Thursday, December 31, 2015

FILM: Star Wars - The Force Awakens (JJ Abrams, 2015)

Yeah, so, spoiler alert... Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens was actually a bit of a disappointment.

Well, of course it was. How could it not be, given how much we all built it up? It’s perhaps too early to tell who’s responsible for this, though I’m pretty sure that as a staunch member of the Star Wars fanbase, I ought to shoulder a fair proportion of the blame.

I have to confess to being rather baffled by the uniformly ecstatic reviews which have greeted this latest instalment thus far from press and punters alike. While I don’t doubt that this is partly an expulsion of collective relief after the colossal letdown that was the prequel trilogy, I’d suggest that it’s also easy to get blindsided by such a massive ‘event film’ on first viewing - even The Phantom Menace seemed vaguely passable up on the big screen in 1999, and that really is absolute dogtoss. Setting aside the bristling sensation which greets that familiar fanfare and opening crawl, I distinctly remember the moment it all started to unravel for me during Episode I: the hideously misjudged faux-Japanese accents and dodgy lip-synching of the Trade Federation Viceroys. I got the exact same feeling of creeping disquiet during the first minute of Episode VII: while obviously not on the same plain of ridiculousness as the irony-free cry of “WAR!” (what is it good for?) that opens Revenge of the Sith, JJ Abrams’ choice of opening shot in The Force Awakens does rather look like you’re slowly being given the finger in shadow. Which is a bit... well, “wude”, to quote Jar Jar Binks, and a faintly ominous portent of what’s to come.

Watching it again - and it is much better on second viewing, shorn of the initial rabid expectation and attempts to process such a disorienting new experience - it’s hard to shake the feeling that the primary purpose of Episode VII seems to be to offer a corrective for the last 20 years of Star Wars history. The most common sentiment I’ve heard expressed in relation to The Force Awakens is that it “feels like a Star Wars movie” - and that’s certainly hard to argue with on a basic production level. The widespread scorn heaped upon George Lucas for adding digital effects to the original trilogy is well-deserved, since the clash of aesthetics creates such visual disjuncture that it can’t help but feel like the product of two very different eras. Revisiting the CGI-led prequels - particularly on digital formats in high definition - that disconnect becomes even more painfully apparent, since the viewer is constantly aware that virtually everything bar the most basic elements of the foreground have been inserted after the fact. While Lucas would no doubt be the first to claim this process frees up his creative possibilities - technological filmmakers love to spin that line - filming everything bar the actors in front of a green-screen always reeked of corner-cutting on his part. (Though admittedly you might be inclined to do the same if it were your own production money on the line).

If - as suggested by Andrey Summers in his famous web essay - it’s true that hardcore fans actually secretly hate Star Wars but are in love with the idea of it, then this film preserves that notion to a fault by restoring the sense of a tangible, tactile, physical universe. Crucially though, the mounting feeling of déja vu which creeps in throughout Episode VII reveals more on this front than I suspect many would care to admit. The Force Awakens does indeed “feel like Star Wars” - in fact, it feels a lot like Episode IV. While the Star Wars universe has always hinged on thematic rhyme schemes, the fact that this new film is essentially a straight plot re-tread of the original movie either reeks of laziness or pure cynicism on the part of its creators. As with the year’s other big franchise reboot, Jurassic World, there’s quite often a sense that you’re being quietly had somehow, no matter how much you might be willing to pay for the privilege.

Director JJ Abrams is a big-hearted storyteller (albeit still somewhat Spielberg-lite) with a keen visual eye, but at times his slavish devotion to preserving everything you loved about the original trilogy almost makes the pendulum swing a little too far in the other direction. Quite often, Episode VII feels like something that’s trying really hard to be ‘STAR WARS’ in big inverted commas, and consequently comes up short on replicating that original magic (again, bits of incongruous CGI character animation don’t help here, particularly the baffling BFG-esque Snoke and the half-arsed facial design of Simon Pegg’s junkyard lummox).

Being such a stickler for pace, the director also lets key moments steam by with little in the way of explanation. The script - perhaps surprisingly, given how pretty much every detail is destined to be pored over by the faithful - is riddled with inconsistencies and flubbed internal logic. How, for example, does Rey suddenly know how to use The Force after having received no training and little explanation of what it entails? While she’s no doubt a bubbling cauldron of midichlorians (and surely destined to be revealed as the daughter of Luke Skywalker, abandoned on Jakku for her own safety - cue inevitable “I am your father” moment), even Luke needed a few lessons in basic mind control before getting to grips with this mystical energy field in Episode IV. Likewise, the film’s best gag - revealing the Millennium Falcon to be the “piece of garbage” previously dismissed as unflyable - also doesn’t stand up to scrutiny: while I’m sure curation protocol in a galaxy far, far away differs to our own, it rather stretches credulity to think that the cruiser which helped destroy two Death Stars would end up rotting somewhere in a desert scrapyard. Equally, it’s hard to believe that a zealot of Captain Phasma’s stature would ultimately be persuaded to betray her entire cause simply by having a blaster held to her head.

