I went to this film with my mind as clean as possible. I’d finally been hit with a trailer only a week or two before and unlike most trailers it showed just enough to be interesting and not enough to make me feel like I’d been saved the price of admission by showing seeing the whole film. This morning I listened to JJ Abrams’ interview on FrontRow from last week, but I put aside those issues of Empire and Sight and Sound, and I’ve not yet listened to the Empire Podcast, the Film Programme, or Kermode and Mayo‘s reviews. So what you’re getting here is basically just my brain, rather than what you usually get, which is all of the above plus anything written by Robbie Collins that’s available for free on the internet (which is everything these days.) Once all that’s digested, I may have more to say, but for now I think JJ Abrams himself has nailed the greatest strength and weakness of his outing.
Warning – this post is absolutely Spoilertastic.
What JJ said was essentially that he’d wanted to begin the franchise over again, so that this story could be the starting point for someone who’d never seen the original trilogy or the prequels. What this means is that despite his back catalogue, JJ Abrams can make a decent SF adventure film, provided that someone else has already made another film with all the same set pieces, locations, and emotional beats – well, he can do it about half the time. Because the biggest strength of The Force Awakens is that it feels exactly like a Star Wars film should, because it is actually just A New Hope again, but bigger, slicker, louder and longer. It’s a film that virtually invites us to play spot-the-difference over the 38 year period, which is my prediction for the next two years until Rian Johnson’s sequel comes out. The internet will go crazy with shot-by-shot comparison memes. If there was a single original idea in this film, it was just that a major blockbuster could be about a girl, and that’s not at all a bad original idea to have. And hey, that still makes it the best Star Wars film in over 30 years.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Abrams “more is better” approach to storytelling is the comparison between Rey and Luke. At the opening of The Empire Strikes Back, it requires a substantial effort of will for Luke to simply lift his lightsaber out of the snow, and it’s not until the opening act of Return of the Jedi that Luke displays combat skills beyond obvious human skills – deflecting shots with his lightsaber and impressive force jumps, the Jedi Mind Trick et al. Rey in contrast is commanding Storm Troopers within a few minutes of learning the Force even exists, and while Luke was clearly over-matched by Vader, Rey handily defeats Kylo Ren with absolutely no training. Rather than thinking of Rey as some special prodigy whose powers leave Luke’s for dead, I think we need to see this as part of the overall pattern of escalation – a “Starkiller” instead of a “Deathstar”, a “Supreme Leader Snoke” wheeled out in the opening salvo compared to a barely-referenced Emperor, a Sith who can catch laser beams instead of merely deflecting them. Rey’s simply better than Luke in the same way everything in The Force Awakens is “better” than A New Hope. I’ll circle back around the Kylo Ren in a moment – but his defeat does something fairly unique in this kind of film, it places him on a kind of even footing with the hero and hence rather than being the kind of implacable force that Vader was, I anticipate Ren having something like his own true dramatic arc. We’re supposed to be interested in him, rather than afraid of him.
I actually don’t really begrudge JJ Abrams his recycling and “upgrading”, because the film is well enough put together that all of that stuff did sweep me up into the moment, and I was interested in events, did feel tense at the right moments, had my heart-strings pulled by Han’s murder – all of that stuff. It was pure entertainment, and as a light-hearted escapist fantasy, it was perfectly adequate. What bothered me was the mountain range of questions that loomed out of the gloom once the credits rolled and the kineticism faded from my mind. The biggest puzzler for me was how we can still have a “Rebellion” against the “First Order”, while there’s still a “Republic” – and just what the heck is the “First Order”‘s beef with the “Republic”? Did I fall asleep at the moment when they explained how the “First Order” isn’t just the “Empire” which didn’t fall when Palpatine died? For all that The Phantom Menace et al get a lot of stick for being overly talky and abstract, I understood perfectly who all the major players were in the conflict and what they wanted to get out of it, whereas I’m genuinely baffled at what the world as a whole looks like in the world of The Force Awakens. Maybe that’s a deliberate strategy, and as with all trilogies I’ll need to withhold final comment until it’s done (only another 5 years to wait).
Perhaps because I didn’t understand who they were or what they wanted, I found the villains of this film fairly uninspiring, and their dynamic was completely bizarre. Huh and Kylo Ren came across as two kids just play-acting Evil Overlord, for all that there are terrible consequences arising from them. Their bickering/squabbling was borderline pathetic. In the case of Ren, I think we’re supposed to see his lack of discipline and focus as his weakness, as the chink in his persona which may allow him to return to the Light Side – but Hux was just unforgivably weak as a character. Think about the steely (albeit, wrong) determination of Tarkin, or the measured menace of Vader, in those first scenes on the Death Star. They were villains and characters in complete control of themselves and their subordinates, while even at the point of total failure Hux has to get permission from daddy to abandon ship and needs to be told to bring Kylo Ren with him. Dohmnall Gleeson is just not the right man for this particular job.
The Force Awakens is entertaining, superbly made, and there is little to cringe at except for Gleeson. I’m glad they made it, I was happy to pay money to see it, I’m intrigued to see where it goes. And it may just be JJ Abrams’ best film. But that’s all, rightly, damning with faint praise, because that’s what this film deserves. It’s not great. It’s not original. It’s just the best homage/tribute to Star Wars we’re getting for at least another two years.