The Matrix (1999), dir. Lana & Lilly Wachowski

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It’s remarkable one of the most influential films of the past two decades was directed by two trans women, earning $450 million against its $60 million budget. Celebrating the achievement of Patty Jenkins obscures the major financial success of The Matrix, or high profile female directors like Kathryn Bigelow. In a male-dominated industry, Hollywood gave the Wachowski sisters power because they passed as male, but they have struggled with their gender identities since childhood.

Keanu Reeves, embodying queerness in My Own Private Idaho (1991), masculine action hero who gets the girl in Speed (1994), becomes our audience avatar as programmer Neo, because the audience is assumed to be male. But the Wachowski sisters explore queer themes in films like their debut neo-noir Bound (1996), shot on a $6 million budget, or Cloud Atlas (2012), splitting the soul between hundreds of worlds and bodies, although problematic in its gender and racial fluidity; while including trans characters like Nomi in Sense8 (2015-present).

Many trans writers have interpreted The Matrix as a trans narrative. E.A. Lockhart reflects thatlife early in transition felt a lot like being Neo”, finding solace knowing the Wachowskis went through a similar process. Marcy Cook argues The Matrix is “Lana’s (and maybe Lilly’s) soul laid bare” as “the most successful transgender-focused movie ever made”, through dualities between the dream world and the real world. For Cook, Neo and Thomas Anderson represent two identities, asserting his identity as Neo “in defiance of death”. As she argues, “trans people are always playing two roles” between societal expectations and relationships between friends, family and coworkers. Cook positions Morpheus as the “transgender elder”, guiding Neo’s fate between the red and blue pill without making the choice for him.

The Matrix is never an explicitly trans narrative; the only time the word ‘trans’ appears is as prefix in computer code. Yet signs are there. The Wachowskis create Cronenbergian body horror as the Bug forcefully probes Neo’s stomach during his interrogation, reflecting a sense of bodily dysphoria. As an emaciated body within a vat, unable to speak, Cook argues Neo represents transitioning through HRT and surgery. Through androgynous characters like Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) and Switch, the Wachowskis challenge expectations around masculinity and femininity. As Neo tells Trinity, “I thought you were a guy!”; she retorts that “most guys do”. 

With its challenging of gender expectations, The Matrix is the late 90s. It’s about as 90s as Sandstorm, from black leather jackets to a grunge soundtrack, mixing Marilyn Manson, Prodigy, Rage Against the Machine and Rammstein.

The early 90s, like the 80s, is becoming nostalgic, from clothing to aesthetics, resurrecting Power Rangers (2017) and series like Fuller House (2016-present). Yet, as someone growing up with late 90s and early 00s culture, it’s off limits. The late 90s isn’t cool.

The late 90s represent crossroads between two centuries and millennia. As we look through the TV set in the Construct at the society we are, the destiny of the red and blue pill is ultimately a question of where we have come so far, and where society goes from here. Our crossroads isn’t merely between 1999 and 2000, but 2199. Just as The War of the Worlds (1898) looked towards the growing global conflict of the oncoming century, The Matrix embodies contemporary anxieties. In retrospect, we see the society arising out of this: the post-9/11 world of an altered global outlook with new online fears. Neo jumps between two buildings, falling to the ground perfectly unscathed. A building explodes in a fireball; this isn’t controversial. In the lobby shootout, Neo and Trinity pass through security guards with guns, but remain heroes, not anti-American terrorists.

As Todd McCarthy, David Thompson and John Powers argue on the film’s critic commentary, Neo represents a ‘slacker’ archetype: an ordinary (white) guy, working in an office cubicle for Metacortex, alienated from society, dishevelled and skinny. Neo isn’t so far apart from the disillusionment of Tyler Durden in Fight Club the same year, embodying anti-consumerist disenfranchisement:

You’re not your job. You’re not how much money you have in the bank. You’re not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You’re not your fucking khakis.

