James Bond memoir author Mark O’Connell (Catching Bullets) has once again graciously agreed to us posting another of his excellent reviews, this time for the latest Star Wars film, The Force Awakens (see also his Star Wars appreciation looking back on his childhood Force frenzy in Out magazine, The Force Is Fabulous With This One). Spoilers ahoy!
“This IS the STAR WARS film you are looking for” – Reviewing THE FORCE AWAKENS
The Force Awakens feels like a missing Star Wars movie that came out in 1985. Blessed with a cracking first half that beguiles and reminds of our Kenner-addled childhoods with magic, dignity and a heraldic swagger, Episode VII is a wilfully old school swashbuckler whose final, ultimate success is how it may ultimately have not even needed the returning veterans.
From that opening crawl that feels like it has been part of our cinematic vista for decades already, the first act of The Force Awakens unfolds as if it has been barely a parsec since the Ewoks held their victory barbecue on Endor. Director JJ Abrams, producer Kathleen Kennedy, screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan (The Big Chill, The Empire Strikes Back), composer John Williams, designers Darren Gilford and Rick Carter and their fellow creatives have done just as their two year publicity campaign promised – they made Star Wars analogue again.
Guess what – a rubber space vulture puppet picking at some sandy road-kill packs more impact than a bustling market place of mugging mouse-mat creations hanging off every moment and each other. A nosey B-movie alien head noting a passing BB-8 keeps more of a Star Wars beat that a somersaulting sight gag with a Gungan. And sometimes someone desperately trying to fix a spluttering Millennium Falcon just needs to drop into the floor with a wrench and some tech-talk to properly make a hunk of junk work. This is a SFX universe that almost starts out as if CGI was never going to be invented to awkwardly ‘beguile’ us all for a whole decade’s worth of villainous metallic liquids, cartoonish Spider Men and exploding White Houses. The Star Wars saga has always been linear. Aside from its scene wipes and concurrent narratives, it doesn’t play with its timelines. Maybe that is another reason the prequels were up against it from the start. We knew how they had to end. It became a digitally sterile exercise in joining the dots rather than reaching beyond them. However, under Abrams, Lucasfilm as godfather and a wisely supportive Disney we are back on that analogue, early 1980s timeframe -give or take three decades of CBS Fox home releases, two Ewok made-for-TV movies, A Clone Wars morning special come theatrical movie, the 1997 Special Editions and those prequels.
Star Wars used to be about a galaxy – one slither of a universe far, far away and all that t-shirt sloganeering jazz. Its’ success led galaxy hungry fans wanting more after 1983’s Return of the Jedi. Various tie in novels, extended world computer games and comic book sequels to prequels tried to fill in the gaps of story and expectancy as the fans terraformed new worlds and family spin-offs ad nauseam. The simple skill of The Force Awakens is that it dismisses all that non-cinematic surmising for a story and production that is pure cinema. The prequels were only ever beats in that Star Wars extended universe. But A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi are key beats of popular twentieth century culture, Hollywood history and Reaganite cinema.
Enter Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher. I do not believe the gravitas of this trio returning has quite bedded into the new, evolved cinematic world of Star Wars. Least not our familiarity with it. Aside from Roger Moore returning to Bond, Richard Dreyfuss donning his Jaws beanie hat again or maybe Michael Crawford being Condorman once more (!), seeing Ford and Fisher back in the roles that launched a million plastic toy ships is akin to the great warm but narratively resourceful Star Trek IV – The Voyage Home. “You’re not exactly catching us at our best” pleads William Shatner’s Kirk and typifies the equally warm glory of seeing Luke, Han and Leia again on our movie screens for the first time in 32 years. And that old man run, lunge and punch of Han’s in this film is already the stuff of pub chat legend.
