My inner 5 year-old re-emerged last night – sans lollipop and tiny acid-wash jeans – for, er, a new hope for one of the most beloved film franchises in history : “Alvin & The Chipmunks”. No.. wait.. that’s next week. I mean, “Star Wars” – George Lucas’s ’70s model-kit demo hosted by a carpenter, walking carpet, whiny blonde, Debbie Reynolds’ kid and a bodybuilder who hid mostly behind a midnight mask. Much like “Chipmunks 4”, it was ridiculous to believe “The Force Awakens” would be the second coming, because it could and never would be, but my goodness if it didn’t at least leave crease marks around my grin.
Granted, from the moment the ‘Lucasfilm’ logo flashed on screen, not to mention the rousing opening crawl (with the unmistakable John Williams’ tune blasting), it was all smiles and soggy eyes anyway. And part-way into proceedings, when Han and Chewie enter the doors of the Millennium Falcon? Well, we needed a mop and bucket in aisle 2. In fact, the ignition sound of a lightsaber had me gooey. But let me preface the rest of this waffle by declaring something : I likely had much of those same warm and fuzzies at the screening of “The Phantom Menace” in 1999 – and today, I hate the film as much as a Kardashian would the thought of a world without butt implants.
Let’s go back to ’99 for a moment. It was easy to get caught up in the excitement for “Episode One”; it had been near two decades since we’d had a “Star Wars” film, and on paper, this one – the story of young Darth Vader – sounded like a yarn worth knowing and getting excited about. Plus, we loved George Lucas like we did Golden Gaytimes. About half an hour into that film though, I remember experiencing a sinking feeling. And it didn’t stop. There was a UFC match inside me. There was something off about this flick. It, I guess, was the immense, excessive use of computer generated imagery (whereas the originals had a woody for doing everything practical – and despite being twenty years younger, the production designed shat all over “Phantom”!), the annoying, unlikeable new characters they were introducing into the world (Jar Jar Binks – part Goofy, part f*ckstick), the dull, inane dialogue and script beats… and I could go on. This just wasn’t the “Star Wars” we were looking for. The dark side had overtaken the projection room and started showing a ToyWorld employee recruitment video instead.
So while I remember doing the Arsenio whoop when “When Annie met Obi” dissolved into it’s first scene, I’d not only laid my hands back on my lap quickly after, but even took a – god forbid, especially in a “Star Wars” flick – quick toilet break (I knew I wouldn’t miss much in Gungan City). George Lucas, the man who had ignited that love of cinema in me, had thrown a tub of H20 over my erect saber. It might never get up again. And though they may have improved somewhat on “The Phantom Menace”, the beard’s follow-ups “Attack of the Clones” and “Revenge of the Sith” were just as tear-stirring and damaging to the series. How could the man who gave us one of the greatest film trilogies of all time then, with all his added years, experience, and wealth, give us one of the most emotive-less. The answer lays somewhere between merchandising rights, an ego and a hard-on for new technology. “Screw story, we’ve found a way that doesn’t even require Frank Oz to come in today!”.
And with that, a million “Star Wars” fans went home and made angry sex to their girlfriends (Han’s not the only one that shot first), occasionally stopping the hip wiggle for a quick tear flare-up and bash of the bed-post.
And that was the end of “Star Wars”. As we knew it, anyway. Sure, we’d always have the original trilogy – albeit with Lucas’s unnecessary “touch-ups” (“I’d always wanted to have a monster crawl out of the sanitation unit in that scene”) – but you could never quite erase the thought of ‘what came next’ while watching Han, Leia, Chewie and Lando party with the fuzzy freakers at the end of “Jedi”. The universe was tainted like crayon on a rental apartment wall.
So while as much as my enjoyment of “The Force Awakens” was about nostalgia, and for the sheer fact that I never thought we’d see another “Star Wars” movie after the hatchet job Lucas did on the previous three, it also remembered a vital ingredient so evidently neglected with the prequels : Fun.
But first, to that nostalgia thing that makes it almost impossible for a dyed-in-the-wool fan to fairly review a “Star Wars” movie. It’s as much about the experience of revisiting this world, as it is the movie, and for that reason, the real consensus on just how great “The Force Awakens” is comes down to the everyday Steve or Eve.. who doesn’t have that personal connection to the franchise. Those that are viewing the film on it’s own merits, without any bias or loyalty to the brand, are the ones whose reviews matter. Every other review you read, particularly from those that are fans of the series, will be somewhat smeared with adoration for the film right off the bat – especially if it, in the first five minutes, doesn’t resemble the prequels.
And it doesn’t. J.J Abrams – replacing the now retired Mr. Lucas (who, though initially involved in Episode VII, was tossed aside – along with his script – in favour of fresh blood and clean foolscap) – has made a sequel to the original trilogy. Besides a forgettable throwaway reference early on, there’s no mention or link of anything in the prequels here. For all intents and purposes, this is “Return of the Jedi 2” with a man at the helm who clearly has a thing for the original movies, the original cast (they’re all back – well, everyone but Lando and Wicket) and the sheer exuberance and pop that everything “A New Hope”, “Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi” possessed. Even from it’s first shots, it’s clear this was also going to look like the original ’70’s/’80’s “Star Wars” movies – right down to the “guys in costumes”, sweeping, beautiful landscape, quiet dialogue moments, and characters – yes, unlike young ‘Annie’ Skywalker, they’ve got actual personalities.