As Carrie-Ann Moss describes in an interview in The Matrix Revisited (2001), the film reflects a “sense of wanting to be free, of not wanting to be controlled, to fight the norm, or to fight people telling you how things should be”. The Matrix positions itself as social critique in opposition to the modern world of capitalism, deregulation and population growth. Neo walks through crowds caught in a trance in the final scene, awoken. Agent Smith wants to rebuild the world as a better one, at the peak of civilisation, dismissing the notion of a perfect world, reflecting a search for a new American identity. Trans writers have suggested these anti-establishment feelings also reflect the trans experience: Neo escapes the institutional system of oppression built upon erasure, bathroom bills and medical gatekeeping. In her speech as recipient of the HRC Visibility Award, Lana Wachowski spoke of her experience of institutional control:

In Catholic school the girls wear skirts, the boys play pants. I am told I have to cut my hair. I want to play Four Square with the girls but now I’m one of them — I’m one of the boys. Early on I am told to get in line after a morning bell, girls in one line, boys in another.

Yet 1999 signals another societal shift: the internet. The Matrix is not so much about the internet as we understand it today, but the Internet, capital I. From the opening sequence, juxtaposing the green computer code of the Matrix against the Warner Bros logo, signals we’re in for something radical, looking to the future. In part, it acts as a manifesto in line with other cyber and techno-utopians around this era. In his closing monologue, Neo declares the rise of “a world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries” where “anything is possible”. John Perry Barlow’s 1996 Declaration for the Independence of Cyberspace isn’t so different, declaring “cyberspace does not lie within [governments’] borders”. Theorists like Manuel Castells, in his Information Age trilogy (1996-98), began to grapple with the implications of the internet as a separate realm of existence, whilst films like Ghost in the Shell (1995) and Pi (1998) posed similar questions.

The Matrix’s world is transitional. Its bulky, white shell computer monitors with Matrix code evoke the green monochrome displays of the 80s. Our world is tangible: the cellphones are Nokias, Neo has a landline, the internet isn’t everywhere. On the Nebuchadnezzar, concept designer Geofrey Darrow sought to create a dirty and used world made of detritus, in opposition to the stainless steel worlds of sci-fi: an almost post-internet world. When Neo is silenced by the agents, his gooey mouth sewed shut, relates an era where this was an existential question, where verbal communication was our primary form of contact, without anyone to instant message. For Marcy Cook, this represents a sense of “yelling into the void”, when trans people were “unable to defend” themselves, before the internet allowed for greater trans awareness and the growth of online communities.

We approach the internet through the backend, within infrastructure as we witness the déjà vu of glitches in the Matrix. Neo, as a hacker, has a modern analogue in luminaries like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, or angry trolls on message boards, locked within his messy bedroom. But the internet is evolving into an internet of experiences. From Wi-Fi in cafes to Pokémon Go to transmedia technology, digital augmentation creates an internet not as a separate realm as The Matrix presupposes, but embedded as an extension of our environments and senses. Through VR and 360 videos, the internet opens questions around posthumanism and transhumanism.

In part, The Matrix builds upon existing science fiction tropes. Its post-apocalyptic dystopia is not worlds apart from The Terminator (1984), whilst the journey in the Nebuchadnezzar feels like the Millennium Falcon. Grounding its science fiction in theory, the Wachowskis asked Keanu Reeves to read books, handing him copies of Simulacra and Simulation, Out of Control and Evolutionary Psychology, asking philosophical questions. As Reeves comments in The Matrix Revisited, “[y]ou can get meaning out of anything. You can make that reason whatever you want.” For Baudrillard, reality has become hyperreal, a fairy tale, where simulations of reality – our consumer culture – have become more real than reality itself.

In its science fiction worldbuilding, The Matrix expanded beyond its trilogy into videogames, graphic novels and online content, becoming what Henry Jenkins describes in Convergence Culture (2006) as “entertainment for the age of media convergence”, creating a “horizontally integrated” form of narrative storytelling ensuring “consumer loyalty”. Franchises like Star Wars, through the Lucasfilm Story Group, have become more transmedia than ever, collaborating ideas and connecting elements between Rebels, The Clone Wars, its novels and Rogue One (2016), requiring wider knowledge.

