Thursday 14 December 2017

From the archive: "Star Wars: The Force Awakens"

So here it is, then: the Second Coming. Expectations have expanded stratospherically in the years since JJ Abrams, off the back of jumpstarting the Starship Enterprise, announced he was to take over from George Lucas at the helm of the world’s favourite children’s film franchise, and thereby finish up the grand nine-movie design his predecessor had sketched out. You therefore approach Star Wars: The Force Awakens with a headful of questions. Is it better than the prequels? Surely it couldn’t possibly be any worse? And given that tickets have long been booked, what does it matter?

Would it be so deflating, then, if I said I found Episode VIII much of a muchness? Abrams’ greatest achievement may have been to turn in a feature that tessellates so closely with what’s gone before – and might, in time, assume its rightful place in a nine-disc boxset. A sand dune, a sunset, a certain consistency of desert light: the appearance of all these elements in the opening half-hour is all but guaranteed to make fans feel they’re home again. (One advance on the prequels: Abrams springs us from those boardrooms in which we were stuck hearing deathly debates about tax reform.)

This is plainly no reboot – as Star Trek was – but a renewal, loyal at every turn to the Lucasian interpretation of the universe as a vast intergalactic playground, goodies on one side, baddies on the other, John Williams’ chivvying score insistent upon letting viewers know who to cheer and when to boo. Given that we often have no clear idea why we’re on a particular planet watching something being shot to smithereens, it’s reassuring to know where we are philosophically, even if this Manichean worldview again reduces the actors to action figures.

Force isn’t so revolutionary as to banish franchise cinema’s endemic thespwaste: it’s still full of performers who’ve signed up anticipating the size of the stage, only to realise how limited they are upon it. Enthusiastic ingénues John Boyega and Daisy Ridley – a new Han, a new Leia – at least provide appealingly blank slates, as the Harry Potter leads did before them. Yet baddie Domhnall Gleeson, so open and charming in Brooklyn, looks constipated stalking spaceship corridors in his Triumph of the Will topcoat, while Oscar Isaac – either a new Luke or a new Denis Lawson; Abrams isn’t sure – vanishes amid diffuse plotting.

Even the potentially epochal clash with which Force opens – Jedi elder Max von Sydow versus Empire rat Adam Driver, the knight from The Seventh Seal pitted against Lena Dunham’s loverboy – proves a nothingy affair: Driver, surely now established as among the cosmos’s most idiosyncratic performers, is stuck behind a mask and under robes that render him just another inexpressive baddie in black. (Transpires he’s not even the new Vader, rather helping out a CG Voldemort. Here’s hoping Episode VIII sees Driver enlist Ray from Girls to take up his gripes with some celestial ombudsman.)

Abrams is cannier around the oldtimers: he knows, for one, that reintroducing them too close to the opening fanfare would leave everybody in puddles too soon. We’re instead told upfront that Luke’s gone AWOL, and while Harrison Ford bounds in, it’s at a markedly less convincing speed than he once did; his erstwhile sweetheart Carrie Fisher similarly looks a shade embarrassed to be venturing hokey platitudes about the dark side, so soon after spitting mouthfuls of venom on TV’s Catastrophe.

Nevertheless, their reappearance marks the only time Abrams’ film connects to anything palpably human rather than solely fantastical. Here, we’re allowed to register real time – cruelly different from space-time, or movie time – written into actual, unmasked faces; the performers have aged, even as the film’s target audience has stayed the same, lulled into credulity by forces more powerful than even the Sith.

At its best – most notably in the final third, where the narrative assumes some clarity and, yes, force – Episode VII plays like plainsung fan fiction: a love letter penned by a nerd for the benefit of his fellow forum-dwellers, full of thoughtful throwbacks to earlier, shared nights in the dark. For at least an hour, though, The Greatest Story Ever Told™ felt not greatly more rewarding to me than any attempt to relaunch Coca-Cola as New Coke: introducing certain untested ingredients, pulling others out, ensuring the product sells and slips down as usual.

For anyone showing up simply to see a pricier version of the films of their youth, Force has furry monsters, lightsaber fights and even plans for a bigger Death Star, both clinching evidence of blockbuster bloat and proof no-one within this universe has learnt a thing from history. All this will leave millions happy this Christmas, and after the year we’ve had, only a Grinch would gnash their teeth at that. I hope, though, that the Empire will permit me this declaration of independence: it took half an hour of The Force Awakens to confirm the fact, but it is with equal parts melancholy and sweet relief I can now state that, at a Methuselean 37 years of age, I am now several lightyears too old for this shit.

(MovieMail, December 2015)

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is available on DVD through Disney; the latest episode, The Last Jedi, is now playing in cinemas nationwide, and is reviewed here.

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