30 years on from the fall of the Galactic Empire, the galaxy is once again embroiled in conflict. Luke Skywalker has disappeared, a fascist military power known as The First Order seeks galactic conquest and the destruction of the New Republic, with the Resistance being all that stands in its way. When Resistance fighter Poe Dameron is captured by the maniacal First Order warrior Kylo Ren, his astro droid BB-8 must find safe passage back to General Leia Organa, a search that draws together scavenger Rey, former-Stormtrooper Finn, and an old smuggler and his Wookie companion.
It was at this year’s Star Wars Celebration in Anaheim, California, that fans were dealt the ultimate nostalgic sucker punch, the first full-length trailer for ‘The Force Awakens’ closing with a sight not seen since 1983; Han Solo and Chewbacca side by side, the old scoundrel declaring with a palpable sense of relief; “Chewie…we’re home”. It was all any fan needed to hear, and their faith has been well and truly rewarded. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a mighty feat, in one fell swoop restoring the franchise to the heights of it’s glory years, a love letter to the fans of old and a warm and welcoming invitation to first time visitors to that galaxy far, far away. Its characters are no less enthralling than those who debuted back in 1977, and the film in many ways even surpasses the original in their characterizations especially. The whole thing is truly a delight from start to finish, an emotional rollercoaster (for want of a better cliché), and just a wonderful cinematic experience with all the ingredients right on the mark. It brings a smile to my face just thinking and writing about it.
I could just end there, couldn’t I? It’s clear I love the film, singing its praises like 95% of Rotten Tomatoes’ citations. Basically, I’ve communicated everything you wanted to know, and decreed by implication if it’s worth your money. However, I am in fact not going to end there, because whilst that may be my honest opinion, my final verdict requires a little bit more discussion.
When you’re wandering the horizon-less stretches of the internet sometime, hopping from place to place, taking in your usual diet of funny videos, editorials on current affairs and so on, and if like yours truly you have an interest in film and the role it plays in society, I encourage you to seek out a personality by the name of ‘The Nostalgia Critic’. Perhaps I’ll do a more substantial and comprehensive piece on him some other time, but in brief the man has become something of an online celebrity since his 2007 debut, his brand of entertainment distinctive for quite literally critiquing (read: frequently ripping to shreds) the nostalgia of as many ‘gems’ of film and TV of our upbringing as he can dig up. In more recent years, he has shifted his character away from pure comedic value, and has been flexing an undeniably insightful and articulate intellect, and in his latest review of 2004’s ‘Christmas with the Kranks’, he had this to say:
“We’re not who we were. We change. Sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse, but we all change. This movie doesn’t want us to change. They try to shame those who do things their own way”.
Whilst there is a bit of extra context surrounding his closing speech, it being a reflection on his own career as well as berating the film in question, the Critic’s point has no small degree of poignancy when looking around at the landscape of popular culture today. Nostalgia is arguably at an all time high. Designer fashions hearken back to decades gone by, Hollywood obsessively replicates anything it considers an esteemed part of it’s own glory days, and don’t even get me started on the desperate clinging-on-to-the-90s mania that is Buzzfeed and all it’s ‘quizzes’. American sociologist Kathleen Shaputis once labelled Millennials as the ‘Peter Pan generation’, and is it any wonder? We are a generation so consumed with retrospection, so daunted by the prospect of ‘tomorrow’, that sometimes we may lose sight of the merits of today.
I say all this because it seems there are certain recurring issues and underlying themes in what negativity I have exposed myself to prior to writing, all of which I can understand the basis of, and in some places admittedly I can get behind if I’m being entirely objective. This is, after all, not only one of the biggest franchises in cinema history, but arguably the most important. This is the franchise that practically invented nostalgia at the movies, the story that to this day holds the greatest plot twist in film history, the mythology that has been a part of the bedrock of global popular culture for almost forty years. Have the stakes for the success of any film ever been higher, especially after those dark days of the prequels that make all fans shudder like wizards hearing the name Voldemort?
Let’s begin with our heroes. It’s hard to say much about Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron that hasn’t already been acclaimed tenfold. If Luke and Han had been blended into one person as they fended off TIE Fighters, Poe Dameron would be our man. The cool, confident, charming but heart-of-gold fighter pilot Isaac clearly has the time of his life in the role, a nice change of demeanour given the intensity of past performances in ‘Ex Machina’ and ‘Inside Llewellyn Davis’. Add to all this the fraternal bond he and Finn establish together, and his endearing rapport with new droid on the block BB-8, the adventures of one man and his droid would make a fine spinoff for any sci-fi franchise. With Finn (John Boyega), so named by Poe for his stormtrooper number, we have a central character truly unlike anyone we have ever had in the Star Wars saga. Afraid, but not truly a coward, quick-witted and clever but lacking in real confidence, taken from his family and trained to kill without question but with a core moral compass that really sets everything in motion, Finn is easily one of the film’s greatest breaths of fresh air, an imperfect innocent, Star Lord without the smooth talk, an almost anti-hero/audience surrogate. Finn does exactly what any of us would probably do in his situation, and Boyega’s comic timing is quite simply perfect, his delivery just as flawless as his American accent. There’s an added significance in my view to his characterization, but I’ll get back to that shortly.