The Matrix goes beyond science fiction, combining an intertextuality of elements from heist films, martial arts, John Woo-esque action, anime, videogames; creating a Moebius-esque vastness of worlds, and FBI-esque agents straight out of the 1960s. The Wachowskis enlisted Yuen Woo-ping, legend of Asian cinema for films like Drunken Master (1978), as stunt coordinator. As Jenkins argues, the Wachowski sisters “positioned themselves as oracles”, offering fans “cryptic comments”, allowing them to deconstruct the film’s allusions for themselves. In the film’s opening tease, we follow Trinity as central protagonist fighting cops, in martial arts formation as ‘the eagle’, running sideways across a wall. As Patrick H Willems deconstructs in his video essay How to Begin a Movie, this scene plays off of noir elements through chiaroscuro, vertical lines and shadows, while utilising superhero powers as she jumps between roofs and through windows.

Yet The Matrix is radical in another area: CGI. The late 90s and early 00s are filled with CGI that look like a bad hangover today, from Naboo in The Phantom Menace (1999) to Garfield in the real world in Garfield (2004), before the photorealism of Grand Moff Tarkin, or CGI existing entirely unnoticed. From its anime-esque bullet time, cellphones falling from hundreds of stories, sentinels, electricity, fire, or morphing in the telephone booth, The Matrix told its story as spectacle, becoming part of its aesthetic through the advancements of digital editing. From liquid mirrors made of mercury, to reflections within warping spoons, The Matrix pushed the envelope, yet still used practical effects to ground itself within reality, like the animatronic baby in one sequence.

The Matrix questions what can be done within the cinematic medium, simultaneously questioning our notions of reality. Delving into dream worlds, The Matrix questions human experience and how we ascribe meaning. As far back as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1978), science fiction attempted to grapple with the construction of our own world. But this is a real field of study. In 2016, tech entrepreneur Elon Musk became viral for suggesting our own existence is a simulation, based on our shift from “pong, two rectangles and a dot” to “photorealistic 3D simulations with millions of people playing simultaneously”.

Subverting the tropes of the cyberpunk movement, The Matrix ascribes our own world as the fake world. Driving through Chinatown, we see the inauthenticity: using Hitchcockian rear-screen projection in the car, the world becomes dreamy, defocused with saturated colours. The Wachowski sisters shift the colour timing of each scene between green and blue, drawing a visual duality between the real world and the matrix.

Neo, like us, has experienced the matrix from birth, seeing it as organic. Reality is a sensory experience. As Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) tells Neo, “real is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain”. Cypher eats a steak, knowing full well the steak is not real. On the Nebuchadnezzar, their goopy food attempts to recreate the taste of chicken. Taste buds can be manipulated. The film’s mantra of “this is a spoon” evokes The Treachery of Images (1929): representation, not reality.

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This is not a pipe

Morpheus questions Neo’s disavowal of fate, fearing “not [being] in control of my life”. Yet we aren’t in control: every time we say the wrong thing, drop a pen, do something on instinct, our minds and bodies betray us. Free will scarcely exists. Or, as Marcy Cook argues, not being in control is the “central theme in becoming transgender”, a remolding of existence whilst “fighting your birth” and societal expectations.

Philosophy, as universal thought, can be found in every text, from choices a character makes to fate and destiny. The Matrix immerses itself within it, calling upon the thought experiments of Nozick’s experience machine and Plato’s allegory of the cave, given visual representation. Reality is constructed, from societal expectations, to laws of governance, aspirations and dreams, fashions and incomes. Though we debate universal laws, nothing, or very little, is pre-ordained, varying between different cultures. As Edward Soja argues, physical spaces contain a thirdspace – a real-and-imagined space – built upon materiality and semiotics, political discourses and lived dimensions. Nothing is real, beyond reality itself.

At its core, The Matrix is an exploration of identity. Though the film may play a kiss between Neo and Trinity, it is not a love story. We never follow Neo as he attempts to woo her, or becomes caught in an awkward romantic comedy. The narrative arc is internal. Neo may become a modern messiah, with a prophecy and mythos behind him as saviour, yet these are not the abstract struggles of Jesus, they are our own. Neo loses his identity on the Nebuchadnezzar, placed in identical clothing, yet he never had it in the first place.

