"All that matters is that, for 135 minutes, Star Wars is actually fun again."
Thank fuck for that. Whilst the seventh film in the reawakened Star Wars saga may not be a religious epiphany for those who put Jedi on their census, The Force Awakens is fun, fast, energetic, enthusiastic, and, above all, entertaining.
Those’re words no man — nor mon calamari — would’ve used to describe the dire, dreary, dead-eyed, digital-backlot prequels (1999’s The Phantom Menace, 2002’s Attack Of The Clones, and 2005’s Revenge Of The Sith) that George Lucas last foisted upon the world. Their tin-eared dialogue, tedious council meetings, and general air of joyless stiffness combined to effectively ruin the beloved childhood memories of a generation, meaning Episode VII needed, more than anything, to perform an act of rehabilitation.
J.J. Abrams duly understands this. All your PTSD memories of emo Hayden Christensen, blackface-minstrel Jar Jar Binks, and video-game Yoda can be put to bed. As can that old feeling that Star Wars sequels were a duty; an obligation to be suffered through out of brand loyalty. Seeing The Force Awakens at a midnight screening, surrounded by kids in cosplay and stoners armed with snacks, the collective feeling of the crowd was, simply, people hoping to actually enjoy themselves.
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Where those prequels carried themselves with a portentous air of self-importance — the cultural weight of the franchise leading to an air of leaden gravity — in The Force Awakens there’s a pleasing lightness at play. Abrams — and screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt — tap back into the pulp origins of the original; the way Lucas, at first, paid homage to cheesy space serials like Flash Gordon and Buck Rodgers. The derring-do starts early, here: rescue missions, laser-fire-fights, chase sequences, elusive escapes, foolhardy plans. The film hits the ground running and never stops. There’s no need for origin story or myth-building: the myths are already in place.
Daisy Ridley — whose posh accent and oh-come-on-chaps! demeanour make her seem like some evolutionary Knightley — is the rappelling scrap-collector turned kick-ass heroine turned vessel of Force Awakening. John Boyega’s the stormtrooper with a conscience, who defects from the über-fascist First Order and, eyeballs buggin’, blags his way into the Rebellion; he guided less by the Force, more his moral-compass/boner-for-D-Ridz. Oscar Isaac is the new swaggering Top Gun of the rebellion’s fighter pilots, a man with a thick head of hair who’s up for any adventure. And then there’s the adorable, scene-stealing robot BB8, a spinning orange-and-white soccerball with a wobbly marionette head and a puppy-dog demeanour, who instantly scans as the series’ breakout star.
These’re the new kids who’ll carry the narrative of this latest trilogy, but even within the story they operate with deference to those mythical heroes of long ago wars; every actor verily gasping whenever the name Luke Skywalker is intoned. Whilst those who populated the prequels have been banished, these old figures of the originals are welcomed back with open arms.
Gladly, that includes a leading turn from Harrison Ford, who, though greyed and pained by time, is still here to smirk, roll his eyes, and crack wise; his eternal wryness a constant reminder that what you’re watching is essentially-silly space-and-sabres entertainment. Boyega and Ridley are already parrying their way through anxious-sexual-tension banter before he arrives, but once Ford’s on screen, even murderous space thugs, man-eating space creatures, and sure-death missions on the source-of-all-evil mothership are met with jokes.
Every line — be it banter, one-liner, exposition, proclamation, cry of desperation or rage — feels like it’s delivered with an exclamation mark. There’s even times where that mode of delivery bumps up against flat-out taking-the-piss; especially Domhnall Gleeson’s turn as a sourpuss General of the First Order, which is all whiny annoyance and smelling-a-fart faces. The best performance — and, beyond the fantastical space vistas of imagined planets, the best thing about the film — belongs to the eternally-great Adam Driver.
Casting the goofy guy from Girls as the series’ embodiment of evil seemed like a strange choice for even those who love Driver, but it proves instantly inspired: his awkward, uneasy, agitated screen-presence ably capturing a character caught in internal torment, spiralling fits of anger, and unsure devotion to his wayward path.
He’s the black-masked villain of the piece; to the point that, in moments of respite, he communes with the half-melted helmet of his grandpa, Darth Vader. He wields a red light-sabre, trashes the joint when pissed-off, terrifies underlings, and reads minds. He’s creepy, charismatic, and erotic; a memorable villain, and someone to heal all those old Hayden Christensen wounds.
And that makes him the perfect centrepiece of a film that feels like a corrective, a long apology to fans forced to suffer through Lucas tarnishing his own cinematic legacy. There’s times that its use of old characters, old plotlines, old tropes, old New Hopes, old slanted-text-and-John-Williamson-bombast feels like pandering.
But, in this context, that’s fine. It doesn’t matter that The Force Awakens wants only to recapture old glories. That it has no designs on thematic complexity, trenchant topicality, political parable, or commentary on humanity. That, as Han Solo knows, it’s essentially-silly entertainment; one long pop-corn movie joke. All that matters is that, for 135 minutes, Star Wars is actually fun again.