The story line (I’m purposely not talking much about it – – I’d hate for it to have been spoilt for me, though it was somewhat, so I’m not going to do it to you), which involves a new Darth Vader-esque bad guy making a mess of a Galaxy, and the young, lost hopefuls who team with some old pros to take him down – is thinly-written stuff, and doesn’t advance the world of the “Wars” significantly, but it’s the way “Force Awakens” is structured, performed and paced that will win over the audience. From the tense battle sequences (the lightsaber duel near the film’s conclusion is one of the best in the series) to the terrific, spot-on turns of the cast (Harrison Ford gives Han Solo his everything; he’ll surprise even the biggest skeptics with his fun, cool take on the senior smuggler), and the way the thing moves, it’s just a really, enjoyable time. And, as I said, it feels very much like the original movies… or more specifically, the original movie.
For if “Force Awakens” had a weakness it would be that Abrams and co-writer Lawrence Kasdan (“Empire Strikes Back”) have essentially just scrawled a reboot of Lucas’s first, “A New Hope”. Only now it’s a young girl (Daisy Ridley’s Rey), as opposed to a young boy, finding her way towards hero status, it’s a map to a missing hero hidden inside a droid, as opposed to the plans to a space station, and it’s a whole planet, as opposed to just the one, smaller Death Star, that the rebels (or ‘the resistance’ as they’re called now) have to blow up in the third act. And yes, even the twists and turns have a familiar feel to them – a very familiar feel.
As if convinced nothing will ever be as great as the originals, and scared to probably mess with the mold too much in case the fans turn on him like they did Lucas and his prequels, Abrams plays it safe by essentially giving us a a remix of the same story. “Star Wars” fans will recognize all the beats, guess the outcomes and arcs of each character, and see those so-called surprise twists coming a mile away.
In short, the script – and Abrams’ lack of confidence – with it’s determination to be seen as a continuation of the original trilogy, and not it’s own, but also some of the sloppy writing within it (too many coincidences in the story – things just happen without reason), prevent the film from being the science-fiction epic that it had a chance of being.
But let’s be honest, nobody expected to ever hear the words ‘epic’ and “Star Wars” mentioned in the same breath again, so it’s enough that “Force Awakens” is a damn good film, and exciting “warm up” to, what I’m predicting, will be a very entertaining trilogy.
And if two things don’t work for the movie, then ten things do. The good-to-bad ratio definitely weighs with the positive. Brilliant are the characters and those in their snow boots – newcomer Daisy Ridley is an absolutely mesmerizing and delightful discovery as the plucky Rey, John Boyega is extremely likeable and at times rather hilarious as Fin, The always-dependable Adam Driver gives a wickedly sinister – and also sometimes amusing – turn as the film’s new rogue, indie fave Oscar Isaac is an instant action hero as unwavering good guy Poe Dameron, and Lupita Nyong’o, like Frank Oz with Yoda in the more recent flicks, manages to give a completely CG character some real personality and pizzazz as space pirate Maz Kanata. There’s also a new droid, a small basketball-shaped bit of spunk called BB-8, that despite being completely skeletoned with wires, gives one of the most expressive and enjoyable turns of the movie. In other words : BB-8’s not Jar Jar.
And then, of course, there’s the original crew – Carrie Fisher’s Leia, Mark Hamill’s Luke, droids R2-D2 and C-3P0, Peter Mayhew’s Chewbacca – returning for some of the screen’s most welcome, goosebump-evoking reprises in recent history. But the prize belongs to Harrison Ford who, not being a huge fan of the movie series that gave him his big break back in the ’70s, slips perfectly back into Han Solo right off the bat. Ford’s performance is relaxed, joyful, funny and romantic – he delivers every one of Solo’s lines perfectly (even the less than stellar ones) and his scenes with his co-pilot and long-time Wookie bud are priceless. Unlike his Indiana Jones turn in “Crystal Skull”, Ford seems much more in-tune with the character and seems to be having a hoot – irony and karma are distant cousins, it seems. You’ll hurt from smiling.
J.J Abrams is a master at reigniting burnt-out, immobile franchises – look at what he did for “Mission : Impossible” and “Star Trek” – and he’s done it again with “Star Wars”. Well done, sir. And what usually happens is, once he’s got a film series back on course, Abrams then hands over the reigns on the preceding installments to better, more interesting directors – and with indie sensation Rian Johnson locked in to direct 2017’s “Star Wars : Episode VIII”, one suspects that the best of “Star Wars” trilogy 3 is yet to come.
All is right in the “Star Wars” universe again, and for that Disney, I forgive you for having to wait in a long line at your park for “Peter Pan’s Flight”.