Nearly twenty years after its release, we might question whether The Matrix still holds its power. Its CGI, soundtrack and radical aesthetic are horrifically outdated, its genre-bending becoming subsumed in wider pop culture, numerous other science fiction franchises taking its place. As the internet is caught in a frenzy over the notion of making a reboot or sequel or spin-off, there are still stories that could be told. Through the John Wick series (2014-present), Keanu Reeves has become a badass and household name once more, teaming up with stunt double-turned-director Chad Stahelski and Fishburne. Yet The Matrix remains a powerful, multi-layered form of filmmaking, and spectacle.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016), dir. Gareth Edwards

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This review contains spoilers

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…

When The Force Awakens was released last year, I felt ambivalent. Not that it was a bad film, but my love of Star Wars had dissipated. My hype was non-existent I waited over a week to see it. In the wake of almost universally positive reviews, I felt obliged to judge it, holding too strongly onto the works which had come before. I’d been raised on the prequels and The Clone Wars (2008-14); this would never be my Star Wars.

But in the year since, things changed. I went back to the old podcasts I loved. I played the LEGO game with a friend. I’ve kept up with Charles Soule and Phil Noto’s Poe Dameron series month by month, falling in love with the character even when Oscar Isaac isn’t playing him. Through the trailers, I stayed actually pretty hyped for Rogue One.

I’d avoided Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla (2014) when I’d seen reviews criticising its focus on human characters, barely giving the monster any screentime. Yet if this is what Edwards brings to Star Wars, I can’t imagine how incredible Godzilla must be. But I’ve avoided IMAX for a long time too, still scarred by the horrific experience that was Zack Snyder’s Legend of the Guardians (2010). Star Wars deserves to be seen on the big screen: it demands to be immersive. Rogue One‘s 3D isn’t anything spectacular, remaining more a superfluous spectacle than anything with a narrative purpose, drawing the eye’s attention towards elements which are not the camera’s focus.

Expanding the Star Wars filmic universe beyond the trilogies has been in the works for a long time. Even if discounting the Ewok films (1984-85) and The Clone Wars (2008) theatrical pilot, as far back as 2011, whilst promoting Captain America: The First Avenger, Joe Johnston, designer of Boba Fett, raised the possibility of directing a solo film based around the character.

Where the universe had been dominated by books, video games and comics, a film offers a chance to expand the universe in its original medium. Books, with too many releases for anyone but the most dedicated reader to keep up with, should not be given primacy or dominance. We shouldn’t need to turn to fan films to see a new cinematic vision. Maybe, at points, Rogue One can feel like a fan film of sorts, exploring unexplored corners of the universe without the involvement of Lucas or the saga’s major players – but it has enough talented people and enough of a budget that it never diminishes its authority as a Star Wars story.

The Rebel Alliance’s quest to retrieve the Death Star plans had been told numerous times in the old Expanded Universe, through Kyle Katarn’s missions in Dark Forces (1995), or the adventures of Twi’lek mercenary Rianna Saren in Lethal Alliance (2006); the Death Star plans became an easy object of video game missions. We already knew what Vader was doing before A New Hope thanks to The Force Unleashed (2008), disempowering him with an apprentice of his own, Galen Marek.

But Rogue One is able to prove its existence in opposition to Legends. Where the prequel trilogy detailed the fall of the Republic, established in the Journal of the Whills that prefaced A New Hope‘s novelisation, Rogue One takes what was once exposition in the opening crawl to A New Hope (1977), fleshing it out into an engaging narrative, the previous chapter in a Flash Gordon serial that Lucas forgot to show us. Though not an essential component of the series, it is far from unnecessary.

It may only be a story: a parable, a chapter within an anthology in a fictional universe. Rogue One brings with it an awareness that it is outside the saga: the film’s logo de-emphasises the Star Wars aspect, whilst the pre-credits opening and lack of opening crawl refuses to give us established conventions (although The Clone Wars somewhat already did this.)  Rogue One embraces using flashbacks, showing the younger life of Jyn and her father Galen, and training under Saw Gerrera. Structurally, it avoids the archetypal ‘hero’s journey’ of the saga: though we root for Jyn as a protagonist, the film shifts between multiple character groups and dozens of worlds. The Empire Strikes Back (1980) followed a linear path between Hoth, Dagobah and Cloud City; here, we don’t need to follow Jyn between worlds for another setpiece to arise.

