28 December 2015

Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

(Dir: J.J. Abrams, 2015)

There's something fascinating, and quite bemusing, observing the excessive reverence heaped upon a cultural icon that many people are deeply passionate about, when it has no hold over you. It's not very often that a film of this ilk appears to suddenly take over all cultural dialogue, but December 2015 might as well be now known as "Star Wars December". The confusing media obsession in the run-up, the same question from every person at work - "when are you seeing it?", the over forty year old man sitting two seats down from you with his wife and child who fist pumps at every little moment that reminds him of his youth from the name and title song grandly launching to characters reappearing who have not been seen since 1983, the five star reviews that feel divorced from any rationality. It seems that almost everyone is slavishly in the grip of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and can it really just be because there are more sacred cows present than you can wave a lightsaber at?

If you've seen any of the previous films in the series then chances are at the very least you will enjoy The Force Awakens, unless you actively detest anything to do with Star Wars. This is a film that's very clearly designed to entertain and it definitely delivers on that front. It has a pace that means it doesn't linger too unnecessarily on any one moment, and the action scenes benefit from the processing power that visual effects teams have available now, offering up space fighting thrills that are as good as any we've seen elsewhere (or previously). And there's something enjoyable about the reprisal of one of cinema's more iconic characters after more than thirty years, but a lot of the film's issues stem from this very same place.

The Force Awakens suffers greatly from playing things far too safe. Throughout there's the sense that J.J. Abrams is being very cautious as he doesn't want to put a foot wrong, so any adventurousness is abandoned in favour of blatantly recycled story beats and more than one occurrence of contrived deus ex machina plotting to move the story along. It's understandable that he would want to avoid being as reviled as George Lucas became after the prequels (Episodes 1 - 3) and his tinkering with the original series (a separate, very interesting conversation could be had about the creator's prerogative to continue to play with their creations after presenting them to the public) - so why put yourself in the position of pissing these people off too whilst adding another film to this series? Yet the irony is, his revamp of Star Trek from 2009 does feel adventurous and is a hell of a lot of fun because he dares to play around with characters that people similarly love, and through this he makes an exciting film. If Abram's wasn't so reverent to Star Wars' past, perhaps certain elements of this film wouldn't feel so pedestrian or forced.

It is interesting to see the return of a handful of original cast members (surely the real reason for the overwhelming excitement surrounding the film), even if they are shoehorned in. It's hard not to enjoy Harrison Ford pulling off Han Solo's roguish charms again even when he frequently feels too old to be back in the saddle, whilst his interplay with Chewbacca continues to be one of the best bits of the series. Carrie Fisher's Leia brings very little to the party so it's pleasing we spend more time with Han and Chewie. But really the two leads are Daisy Ridley's Rey and John Bodega's Finn. Bodega fits in pretty convincingly and pulls off the American accent well. Ridley on the other hand is just really bad casting. To be fair to her she gives it her all, but she never feels right for the character, and that plummy, straight-out-of-drama-school posh British accent is so jarring and utterly wrong for the setting of the film that it constantly pulls you out of the film. Sure, the archetypal British accent works well for villains, such as Domhnall Gleeson having great fun going almost over-the-top as General Hux, but not for Rey. As for primary villain Ren (Adam Driver), he proves very menacing and suitably scary with his mask on (and is a highlight in these scenes), but once it's off he's like a little boy and the illusion shatters, particularly the first time, which is a shame.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens feels like it is part of the series and it is appreciably better than the prequels, which is the least that anyone hoped for. It's another entertaining slice of kid-friendly fun that, due to the tangible history accompanying it, offers that rare essence of cinema that we so infrequently experience now. But the way it steals far too obviously from the original films serves as a distraction and makes it all feel too hollow - maybe this makes it more recognisable and was required to set-up a couple of more interesting sequels? It's a shame J.J. