Saturday, 19 December 2015

A Review of "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" (2015) - CONTAINS SPOILERS

Okay, so it's a new Star Wars film. The cynical part of me would love to write a blistering discourse on how we are mining the science-fiction blockbusters of the 70s and 80s to peak capacity, how we are draining the very last drops out of them. But for now I'll save that for the why-the-hell-are-they-doing-this Blade Runner 2

Because, ultimately, I have no complaints about the fact that there's a new Star Wars film. Because the answer to "would you like more Star Wars?" is always "yes". So let's just take it as read that a large proportion of my reaction to The Force Awakens is joyous glee, and, in a sense, be content to leave it at that. That is, after all, the reaction of many of the film's major reviewers - comments along the lines of it being simply wonderful to be back in this fictional universe we hadn't realised we'd missed, how Abrams continues the legacy faithfully, and so on. There is a sense that it being more Star Wars already justifies its own existence.

In a sense, this is fair. People love this franchise and enjoy it - it's geeky without ever being uncool, a rare feat - and so yet another episode in its ever-growing number is inherently A Good Thing. I'm not about to argue with that.

Where I feel a little more reserved is in the fact that, at times, it seems as though Abrams and co. are taking the same approach; in other words, that the entire film is so suffused with its delight at the fact that it gets to be a Star Wars film that it doesn't really do all that much that is significantly new or meaningfully interesting. This film is, essentially, the plot of A New Hope but thirty-eight years later, so the original trio look rather more grizzled. Seriously, it has all the checklist components - the scavengers on a desert world covered in blistering sand-dunes, storm-troopers arrive hunting a droid who has a vital piece of information, there's a Resistance going up against an impossibly powerful empire who have a huge space base, meetings happen in a covert bunker, an elderly mentor character is slain by the bad guy, and it all ends with a big showdown in which they get to blow up the huge space base. Say what you like about the generally deservedly criticised prequels, but they did actually tell quite different stories to the original trilogy; this film is, on paper at least, a very similar type of plot. It could scarcely be *more* similar, and Han Solo's occasional references ("there's always a bit you can blow up") to the way they used to do things only accentuate this. Similarly, the appearances of Han, Chewie and Leia - while of course deserving of enormous affection - do in some small measure take away from the new story that's being told, as though we are being constantly reminded to deify the old trilogy rather than get fully invested in this one. Abrams, I'm sure, would argue that it's essential to rekindle the same sort of nostalgia aesthetic we feel when we watch the original films, especially given that such nostalgia was rather lacking in the prequels; there's a case for that. It is in many respects fair to call this a derivative movie.

But.

And of course there's a but. I'm not about to grump over the fact that this new film is a bit too much like other Star Wars films, and leave it at that. No, while it may be fair to say that The Force Awakens derives many of its central concepts from A New Hope, what is most interesting is where it breaks from them, and what it subtly does that is new, and why that is particularly worth talking about.

For all that it's lovely to see Han, Chewie and Leia again, we need to give some serious kudos to the film's new lead trio - Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, and Adam Driver as Rey, Finn and Kylo Ren respectively. I put Ridley first because really, for me, this is her film. Her character, Rey, is at the heart of this storyline and is in almost every one of her scenes the best thing on the screen. Constantly technically impressive, knowledgeable, and Force-sensitive, her character is an undisputed badass Jedi in all but name and that's a punch-the-air statement in a series - and, put bluntly, an entire genre -  that has generally been low on strong female role models. She works particularly well with Boyega's Finn; a lot of scenes between them are set up with a similar punchline whereby we expect him to come to her rescue - like Han and Leia of old - and in reality, she is far more competent than he is. She even gets the big lightsaber showdown at the end, and a rather wonderful final scene. Yes, she's the hero alright. Not the heroine, a word I think we should consciously eschew, like "actress". She's the hero. And a damn good one.

That's not to belittle Boyega, who does a great job as Finn, and has his own interesting character arc to portray - a storm-trooper who sees the insane wrongness of what the empire he serves is doing and decides to help the rebels. This is something the original series never toyed with as such, and so it's another good angle to take. This makes Finn an effective parallel with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who plays Han and Leia's son gone evil, turned to the dark side and now out for revenge. It would be a gross overstatement to call Ren's characterisation particularly subtle, although this is not a franchise that has ever been noted for its subtlety - what we get in Kylo Ren is the inversion of the Darth Vader treatment - an errant son, a wayward child who is sadistically torturing the older generation, rather than a dominant and villainous father figure. A fascinating inversion there - where the 70s told with joy the straightforward "cast off the shackles" narrative of ridding ourselves of the forbidding, death-cloaked, gas-mask-wearing denizens of some earlier war, the 2010s twist this around and warn against rejecting our elders, because they're loved and appreciated. Yes, Kylo Ren kills Han Solo, that charming figure of everybody's youth. If you don't know by now that this review contains spoilers, it's your fault, I'm afraid. So here the child kills the father, and it's tragic and unexpected and awful. 

What I'm building up to here is that this movie has one big trick up its sleeve - it tells the same story as the very first 1977 film, yes, but it does so with two British leads, one of whom is a fighter who is a practical but feminine woman, is more competent than any of the men and is never at any point trussed up in a gold bikini, and another of whom is a black man who turns against the oppressive fascistic empire in which he had been nothing but a cog. There is a tremendous sense of liberation here. The story is not just about the grizzled white Americans anymore, great though they are, but has rather been passed on. The original story that was Star Wars belongs to anybody now, it feels as though JJ Abrams is saying. And hurrah for that.

What this means for future films - especially given the final shot, as Rey offers Luke Skywalker his old lightsaber back - is anyone's guess, and whether I will be proved right in my theory only time will tell. But for now, welcome back, Star Wars. We've missed you.

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