The universe is diverse, not defined by one location. The Force Awakens created new yet familiar planets – Jakku was still a desert world; lightsaber battles were still fought in snow; Anch-To was a tourism advert for Ireland more than anything else. Yet Rogue One is truly creative with its worlds: Scarif’s design is unique, split in two through Imperial presence, and bringing the Empire to palm tree beaches, recalling both the Pacific War and the D-Day landings on Omaha – defining Star Wars by its military history.

Rumours questioned whether extensive reshoots softened Rogue One‘s tone (they didn’t), but the film is still dark, still gritty, placing the viewer within the greatest war scenes ever seen within a series titled Star Wars. Stormtroopers aren’t shiny and pristine, but covered in grit. There may be no blood to show, but the universe is still populated by suicide bombers, assassinations, rain, destruction and death. Outside of the binary of light and dark, we see multiple forces uprising against the Empire on Jedha. The characters we root for are terrorists. But Rogue One remains faithful to the spirit of Star Wars, without ever contravening the notion of a gritty war movie.

Seeing Felicity Jones portray Jyn Erso here a few weeks after after her role as Lizzie in A Monster Calls (2016) takes some getting used to. In A Monster Calls, she was at her weakest, an ambitious artist and mother suffering from cancer. Yet Jyn must carry the weight of a franchise and a galaxy, as the strong female protagonist for a million girls to look up to. Though her character isn’t as developed as she could have been, we still get a good sense of who she is, seeing her young teenage rebellion. Her relationship with Cassian never becomes explicitly sexual nor romantic, a welcome relief within an industry dominated by heteronormative relationships.

Central to Rogue One is a sense of spirituality within war. Though the Jedi are nowhere to be seen, their legacy lives on, passed on through rumour and hearsay. Spirituality has surrounded Star Wars since its inception, through Yoda’s role as a spiritual guide or master, or, the Prequel Trilogy’s depiction of the Jedi Temple, monk-like robes and vows of chastity. Even as far back as A New Hope, Admiral Motti spoke of the Jedi as an “ancient religion”. Rogue One‘s theme is at the very centre of Christian theology: hope.

Outside of Midichlorians, the force still carries a power to non-Jedis. Donnie Yen’s character, Chirrut, connects the film back to its influences from Japanese cinema, in the films of Akira Kurosawa. As a blind swordsman, he utilises the power of the force through his staff; lightsabers are merely tools, imbued with spiritual significance. Even without the Jedi, like the fan film Kara (2016), the force still pervades all living things, manifesting in new ways. Chirrut’s faith is more explicit than any other Star Wars film has ever made it: he repeats the prayer “I am one with the force, the force is with me” , essential to his character.

But Rogue One owes more of a debt to Kurosawa: like Seven Samurai (1954) (or indeed The Magnificent Seven (1960)), a group of rogues band together, each with their own qualities, plot functions and backstories, and internal and external conflicts. Similarly, like the simple villages of farmers whose lives are interrupted in Seven Samurai, the film opens, we become aware of a traditional way of living, as Galen is recruited by the Empire:

Rogue One embeds itself with references to the other films, yet it does so with purpose. Whereas The Force Awakens could easily be criticised for its structural and thematic similarities to A New HopeRogue One depends upon interconnectivity. Like with Disney’s other major theatrical property, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Star Wars films serve a dual purpose: exist as standalone, whilst teasing future instalments and referring back to previous ones.

Rogue One brings us back to the world of 1977. Cassian sports a hipster moustache. Spaceships are lo-fi, though they had been sent to space on the first NASA missions. The Death Star plans aren’t hosted on an online network, but exist as a physical computer. Certain shots, like the Death Star’s lazer being powered up, recall A New Hope instantly. The major players are all here: the Rebel Alliance on Yavin IV, Tarkin, Vader, Leia, Mon Mothma, AT-ATs and Probe Droids, archival footage of X-Wing pilots Garven Dreis and Jon Vander, taken from outtakes from A New Hope.  The film weaves a web of references: glasses of blue milk; the Whills; a spaceship populated entirely by Mon Calamari; the traditional C-3PO and R2-D2 appearance (having already appeared in every Star Wars film); Saw Gerrera returns from a small role in The Clone Wars; K2SO talks about having a “bad feeling”.

