The action opens on Jakku, a desert planet strewn with the wreckage from past conflicts – the monstrous remains of a burned-out Star Destroyer lie half buried in the sand, while one of the principal characters has a make-shift shelter inside the hollow leg of a derelict AT-AT Walker. This seems a useful metaphor for JJ Abrams‘ new film itself, which exists in the shadow of its own vast and inescapable history. There is a mask-wearing villain, a self-assured pilot, a diminutive astromech droid that carries a secret holographic image, a young firebrand possessed of untapped powers, a powerful new battle station… which Star Wars film are we talking about here exactly? A New Hope? Or The Force Awakens? While Abrams’ film ostensibly picks up events 30 years on from Return Of The Jedi, it carries tropes or plot points – even scenes and snatches of dialogue – repurposed from George Lucas’ original trilogy. As excellent as it is, The Force Awakens often feels less like a sequel and more like an astute reboot, with Abrams taking us on a nostalgic tour around the Outer Rim’s beloved hotspots. “Here we go again,” noted C-3PO – presciently, it turns out – in Return Of The Jedi.
It is perhaps inevitable that Abrams has stuck so assiduously to Lucas’ original movies. The prequels – which ran from 1999 to 2005 – demonstrated how far the series’ creator could lose sight of his original vision. Evidently Abrams – and Disney, presumably, who paid $4 billion for the rights in 2012 – is keen to restore the series to its former glories. It seems the fastest way to do that is essentially fill this new film with crowd-pleasing riffs on (mostly) A New Hope with some cunningly inverted plot points from The Empire Strikes Back for good measure. But such devotion to the original trilogy can feel restrictive. Do we really need another planet-sized battle station?
In fact, the film’s first hour is less encumbered by the earlier films and feels ligher as a consquence. Here, we meet Abrams’ new heroes – Poe Dameron, a cocky pilot with the Resistance (Oscar Isaac); Rey (Daisy Ridley), a self-sufficient scavenger on Jakku; Finn (John Boyega), a Stormtrooper with a conscience; BB8, Dameron’s cheery astromech droid. As a kind of surrogate Han Solo, Isaac has a good line in cynical wisecracks, although Ridley and Boyega deliver the strongest performances. Ridley’s Rey is a semi-feral force of nature, while Boyega’s morally conflicted Finn shows us the human face behind the trooper’s mask. There is even a lovely sequence where Finn and Rey unconsciously assume parental roles for BB8, clucking over the impetuous little droid.
It might have made narrative sense for Abrams to focus solely on these new faces; but such is the inescapable gravitational pull of Star Wars that it behoves him to revisit many old favourites. Certainly, it is impossible not to feel an emotional tug when Han and Chewie walk into the Millennium Falcon for the first time. In fact, Solo and the Falcon’s first mate get the most screen time of the original characters; Harrison Ford creaks visibly in places, but essentially he is unchanged since last we saw him. Carrie Fisher’s General Leia Organa has a handful of key scenes; after having watched Fisher’s deliciously acidic matriarch in Catastrophe, it’s fun watching her dial back down to revisit Leia. Mark Hamill’s enigmatic Luke Skywalker – curiously absent from the publicity campaign, of course – arrives sporting an Orson Welles-style beard. There are turns, too, for R2D2 and C-3PO (sporting a red left arm; the cynic in me assumes this is to distinguish a new Threepio action figure from the previous toys). In a way, Threepio’s red arm is another good indicator of what Abrams wants to achieve with this film – it’s the same, only slightly different.
And what of the bad guys? The trailer revealed hoards of Stormtroopers appearing to re-enact Triumph Of The Will against a snow-capped mountain backdrop: these are the villainous, Nazi-like cadre The First Order – essentially the Empire, but even more fascist. Into this old/new mix comes Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren: a Vader-style baddie in a metal mask and black, monk-like robes, Ren comes with his own inner torment and he may well prove to be a better villain than Vader himself. Driver is terrific, incidentally, mixing a detached, deadpan delivery with snarling, violent tantrums. Elsewhere, there are roles for Max Von Sydow, Dromhall Gleeson and – God help us – Andy Serkis in motion capture.
Reading this back, I feel like I’ve picked away at what is broadly a brilliant film. The pacing works, the model work is faultless, and the acting is a significant improvement on any of the previous six films. The old school vibes – matte painting, sets, animatronics – deliberately contradicts the prequels’ elaborate use of CGI; critically, it reminds you how tactile the landscape of Tattoine, Dagobah or Hoth were in the original films. The script – by Lawrence Kasdan and Abrams along with Michael Arndt – is tight and restores much of the light touches and deft humour absent from the prequels. Abrams’s film often feels genuinely thrilling – the sight of a squadron of X-Wing fighters skimming the surface of a lake, the Millennium Falcon breaking through to hyperspace, the thrum and clash of a lightsabre battle.
It is a warm and shrewd reminder of what we loved about the films in the first place; if only it wasn’t quite so deferential. In any case, let the wild speculation about Episode VIII now begin: just what will Rian Johnson do with Luke, Rey, BB8 and co..? Will he stick so respectfully to Lucas’ originals, or now Abrams has re-established a familiar template, does that give Johnson license to explore new aspects that can move the trajectory further?
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The January 2016 issue of Uncut is now on sale in the UK – featuring Paul Weller, David Bowie, Best Of 2015, Roger Waters, Father John Misty, Pere Ubu, Robert Forster, Natalie Prass, James Brown, Bruce Springsteen, Sunn O))), Jonny Greenwood, Arthur Lee & Love, Neil Young, Janis Joplin and more.
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