More than anyone however, the centre stage spotlight falls squarely on Jakku scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley), the journey clearly at the heart of not only this film, but also this whole new era. The basics to her are familiar enough in Star Wars lore, the orphaned desert-dweller with eyes to the skies, but really that’s where the likeness ends. Rey from the get-go is a go-getter, a self-sufficient, strong and resourceful woman the likes of whom cinema really needs to see more in its lead roles. And when I say strong, I’m not talking the depressingly stereotypical Hollywood idea of the ‘strong’ woman, which usually means over-the-top kick-ass, feisty, sassy, everything-that-a-male-character-does-but-with-breasts kind. I mean actually strong, as in a complex, layered, three-dimensional character with a lot more to her than meets the eye, and which at no point sacrifices any sense of femininity. Rey is a grounded survivor on a barren world, but whose tiniest moments point to an underlying wide-eyed child with a passion for space travel and adventure, and when adventure finally does come knocking she springs into action, courageous, headstrong, demonstrating exemplary piloting skills, seemingly able to reverse-engineer anything she puts her mind to, and lo and behold we have possibly the greatest protagonist a new age of Star Wars could have possibly asked for. The journey that then unfolds for her over the course of the film becomes a wonder in and of itself, pointing not only to mysteries of the past but promising a new hope for the future of this franchise.
Star Wars has always been about two things at its heart; the championing of the unlikely hero, from Luke’s humble beginnings to Han’s change of heart to Anakin being slave-born, and the preciousness of friendship and collaboration. 1977 created something historic and special with the trinity of Luke, Han and Leia, and their impact is still there in Episode VII. Carrie Fisher’s very presence as Resistance leader General Leia is the warmth and loving embrace this film extends to its long-time fans that they have been waiting for. To see Harrison Ford striding around the Falcon once again will put a big stupid grin on anyone’s face, and indeed this is Han Solo’s greatest personal story since The Empire Strikes Back. As for Luke, there is very little to say that needs saying about seeing Mark Hamill and his prosthetic hand again other than his presence may go down as one of the greats. Dameron would be the obvious choice for main hero in any film, but this is not any film. Finn would have made a fun and different take on the Star Wars hero-type, but is there anyone who believes ‘The Force Awakens’ doesn’t and shouldn’t truly and ultimately belong to Rey? At long last, we have a worthy successor to their legacy, three new faces to define both what a hero can be and look like in our world today.
Over on the Dark Side, the film only becomes more compelling a piece to discuss, and almost entirely down to one man – Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). A leading figure amongst The First Order, and a fanatical and unbalanced devotee of the late Darth Vader, Kylo Ren is a very different threat to the galaxy than we have seen from originals and prequels alike. Some commenters have hailed the intensity and volatility he brings to the character, and lament how suited to the role of Anakin he could have been. Indeed, if there’s anyone we can remotely compare him, to it’s Darth Vader pre-sinister asthma suit. Kylo Ren is an unpredictable foe precisely because it is established he himself may not know necessarily what he wants, and his outbursts throughout the film point to the constant self-torture he inflicts on his soul. Criticisers have leapt on him as nothing but a wannabe Vader who pales in comparison and the film itself should be mocked for having such a weak villain, but I would urge anyone with that view to re-examine. It is not a slipup in the film’s creativity and execution that Kylo Ren be received as a wannabe Dark Lord, it is the whole point. He seeks to emulate the fallen Sith Lord whilst simultaneously being self-conscious at just how hard he must try to, a twisted individual who at his core is struggling with confusion over his calling in life, a calling we understand to have been corrupted by the new phantom menace that is Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis, bringing his signature motion capture work to create Snoke’s vaguely alien physiology). A sense of fraternal enmity between the dark warrior and First Order General Hux (Dohmnall Gleeson, perhaps hamming up the imperiousness just a bit too much) further fuels Kylo’s vicious approach to things, again something we haven’t really seen in the saga before, but it’s a viciousness he is abetted in carrying out with the assistance of Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie), perhaps an underrepresented character on this occasion but in all likelihood set to become the new Boba Fett as this trilogy continues.
