Well here's a thing: I enjoyed a Star Wars film. I even felt a twinge when Han Solo showed up.
|The boys are back in town. (Image copyright: Disney)|
Star Wars: didn’t get it. Maybe I was slightly too old in 1978 to have my imagination fired by Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader and co. I was (and still am) a die-hard Doctor Who fan, which back then meant championing the ingenuity of the stories over the sometimes dodgy visual effects, which you nonetheless staunchly defended because they were done on a slim BBC budget etc. etc. So, Star Wars looked great, but production values aside, for me it was a simplified The Lord of the Rings, with lasers and spaceships instead of swords and dragons. A lucky escape from SW: The Phantom Menace’s horribly unconvincing CGI, as well as actors desperately looking for a director, was nearly enough to put me off for life.
Anyway, there was nothing else me and the lady friend fancied seeing at the pictures on Saturday night, so SW: The Force Awakens it was. I allowed my arm to be twisted because JJ Abrams was directing and involved in the writing. This was the man who revitalised the Star Trek films by going back to basics, so at the very least it would be interesting to see what he’d come up with.
As it turns out, the same approach. The Force Awakens’ reliably familiar story riffs on the original 1977 film and perhaps helps to explain why, when you take away the astonishing VFX and monsters, the Star Wars franchise became so universally popular: two young people from humble origins wrestle with who they are and their place in the world, turning into fully fledged heroes by the final reel. (And it can’t be coincidence that other money-spinning franchises like Twilight, Harry Potter and The Hunger Games have all used the same idea).
Crucially, the two heroes in question are likeable and likeably played: Rey (Daisy Ridley, whose great uncle, Arnold, was Private Godfrey in Dad’s Army – with that revelation, the film was already winning me over) and Finn (John Boyega). Conceptually, they’re the main innovations, as Rey becomes a female Jedi knight who could out-feist Katniss Everdeen, while ‘Finn’ – his name deriving from the designation FN2187 – is a Stormtrooper who rejects the fascist First Order. I really liked this idea: the white, robotic Stormtrooper uniforms submerge the wearers’ identity so completely that it’s a neat twist to see, for the first time (?), the flesh and blood under the armour. The First Order kidnapping children to indoctrinate them into soldiers suggests current fanatical groups like Islamic State, but that’s as contemporary as the film gets.
Less impressively, a soapy family storyline is again central to events. I wonder how much committed Star Wars fans thought it was pushing it to have Han Solo as the father of Darth-in-waiting Kylo Ren (the disturbingly intense Adam Driver), reversing the villain/father, hero/son relationship of Darth Vader and Luke Sywalker? I didn’t actually mind, as their confrontation is the most dramatically rewarding scene in the film, but it has to be said that this and all The Force Awakens’ major plot beats replicate events from Episode IV: a secret message hidden in a droid which the baddies hunt for on a desert planet, the interrogation of the heroine, a rescue raid on the baddies’ HQ, the final assault by a rebel fighter force on a super weapon… take your pick. Perhaps the idea was to reassure an audience put off by the three prequels they were watching Star Wars again. If so, it worked. Even I felt a nostalgic twinge at the appearance of familiar situations and characters.
In the end this recycling didn't matter, because what Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan – significantly, the co-writer of The Empire Strikes Back and, less significantly, The Return of the Jedi – have reaffirmed is that Star Wars isn’t really about SF or the originality of the story. It’s not accidental that, as in the original trilogy, the uniformed villains are all played by British actors speaking Received Pronunciation English and being directed like World War II Nazis. At one point, Domnhall Gleeson’s General Hux looks like he’s bellowing at the Third Reich, and calling Andy Serkis’ evil mastermind ‘Supreme Leader’ (the Fuhrer, in other words) is a bit of a giveaway. Like the Indiana Jones films, Star Wars is a satisfying distillation of those goodies versus baddies 1930s serials and Nazi-bashing 1940/50s war films, directly implied by the opening ‘story so far’ text and the old-fashioned screen wipes from scene to scene.
This enjoyable self-awareness is also there in the space battles between X-Wings and Tie Fighters, which are clearly modeled on World War II dog fights, and the craggy charm of Harrison Ford’s Solo, who has roguish antecedents in everyone from John Wayne to Humphrey Bogart. The lovely touch of Solo reacquainting himself with the Millennium Falcon was clearly meant to be a metaphor for middle-aged fans of the original Star Wars, welcoming the most cherished parts of their movie series back into the fold.
Cynical manipulation or clever reinvention? It’s up you in the end but for me The Force Awakens can be enjoyed as a rollicking good adventure yarn, rather than that much lesser thing, ‘a Star Wars film’. The CGI is discreet, with models and physical effects foregrounded wherever possible, Carrie Fisher has been allowed to age gracefully and the droid BB87 is so cute I wanted to take him home.
Maybe I get Star Wars after all. Abrams and Kasdan certainly do.