Star Wars: The Force Awakens

December 17, 2015
John Boyega & Daisy Ridley in 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' (2015)
John Boyega & Daisy Ridley in 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' (2015)

In preparation for the new Star Wars movie I planned to work my way through the six previous installments in this never-ending saga. At the end of the of year there is virtually nothing to write about until Boxing Day brings a swag of new releases, so I had time to do my homework.

It was ages since I’d seen one of these films, so I started with the original opener of 1977, now pegged as Episode IV: A New Hope. Feeling thoroughly unimpressed, I switched to Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999), the first of three prequels. This one was really terrible.

As I continued browsing in the Star Wars mythos I kept asking myself if I could endure watching these six movies from end to end? The short-term answer was “No”. There may come a day when I force myself to absorb all the Star Wars films, if only for the sake of completism, but it felt like my brain was turning to mush. Despite the millions of people who seem to be addicted to this story, despite the billions of dollars hoovered up at the box office, these films are so superficial it makes one despair for our poor, febrile civilisation. It’s depressing to think there are so many grown-ups passionately devoted to a franchise seemingly targeted at 12 year olds.

Star Wars is not great science fiction. It is not great story-telling. It is not great cinema. It’s received wisdom that the first three films were better than the next three, but all feature a numbing repetition of spaceship battles, duels with lightsabers, and mass slaughter by-and-of storm troopers in white, completely useless plastic armour.

When we’re not watching those typical Hollywood brawls in which a handful of Our Heroes massacre hundreds of incompetent enemies, we’re savouring a galaxy of rubber-faced or furry-faced aliens that look as if they were designed by Patricia Piccinini, with the same cloying mixture of cuteness and ugliness. And then there are those lovable robots!

The story is one long, galactic soap opera filled with intergenerational tensions and Oedipal rivalries. The good guys have faces and personalities, while the bad guys wear masks. The uniforms and general behaviour of the villains are crudely reminiscent of the Nazis. This is popular culture in its most accessible form. Everybody recognises the basic signs of good and evil, just like everyone understands those conflicts between parents and children.

In the real world of adult-child conflict it would be gratifying to blame disagreements on an abstract power such as The Force. “It looks like Jason has gone over to the Dark Side this weekend…”

Unlike a film such as The Martian, in which every detail had plausibility, the Star Wars movies are the purest fantasy. Characters zoom through the cosmos at the speed of light – and in “hyperdrive” – with the same ease that we drive down the M4 – greater ease in fact, because there is less traffic in space. Everybody seems to communicate in English, or to understand every other language, including the growlings of the Wookiee, and the beeps and pops of the mini-robots. Most planets seem to have oxygen, and the same gravity as earth.

The series is a cornucopia of pop cultural references. The Jedi knights are displaced samurai, Chewbacca the Wookiee is Tonto to Han Solo’s Lone Ranger, and so on. The Force stands in place of the supreme metaphysical concept, God.

One of the standard features of these films is that they always seem to begin in the middle. Even the first episode of 1977 starts with the Princess Leia’s ship being raided by Darth Vader and his minions long before we know anything about these characters or the worlds they inhabit. We are thrust into the action and obliged to figure out what’s going on. It gives the impression of a continuum with neither beginning or end – the dream scenario for a successful Hollywood franchise.

The new installment, Episode VII: The Force Awakens, begins in a predictably abrupt manner, when the storm troopers of the fascistic First Order attack the desert planet, Jakku, in search of a map that will lead them to series stalwart, Luke Skywalker.

It has been widely reported that new director, J.J.Abrams, has taken a ‘back to basics’ approach, ignoring the prequels and returning us to a period after episode VI, The Return of the Jedi (1983). This has entailed getting rid of some of the more pointless characters (there is nothing as irritating as Jar Jar Binks), bringing back old favourites, and unearthing new talent.

In a calculated echo of the opening scenes of the 1977 film, Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) conceals the map in a midget droid, BB-8, who avoids capture. Meanwhile, one of the anonymous storm troopers is having a crisis of conscience, and decides he doesn’t want to massacre innocent people any longer. This character, who will be known as Finn (John Boyega), decides to help Poe escape.