Ford isn’t still pretending to be an aloof heartthrob in his early forties. Neither is Solo. Instead of turning him into a grizzled father figure or embittered veteran, the script sees Solo instantly accept and admire our new heroes Rey, BB-8 and Finn. There is no resistance to this Resistance. That almost lost Star Wars vibe of the team is back. There was no sense of ensemble in the prequels. But here that careful group dynamic is back, led by Ford, Chewbacca and a maybe underused Fisher. It is then augmented by John Boyega’s cocksure Finn and Daisy Ridley’s resourceful Rey. We all thought we had The Force Awakens plotted out. We all assigned family links to Rey, Finn, Kylo and Dameron. One of the tricks of the new film is that we still know nothing about any of them. Ridley is of course the eyes of the audience in a newly pointed saga that sees Jedi sisters finally doing it for themselves in the guise of producer Kathleen Kennedy, editors Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey, Lupita Nyongo’s Yoda-wise Maz, Gwendoline Christie’s underused dominatrix Stormtrooper Phasma and of course Rey. The world of Star Wars has always been about fathers and sons. Now it is also centred on mothers, sons and surrogate daughters. If handled right it is a rich way forward.
However, when it takes its eyes off the BB-8 ball (both figuratively and literally) The Force Awakens does exactly what it shouldn’t – it becomes a reheated soap opera based on the brilliant beats of other Star Wars films. A Death Star with a structural weakness for the third time in four successive episodes? Really?! Someone in First Order’s management team really must review their contractors safety records. And whilst we all love a cantina band and a motley band of law-dodging alien emigres, a hell of a lot of story-progressing homages take place in basically one happy hour in Maz Kanata’s bar where everyone knows Han’s name. A slither of that breathing space Abrams lends Jakku may not have gone amiss here. In the span of what barely feels like five minutes we have great Yoda-like wisdom from Kanata, avaricious gangsters, a empirical confession from Finn, the [convenient] discovery of Luke’s light sabre, the awakening of the Force in Rey, a curious Jedi dream/knightmare and aural cameos from Frank Oz’s Yoda, Alec Guinness and Ewan McGregor. The old saga was also always successful because it had a cracking pace as well as those story beats. Kasdan gets that. And thereis a heraldic swagger to the whole piece that cinema just doesn’t do anymore. Even an ailing Finn is laid out like a Disney prince with a hopeful kiss from Rey possibly his only way to make Episode VIII.
The prequel flaw of unfocused and abundant villainy and the realisation that the Empire was only as good as its Emperor does not work in The Force Awaken‘s favour. Putting Kylo Ren aside for a moment (maybe on the naughty step which his parents clearly never had because the droids would never get up it), the antagonists of The Force Awakens emerge worryingly like the prequels’ montage of disparate villainy. None of them are wrong as such. After BB-8, Domnhall Gleeson’s vampy, camp and hissy General Hux is the film’s second ginger stress ball – snarling his path across numerous Starkiller Base gantries whilst doing that necessary ‘looking down at very British deputy officers’ thing the high ranking villainy must always do in Star Wars.
And then we have Supreme Leader Snoke – Abrams and his mantra’s biggest contradiction. Corporate re-branding aside, the villainy of Star Wars is always Vader and ultimately his superior, Emperor Palpatine. Writers Abrams, Michael Arndt and Kasdan know that. Their most interesting malevolence is after all a Vader fanboy, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). But in a very CGI Snoke the current suggestion (though this is only the first act of this new trilogy so the Bothan jury is out for now) is that the past is sadly repointed to suggest the saga can hit a second, different iceberg after all. And Snoke is a very CGI ‘iceberg’ at that. 1983’s Return of the Jedi ends on such an earned note of victory and rebellion. Would it be so hard to suggest Palpatine is still pulling the strings? Might the tragedy of The Force Awakens be harsher and crueller if it was Palpatine who corrupted young Kylo, ruined Luke’s Jedi Academy start-up plans and proved the revenge of the Sith could still tear the one family apart who singlehandedly toppled the Galactic Empire? This writer would see a gnarled, red-hued, Sith ghost of a Palpatine holed away on a derelict Cloud City masterminding his final revenge against the Skywalkers. There is then grim drama to be had in a force-hating villain that now cannot die rather than a new villain in Snoke that we have to still learn why we hate him.
In returning to that analogue Star Wars mentality of production and visual design, Episode VII curiously goes very non-analogue with its characters. Here it is a Stormtrooper that has that all-important first act change of heart and the lineage of a Sith groupie is shockingly familiar. The old 1940s WWII dog fights, cool heroines and Third Reich dynamics of Star Wars have now evolved into a 1960s Cold War of blurring allegiances. Old villains can now be moral heroes. And new moral-less villains can be Skywalkers. And Solos.