And where-oh-where is John Williams in all of this? If there’s one person to have emerged with his honour and dignity intact from the prequels, it’s the legendary composer whose themes - even the most minor refrains - have become the stuff of instantly-hummable legend. In Williams’ best sequel scores (most notably his brilliant work on Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and The Empire Strikes Back), he always balances the familiar with the new, bringing fresh brush-strokes to existing palettes. Here though, we’re left mostly with occasional recalls of those original motifs, with precious little else to latch onto - there’s certainly not much that feels distinctive, thematically-driven or even vaguely new, which surely represents a cardinal failing for a film series whose emotional thrust comes mostly from wall-to-wall symphonic gestures. Listening to the soundtrack in isolation, were it not for those incidental refrains, you wouldn’t think you’re even listening to a Star Wars score - in fact, it passes you by almost completely, which is surely a first for one of cinema’s most celebrated composers.

For all its faults though, there is undoubtedly magic in here. Particularly interesting is the way in which the film traces its returning characters’ disparate courses following Return of the Jedi, in turn suggesting that Dante was right in Clerks when he suggested Empire’s prophecy was correct and life is condemned to unfold as a series of down-endings. There is considerable emotional weight to be mined here, particularly for adult viewers: Han and Leia’s relationship was never destined to end happily-ever-after, while Solo’s ruminations on Luke thirty years after the fact (“I knew him”, he acknowledges somewhat sadly) are curiously poignant coming from someone whose youthful triumphs and strongest personal attachments are firmly behind him. For all the dislocation caused by good failing to triumph over evil after the Ewok Village fires burned out, however, momentary nods to the original films - a Jedi training ’bot here, a Holochess board there - keep its universe anchored firmly in the lore we all know and love (that said, titling the First Order’s weapon ‘Starkiller Base’ is perhaps a knowing wink too far). The film undoubtedly boasts the richest and most striking colour scheme of any Star Wars movie since The Empire Strikes Back - for the first time in too long, you can really feel the texture of light on celluloid - and kudos also to Abrams for attempting to level up the gender and racial imbalances which dogged the originals.

Key to the film’s ‘old-school’ vibe is the return of its original cast members, who by and large don’t disappoint. While Carrie Fisher isn’t given a whole heap to do as Leia, the few moments she’s required to shoulder are done so with subtlety and skill (which somehow seems surprising for an actress who is - and I obviously say this with immense affection - absolutely out of her tree). As little more than a glorified MacGuffin, Mark Hamill’s Luke is somehow given even less to work with, yet still manages to imbue a single gesture with more weight than virtually everything which precedes it. Make no mistake though, the film absolutely belongs to Harrison Ford. Talk about charisma, magnetism and sheer star power: right from his iconic re-introduction to the Falcon, Ford absolutely lights up the screen. Like Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight, Solo is the film’s true fulcrum: so much so that you miss him when he’s not around and long for him to return so that things can get back on track. While it was perhaps inevitable that the man who’s always seemed ambivalent about both the series and character which made him a star wouldn’t be willing to sign on for more than one last hurrah, fuck only knows how we’re going to cope without him in the next two. For his troubles (as if a $10 million-plus base salary and 0.5% of an already whopping gross weren’t quite reward enough), I have a sneaking suspicion that the Academy may attempt to right the fact that he’s never bagged an Oscar by wheedling in a surprise nomination for Best Supporting Actor this year. If you’re a betting man, woman or Wookiee, I reckon he might end up getting it, too.

Unlike the decidedly wooden acting on display in the prequels (I’ve personally always thought the performances in the original trilogy are uniformly strong given the daftness of the material), the new cast members acquit themselves well within Abrams’ fleshed-out physical environment. Quite aside from apparently being an extremely likeable dude in real life (and - fascinatingly - apparently being present during the stabbing of his boyhood friend, Damilola Taylor), John Boyega is a real find: simultaneously compassionate, conflicted and completely out of his depth, Fin provides the film’s moral centre and carries its comedy with considerable spark. Once you get past her teeth-grinding Englishness, Daisy Ridley also makes for a gutsy heroine with enough unresolved tensions to power the upcoming instalments: though under-written, her strongest scenes are those in which Rey’s fierce exterior suddenly subdues into Jedi zen.

