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Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens

#744 - Star Wars: The Force Awakens
J.J. Abrams, 2015

As a galaxy-wide war rages between a fascist regime and a resistance movement, a defecting soldier joins forces with a desert scavenger in order to complete a mission that will turn the tide of the war.

"Safe" is not a word that has seriously applied to any of the first six films in the Star Wars franchise. The original 1977 film was a modestly-budgeted space-opera that was just such a weird and risky project that nobody expected it to become as huge a hit as it did. Follow-up film The Empire Strikes Back became famous off the back of what is arguably the greatest plot twist in cinema history. Even as creator George Lucas made the transition from budding cinematic maverick to one-man marketing machine, his decisions regarding the progression of the franchise do not come across as reluctant acquiescence to the demands of executives and consumers; rather, they reflect a certain capitalistic hubris as he chooses to do things such as insert the cute and cuddly Ewoks into Return of the Jedi even though such a decision might threaten to scupper the series' nascent reputation as a well-rounded and respectable work of science fantasy. The prequels have understandably been reviled as dull, convoluted, and nonsensical affairs that failed to live up to expectations, but it is flaws such as The Phantom Menace's focus on dry topics such as trade disputes and political strife that reflected Lucas's refusal to play into audience's expectations - for better or worse, Star Wars has never really been "safe".

Which brings me to J.J. Abrams.

Prior to The Force Awakens, three of Abrams' four outings as a film director have been based on existing franchises. He started as a journeyman director for Mission: Impossible III, which attempted to compensate for the laughable absurdity of John Woo's Mission: Impossible II by playing out in as straightforward and unobtrusive a manner as possible (which only guaranteed that the end result would ultimately end up being the dullest installment in the franchise). His follow-up was the reboot of beloved sci-fi franchise Star Trek, which opted to dump the original series' tendency towards philosophical substance and nuanced characterisation in favour of flashy action set-pieces that reduced its cast to stock characters in the process. 2013's Star Trek Into Darkness followed up with more of the same, though this time around it opted to re-interpret the critically acclaimed Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan with decidedly unimpressive results. Even Abrams' sole original film Super 8 was defined by how much it owed to old-school Spielberg films like E.T. or Close Encounters of the Third Kind instead of any particular distinguishing qualities on Abrams' part. Abrams' whole directorial style is so lacking in personality that the main joke his detractors make about his films is a technical nit-pick involving his overuse of lens flares.

In short, J.J. Abrams is a "safe" director.

Of course, this much is pretty clear when it comes to the bare-bones narrative of The Force Awakens and how it apes that of the original film. The film's plot is once again driven by the conflict between a fascist regime (here the First Order, who form out of the remnants of the original series' Galactic Empire) and a rebel alliance (imaginatively referred to as the Resistance). It also opens with Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) acquiring plans that reveal the location of Luke Skywalker, who has disappeared from the galaxy and become the stuff of legend. His whereabouts are sought by the Resistance and Order alike - after Poe is ambushed by the Order and vicious enforcer Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), he proceeds to stash the plans inside trusty droid BB-8 and send it away from harm. BB-8 soon crosses paths with Rey (Daisy Ridley), a young woman who is eking out a meagre living by scavenging parts from the many disused spaceships that pepper the planet's sandy surface. When novice Order soldier "Finn" (John Boyega) has a crisis of conscience during his first day of the job, he opts to abandon ship with Poe and - after being separated from Poe - eventually meets Rey. Their mutual goal to escape the Order's wrath soon evolves into a quest that sees them speed across the galaxy, encountering friend and foe alike in the process.

Given the franchise's recent history, it's understandable that the powers that be would want to avoid taking any risks that could potentially alienate fans but that also means that the resulting film doesn't have much in the way of distinct personality. In trying to invoke parallels to the original trilogy though everything from plot progressions to background details, it frequently tap-dances on the fine line between homage and rehash to distracting effect. It's enough to knock the wind out of some of the more organic reintegrations of characters from previous films, whether it's Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) searching for their old ship or General Leia (Carrie Fisher) still leading a resistance movement against an age-old enemy. At least they're still able to embody the same charming aspects of their characters many decades later, with the interplay between Han and Chewie still being as belligerent yet heartfelt as always and Leia being strong enough that you wish her introduction didn't come so late in the film. This even extends to the settings as the film doesn't try to invent any radically different new locations for the action, instead settling for a series of familiar settings that range from barren deserts to frozen wastelands. Even minor references such as the Millennium Falcon's holographic chess-like game or the ball-shaped training droid seem less like organic parts of the film's universe than deliberate attempts to reference former glories, often at the expense of an audience being able to lose themselves in the film.

