Possibly the most anticipated sequel of all time (having already broken pre-sales records) arrives in theatres this week – in the form of Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
Rhyme, but not much reason
When we last left Han Solo, Princess Leia, Luke Skywalker and Chewbacca, they were celebrating their victory over the evil Galactic Empire. Vader had been cremated and his manipulative overlord, Emperor Palpatine, vaporised in a reactor shaft.
While it had seemed the galaxy was all set for good times, this would offer little material for sequels, so director JJ Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan, the screenwriter of The Empire Strikes Back and Return Of The Jedi, have reset everything back the way it was at the beginning, albeit 30 years later.
The franchise’s original creator, George Lucas, was a proponent of these films having their own way of speaking to each other, famously describing his first six films (Lucas has no involvement in these new films) as functioning much like poetry – in that ‘they rhyme’.
In fact, the minuscule variations of similar story elements here – in some cases disguised by little more than a different name (the Rebellion is now the Resistance, and the Empire is the First Order), gender or species – were possibly intended to evoke a sense of familiarity but more often it gives rise to an unwelcome sense of repetition.
A new hope, an old story
This film, as with the 1977 original, begins with the entrusting of secret data to a droid (BB8, a spherical, rolling substitute for R2D2 – a practical FX marvel and a big win for both the design and merchandising departments) that triggers the search for a certain Jedi hermit, currently in hiding.
This film begins on a desert planet too, not at all unlike Tatooine, where a young teen, Rey (Ridley – a welcome addition to the short list of Star Wars heroines), toils in obscurity before being elevated to the heights of intergalactic heroism: a new hope.
There’s also a villain clad in black with a shiny, voice-modulating mask. While it’s unclear why this mask is necessary, Kylo Ren (Driver) is one of the film’s major assets. This is mainly thanks to he actor’s intense yet understated menace (he really should school Domhall Gleeson in this art as he over-cooks his overtly fascist placeholder for Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin), which along with an impassioned performance from British newcomer Daisy Ridley, qualifies the film as worth seeing.
Another young Brit, John Boyega, who plays a reformed stormtrooper (one of the more original ideas), wrestles with an American accent and gives a performance of uneven energies.
Back due to popular demand: R2D2, C3PO … CGI
At first glance, Abrams has kept his well-documented promise to use practical FX over CGI, and while this holds true for the most part, it doesn’t apply where it should. Tentacled CG monsters, seemingly borrowed from Men in Black, attack the Millennium Falcon in what is the film’s most inappropriate and disposable scene.
Later we find Emperor Palpatine has been succeeded by ‘Supreme Leader Snoke’, an Andy Serkis motion capture performance that would be far better suited to Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth.
There is another motion capture performance, this time from the Oscar-winning (and under-used) Lupita Nyong’o, in a scene that deliberately echoes the iconic Mos Eisley Cantina from the original film and is pleasingly populated by alien extras wearing rubber masks/make up. This creature, of diminutive stature and worldly wisdom, is not a Jedi but knows the ways of the force – essentially she’s a female Yoda.
The botox is certainly strong
And yet, what should be immediately recognisable is often disturbingly off-kilter. The original cast are, story-appropriate, 30 years older, but curiously out of tune with their environment. Occasionally Harrison Ford seems to be uncomfortable, creating an air of unease (and faint embarrassment on his behalf) not dissimilar to watching him parody Han Solo in a weak Saturday Night Live sketch.
Chewbacca looks inexplicably younger, fresher faced. He may be using a new shampoo but his face looks suspiciously botoxed. Speaking of which, Carrie Fisher’s motionless top lip was constantly distracting. Along with his new red arm, C3PO has clearly put on a few pounds too. These are all cosmetic anomalies but that’s what much of this film amounts to: cosmetic changes.
Lacking in Lucas quirkiness
Although the prequel trilogy, the worst of Lucas’ entries, were irredeemably flawed, they had a purpose and point, attempting to develop and enrich what had gone before instead of simply regurgitating it for secondary consumption (incidentally, Abrams also employed this latter approach to his Star Trek films).
While Lucas imbued his writing with a wealth of inspiration, from contemporary politics to Buddhist teachings, Abrams seems to look no further than Lucas’s original trilogy. Yet, despite the superficial imitations, it is Lucas’s peculiar sensibilities that are sorely lacking here. No-one would ask for more Jar Jar Binks but we might have hoped for … more.
Ostensibly more muscular and better-looking than Episodes I-III combined, this seventh entry may please the casual observer but to Star Wars mythology it contributes as much as a seventh wheel to a car – a car you recently purchased from a dodgy dealership, later realising it’s one you previously owned, albeit with new plates, a lick of paint and the clock set way back.
Your mileage may vary. If you’re simply looking for a slightly above-average space-opera actioner, it’s possible you won’t be disappointed –on the other hand, if you’re hoping that The Force Awakens will be a further exploration of Lucas’s grand mythos that fully justifies its own existence, you might do better to let the force sleep.