed - expectations for Episode VIII will only be greater.