The familial dynamics surrounding Driver’s Ren are almost as unnerving as his last act fatal gesture towards a true icon of twentieth century cinema. Adam Driver is The Force Awakens biggest character gamble …. and success. The familiar character dynamics of the Luke, Leia and Han trinity have now been rewritten, underlined with a tragedy any future revenge will never sort. Carrie Fisher’s General Leia now has to face a future where her young protégé Rey is to be trained by her brother to avenge her lover’s death by killing the son obsessed by her dead father. Suddenly the infamous “No Luke, I am your father” is less of the twist it used to be. It is going to be fun Keeping Up With The Skywalkers again – and especially under the acting auspices of Driver’s angry, lost and unpredictable Kylo. This is where The Force Awakens, Abrams and Kasdan fire the starting space pistol on this trilogy with a flare of brilliance the prequels never could. Our heroes now have choices. Our villain now has choices. The story will now happen because of them, not around them. And I for one cannot wait for Ren’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are.
Visually The Force Awakens is top-notch cinema, a return to a classical Hollywood sense of production, characterisation and physical rendering from our youths and video rental altars. Abrams and his artists went back to the original films and reportedly J.W. Rinzler’s vital The Making of book series. And it shows. Solo’s entrance aboard a smugglers freighter is brilliantly draped with Return of The Jedi mid-shots, reds, golds and black metal, The Starkiller Base is a disco white and grey nod to its 1977 DNA, Rey climbing throughout an upturned and cavernous Star Destroyer flecked with dust and the shadows of empire is aesthetically brilliant and the all-inclusive Resistance Rebels crowded round their command centre in a heroic Last Supper vignette (complete with a returning Admiral Ackbar brilliantly barking combat ideas like the grandad in the corner) are all pointing to a Best Art Direction Academy Award for The Force Awakens.
However, and this is Star Wars fanboy sacrilege so don’t come marauding like a boozed up Tuskan Raider but maybe – maybe – the wider sweep of the film could have done with a tad …. more …. CGI. Seriously. The soaring work on Abu Dhabi’s Jakku is beautifully sparse, tonally edifying and David Lean in cinematic ambition. Yet they are also scenes coyly punctuated with derelict space ships, webuyanydroid.com shysters, alien gas stations, food bank stamps and prized drinking holes. After a while the vegetation of the British countryside locations in the last act come over as, well, the vegetation of the British countryside locations. Three mossy, tree lined set pieces sometimes blend into one Home Counties production melange. The Empire Strikes Back icy Hoth world had a dramatic function – it was fatally cold and impossibly treacherous. The Starkiller Base scenes here with Ford’s Solo in a navy blue parka look cool (and with Solo that is almost enough as a great gag about wearing the right protective clothing plays out). But they are not earned. They are maybe indicative of Abrams nodding a tad too much at the past like a Jedi motioning for his light saber over a Sarlacc Pit. The Jakku overture gently bristles with a tactile and logical environment. The scavenging Rey values every drop of water, every inch of shade and improvised sand toboggan in this Star Destroyer boneyard. Yet, the last act’s Third Reich On Ice winter show of might may feel tonally right, but that is because it did before. The threat of the Empire in 1980 was because they turned up. Not because they were already there waving their own flags at their own supporters.
But fear not. The Force Awakens is matinee adventure excellent when it breaks the tick-list shackles of all our expectations – a panicking and moored Tie Fighter, a lone heroine lunching by her fallen AT-AT home, a cracking B-movie monster attack on the Falcon that works because it is new, fun and justified, “Ben”, Kasdan’s cautious script wrangling skills that often reduce the story to a look or gesture rather than the expositional minutes of trade union politics, Adam Driver’s Darth Becomes Him dilemma, a cinematography decision to review and repeat the look, colours and visual depth of past glories, John Williams returning to his romantic glory (Rey’s Theme is already a classic in our house) and a Chewbacca that steals not only the Falcon at a powerful moment, he almost steals the whole film – had that orange ball of astromech sass not got there first.
To quote Solo and 1977’s A New Hope … “Uh, we had a slight weapons malfunction, but uh… everything’s perfectly all right now. We’re fine. We’re all fine here now, thank you.”