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The anticipation of 1999's plastic mish-mash The Phantom Menace has been usurped by the global-wide desire for a new, 'real' Star Wars movie in the shape of STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS. Can director J.J. Abrams satisfy the tsunami of new hope? Camus is not a Jedi yet...
 
"I asked questions like "How do we make this movie delightful?" That was
really the only requirement Larry and I imposed on each other: The movie
needed to be delightful. It was not about explaining everything away, not
about introducing a certain number of toys for a corporation, not about trying
to appease anyone. This has only ever been about what gets us excited."
Director J.J. Abrams*

 

We've all been here before.

OK. Perhaps not all of us but the anticipation in 1999 for the return of a science fantasy franchise raised the expectation bar far beyond any normal human being's ability to satisfy it. Much to his evident and it seems ongoing dissatisfaction, George Lucas discovered that he was an honest to God, normal human being whose oddly simple archetypal fantasy struck a profound chord in 1977. As much as Lucas was 'the creator', you have to remember that we, the audience made Star Wars the phenomenon it became. In 1999 I was at the Grauman Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles. I might add that Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace was not the reason for my visit. God, that was a depressing experience. It was a movie so ill judged, so full of weakly defined characters, dialogue that made you wince, a few performances that actually embarrassed, a stupefying overkill of none too special digital effects not to mention (which I'm going to anyway) a child-averse political plot that made as much sense as Greedo shooting first. Hey, I didn't even mention that grossly misjudged giant digital rabbit. Damn. Lucas struck gold once. There weren't compelling reasons to believe he could do so again even though this is precisely the logic that prevails in Hollywood. We made Star Wars into Star Wars. George Lucas was the talented but subsequently misfiring filmmaker who offered it to us. I've worked with Rick McCallum (the original trilogy digital makeover producer and producer of the prequels) and still find it extraordinary that he produced what he did produce. Was George just too intimidating a personality to say "No!" to? I'm still convinced that original trilogy producer Gary Kurtz was an under appreciated reason for the success of the original three movies.

But here's the rub. The Phantom Menace made just over a billion dollars theatrically (see Box Office Mojo for that figure). Yes, George was laughing all the way to the bank but I think the prequels damaged Star Wars and selling his franchise to Disney was a wise move. Lucas is now more of a liability to his own brainchild and he was savvy enough to 'let it go'. Disney turned down Lucas' own ideas for an Episode VII. I'm not fully convinced of the artistic wisdom of Hollywood trusting all of its franchises that start with 'Star' to one man but that one man seems to be able to handle them... I'm amazed he's managing to Exec Star Trek: Beyond while wrapping up The Force Awakens. Director J. J. Abrams has a pre-insured box office sensation on his hands and he's trying hard to deliver something that is not (to be frank) digital pants. The pre-hype has been masterfully engineered. The teases and trailers satisfy and don't give anything away, all the presents exquisitely wrapped just in time for Christmas. Steven Spielberg, one of the privileged few who saw the film early, said in an interview recently that Abrams was 'terrified'. I found it interesting that no other comment was reported. Abrams has one element, one trump card that Lucas did not have making his stuffed to bytes, simple-minded prequels. He has a link to the original trilogy; a licence to use three older faces entwined with the original magic and space ship designs beloved and fondly remembered by their original audience. The Force Awakens will not be a digital assault of the new. It will be a confident knock on an old friend's door...

Abrams has made a big deal of announcing the preferred use of practical make up and animatronic effects and real sets. He can say what he likes but today's big movies do not stray too far from significant CGI enhancement. Having said that, there is a reality to TFA that really quenches a thirst brought on by too many prequels. There's one character in it that drove me nuts because I couldn't tell if it was created with artful animatronics, deft make up or CG – probably a blend of all three – but it beautifully maintained the willing suspension of disbelief. It turns out that it was a digital character, a motion captured Maz Kanata acted out by 12 Years A Slave Oscar winner, Lupita Nyong'o. There's a little bit of The Incredibles' Edna Mode in there and that's a good thing, darling. The lion's share of my short review will contain no spoilers. For those who have seen the film, there'll be a final paragraph crammed with detonating allusions to the surprises and there will be ample warning before you get there.

The story is simple to summarise. Luke Skywalker is missing. The First Order aka, the resurrected Empire – now unapologetically employing Nazi imagery – want him dead as he is the last of the Jedi. The Rebels want to recruit him. Parts IV to VI of the saga have passed into myth and on a mission to secure his location (now hidden in a droid, BB-8, one of TFA's most delightful creations), a stormtrooper, Finn, grows a soul and rebels. After rescuing a hotshot Rebel pilot, he teams up with the tech-scavenger Rey and together they go on an adventure to... I can say no more. The less you know the better. But if nothing else, TFA is a loving and earnest gift to those of us who were there for the saga's birth. It's a titanic explosion of nostalgia. There are nods to the original trilogy in every other scene and if I were forced (!) to say something negative about this rather sincere and 'delightful' entertainment, it would be, curiously, to point out exactly the same characteristic that I criticised Abrams for in the Star Trek franchise. He takes things already done and re-presents them, sometimes with a spin tangential enough for them to feel different, sometimes not. It's the 'sometimes not' which is frustrating but TFA is such a loving, giddy celebration of all things Star Wars, it is genuinely difficult to carp. And where else are you going to see James Bond (Daniel Craig) Jedi mind-tricked into letting the heroine go? Nowhere.