The always-watchable Oscar Isaac is clearly having the time of his life as hotshot flyboy Poe Dameron, while Adam Driver also impresses as Kylo Ren, a “Daddy-never-loved-me” teenager given to throwing petulant Force-strops whenever things don’t go his way. Driver exudes intensity with or without the mask, and is let down only by a monumental script failure during his execution of Han Solo (which, as with Abrams’ subsequent failure to provide a big emotional send-off for the saga’s most beloved character, surely represents one of only a few times when the film would benefit from a much more pronounced or clearly-defined kiss-off). As it stands, Ren’s supposedly conflicted act of patricide is too ambiguous, never revealing whether the character is truly corrupted or simply a misguided adolescent fighting an internal battle against rapidly-encroaching forces. While this subplot will undoubtedly inform his character arc over ensuing episodes, it’s a confusing moment which lets the film down right when it ought to be striking a key emotional beat (another obvious example being the mind-dual between Kylo Ren and Rey, which takes a jarring few seconds to really take hold).

Then there’s the film’s final scene. Mark Hamill - always underrated as an actor, for my money (his performance in Return of the Jedi is arguably the best in the entire saga) - carries the day here with remarkable gravitas for what surely has to rate as the shortest cameo from a main character in cinematic history. The moment when his hood comes off to reveal the older, wisened presence beneath - perhaps something of a fitting return for an actor who’s never really been given much of a shot elsewhere - is such a shiver-down-the-spine moment that I’m just about able to forgive Abrams’ breaking of the solemn convenant regarding final shots in a Star Wars film, when he depicts a moving (as opposed to static) tableau.

All of this nitpicking and navel-gazing is, of course, ultimately pointless (particularly so in the case of the final shot, since it likely wouldn’t have worked without a sweeping pan). The Force Awakens has already done precisely what it needed to: made a gazillion dollars for Disney, set up the next two films and - perhaps most crucially - restored the franchise to respectability in many fans’ eyes after the ignominy of the prequels. Given the approbation heaped upon his own efforts and endless tinkering in recent years, it’s also done what maybe ought to have happened quite some time ago: saved the saga from the increasingly dubious clutches of George Lucas.

While it may again seem like stating the obvious though, for me The Force Awakens suffered most from the creeping realisation - no doubt twenty years too late - that this is now little more than a glorified children’s film which adults have continued to latch onto. While clearly for many a love of Star Wars was forged in childhood, both A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back still hold up remarkably well from an adult perspective - though they may have been intended for children in their earliest incarnation, it’s no surprise that they did such a fine job of pulling the young-at-heart everywhere along for the ride. Nostalgia, though, is a slippery thing, and it’s no coincidence that retreading, remaking or rebooting past glories has become Hollywood’s most shameless (not to mention creatively bankrupt) calling-card of late. I suspect the age-old adage that the public gets what the public wants is only as true as its equally complacent corollary: the public gets what the public ultimately deserves. Like an old band getting back together for a Greatest Hits tour, all those studios need to do is pull the right strings, and they just know we’ll come a-runnin’.

It’s therefore even pointless to criticise the general lack of imagination on display here, seeing as it’s the audience itself who’s partly at fault. The hype surrounding Star Wars has become a self-fulfilling prophecy perpetuated by fanboys and fangirls of all ages who are quite content to keep forking over their cash for any old bobbins. The fact that the film presents guaranteed repeat viewings for at least half its audience regardless of merit also shows up the false economy of contemporary blockbuster box-office takings. Money zips out of my wallet for Star Wars content like a stray weapon to the hand of Darth Vader - and I’m apparently quite happy for it to keep doing so, no matter how good, bad or indifferent the end product. (I am, of course, writing this having already shelled out to see Episode VII twice already, complete with £2 ‘blockbuster surcharge’ - cheers, Odeon.) Once The Force Awakens has inevitably usurped Avatar as the film with the biggest set of zeroes next to it, it will be interesting to see how the upcoming sequels to James Cameron’s film perform: whether they’ll prove similar cash bonanzas or, as I suspect, will simply show up the flimsiness of the original by demonstrating just how far audiences are prepared to be whisked away in a hurricane of hype without  particularly engaging with what’s at the centre of it (not much, in Avatar’s case).

This time around, then, I found it slowly dawning on me that my final verdict was informed by the one thing I honestly didn’t think I’d ever say about Star Wars: it’s only a movie. Again, to many, this is a laughably obvious assertion - but, like all the varied religions or belief structures we cling to as a race, it’s not the answer to anyone’s problems, nor it is a panacea for a world going to complete shit. So while The Force Awakens is by no means a bad film - or indeed, even a bad Star Wars film by accepted standards - it is, tellingly, by far the least interesting and creative of all the preceding six instalments (say what you will about George Lucas; his imagination and vision, at least, proved continually inventive). Like the owner of a pet who’s content to do your precise bidding so long as the affection keeps coming, Episode VII simply tickles you under the chin to elicit a loving purr - and that’s fine, as far as it goes. However, there is a price to be paid for such blithe acceptance of circumstance, and it therefore seems fitting that the year’s two biggest money-makers should prove to be of such a piece: as with the equally enjoyable but curiously hollow Jurassic World, the saddest moment came when I realised that the trailer for The Force Awakens ended up being the snapshot of perfection I’d wished the final product actually was.


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