Star Wars: The Force Awakens – A Reflection
Is the mainstream press in thrall to Hollywood's PR machine? Going off the reviews of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, you would have to say yes. So it is left to the rest of us to give a properly considered judgement of one of the most important cinematic and cultural events of recent years.
Like music, the best films immerse you in the world they create. You forget you are watching a movie because it is stitched together so perfectly that the seams are invisible. This is what makes cinema great – you are there and yet you are not there, lost in someone else's story. Unfortunately, JJ Abram’s creation is not one of those films.
That's not to say there aren't a number of triumphs. The two main newcomers, Daisy Ridley (Rey) and especially John Boyega (Finn), are excellent. Gone are the wooden performances of Ewan McGregor and Liam Neeson and cringeworthy dialogue of the prequels. Now there were human characters you could really believe in and get behind.
Add to that Harrison Ford reprising his role as Han Solo and you have the makings of a great movie. (I don't mind admitting to a buzz of excitement when Solo and Chewbacca first appeared). Solo wasn't quite as subversive and argumentative as he used to be, but he delivered some great lines and he and Boyega provided the much needed humour in the film.
Coincidence or not, a crucial benefit to the film was that, by having only one Jedi left, they made them mysterious again. For me the prequels cheapened the idea of the Jedi by having so many of them (and some all too easily killed off when it was convenient for the script).
The special effects looked phenomenal, especially on Imax. Not only were the aerial battles between X-Wings and TIE-Fighters brilliantly realised but the alien characters were also very realistic. The shot when the camera follows the Milliennium Falcon as it performs a loop still leaves my jaw on the floor. When Rey initially tries to take off and drags the nose along the sand we get to feel the immense thrill of piloting the famous ship.
Now to the bad…and the reasons why this movie will never be as good as it could and should have been.
Firstly, the plot is almost exactly the same as the original trilogy: a droid has important information that the enemy wants and there is another planet-destroying laser that must be stopped! I understand Abrams wanted to get close to the spirit of the originals, but mirroring the plot is playing it safe to an absurd extent. Not only that, but the narrative is poorly constructed. Mostly the story is all about finding Skywalker – suddenly the villains are extinguishing planets. The motivation for them wanting to destroy this system of planets was barely explained. It felt like we had to accept that they are evil and this is what evil people do. Why not just keep the film about the search for Luke, climaxing in a battle on his island when Luke turns up to save the day?
Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) seemed fittingly nasty at first but, as the movie went on, he began to lose credibility due to his lightsaber tantrums – he smashes up computers and machinery on a spaceship, twice. Would he not cause some malfunction? Yes I get this is because the character is basically a frustrated adolescent, but these are not the actions of an intelligent or worthy villain and bordered on slapstick. Contrast this with Darth Vader in A New Hope who is both cunning and menacing – at one point he fools both the audience and Han Solo into believing they had escaped his clutches on their own. It's this extra level of ingenuity that elevated the original Star Wars, but which has been lost here.
Then we are treated to a literal battle of minds between Kylo Ren and Rey – which was always going to look ridiculous on film as the two actors pulled gurning expressions.
Also compare the very well drawn Death Star commanders of A New Hope (there is a realism to their interactions) to the hammy acting of Domhnall Gleeson as Hux. As he addresses his evil army with red banners fluttering behind him he is met with a one handed salute. Why did Abrams feel it necessary to link to the Nazis? Just because you have an evil army, does it have to be linked to real life? The great thing about Star Wars is that it is the ultimate escapism.
Now to the pivotal moment in the film – the death of Solo. Yes it was dramatic and powerful, but it just felt wrong. Why? Because the film just had not earned the right to it. We hadn't seen any dramatic moments between the father and son. It wasn't understood why the son turned away from him to the dark side. We needed something more to justify this act, especially in contrast to the way our heroes had comically easily gained entry and been swanning around the military facility. Simply it was a dark moment which jarred with the tone of the movie up to then.
There are also small details that let down the film. Twice the bad guys turn up to find the droid, twice they carry out air-strikes which are more likely to destroy it, thus preventing them from getting the information they need. I'm not even going to mention the "depression" of R2-D2 at his missing master, nor Luke's lightsaber "calling" to Rey – come on Abrams, this is not Hogwarts and the lightsaber is not a wand. The result was that, with The Force Awakens, the seams were exposed, I was just all too aware I was watching a movie.
If you had a checklist of things you wanted to achieve with this film – excitement, incredible battle scenes, characters you can get behind, some nice lines for Han Solo, then yes they nailed it. Unfortunately, it was let down by poor and unoriginal plot-building, clumsy motifs, an unconvincing villain, and a lack of realism in terms of the choices characters make or what they are able to do. If only as much thought was put into the script as the special effects.