Star Wars: The Force Awakens – a review

This review was first published on Sceptical Scot.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is arguably the most keenly anticipated film in movie history.

Though Return of the Jedi, the final episode of the first Star Wars trilogy, was released more than 30 years ago the colossal cultural impact of George Lucas’s space opera continues to resonate.

Lucas saw his 1977 original as a 20th century fairy tale set ‘A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away’. The imaginary world sketched by that first movie has gone on to become something much more, acquiring the status of a modern myth. It is scarce exaggeration to say that just as past generations drew on the imagery of Homer, the Bible and the Arthurian legends, Star Wars offers a mythology for millions today. Those three movies have seeded a vast self-contained universe that continues to grow exponentially through thousands of spin-off books, websites, fan movies, computer games and conventions.

The new episode’s director, JJ Abrams, has taken on at once the most enviable and daunting responsibility in the movie industry: to move the Star Wars story forward while retaining the spirit of the originals. It was a challenge that was beyond even Lucas himself, who, aware of the scale of the task, waited some 15 years after Return of the Jedi to direct a competent but uninspiring prequel trilogy.

Abrams has form, having injected new life into the Star Trek movies, the only space series with comparable status to Star Wars. And on his appointment he took every step possible to ensure the vast project would meet its multiple objectives: to satisfy the soaring expectations of existing fans, to appeal to a new audience too young even to remember the prequels, and – not insignificantly – to start to secure some return on the $4 billion Disney paid for the rights to the Star Wars franchise.

So Abrams wrote the screenplay with Lawrence Kasdan, co-writer of The Empire Strikes Back and The Return of the Jedi from the first trilogy. He recruited John Williams to rework the classic Star Wars score, and employed Lucas’s special effects company, Industrial Light and Magic, to design the new film’s environments and action sequences. And, crucially, he secured the services of the lead actors from the original series, including Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, and Mark Hamill, making possible the reappearance of the much loved characters of Han, Leia and Luke.

A ‘used universe’

Has it all been worth it? Like many other 30 and 40 somethings, perhaps, I found myself somewhat apprehensive when taking my seat: the success of this particular sci-fi fantasy seemed to matter much more to me than it should. I’m old enough to have seen the originals in the cinema as a wide-eyed child they were released. The first Star Wars was the picture that introduced me – and a generation – to the capacity of film to open up new worlds. Those first movies took deep root and entangled themselves in my imagination and, whether I wanted to or not, I have some emotional investment in the success of The Force Awakens.

So it was with some relief that after just a few scenes it became clear – to me at least – that the future of Star Wars is in safe hands. The film works not just because of the unexpected opportunity to see Han, Chewbacca, Leia and co again, not just because the new characters seem worthy successors, and not just because the movie looks as good as one could hope. More importantly still, The Force Awakens identifies and is driven by the same dynamic that made the first trilogy so compelling. Those films presented a visceral universe of simple, stark contrasts – between good and evil, freedom and tyranny, scruffy desert worlds and sophisticated star destroyers – that charged them with a raw excitement and offered a disorientating, dazzling visual spectacle.

The inaugural movie established the template, introducing us to a ragtag band of characters each with their own dream of freedom: Luke, yearning for escape from a humdrum farming life on the backwater planet Tatooine; Leia, an aristocratic refugee seeking to restore a civilised republic fallen into dictatorship; and Han, a rootless smuggler forever on the run. Over the course of the film they are brought together to join a larger struggle for freedom, that of the Rebel Alliance against the Empire, an authoritarian regime seeking to impose a new totalitarian order.

The simple theme of liberty against tyranny is underlined by a radical clash of aesthetics. The world of the Rebels is technologically advanced but chaotic. Everything is improvised, provisional, make-do, a pragmatic spirit perhaps most starkly represented by the rough-and-ready infrastructure of Tatooine, the setting for Star Wars’ opening scenes. Luke’s gravity-defying landspeeder is pure sci-fi, but is encrusted with dirt, and bolted together with spare parts. The drinking hole in the sand-blasted city of Mos Eisley is a grimy tavern from the pages of Dickens. The Millennium Falcon, capable of travelling faster than the speed of light, is a patched-up ‘piece of junk’.

The Mad Max world of Tatooine, with its gimcrack engineering, stemmed from Lucas’s aspiration to create a ‘used universe’: impressed by the worn, weathered, scorched appearance of the Apollo space rockets, he wanted the world of the Rebels to have a rough, lived-in look. His insistence that everything on dusty old planets like Tatooine should have a history, and communicate a sense of past adventure, accounts for the endless fascination the Star Wars universe holds for so many: here, it seems, is a three-dimensional world with an intriguing backstory, a past that we are invited to imagine for ourselves (as aficionados have done with ample conscientiousness – see, amongst many other examples, the exhaustive digital encyclopaedia Wookiepedia).

