STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS is not a movie that I can review with any kind of objectivity. STAR WARS is the universe that I grew up in and escaped to as a kid. It's beyond emotional - it's part of me. And so factors that others might find negative in this new movie - the fan-service, the derivative plot - well, to me that's just coming home. So rather than a review, here are some thoughts on the new film.
The power of the original Star Wars trilogy was its appeal to bored small-town kids. You too might just be whisked off into an adventure. In the words of Bowie, you could be a Hero. And the film was cast in those terms - mythic terms of dark versus light. These were the stories of cowboys and Indians, superheroes and supervillains, but it was also subversive. It was set in a lived-in world of beaten up spacecraft and mechanical failures. It's vision was a Utopian one. There was a mysterious Force that united us all, and it could tempt us to the dark side. But this was a world in which the bad guy could be redeemed. Where a band of friend could outwit a totalitarian power. The original trilogy fought the political battles of the seventies. This was a galaxy in which a human might fight alongside a Mon Calamari with equal respect and where the pilot who blew up the second Death Star was black. It was a world in which the Princess who needed rescuing could pick up a blaster and rescue herself just fine. And if she was put in a slave's bikini she could use her shackles to strangle her oppressor.
The second trilogy was a travesty. Actors uninspired by blue-screens, pages of the script with-held, no context and no inspiration. CGI effects that cluttered the screen and cheapened themselves. Little clarity of purpose, too much fact (mitichlorians), not enough mystique. The women were back to weeping, beloved, helpless. Jar Jar Binks was racially offensive. The fandom was outraged and disowned the man who had given us our childhood only to declare our memories not canon. Did he really have the right to tell us that Han didn't shoot first?
And so we braced ourself for the new trilogy, relieved that George Lucas had literally sold out long after he'd done so creatively. Somewhat reassured by the fact that J J Abrams was "our" generation - a kid who had loved Star Wars as we had - who understood that the aesthetics of this world were beaten up and real, rather than shiny CGI. He understood that this was a family story as well as a space epic. We hoped.
December 17th. People are cheering before the opening crawl - they're cheering at the censor's card. But as soon as the crawl begins we know we're in safe hands. No talk of trade federations but of family. Of a battle between light and dark. And then the trademark pan down to the surface of a desert planet that looks like Tatooine, but isn't. Like so much in this movie, it both is and isn't A New Hope.
The derivative plot has been much criticised. The young hero becomes a heroine. Lars von Tekka rather than Obe Wan. A Starkiller Base rather than a Death Star. Snoke instead of the Emperor, BB8 instead of R2, Maz instead of the Mos Eisley cantina. But for me these echoes of Episode IV were necessary. I certainly do not want the next two films to slavishly follow the outline of episodes V and VI but I do feel that Disney had to earn back the right to tell these stories. They had to present their bona fides to the fandom and show they understood the legacy of the original films.
So what worked and what didn't?
First off, the world is just right. Jakku is beautifully rendered. It's tough and dusty and worn and wearing. Hunger is a real problem. Survival is not to be taken for granted. I love that these people are living with the wreckage of the great battles seen after Endor. The effects are largely in-screen giving them authenticity and giving the actors something to react to.
Which brings me to the next big thing. The acting was all good. I mean better than both the middle trilogy (no surprise) but even the original movies. I liked the comedy between Rey, BB8 and Finn. This is exactly what made the original movies work. Of course it was pure fan-service to see Finn hit a button in the Falcon and bring up the chess game C3PO originally played with Chewie. But I also feel that JJ has established a new gang to take the movies forward.
In terms of the new elements to the world, I loved everything to do with the First Order. Hux's speech to his troops was scary and credible and fits in with the origins of the Empire as Lucas reacting to World War Two. The design is chilling and marvellous, and if it's absurd that the Order should continue to make bigger and bigger death stars, well, at least it looked amazing. The biggest surprise was how good and convincing Adam Driver was as Ben Solo and the emotionally draining death scene with his father is the one everyone will remember. But for me the single best scene was when Ben tries to mind-interrogate Rey and she fights back. Almost as good as when they later fight on Starkiller Base and she suddenly remembers to channel the force to defeat him.
Finally, I didn't notice just how good the score was the first time I watched this film. I think it's because the themes for the old characters are so recognisable that the ear immediately goes to them. But on a second and third viewing, I fell in love with the new themes - particularly that of Rey - and tried to play detective as to her parentage, looking for leitmotifs when she is on screen.
Of course, no movie is perfect, and I felt that Maz' bar didn't have the grungy brilliance of Mos Eisley and that her character strayed into the territory of wise old black woman that we get in films from the Matrix. Just a worn out trope. Poe is of course fantastic but he has no flaws which will become tedious if maintained - and the movie also suffers from his being offscreen for much of it's run-time. It was surprising to see Phasma having so little to do but I'm guessing this will be expanded in the second movie. We don't know how Poe got off Jakku, whether Maz survived the attack on her cantina or whether Phasma gets off the Base alive. This suggests to me that Disney was trying to shave minutes off the running time and robbed certain characters of a meaningful in-movie arc. As I said, we'll be better able to judge how bad a problem these pacing and editing issues are when we see all three films. But frankly, this movie should've been an extra fifteen minutes long. Finally, the politics of the galaxy are NOT clear. The relationship between the Rebellion and the Resistance only becomes clear when reading the EU novels. I've got no problem with doing that leg-work, but the in-movie story should hang together too.
I should also add that if I hadn't spoiled myself and known that Luke wouldn't even say anything in this episode, I would've been devastated.
At any rate, despite the clear problems with this film, I don't care. I loved this movie. It made me feel like a kid. It extended a Universe that I love into something richer, larger and darker. The happy ending after Endor hasn't worked. And maybe it never can when either Light or Dark is triumphant. Maybe Ben and Rey will somehow come to a balance in the Force. Maybe Phasma becomes a bounty hunter. It's all to play for.