Some scenes seem pure fan service: Ponda Baba (aka Walrus Man) and Evazan walk past our protagonists on their way to Tatooine, wanted in 12 systems, returning to the screen for the first time since the Holiday Special (1978) – existing not to advance the plot or connect the film, but to give a chuckle to fans and confuse newbies.

But Rogue One doesn’t neglect the Prequels: rather than 70mm, its beautiful cinematography is still shot on digital, with state-of-the-art lighting equipment. Genevive O’Reilly reprises her role as Mon Mothma from Revenge of the Sith (2005), an aged Jimmy Smits returns as Bail Organa, whilst Vader takes a home on Mustafar.

Perhaps more controversial is the return of Tarkin, performed not by Wayne Pygram but Guy Henry (better known to British viewers for his role in Holby City), imbued with CGI to resemble the late Peter Cushing: not as the back of a head or a reflection on a window, but in full motion as an essential character. Had the film been set further away from A New Hope, recasting should have been the priority, yet set in the days leading up to A New Hope, I fully accept the limitations. Tarkin seems photoreal, existing within the scene; I was only ever taken out by his voice. Rather than a prose character written by James Luceno, Tarkin is given new life. Tarkin’s role is necessary, though it could have easily been filled by a greater dominance by Vader, Krennic, or another Imperial officer.

But Guy Henry will never be Peter Cushing. The young Princess Leia closes the film, but her presence never seems off to me. Robert Downey Jr.’s role as 1980s Tony Stark in Captain America: Civil War (2016) seemed creepy as hell to me. But, as ever, art is subjective.

Yet, even with James Earl Jones’ voice, Vader never feels entirely authentic. His suit, worn by monster actor Spencer Wilding, feels too shiny and pristine to be the same one as in A New Hope, even with the red lenses. Vader is never menacing; he looks like a cosplayer. Where the film’s ending intersects with the opening of A New Hope, Vader’s rampage, murdering multiple rebel fleet troopers per second, seems entirely unlike the more calm and reserved Vader of A New Hope.

But Rogue One can never be A New Hope. The Death Star plans are introduced in loaded euphemisms, as Daniel Mays’ character warns of a “planet killer”. The Death Star seems a perennial obsession of the Star Wars universe, through A New Hope, Return of the Jedi, and Starkiller Base in The Force Awakens, yet Rogue One elevates its importance.

Fuelled by Kyber crystals, the Death Star reappropriates the peace of the Jedi for evil intent, just as Coruscant was reappropriated for the Empire’s ends. Rather than an overlooked flaw, the reactor port is intentional sabotage by Galen. Where A New Hope never truly managed to communicate the emotional impact of the loss of Alderaan on Leia, Rogue One shows the sheer impact of the Death Star in devastating fashion, ripping a planet apart as a gradual process, as our characters desperately run from its impact. (The Force Awakens deployed this similarly well with the destruction of Hosnian Prime.)

The film’s closing act becomes its most daring, making us aware of both the futility and heroism of the protagonists’ journeys. Their stories do not end all at once, but as a gradual process as the Empire regains a greater stronghold: first Saw Gerrera, then Bodhi, Chirrut and Baze, then Jyn and Andor as Scarif is destroyed. Our protagonists are not special. How many others came before in trying to fight the Empire, or in trying to salvage the Death Star plans? As Rebels (2014-present) reinforces, there is nothing inherently special about Han, Luke or Leia. Anyone else could have been in their position: the only thing special is that they were the ones that survived. One move different, they could have died at any second. Like Ed Brubaker’s Uncanny X-Men prequel Deadly Genesis (2005), we become attached to a group of alternative protagonists, who exist only to die as casualties of war.

In the film’s most heartbreaking scene, Tarkin orders the destruction of Scarif, our protagonists still upon it. Not only does this show Tarkin’s ruthlessness, but it becomes a propaganda coup: the Empire erases their failures from existence, no matter the loss of life. As Jyn and Cassian embrace on the beach, recalling the ending of Miracle Mile (1988): as much as our characters have spent the entire film trying to escape nuclear destruction, one can only outrun death so far.

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IMAX exclusive poster to the film

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), dir. J.J. Abrams

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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 read
Which 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.