A Force Re-Awakens?

by Jackie_South on December 15, 2015

 “I’m sorry, but I’m not going to watch the Clone Wars TV series until I’ve seen the Clone Wars movie. I prefer to let George Lucas disappoint me in the order he intended.”
(The Big Bang Theory)

This week’s premiere of Star Wars: The Force Awakens has got a number of the All That’s Left boys excited. The exception is Charlie East-West, who is a little younger than the rest of us. I think that small age gap is crucial in our differing views.

You see, George, Ray, Bobby and I all grew up with Star Wars. We were seven when the first film came out, surely the ideal age. We were ten for Empire‘s release, just old enough to appreciate its darker tone. We were 13 at Return of the Jedi – young enough to be excited, old enough to want to be seen as too cool to be and to take the mickey out of it.

Perhaps if we were 22 years younger, we would have appreciated the three prequels more, but they were a massive disappointment. It did not stop us going to see all three in the cinema though. And it won’t stop us buying our tickets for the latest installment.

I can understand the criticisms of Star Wars. With the exception of The Empire Strikes Back, the plots are uncomplex, the charecterisation simplistic, the dialogue clunky. Every film has gaping plot holes: even the best. In Star Wars, why does a brand spanking new space station, presumably built in the vacuum of space, have a tentacled monster living in its rubbish crusher? As Wired points out, why was the Empire’s attack with overwhelming on the rebel base on Hoth such a debacle?

If the Seventies was the decade of great method acting, the wizz-bang special effects of Star Wars were its antithesis and the profits it made meant clever film-making was eclipsed by safe block-busters and merchandising.

But the hold it still has on the imaginations of many is not just an accident of age, the first two films are genuine masterpieces. Here’s our quick run-down of all six to date.

Star Wars (I stubbornly refuse to call it A New Hope) was a well-crafted Sci-Fi re-writing of Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress and is a brilliantly told tale of good vs bad, coming of age and well-paced thrills. George has already written about its mastery in more length in a Cine East post.

It redefined Sci-Fi in two important respects. Firstly, it was the first one that was effectively science fantasy – being a time a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away freed it from having to tell how you got to the setting. It isn’t “Science” Fiction at all really – unlike any previous science fiction film, there is no explanation about how things work, they just do. Explanation that might get in the way of narrative is jettisoned.

Secondly, its grubby-ing of sets and items to make them look used, rather than the pristine shiny-ness of previous Sci-fi, enabled the lived-in feeling of Blade Runner and Alien. That grubbyness is used to help tell the tale: the ramshackle rebels against the spotless Empire.

It also offered a smorgasbord of film genre references from the film school graduate Lucas. Ray and George once had a heated pub argument about whether the film is a fairy story or a western. It is both: the fantasy of a wizard’s apprentice on an epic quest to rescue a princess, a (partly) desert-based tale of a Magnificent Seven of misfits with shoot outs between white hats versus black hats and bar brawls.  It is also a World War II flying ace movie and, with C3PO and R2D2, a buddy comedy in the tradition of Laurel and Hardy. It gleefully nabs choice bits from the two great American Sci- Fi series: Flash Gordon (the scrolling titles) and Star Trek (where warp drive becomes hyper space).

It also reflects the American Dream, or at least its sense of exceptionalism in its history. Grubby, poorly equipped rebels standing up against an all powerful Empire? Isn’t that the tale of the American Revolution? Is it not also the tale of Sixties’ counter-culture: the hippy rebels standing up to The Man?

But there again, is that also dangerous? Is this not also the tale of Islamic fundamentalists (the Jedis are a religious cult with backward views after all) opposing the USA? Or perhaps of the Confederacy defying the Union? There’s a germ of truth in that Chasing Amy rant about a “cracker farm boy” taking on the “blackest brother in the galaxy”.

It is of course the only film in the series that stands alone. You do not need the prequels to explain it, you do not really need the next two films to reach a conclusion of the tale.

Score: 5 out of 5

The Empire Strikes Back then takes it in a darker direction. Han Solo’s unresolved capture and the shock of Vader’s revelation that he is Luke’s father was truly chilling and confusing. The subtle dark undertone at the very end of the film – where Luke’s severed hand is replaced by a robotic one, perhaps a first step in him becoming as mechanised as his father, is genius and must be one of the great cinematic cliff-hangers of all time in a trilogy.

But that is not all it has to offer. The battle on Hoth (despite its tactical flaws) is superb, tension-filled action. Like Star Wars, and unlike any of the rest of the series, it handles the dog-fighting plane fights as well as any WW2 drama. There are the genuine surprises: that the apparently simple-minded swamp dwelling dwarf is the Jedi master, that the Millennium Falcon’s hiding place is in fact within a monster, that Darth Vader has reached the Cloud City first. There are the hints littered through the film of the climactic revelation. There is the betrayal by Lando Calrissian and start of his redemption. There is the blossoming romance between Han and Leia.