Considering how this film and any immediate sequels will naturally be more dependent on the new blood more so than the old, it's just as well that The Force Awakens at least manages to set up some tolerable enough characters to go along with its new plot. Rey and Finn share protagonist duties, with the former filling out the expected role of a nominally unremarkable person who begins to realise a greater destiny through the events of the film; in other words, she's the new Luke. Ridley isn't bad in the role but it does lack definition beyond some abandonment issues (which do prevent some plot holes) and she can only do so much with the character (in this film, at least). By that logic, Finn becomes the new Han as he plays a self-serving pragmatist who isn't wholly into the concept of open rebellion; his struggle to reconcile his traumatic past as a child soldier with his newfound desire to not just survive but live proves a relatively complex motivation that understandably makes him reluctant to oppose the Order that he knows first-hand is extremely ruthless. Even then, that character arc is undersold by the script's attempts to force some Han-like banter onto Finn that doesn't quite flow; it's a testament to Boyega that he can sell the constant shifting between befuddled one-liners and furrowed-brow angst, though he is considerably better at pulling off the latter. Poe is what you'd get if the original series' Wedge Antilles had a more significant part to play in the main narrative - even being played by an actor as charismatic as Isaac doesn't infuse him with a whole lot of definition even as he creates a fire-forged friendship with fellow rebel Finn.

Outside of the main collection of heroic characters, things are a little sparse. The characterisation of Kylo Ren takes on a meta-fictional twist by having him be a character who literally wishes he could be like Darth Vader but constantly has trouble maintaining the same degree of level-headed menace. Conversely, revelations about his true origins and what's underneath his mechanical mask feel anti-climatic enough that I do have to wonder how much of that is by design to contrast the series' most notorious revelation. Other villainous characters don't fare any better, whether it's Domnhall Gleeson as the sallow-faced Order general or Gwendoline Christie as the silver-suited Stormtrooper captain. Having it so that all three of them answer to a shadowy "supreme leader" (Andy Serkis) also seems ridiculous and not just because that particular character's design just looks so bland and unimaginative. This also extends to Maz Kanata (Lupita N'yongo), whose diminutive stature and humourous mysticism only serves to make her come across as a pretty blatant Yoda replacement. It doesn't feel like the creation of a new and memorable character so much as a variation upon a theme, which is not automatically a problem but does feed into why The Force Awakens doesn't feel like it distinguishes itself - especially when you consider BB-8 being a more animated (literally and figuratively) version of R2-D2.

Of course, any dependence of plot and characterisation is all for naught if the film can't manage to provide some appropriately bombastic action to go along with the fantastic premise. In that regard, The Force Awakens seems to tick every box when it comes to providing traditional Star Wars action as it indulges everything from lightsaber duels to aerial dogfights. Abrams' previous films have tended towards action-packed spectacles that have involved special effects to a significant degree. The camerawork indulges all sorts of fluid movements to contrast with the relatively static cinematography of previous Star Wars films. In attempting to define itself in concurrence with current cinematic blockbuster trends, it indulges ostentatious techniques ranging from Dutch-angled tracking shots to handheld crash-zooms as part of its attempts to capture the action. This only contributes to a certain weightlessness to action sequences and do feel like attempts to tick off boxes more so than create truly memorable sequences - the most egregious example involves a sequence in which a handful of heroic characters must fight off competing smuggling gangs, with the methods they use going into extremely unsurprising territory. At the very least you've got to commend the technical workmanship that's poured into the effects work on offer, though it's probably not a good thing I'm more likely to recall non-action scenes than action scenes.

Being a film that is most definitely guaranteed a sequel above all others, The Force Awakens manages to tease out all manner of plot points with the unspoken promise that they will be resolved in later installments, but that also has the effect of making the film feel fundamentally incomplete beyond its status as the first installment in an epic trilogy. Even so, not being able to stand alone certainly wasn't enough to stop people from appreciating The Empire Strikes Back, so it's obvious that the problems with The Force Awakens lie elsewhere. One can easily take apart the many ways in which the film arguably panders to the fanbase through call-backs large and small, even if the decision to do so is a conscious attempt to win back the crowd after the largely unfavourable reaction to the prequel trilogy. Of course, trying to please the crowd all but guarantees that the resulting film will struggle to stand out in its own right, which is a shame considering how much untapped potential is on display here. I can only hope that the powers that be decide to take the goodwill generated by The Force Awakens as a sign to actually strike out and try something more ambitious in future installments. Until then, we'll just have to be glad that this film, while not exactly close to being a modern classic, is at least a film that's disappointing less because of how it fails to fulfill expectations than because of how it fulfills them all too well.