So Star Wars is back. Beware the spoilers…
So far, I’ve only seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens once. However, I’m quite certain that I’d enjoy it much more second time around. The first time, I found it enjoyable and fascinating, mostly because of the way it recreates the original trilogy by putting the first three movies in a blender and remoulding the pieces into something familiar yet new. As for the prequels? There’s no more than the barest scent of them.
The Force Awakens’ greatest strength lies in its opening: the first 45 minutes or so are a distillation of what made the first trilogy great: a sense of destiny, a well-used universe, wide-eyed wonder and desperate adventure. We’re introduced to our principals, heroes Finn and Rey; supporting players, ace pilot Poe Dameron and sidekick droid BB-8; and key villain, the masked Kylo Ren.
Very little falls flat in these opening stages. Very little is explained either, but hints and suggestions are strewn around with gay abandon, and some of them are even followed up on during the rest of the film. There are encounters, escapes and the most thrilling action sequence in the film, and eventually a very familiar escape from a desert planet. It’s with the arrival of Han Solo that the film moves into its second act, with Solo taking up the role of a more disreputable Obi-Wan.
The film doesn’t immediately falter, but the next sequence of scenes marks its first real effort to connect its plot to that of the classic trilogy, and the effort to do so, combined with the need to provide exposition and get everyone where they need to be for the finale means that the momentum built to that point is suddenly lost. The film does get a good chunk of it back by the end, but the confidence and solidity of the opening is never reattained.
I’ll not talk too much about that ending, so as to avoid the worst of spoilers (though I’ve hinted at the main one already), but I have read comments that The Force Awakens is nothing but a retread of A New Hope. Which is rubbish. As previously mentioned, all the previous movies have been put through a blender and used to build the new outing, and the larger part of the ending here comes from Return of the Jedi.
What I saw then, in my first-viewing problematised state, was a solid movie that sat somewhere between the original trilogy and the prequels in terms of how much I enjoyed it. Had the momentum of the opening been maintained, it would have ranked much higher. As it is, I’ll just look at what I thought worked and what didn’t.
What really worked were the leading duo. John Boyega’s Finn is an out-of-his-depth Stormtrooper with a conscience, who veers between trying to do the right thing and looking out for himself until he finds a connection and a new family in Daisy Ridley’s Rey and Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron. He’s sometimes a little too klutzy and broadly comic, but it’s a small point, mostly forgivable.
If Finn is the intro character for audiences unfamiliar with the saga, Rey is for the fans. Abandoned on a desert planet and dreaming of escape, she’s the second coming of Luke Skywalker, following the same heroic path. Her flaw might be that she’s too omnicompetent, and claims that she’s a “Mary Sue” have already been levelled, mostly by those annoyed at the presence of a female lead. Still, highly competent heroes are a well-defined element of this kind of pulp adventure, and Rey’s competence in many places serves as a hint that there’s more to her character than first appearances indicate.
As for the support, both Poe Dameron and BB-8 exceed expectations. BB-8 takes the R2-D2 role and proves just as appealing. Poe—an ace fighter pilot and undercover agent for the Resistance, whose excellence behind the yoke of an X-Wing is repeatedly touted—could have been unbearable, but Isaac, previously seen as a very different character in Ex Machina, plays him with charismatic swagger and genuine goodwill towards Finn, with whom he strikes up an instant rapport. Isaac reveals heretofore unexpected movie star quality, reminiscent of Harrison Ford from the original trilogy.
As for the returning stars from the original trilogy, they’re kept mostly in the background, with the exception of Ford, who gamely throws himself into everything with great success. Carrie Fisher’s Leia is mostly static but will likely be seen more often in the next few films. As for Mark Hamill’s Luke, his absence is a key element of The Force Awakens, just as his presence will likely be a key part of its sequels. Hopefully not to the point of overshadowing the younger stars though—that’s one of the best choices made here. Chewbacca gets a few good scenes, even if some were cut, and C-3PO and R2-D2 are barely in it, perhaps the victims of more cutting.
As for the next generation of villains, they’re a mixed bag. The First Order are an underexplained group of Empire re-enactors. Gwendoline Christie’s Captain Phasma is an imposing chrome presence criminally underused. Domnhall Gleeson’s General Hux is a frustrated middle-manager, the personification of the Death Star boardroom, putting up with his mystical comrades-in-arms as he tries to keep everything running. One of whom is the oversized holographic Supreme Overlord Snoke, who has the most ridiculous name that Star Wars has featured yet. And Starkiller Base is the biggest problem—the Death Star turned up to 11 and making even less sense.
Which leaves Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren to carry the dark side. I suspect that how you feel about The Force Awakens will largely depend on how you feel about Kylo Ren. He’s certainly an ambitious creation, the clearest emanation of the film’s theme of a new generation reacting to the old. On his entry he’s imposing and menacing, showing power in advance of anything seen in the saga before. However, it’s a facade that doesn’t take long to crack. This is a young man angry with the choices his forebears have made and desperate to forge his own path in wilful opposition to them.
If the prequel trilogy was all about Anakin Skywalker’s fall, and the classic trilogy was (less so) about his redemption, the contrasting paths of Rey and Ren are likely to prove the main throughline of the new films. I’m not entirely convinced by what we see of him in The Force Awakens, but many have been, and I applaud the ambition of the set-up here. JJ Abrams tries very hard to have his cake and eat it: to feed off the goodwill towards the classic trilogy while moving away from it at speed.
The question though is whether subsequent films will be as beholden to what came before. They really don’t have to be, and I don’t think that they need to be. The Force Awakens skims over backstory as much as it can and packs in a huge amount of action as it makes its way to its climax. By the time it ends, it’s very clear that this can be a new story, with new heroes. Even Abrams takes his leave—the as-yet untitled sequel, showing up in two years, will be under the helm of Rian Johnson, the clever director of Brick and Looper. He’s has some good materials to work with, and the next Star Wars movie could yet be something really special. As for The Force Awakens, it’s promising and enjoyable but not more. At least not on first viewing anyway.
*I really, really wanted to title this post “Star Wars – I Was a Teenage Sith Lord” but that would count as a spoiler, and you don’t put spoilers in the title.