The story seems to be rapidly becoming something of a divisive element for fans, though less so for average audiences. To say all the beats are there from the original is somehow both an understatement and strangely beside the point, yet also entirely relevant. We open with a star destroyer, our villainous black-clad leader striding out ahead of marching storm-troopers, a droid being entrusted with data vital to the future of galactic events, our desert-raised hero, a daring escape aboard the Millennium Falcon, an even more daring mission to the villains’ supermassive planet-destroying base, everything is varnished with an unapologetic familiarity and it’s understandable that some decry the film as nothing but a rehash of the 1977 saga starter…and yet, once again, such detractors in my view seem to be neglecting the bigger picture and consequently missing the point. And here, most of all, is where we get to the real heart and soul of things, not just this film alone, but also this 37-year-old saga and the audience it has cultivated.
What Star Wars became all those years ago was something truly extraordinary. Never before had a single piece of cinema captured the imaginations of so wide-ranging and widespread an audience. Never had a film generated such mania as this outlandish story in 1977, and the trilogy that grew out of it only continued to draw people’s love and adulation for it’s spectacle, it’s drama, the struggles and triumphs of its characters. It had an exemplary beginning, a perfect continuation and a great conclusion. How could something like that ever be truly replicated? Lightning doesn’t strike twice, Genie has left the bottle. George Lucas himself tried and failed (spectacularly) to recapture the magic of his creation. The only hope for Star Wars thereafter lay in fan-fiction, and so was kept alive accordingly. Indeed, such a many-headed beast did Star Wars ultimately become, and so internalized was the original canon, that anyone attempting to continue the story would be to some extent doomed to the label of ‘fan fiction’, and already ‘The Force Awakens’ is being dismissed by the more ‘hard-core’ fans as just that, fan fiction (partly due in all likelihood to fan-base resentment at the de-canonizing of all subsequent creative works that expanded the Star Wars universe post-Return of the Jedi). Whatever they expected a worthy successor to the originals would look like, be like, feel like, I’m sure I don’t know, but I’m also sure they don’t know themselves. What ‘The Force Awakens’ gets so right, from the very start, is it doesn’t try to replicate what came before it. It simply uses elements we have so heavily familiarized ourselves with to welcome us back to the world created back in 1977, and then uses those elements to grow it’s own story, it’s own ideas. By the time credits roll, it’s not a successful replication of the original magic we have witnessed, but an evolution of it. This film is a swansong to the generations that were there at the beginning, and a passing down of the torch (or indeed, lightsaber) to the next lot. It encourages us to look ahead to tomorrow, as Rey does, and not to fixate on ‘glories’ gone by, as Kylo does. It’s not a goodbye to the old ways, but it is a declaration of moving on.
This is the beginning of a new kind of Star Wars, one that has adapted to the world we live in for real today. Because of this, it fundamentally cannot be a duplicate of 1977, even though when walking into the cinema to see kids running around as Sith and Jedi, adults sporting appropriate t-shirts and a stormtrooper posing for photos, it felt like I’d travelled back to that seminal time. Lionizing the original as this flawless cornerstone of cinema is just ludicrous, it was not a perfect film (I distinctly remember showing A New Hope to my first girlfriend only for her to ask me at the end “so…what was that film actually about in the end?”). Likewise, ‘The Force Awakens’ has its share of flaws: the nostalgic callbacks are at times a little surplus to requirement, parts of the climax that echo the original feel somewhat lacking in urgency in order to focus on more personal confrontations, and what at least I understand was intended to be a supremely pivotal moment and a turning point for this new era in the galaxy is strangely lacking in resonance throughout the rest of the film. Additionally, it can be argued that in adapting to the modern blockbuster landscape the franchise is now leaning towards an emphasis on the overall narrative and away from a sense of standalone stories, with a number of plot points left unresolved here which are clearly building towards more long-term payoffs. I completely appreciate and welcome this approach, but the fact remains this style does take away a little from watching these films as individual films.
“Sometimes we obsess over things when we don’t need to. Other times we try something new when we probably should have left good enough alone. But in-between one foot in the past and one in the future lies what matters most. The choices we make now are what always has and always will define who we are”.
The Nostalgia Critic had that to say also, and even if he’s never heard of the guy, it’s a sentiment that J.J. Abrams has clearly understood in his execution of this film. With this film, he has re-mythologized the Jedi and the Force, restoring the idea of them to those ‘luminous beings’ Yoda once spoke of. He has revitalized the saga’s sense of adventure, and evolved it’s understanding on the nature of evil. A new beginning. A new generation. A New Hope.
Averaged Out: 4.5/5
P.S. If you don’t completely and utterly fall in love with BB-8 then you have no business having any emotions whatsoever.