The Empire’s aesthetic, in stark contrast, manifests a desire for absolute order. This is a clinical world of sleek surfaces, typified by the gleaming armour and martial discipline of the Stormtroopers, the monochrome ultra-modernism of the Death Star, and the neat, compact TIE-Fighters that seem to employ a different order of technology from the Rebels’ scruffy X-Wings.

This bracing interplay of clashing ideals and aesthetics ran through the original trilogy, firing it with an energy absent from Lucas’s prequels, which followed a slow burning, complex narrative charting how a civil war within the Republic gave rise to the Empire. Here, like is pitched against like: conflict takes the form of mannered disputes within councils of Jedis, diplomats and politicians, resolved by ‘clone wars’ between rival robot armies that look much the same. The extensive use of CGI gives the films a pristine digital sheen quite unlike the analogue ambience of the originals.

The Force Awakens rediscovers the classic Star Wars formula. Sympathetic new characters such as Rey, Finn and Poe, like Luke, Leia and Han before them, are all, in their own way, in search of new adventure. Han and Chewbacca are older and wiser, but retain their anarchic spark. Lucas’s ‘used universe’ has been recreated with love: Jakku follows the tradition of Tatooine, a gritty makeshift world of spaceports coated in dirt.

And on the ‘dark’ side, things are very dark indeed. The First Order, the successor to the Empire, is even nastier, an Isis to the Empire’s Taliban. The clinical Imperial aesthetic is retained, but now with an explicitly fascist edge. Lucas’s carefully choreographed Death Star ceremonies owed something to the imagery of the Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will, but Abrams’s massed ranks of Stormtroopers, addressed by fanatic Teutonic generals, are straight out of the Nuremberg Rally. And the Order’s apocalyptic technologies are even more diabolical than those of the Empire. The Death Star boasted a not unimpressive capacity to destroy moons, but the Order’s Starkiller Base, a planet converted to a superweapon, is capable of eliminating entire star systems.

The perils of ‘recapturing the magic’

Like the original series The Force Awakens throws the viewer into a discordant, thrilling world of clashing personalities, motivations, ideals and visual styles that the movie fly by. It certainly feels like the satisfying sequel for which so many have been waiting for more than 30 years. But Abrams’s overriding concern to ‘recapture the magic’ is both the strength and weakness of his new film.

The old Star Wars universe is brilliantly recreated, the convincing appearance of its imaginary landscapes owing much to Abrams’s insistence that wherever possible life scale models be used instead of CGI. There’s the thrill of seeing the old characters so many years on, and of riding again with Han and Chewbacca in the Millennium Falcon. (Indeed The Force Awakens makes it clear just how important Solo was to the success of the originals, a sardonic presence in the midst of even the most desperate predicament, reminding everyone that all this is just a fantasy.) And the new characters are woven seamlessly into the story, continuing the admirable Star Wars tradition of casting relatively unknown actors in major roles. Rey (Daisy Ridley), the new Skywalker, ensures the series keeps up with 21st century expectations for strong female leads. The First Order’s Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) is a literally monstrous manifestation of evil. And most intriguingly of all, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a Jedi gone to the Dark Side, ensures the thread of inter-generational conflict that was represented by the dynamic between Luke and Darth is woven into the new series.

But this concern to recapture past glories comes with a cost. The Force Awakens references so many familiar icons and themes that the film’s freedom to innovate is constrained. As in Star Wars, the opening scenes are set on a desert world that more or less replicates Tatooine. As in Star Wars Han et al escape on the Millennium Falcon amidst a barrage of TIE-Fighter fire. As in Star Wars there’s a violent encounter with Solo’s rival space smugglers. As in Star Wars there’s a scene in a rowdy, cosmopolitan bar. Good as it is to see Solo, Chewbacca and Leia again, the reintroduction of other old favourites seems forced: C-3PO and R2-D2 are shoehorned into the story even though a cute new droid, BB-8, is effectively a new R2. And the rebel mission is virtually the same as in the first movie: to blow up an artificial planet by means of an audacious X-Wing raid. By the end there is an unmistakable feeling that boxes are being ticked to keep everyone happy: a sense of Star Wars-by-numbers. So much is revisited or reinvented that there’s little attempt to open up new worlds.

Another problem is the film’s breathless pace. Abrams has a gift for propulsive cinematic storytelling, but I would have welcomed more opportunities to get to know the new characters, and to luxuriate in the movie’s fabulous environments. Instead we are moved relentlessly through a series of spectacular action sequences, as if our attention could not otherwise be assured. Don’t worry, the film looks great: we’re watching.

But Abrams has time on his side: at least two more films are to come. The Empire Strikes Back and The Return of the Jedi worked as sequels because they revealed new dimensions of the rich world suggested by their predecessor, and fleshed out its characters: Abrams’s sequels need to do the same.

But for those of us who care rather too much about all this, and there are a lot of us, The Force Awakens has succeeded in its primary purpose: to re-enchant a much-loved universe, and to promise new adventures. So far, the Force is with the new trilogy.

The image above is copyright of Disney.