Can the long awaited and much anticipated sequel live up to the hype? (Mostly Spoiler Free).
The New ‘New Hope’
When Star Wars: A New Hope came to the big screen in 1977 it broke ground in special effects and set design and helped to re-imagine what a Hollywood blockbuster could be in the pre-digital age. Lucas drew much of his influence from genre pop sci fi and westerns of his childhood, and though the story caught everyone’s attention, it wasn’t anything new. In fact, according to someone like Joseph Campbell, it’s the oldest story in human history.
JJ Abrams renews this classic structure in The Force Awakens with deftness and agility, brining new energy the the series and only dipping into the cheesy the same way Star Wars has only ever been cheesy. In a week where the trailer for Justin Lim’s new Star Trek trailer has received widespread criticism for not being Star Trekkie enough, fans will be happy to know that this is the Stars Wars you know and love.
New characters are not analogues of old characters (many of who are present in the film), but bring their own complexity. The themes are similar, the plot is almost the same, but Abrams has painted with a modern palette that makes The Force Awakens an enjoyable romp through the SW universe, complete with cornball comedy, stunning action, melodrama and a dash of romance.
Shakespeare at the Space Opera
While Lucas may have sought (and failed) to find a grander stage in the prequels, Abrams oscillates much more fluidly through the profound and the profane. Grand sets and action pieces serve to show just how small our characters are in the scheme of things. John Boyega races through a battlefield while x-wings and tie fighters scream past overhead. Supreme Leader Snoake looms like a living statue over Kylo Ren and General Hux. Hell, even entire suns are consumed by a giant weapon. These epic combinations of CGI and set design juxtapose with the intimate confines of the Millennium Falcon, of Resistance commanders (the new rebels) huddled in a makeshift war room, of real storm troopers marching down real hallways.
For the most part, the combination of CGI, costume and set design is done really well. As cinema viewers I think we’ve become a little too accustomed to films almost entirely green screened and filled in later. The physicality of actual sets, of physical space being occupied by physical objects, is perfectly Star Wars. While this might not usher in a new era of classic filming methods, it’s incredibly important to the feel of the series, which at it’s best is operatic and Shakespearian in nature. As a technical feat, Star Wars 7 will hold the test of time in ways the Phantom Menace can only dream of. But what about character?
In the lead up to the premier there was some small hubbub about John Boyega being black and not having a white male hero. Which is so frigging dumb that I feel dumber just typing it. It’s not worth mentioning at all other than to say the sort of hatred that well springs from is premeditated in the film. This is a galaxy of Mon Calamari and Gungans and Twi’leks. This is battle where fighters will lay down their lives regardless of race, species or gender.
I love the characters.
Ace pilot Poe Dameron is somewhere between a Luke, Han, and the humble Wedge Antilles. Daisy Ridley’s Rey is sparky and sullen, strong, direct and kind, while John Boyega demonstrates incredible comic timing and range of emotion as Finn, the Stormtrooper gone AWOL. In a time where all kinds of whistle-blowers are pursued by their own governments, it’s great that Boyega gets to be more than a macho gun fighter.
For me the highlights of the film are any time Boyega and Ridley share screen time. Both are given plenty of space to develop Finn and Rey into relatively complex characters with a relationship that is equally as complex. While Poe and Finn’s friendship is forged early on in a daring escape, Finn and Rey must learn to trust each other under much more difficult circumstances.
That’s partly because Star Wars Universe is fantasy sci fi. There’s no real science to worry about. In a great big galaxy chance seems to be the most important force at work and when things get technical, it’s made-up technicalities. Example: Rey bypassing the dohicky on the thingabob isn’t about learning how space ships work, it’s about character. It’s about who she is, and how that might reflect on others (like Han).
Harrison Ford not only gets to rejuvenate Han Solo, but also Indiana Jones. He is given much more to work with and it’s passionate stuff from the stoic yet cavalier smuggler who seems acutely aware that age, and the past, are catching up with him.
Chewbacca is less of a sidekick and gets to show off a bit. C3PO and R2D2 are as you would expect. BB8 is hilarious and cute in more of a Pixar way than a Disney way (Thank God) while other important characters have gone through change that reflects the distance between Return and Awaken, both in the films, and in our lives.
On the Dark Side, Adam Driver and Domhnall Gleeson put in great over the top performances as the baddest dudes out, Kylo Ren and General Hux. While CGI specialist Andy Serkis does a giant Gollum / William Blake nightmare as Supreme Leader Snoake.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens was always a safe bet. There’s too much to navigate beyond our expectations to warrant anything ground breaking, so here’s what we have:
-A film that is funny, filled with action and melodrama, and considerate of the source material.
-A Campbellian cycle that breaks with some traditions without pigeon-holing the politics.
-New characters true to the series without being copies of old characters, and interesting evolutions of old characters.
-Great CGI and set design.
Whether it’s just fan servicing nostalgia isn’t really the point. This is a good film, and 9/10 people will love it.