Oh, but how did Darth Vader keep his job? For all of the Empire striking back, it starts with him cocking up the destruction of the rebels on Hoth and ends with him letting the leader of the rebellion, Leia, escape due to his obsession with converting Luke. A bad week in the office, Darth old son.

Score: 5 out of 5 

The remaining four films though are mediocre.

Return of the Jedi is a shit sandwich: a great start with the Jabba stuff, a great end with the Luke-Vader-Emperor tension, a load of teddy bear bollocks in between.

If part of the joy for a young kid with Star Wars and Empire are the universe of infinite possibilities, Jedi is when the series starts to run out of ideas. It starts back on Tatooine (see Star Wars). It features a heavily forested moon (see the rebels’ base in Star Wars). It has a new Death Star (see Star Wars) which has similar design flaws for the rebels to exploit. Whilst the revelation that Vader is Luke’s father in Empire is shocking, the revelation here that Leia is Luke’s sister feels awkward.

But the tension and sense of jeopardy in the three way conflict between the Emperor, Luke and Darth Vader goes some way to redeem the film. For two films, Vader is the ultimate bad guy, yet here the evil of the Emperor eclipses him. Luke faces the dual threats of death and corruption. Is his faith in his father the misplaced love of a son?

Oh, and any piece about Jedi would be incomplete without another Kevin Smith link: this is from Clerks about the moral political choices made by construction workers.

Score: 3 out of 5 

And with that, and a sixteen year wait, we sadly come to the prequel trio of films.

I went to the cinema to see The Phantom Menace with a sense of expectant joy: when the titles started, someone in the audience yelled “yee-haa” and that pretty much summed up the view of everyone there. But then we watched a turgid mess that was the direst of the lot.

The film starts with a trade dispute and ends with a power cut, and has too much Jar Jar Binks in between. Whilst the first films drop explanation in favour of narrative, Phantom creates some cod science about The Force being linked to mitochondria. The one redeeming feature is Palpatine’s scheming on his way to become the Emperor.

In my opinion, Phantom‘s biggest sin though is not Jar Jar or the allegations of antisemitism in the portrayal of the Faginesque slave master, it is that it compromises the whole second trilogy with its lack of imagination drawing the Lucas universe too small. Despite both owning C3PO and R2D2, neither Kenobi or Vader recognise the robots in original films. Vader also seems not to know anything about Tatooine in Star Wars, despite Phantom Menace telling us he grew up there! That infinite universe with its endless possibilities to excite a seven year old Jackie had become very small indeed.

I also cannot help but notice that Liam Neeson had hardly put a foot wrong before Phantom. Try naming one good film with him as the lead since. Then try the same test with Ewan McGregor.

Score: 1 out of 5 (the one point is for Palpatine)

Of the second trilogy, Attack of the Clones is the best. It has a proper villain with Christopher Lee’s Count Dooku, some puzzles to get your head around with the genesis of the stormtrooper clones, political machinations, Yoda’s light-sabre fight, the secret romance between Anakin and Padme, Samuel L Jackson kicking ass and a load of Wookies.

But it all feels less than a sum of its parts. None of the fights have real tension. There is little emotional connection with the characters.

Score: 2 out of 5

Revenge of the Sith felt a little too contrived, although the scene of the creation of Darth Vader was excellent. But the whole story about Anakin becoming Vader basically as a bit of a teenage sulk tarnished the whole series a little.

The film ultimately suffers from the fact that we know how it has to end. Whilst that is fine in the Godfather Part II, that is because it is being told alongside another story with an unknown outcome. Whilst we want to discover how impulsive but good Anakin ends up being transformed into the epitome of evil, much of the rest feels awkwardly forced to tie up the ends. The return to what is meant to be the little known backwater of Tatooine (for a fifth film in the series) to hide Luke on what must be the most obvious planet in the universe, the wiping of the droids’ memories, the adoption of Leia: it is all just going through the motions.

Score: 1.5 out of 5

None of this will stop me going to the cinema to see The Force Awakens though. The advantage JJ Abrams has is that he is not hamstrung by known outcomes in the same way that the prequel trilogy were. His skill with the Star Trek reboot shows that he can take a revered original and stay both true to it whilst breathing new life into it. This time, we have new, fresh, characters and we don’t know what will happen to the old ones: will they go on to die at a ripe old age or get killed off? Unlike the prequels, there are genuine opportunities to surprise us now with plot twists.

It is that faith that will drive me to the cinema. Whilst my faith in Lucas may be as dented as my faith in the British electorate, this time I can genuinely see how things can get better.

And so I desperately hope that Abrams can rescue the series. I have to believe. I want The Force Awakens to be at least a 4 out of 5.

Or will George disappoint me one more time?

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