Cine-East Film Club Presents #67: 2015, Star Wars VII – The Force Awakens (JJ Abrams)

by George_East on December 31, 2015

Lor San Tekka: ‘This will begin to make things right’

So after all of the waiting and anticipation it has arrived.  This post has been deliberately held back until all of the Allthatsleft team had seen the film, and hopefully most of our readers who are interested, have also done so.  If not stop reading here. SPOILERS ALERT

I remember clearly going into the Surrey Quays Odeon in 1999 to see The Phantom Menace on its first day of release and being beside myself with excitement about Star Wars being back, after 16 years.  After all for those of us brought up with the original trilogy, there were always supposed to be 9 films – 3 trilogies with the original 3 films sitting in the middle of the entire saga’s story arc.

The lights went down.  The initial title card appeared on the screen: ‘a long time ago in a galaxy far away’ and a big cheer went up in the cinema.  And it was all down hill from there on in, as George Lucas trashed the memory of the original films with his stodgily plotted, poorly written and lets be frank, racist, film.  The next two were marginally better, but lets be honest the three together probably amount to the biggest disappointment and trashing of a legacy in cinema.

It is odd to think that the best thing that ever happened to the Star Wars franchise since the original films was the selling of the franchise for $4Bn by George Lucas to a multinational entertainment conglomerate Disney, given that there is probably no company better in the world than it in milking and merchansdising its product to death.  But that is the case – what Disney were able to do is to take the film away from the creatively dead hands of its progenitor, George Lucas.  Disney were more that aware of the contempt that the prequel trilogy were held in (even though they all made shed loads of cash) and were determined to return the franchise to its former glory,  not least (I suspect) so that the franchise has maximum longevity.

The first and best thing they then did was to employ JJ Abrams as director. Abrams is no artist – he is not Orson Welles.  He is not an auterist director in say the way that Christopher Nolan is (and who provided something of a model with his dark and brooding revamp of the Batman franchise).  But he is an excellent craftsman who is able to give the fans what they want but still provide something fresh and exciting.  This is what he showed with his Star Trek reboot and it is what he had done with The Force Awakens.

Amusingly the papers are reporting today that George Lucas has criticised The Force Awakens as too retro.   A case, I suspect, of an old man knowing that the baton has now been passed to a younger generation, but who is not going to come back stronger than you can ever imagine.

The Force Awakens blends the old – it is in many ways Han Solo’s film, with great new characters in the shape of Rey (Daisy Ridley), Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), Finn (John Boyega) and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac).    All of the newcomers put in excellent performances and feel like rounded characters, in the way that Luke, Han, Leia and Obi Wan did back in the day.

The plot draws hugely on that of the first film: a secret kept in a droid, a young character unknowingly imbued with the force on a quest, a contest between the light of the force and the darkside, a desert planet,  a bar scene, a death star (but only bigger!), a hero with mysterious parentage.   But that said it is hard not to cheer when Han and Chewie arrive, or when we first see the Millennium Falcon, now sold for scrap, or the very first image of the film, a silhouette of an imperial cruiser over a planet (referencing that moment that struck awe into my 7 year old self in Star Wars itself when we first see the scale of an imperial star cruiser as it moves across the screen).

It also does much that is new or at least are twists on old themes – the principal bad guy, Kylo Ren, is complex and conflicted in the way that Darth Vader never was until the final film.  His sulks and tantrums hilariously showing what happens when you mix hormones with deadly powers (in a way that Anakin in the prequel trilogy wholly failed to convince).   A renegade (in the shape of deserting storm trooper Finn) with an unknown back story – suggesting that the white hat/black hat simplicity of the original films is more complex.  Far from being the damsel in distress in need of being rescued Rey  always gets herself out of jeopardy by the time the boys arrive.

The whole thing is held together with a verve and drive that was wholly missing from the prequel trilogy and the story is set up well for the next film.

The backstories of Finn and more particularly Rey provide plenty for speculation – is she Luke’s daughter, Obi-Wan’s granddaughter,  the twin of Kylo Ren (surely they aren’t going to do that again?) or something else entirely.

Sure there are some absurd plot contrivances – in particular R2D2 waking up to provide the rest of the map to find Luke, just in time (and what is it with the need for the other part of the map anyway – surely the star pattern in the excerpt could be mapped on to existing galactic maps to identify where it is in the universe).  There are also some huge gaps in back story – what happened in 30 years to cause the collapse of the Republic (or imminent collapse), why isn’t what is left of the Republic fighting against the First Order (who it would appear haven’t taken over fully yet), instead of leaving it to the rag tag resistance under Leia Organa.   And it does appear that Jedi training really is a bit shit if not done by Yoda – given it has produced Vader (who as Anakin massacred a load of young jedis) and Kylo Ren (who has now done the same).

The next installment of the series is slated to be directed by Rian Johnson, who directed the indie sci fi film, Looper a couple of years back, which is pretty encouraging.  With the great potential of the young new cast and hopefully a continued commitment to focus on character and plot (rather than the rubbish CGI of the prequels), next Christmas may see us raving again.

I just hope that Star Wars VIII is brave enough not to repeat Empire Strikes Back quite as closely as The Force Awakens repeats Star Wars.  Now the fans have been placated and given what they wanted it would be cool to see the franchise go in an original direction.

What did you think?

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Charlie East West January 1, 2016 at 12:52 pm

I agree with all of that, George.
Abrams has created a film that will stand tall with the first trilogy. I just hope the next two films can reach the same standards.
A perfect combination of the old & new – both in terms of characters and scenes.
The film, which was sumptuously detailed and artistic in every scene thankfully reigns back on the CGI while allowing the main characters to grow with effective dialogue.
The cameo characters were both jaw dropping and amusing in equal measure.
Yes, the whole map to Skywalker plot was a bit contrived and ridiculous, but it was one that made it easy for kids to understand.
Just like those wonderful Pixar Toy Story films – The Force Awakens has provided a gateway for a new generation of kids to fall in love with Star Wars (my 10 & 8 year old kids loved it) as well as creating enough themes that older generations would relate to.
Fantastic film.

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