Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens

The Force AwakensI recommend Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. I viewed the film without having any of it spoiled for me and I’ve written this recommendation without reading any other responses to it (although I have seen some videos of John Boyega popping up at screenings and everyone seemed pretty happy to see him.) I think your enjoyment of the film may be ruined if you know what’s coming, and not just because all stories are best enjoyed unspoiled, because part of the joy of The Force Awakens was in the satisfying click as each character slotted into their role in the renewed cycle of Star Wars narrative. If you haven’t seen the film you should be aware that this post will be riddled with the spolieriest of spoilers.

By writing this in complete ignorance of any other critical opinion, I will probably be saying similar things to others but with a shallower understanding and less eloquence. I could also be stumble upon a vaguely original thought at some point. Or, unaware of the zeitgeist, I may post this and then realise that everyone else thought that The Force Awakens was a sub-prequel stinker and this will be a source of embarrassment for years to come. I don’t want to end up like these guys:

I’m sure, should The Force Awakens be received with the warmth (and relief) I think it deserves, someone will say that it’s A New Hope for Star Wars. Which is accurate because a lot of it is A New Hope. The film follows the arcs and beats of the original film in much the same way as director J.J. Abram’s previous work on the Star Trek reboots followed their source material. While Star Trek relied on a nifty bit of time travel and parallel universeing, The Force Awakens is a direct sequel. The use of existing characters and of familiar conventions was well done and effectively blended with new characters and the beginning of a new saga. The death of Han Solo was a key moment as it showed that, while The Force Awakens is appropriately respectful of the original trilogy, it’s bold enough to kill off one of the franchise’s most beloved characters. It would have been unfair to let Harrison Ford keep stealing the limelight – that’s not a reflection on the new actors, but a reminder of just how great Ford is.

Although the New Hope esque structure was an effective way of introducing us to the post original trilogy world, there were a few things that rankled here. Well, there was one big one: Starkiller Base. It was a bit… limp. If you’re going to have a giant planet destroying superweapon, the last thing you want it to be is limp. Initially I thought it’s because we’ve seen this before, twice. But we’ve seen paternity-surprises, desert worlds, and loveable droids before, and none of them came across as limp. It could be the one-upmanship of having Starkiller base destroy five planets at once – it’s that kind of logic that gave us General Grevious with four lightsabers after the success of Darth Maul. Or perhaps it’s because it was a slightly ham fisted way of resetting the rebel – Empire balance. The First Order were meant to be remnants of the Empire and the New Republic is supposedly flourishing, but somehow these remnants built something more powerful than the Death Star and this New Republic was entirely wiped out before we even got a glimpse of it. Ultimately it may come down to the firing sequence. Domhnall Gleeson was surprisingly good at being evil, but his speech was never going to be as powerful as this scene:

The other problem I had was Supreme Leader Snoke. At the moment, I’m left cold by the look and name. I am, however, hoping to be proven completely wrong when Episode VIII comes out. I’m also keen on the idea that he is Darth Plagueis – the supposed god like sith behind the virgin birth of Anakin. While it’s far-fetched and relies heavily on expanded universe source material, it is mentioned in the prequel trilogy and having a story arc that encompasses the originals, prequels and sequels has a certain appeal about it.

Once Starkiller base was destroyed, I was waiting for the movie to end. I wasn’t bored, but I knew the story must be coming to a close soon. Leaving Luke until the parting shot was a good move even if it was a bit strange to see a helicopter shot in a Star Wars film. The ending was another sign that J.J. Abrams knows which bits to preserve from the original trilogy. I was glad to not see a big camp New Hope, Return of the Jedi, Phantom Menace celebration, but more of an Empire Strikes Back finale. I am unsure how to feel about the fact that no one had their arm chopped off.

That’s enough talking about The Force Awakens’ relationship with old Star Wars, what about the new stuff? The first thing to hit me was the humour. It initially felt jarring to have Poe taking the piss out of Kylo Ren. It diminished any ability Ren had to intimidate and set a very different tone to the other films. Then it hit me: this was the first time I’d seen humour done really well in Star Wars. In previous instalments there were some amusing exchanges between our heroes and Threepio was a comedic gem, but the humour was always distinct from the action and never aimed at the Empire. No one wants Star Wars to be realistic, but the idea that the rebels would crack jokes about the Empire in a time of war makes a lot of sense. Perhaps this was also a shot of J.J. Abrams own style being injected into the franchise. Like Simon Pegg, the Star Trek reboot’s very own Scotty, Abrams’ is above all else a fan. As a fan, he is partly paying homage to the films he loves, and homages tend to inevitably involve lovingly poking fun at the originals. Poe’s early encounter with Ren is the epitome of this and, amongst the familiar opening scene, reminds you that this isn’t another George Lucas film.

I also grew to really like the character of Kylo Ren. I’m glad that he isn’t just another Vader, no matter how hard he tries. He is the Anakin Skywalker I wanted to see in the prequel films. Rather than being a whiney teenager, he is conflicted and struggling to impress with his power. Ren is another example of Abrams giving the familiar story structure a fresh tweak.

Finn (John Boyega), the Stormtrooper deserter, is a great character concept. He’s a coward and a hero at the same time and makes for an extremely likeable protagonist. It feels like we’ve finally found an everyman in the Star Wars universe. Rey (Daisy Ridley) embodies the tough no nonsense attitude of Leia and Padme (in Episodes 1 & 2 at any rate), making her a worthy addition to both the crew of the Millennium Falcon and the Star Wars universe. I still want to know what happens to Luke and Leia, but I’m very glad that I came out of the cinema even more excited to see what happens to Finn and Rey.

I think that my attitude to new characters entering the Star Wars universe is perhaps different to, for example, my Dad’s. He grew up with the original trilogy, which is pretty self-contained. I grew up with the prequel trilogy but, more importantly, I grew up with the extended universe. I played the games, I read the books. There are a lot of characters, locations, and even eras of Star Wars that are just as important to me as the films, but which my Dad will never have heard of. This makes me a lot happier to accept new characters into the fold. And there were a lot of characters in The Force Awakens. More than you would expect. I had almost forgotten about Poe when he was surprisingly resurrected for the Starkiller assault. It makes a little worried that all these characters were included because Disney are going to go all Marvel on the Star Wars universe and have loads of spin-off films. I know that the Star Wars is going to be milked to death, but I don’t want it to be a case of quantity over quality. The idea of an expanded universe approach like the stuff I grew up reading and playing is an exciting one, but if they’re all blockbuster films they may not have the niche style or subject that the games and books could address. It will, however, be interesting to see how they all link together when, in the past, there were many disparate non-canonical elements to the universe.

I look forward to the bright future of Star Wars with cautious optimism. If The Force Awakens was the new New Hope, I’m looking forward to welcoming The Empire Strikes Back back.

 

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