For this film, there are a lot of different points of entry. I’m a lapsed Star Wars fan, having grown up in the age of the prequels, but not really getting into it until The Clone Wars (2008-13) animated series, and intersecting into all levels of fandom: collecting the action figures, watching the Holiday Special (1978), reading the EU books, sending emails to Star Wars podcasts. But there are fans who grew up in 1977, or 1983, came into it with the Ewoks (1985-86) animated series, or the action figures, or the EU books, the videogames, and so on. For some kids and adults, this film is their first experience with Star Wars.
But as the commercials for the new Battlefront game show, it’s also for the nostalgic adult who grew up in the 70s, now in a meagre office job, but still young at heart.
The prequel era is often unnecessarily jabbed at, but for a lot of people, that is their Star Wars. So for the Star Wars fans of the 90s/00s now in their late teens and 20s, this is their re-entry point. But I never left it. I carried through with The Clone Wars animated series into the unfinished story reels; kept reading the novels and the comics. Only in the past few months have I become bored and disinterested by Rebels (2014-present) that I’ve basically given up on it. Through the trailers and reveals, I’ve not caught onto the hype. I’ve stopped looking at Comic Con coverage for the Black Series action figures.
For the fans labelling this as the best film of 2015, they either have a different set of standards than I do in grading films, or have caught onto the nostalgia train and will look back at it as surely Roger Ebert looked back on his 3.5/4 review of The Phantom Menace (1999). I’m not going to look at this as the redemption of the franchise from the ‘awful’ prequels, because the prequels mean a lot to me and have some great moments, though they could have been constructed better with tighter or more developed scripts.
Despite the numerous criticisms, The Force Awakens isn’t A New Hope replayed. There are elements of every film here, with sand planets, cantinas and a Death Star-esque weapon (A New Hope), snow planets and the interrogation scene (The Empire Strikes Back) and its depiction of the Rebel Alliance and Jim Henson-esque creatures (Return of the Jedi). Though the reclassification of the EU to Legends promised a clean slate, there’s a lot of familiarity here to the existing EU.
The New Republic with a new order of Jedi; a Luke who has gone missing (Dark Empire); a resurrected Empire in a form without Vader or Palpatine (the Thrawn trilogy); a son of Han and Leia named Ben who has fallen to the dark side (Jacen Solo, but also Ben Skywalker); the Starkiller (the Sun Crusher); even the tragic death of an Original Trilogy character'(the death of Chewie in Vector Prime). It doesn’t sit entirely well with me given that this ground has been covered before in multiple mediums.
Of course there’s differences: rather than ‘strong female Jedi sibling’, Leia has arguably been made stronger by taking on the typically male role as a Commander. Han is back as a smuggler, and I like the scenes where he’s facing off with the gang he owes another debt to. There’s something refreshing that, rather than a group of friends who has sticked together for decades like in the EU novels, they’ve drifted apart in their own directions. Which feels a little more closer to real life – how many of your friends from high school and college did you stay with by the time you’re in your 50s and 60s? A big theme of this film is one of homecoming, both for the audience who grew up in the 70s, but also for the status quo of the characters – something which proves more complicated for Leia than she anticipated. Luke becomes sidelined from the film in an unexpected move, but it helps convey a fractured group of old friends.
The film offers interesting new perspectives with its protagonists. Rey becomes the Luke Skywalker of our story, but she’s more active than Luke ever was, an adventurer and an explorer and certainly no Mary Sue. Jakku is different enough from Tatooine that it has a Mad Max (1979-present) and Turbo Kid (2015) vibe – a desolate wasteland of tents of a shattered civilisation relying on bartering, credits and supplies to get by. The Empire remains spread across the sand as wrecked AT-ATs and Star Destroyers. Like Ozymandias (1818),
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,Tell that its sculptor well those passions readWhich yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things
This is not a film about Jedi, it is about the absence of Jedi, even if Finn, as a defected Stormtrooper from the First Order, is the one to carry the lightsaber of Luke and Anakin. The lightsaber becomes an accessory rather than a tool of the Jedi. There is no Ben Kenobi to teach the ways of the force; Han Solo, now a ‘believer’ in the force, is our connection to the past for our two young protagonists, but isn’t force capable. Rey connects to the more spiritual aspects of the force, alongside the brilliant Maz Kanata (one of my favourite characters in the film), acting as somewhat of a mentor to Rey – but Rey never really has her own lightsaber to wield.