Roaming in the desert, BB-8 encounters a female scavenger called Rey (Daisy Riley), who takes him/it under her wing. When Finn and Poe crash their escape plane on Jakku the two strands of the story come together in predictable fashion. As the First Order attack the planet, Rey, Finn and BB-8 escape in a battered plane that turns out to be the Millenium Falcon, the legendary spaceship belonging to Han Solo (Harrison Ford), the smuggler who played a starring role in the early films.

Who should they encounter in deep space but Han Solo himself, with his faithful companion, Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew). Now that the cast of good guys is complete, the Oedipal complexities begin to bite.

It seems the chief evil presence in the First Order ranks is one Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the new Darth Vader wannabee. The tragic irony is that Kylo Ren is actually the son of Han Solo and Princess – now General – Leia (Carrie Fisher), even though he is devoted to the Dark Side. When Han Solo and Leia get together they reminisce like an old divorced couple, and express all sorts of hopes for their wayward son.

Their parental feelings are apparently so strong they can ignore the fact that Kylo Ren is responsible for murder and mayhem on a grand scale. The First Order have built a planet-sized weapon, from which they launch massive laser beams capable of destroying other worlds. These scenes are zoomed past with remarkable speed, considering the gravity of the crime.

After another deadly battle with the First Order troopers, in which Rey is taken captive, Han Solo, Chewbacca and Finn set out on a rescue mission. Their greater objective is to penetrate the First Order defences and disable the mega-weapon. This leads to the big, dramatic finale, which I won’t spoil.

One of the underlying aims of The Force Awakens is to set up the series for at least another two episodes. This entails a handing over of the baton – almost literally symbolised by the tube of a lightsaber – from one generation to the next. In line with the enlightened times in which we live, it seems that a young woman and a black man will be the ones to carry that baton forward into chapters VIII and IX. Rey and Finn are the emerging heroes who will take over from the aged Han Solo and Leia. In the next film Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is poised to return as the mentor of this new breed.

By any measure J.J.Abrams has done a much better job with his first Star Wars feature than the series creator, George Lucas, managed with the prequels. This is partly due to a willingness to borrow astutely from other popular sources. Rey has more than a touch of Katniss Everdeen in her character, while Spielberg’s Indiana Jones movies are also somewhere in the mix – not least in the judicious use of Harrison Ford.

The action sequences are skilfully done, inducing a feeling of suspense without overwhelming the plot. As the plot is scarcely less ridiculous than the battle scenes this assists with the necessary suspension of disbelief. To get the most out of The Force Awakens it has to be seen on the big screen, with or without 3D. As I’ve found at home, when one removes the element of large-scale spectacle the limitations of these movies become too obvious for comfort.

With box office in excess of US$200 million for its opening weekend, nothing can derail this juggernaut which will probably become the highest grossing movie of all time. It is a product of a relentless marketing campaign riding on the back of the world’s biggest cinematic cult. Star Wars is the greatest merchandising bonanza in screen history, and the new episode has arrived just in time for Christmas. Along with models, action figures, and other junk, you’ll be able to acquire a functioning desktop facsimile of BB-8, operated from a smartphone.

At one point in this film, Han Solo turns to the new faces on the Milennium Falcon and says: “It’s true – the Force, the Jedi, all of it. It’s all true.” It’s not clear whether he’s trying to convince the youngsters, himself, or the audience. This may be a wondrous moment for diehard fans, but the only thing beyond doubt is the enormous pile of cash this movie will leave in its wake.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Directed by J.J. Abrams
Written by Lawrence Kasdan, J.J.Abrams & Michael Arndt, based on characters by George Lucas
Starring Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Harrison Ford, Oscar Isaac, Adam Driver, Carrie Fisher, Peter Mayhew, Andy Serkis, Lupita Nyong’o
USA, rated M, 135 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 19th December, 2015.