I was going to be all noble and abstain from seeing STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS because I am an adult. I have managed to avoid giving George Lucas any of my money since the first mangling of the original STAR WARS with CGI characters dropped into it at random, though this was partially by luck rather than design — a friend acquired a bootleg of THE PHANTOM MENACE before it came out and I abandoned all ethical principles and said what the hell and watched it and was damned glad I hadn’t thrown my money away on that load of tripe.
But Fiona wanted to see this one, because it has the original actors in it a bit and so it connects more convincingly to any residual fondness one has for the original trilogy… and she had an unexpectedly emotional response to it. Funnily enough, I had just come from a costume fitting with the magnificent thespian Gavin Mitchell, who reported that he saw the movie while rather tired but his girlfriend got really emotional. Same thing. Is this a STAR WARS film that works better for girls? No bad thing, since the first film was so boysie (and so white) as one female fan wrote, ruefully, “One wonders if Princess Leia had anyone to play with when she was small.”
Princess Leia is STILL small, but she’s now a general. Han Solo is back to smuggling, the marriage thing having not quite worked out. Best of all, there are new characters, who actually have characters, unlike the entire cast of the prequels. John Boyega plays Finn, a disaffected stormtrooper — someone with actual demonstrable integrity, who rejects the politics he’s been raised with — nobody else in the films has such nobility. Daisy Ridley plays Rey (I think that’s short for Reysie Diddly, although it may also be a nod to the maker of another celebrated trilogy). Oscar Isaac is Poe Dameron, the only one of these kids with a surname, and does a lot well with very little writing to support him. It had been uncertain, looking at his previous performances, whether the brooding O.I. could pull off lightly likeable, but he does it here. Oh, and bad guy Adam Driver, he of the massive face, a co-star of O.I.’s from INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, is excellent too. J.J. Abrams has by now made a lot more films than Lucas had when he made the first film in the
saga franchise, and has certainly shown a lot more care than Lucas lavished on the prequels. And he has a surer sense of what STAR WARS films need to be like. I swear, when that two-headed sports commentator turned up in PHANTOM MENACE…
Abrams’ great vice is his tendency to pass off remakes as reboots, so here we get secret plans hidden in a droid, yet another, an even bigger death star, Luke as the lost Jedi master in place of Obi-Wan, and a climax which intercuts a dogfight with a light-sabre duel. Plus a desert planet which might as well be Tatooine but isn’t, and a snowy planet that isn’t Hoth. The sense of deja vu is entirely intentional, but I would certainly have liked to see the filmmakers invent more — there are some striking background characters, but they stay in the background. And the filmmakers’ imaginations seem constrained, as if they can’t really imagine all this stuff they’ve imagined. The new death star is the size of a planet, but when the heroes land there next to one particular building they have to destroy, they quickly bump into the one person they’re looking for. It’s a small world after all.
The relentless compaction extends to time also — take a stop-watch with you and see how long elapses between the terrible news that the death star will be able to destroy everybody in two minutes, and the eventual solution to that narrative problem. We’re very used to this kind of trick in movies — the bomb timer that keeps doubling back on itself — but I swear it’s about fifteen minutes this time.
Things Abrams definitely does better than Lucas:
The dialogue. With the aid of EMPIRE STRIKES BACK co-writer Larry Kasdan and LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE guy Michael Arndt, Abrams has written (sparse) dialogue which doesn’t make you want to chew your own jaw off.
No midi-chlorians. Interestingly, midi-chlorians are the reason that, whenever you meet a Jedi knight, they smell like swimming pools.
Action. Lucas has recently tended to equate “excitement” with “shitloads of things buzzing about” whereas Abrams favours coherence, and has a pleasing tendency to make each shot do more than one thing, tying the scene together with images that develop and move, enhancing the sense of context at every turn.
Domnhall Gleeson with his permanent expression of “Ooh, matron!” camp outrage. So nice to find an actor making a bold choice and sticking to it.
Emotion. Even in the first/fourth film (the film that was called STAR WARS), Lucas rather shrank from emotion. John Williams provides a soaring Wagnerian leitmotif when Luke’s aunt and uncle are killed, but since there hasn’t been a single hint of human warmth between Luke and his kin, this can only do so much. A comparison with THE SEARCHERS, from which Lucas has borrowed this moment, shows how much is lacking — or avoided. This kind of thing has caused me to equate the word “operatic” with the phenomenon of “gesturing grandly at a supposed emotion without actually making you feel anything” — which I don’t think is the original meaning of the term. In amidst the frenetic running about, Abrams’ characters build up some actual affection — Reysie Diddly and John Bodeya are particularly useful here.
But the reason Fiona had such a strong emotional response to the movie is that it reminded her of the original, which made her want to make movies at age 11. And maybe it was more the publicity booklet we both owned, which drew shrewd connections to everything from METROPOLIS to SILENT RUNNING, highlighted behind-the-scenes activities, and unpicked the creative process.
Meeting these characters again could be glibly compared to meeting people you grew up with, but really they haven’t grown up. It’s like meeting someone from your childhood and finding they haven’t matured at all. It’s cheering, in a nostalgic way, for a little while (135 minutes may be pushing it), to meet people incapable of growth or development, whose world doesn’t change. I don’t know why it should be so, but whenever friends meet Fiona & I after a while apart, they assure us that it is.