Kylo Ren is an imitation of Darth Vader, bathed in blinding black and covered in a mask. But Ren is probably one of the weakest parts of the film. General Grievous in Revenge of the Sith (2005) acted as more compelling, subtly foreshadowing Anakin’s fate, through his breathing apparatus and ruined, once human body. Instead, he’s some snotty teenager with bad long hair and daddy issues, going around having tantrums and destroying rooms with his lightsaber. He becomes the butt of a joke, never intimidating in a single scene. The final lightsaber battle isn’t enticing, but slightly ridiculous. When he bows to his giant overlooming CGI master, Snoke, it feels like The Hobbit (2012-14) – fantasy over science fantasy and science fiction. Meanwhile, the First Order feel like SS troopers more than ever before, a parody of the Nazis – unlike the more subtle allusions of Vader’s imperial officers with British accents. Outside of old movie serials and post-WWII Nazi films, they feel more ridiculous than ever.
Perhaps Ren would have been more compelling as a character not related to any established characters, but an independent character who has become obsessed with the ideas of the Empire over Republic democracy.
But the film didn’t truly connect with me until Han Solo showed up, when things truly got into gear. As with Abrams’ Star Trek (2009), with the presence of the elderly Spock, the film uses an old character (or characters in this case), to pave the way for the new generation. Unlike with the Star Trek films, the involvement of the old generation is more than a ‘passing of the torch’, but becomes instrumental to the narrative of both the film and the trilogy as a whole.
There’s a sense of uncomfortable futility with the idea that the celebrations at the end of Return of the Jedi (1983) aren’t the end – the fireworks on Endor (and the celebrations on Naboo and the toppling of the statue of Palpatine on the 2004 DVD) have not resulted in much change, but the establishment of the First Order, a gross neo-Nazi mutation of the Empire, not built by the men who made and lived it. The Resistance becomes essentially an analogue to the Rebellion.
Structurally, though Lucas had never intended it that way, a basic structure of ‘the tragedy of Anakin Skywalker’ carried through the six films. There’s an easy division between a trilogy about a prosperous society of Jedi, of brilliant cities and amazing vistas, to a trilogy about the Empire that have wreaked havoc on the galaxy and let it crumble into dictatorship and ruin, before the establishment or the restoration of a new status quo, a la Todorov’s narrative structure.
Were the film about Luke Skywalker’s new Jedi order, with its own set of principles distinct from the Jedi of the prequels who find the Sith or the Empire has risen again, it may suit the structure better. The post-ROTJ novels always felt like an addendum or an asterisk, rather than the next episode in a saga, but even this film even come sans episode title.
Visually, the film will never be able to feel like the same universe as 1983, trying to create a fusion between 70mm photography (rather than digital), ILM practical effects and CGI. Even with the film’s locations, there’s a disconnect. When we see ruins of castles, the film feels like Medieval England. When we’re meant to see some alien planet in the final scene, I see an advert for the Irish tourism industry, without any sci-fi embellishments to make the planet distinctive from its real world location.
In some ways, The Force Awakens feels more like The Empire Strikes Back (1980), ending more on a cliffhanger than a conclusion than A New Hope (1977) ever did with its medal ceremony coda. Yet its in media res opening is difficult to get into. The opening crawl feels like bad exposition, unable to convey a whole new world, even if one has marathoned the previous 6 films before it. We see new Stormtroopers and Kylo Ren, but it’s not the way to reintroduce the world.
George Lucas never directed all the Star Wars films, nor did he write all of them either. But he always had creative input. Somehow, The Force Awakens feels off because of it.But then, Abrams’ Into Darkness (2013) felt like too much of a retread of The Wrath of Khan (1982) too. It will be interesting how Episode VIII copes with Rian Johnson.
As a sequel, it’s pretty good. But it is far from the modern myths of the Original Trilogy that will live on in history, combining Campbellian archetypes and the ‘hero’s journey’, Flash Gordon serials, science fiction, WWII films, Kurosawa films, spirituality, and helping to bring about the blockbuster, the modern action figure industry and modern VFX through ILM.