Given the poster art that protects me from too many accusations of spoilerage (isn't he a poet?), there's a big ass planet-sized destructive thing that the Rebels have to destroy (how does the Empire get the time and resources to manufacture these things and why is there always a fatal weakness?) There's a droid with secret information. There's a character whose 'force' is strong and they don't know it (and she lives in a desert with no sign of mum and dad... sound familiar?) There's a bar full of aliens with sci-fi-folk music accompaniment. There's a villain in a black mask with a great basso profondo voice. There are shields to be taken down, father-son issues to settle and humour to be hewn from almost any situation. Abrams has mined almost all aspects of this franchise and sieved the golden nuggets. He then proceeded to have screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan weave them into the narrative and almost all of them work really well. I have no idea how Chewbacca managed to steal so many scenes with a grunt and a nod but the 'walking carpet' did so with aplomb. It makes me feel warm inside to know that the original over-tall actor (Peter Mayhew) was in that suit. I bet he felt warm inside too...

Performances are strong with this one. Daisy Ridley's Rey steals the film from under the noses of the more experienced thespians. John Boyega as Finn the ex-stormtrooper has a slightly more anxious character and plays his role with the right amount of humour and fear. The relationship he forms with Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is solid right off the bat and the chemistry between these two invites further exploration. The literal big bad is a motion captured giant and the single "Oh, that's CG," stand-out if you don't count the space ships, with Andy Serkis doing the mo-cap honours. And then there are the old timers. Each get their moments to shine but Harrison Ford has the most screen time and is the character most explored of the old guard. The droll wit and scoundrel traits seem to have increased with age and the movie skips when he's on screen. Gone though is the money driven rogue. Han has a nobler calling in TFA and in some ways this makes him the Obi Wan character as he steers his young charges into making the right decisions. The Darth Vader pretender to the throne is the petulant Kylo Ren, played with gusto by Adam Driver. The way his abilities are presented is so much more effective than all the levitating stuff in the prequels. His 'force' makes the bass speakers tremble. In a nice aside, Driver let his own wife have the shock of her life keeping his part secret for three years so she could share in the fun like everyone else.

There seems little point in commending the effects work, which is uniformly excellent. Special kudos goes to the physical effects team. All the puppets, animatronics and just plain film craft on display is heartening. Nice to see Bond veteran Chris Corbould's credit as senior FX supervisor and Neal Scanlan's practical creature effects are a marvel. I'm not dissing the CGI in any way or the singular craft those effects took to achieve. In fact, one of the stand out scenes, a real white knuckle ride glimpsed in the trailer, is a masterpiece of editing, VFX and performance. The way the pilot and gunner greet each other after the battle is a wonderful scene (both talking at once, both gushing with astounded admiration at each other's achievements). John William's score does exactly what the movie does. It serves up old familiars and delivers enough recognition in the new cues for any fan of his work to be happy. Critics and fans have been surprised at the amount of humour. But Star Wars has always been witty. This time around it's more self-referential. Han swaps weapons with Chewbacca at one point, pleased as punch at the bow-blaster's effectiveness. You can't help but smile back at Ford. Boyega's Finn does get a few chuckles and the actor gives a strong sense of having fun while retaining the innate fear that's so much part of his performance. In TFA, heroes are created in front of us scene by scene and that's good. When a lightsabre is caught by a certain character late in the day, there was throat lumpage. And I don't think I will ever hear the word 'garbage' again and not light up with a wide grin. Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens is wildly entertaining if a little short on originality but well worth a visit.

SPOILER ALERT – I won't be giving things away directly but I will be referencing them. Final warning.

If you know your original trilogy, as does J.J. Abrams all too well, then you can almost pre-guess every 'surprise'. It can't surprise anyone that the Force is awakening in Rey and that the Force is strong with Kylo Ren. We have been told that Luke is the last Jedi but this reawakening strongly points to a bloodline connection. We know nothing of Luke's offspring so... Rey speaks of her parents returning, a loose flapping narrative strand that I'm certain will come back in the first or second sequel. We didn't get the line "I am your father..." but there's a father/son element that has resonance. There's a real shock in the film but again this was foreshadowed by things said by the performer in question way back in the 80s. In other words, the gut punch didn't hurt as much as the filmmakers might have hoped and besides, this is Star Wars where characters come twinkling back to life (OK, just Jedi knights) and an emotional investment in anyone isn't quite worth as much as it would be in a conventional drama. That's me talking. I can't take Star Wars as seriously as some. I'm pretty sure Abrams will not make the mistake of dragging anyone back to life in the sequel, twinkling or not. All things considered, this is Daisy Ridley and John Boyega's movie, fresh faced youngsters who have both given the franchise the sweet breath of new life. Bravo to Abrams for recognizing what made the original trilogy shine so brightly but for the sequel it might be an idea for Rian Johnson's new team to move further away from that light and invest a little more in some original ideas. As producer, Abrams has the keys to the kingdom now and can afford to take a risk or two. There have been accusations of Abrams being a cinematic ventriloquist. He is a talented filmmaker who needs to step out of the shadow of his own heroes and make one of his own.

 


*http://www.wired.com/2015/11/star-wars-force-awakens-jj-abrams-interview/

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

USA 2015
135 mins
directed by
J.J. Abrams
produced by
J.J. Abrams
Bryan Burk
Kathleen Kennedy
written by
Lawrence Kasdan
J.J. Abrams
Michael Arndt
based on characters created by
George Lucas
cinematography
Dan Mindel
editing
Maryann Brandon
Mary Jo Markey
music
John Williams
production design
Rick Carter
Darren Gilford
starring
Daisy Ridley
Mark Hamill
Carrie Fisher
Billie Lourd
Harrison Ford
Oscar Isaac
Adam Driver
Gwendoline Christie
Peter Mayhew
Domhnall Gleeson
John Boyega
Simon Pegg
Kenny Baker
Lupita Nyong'o
Andy Serkis
Anthony Daniels
Max von Sydow
distributor
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
uk release date
date
review posted
date

related review
Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

See all of Camus's reviews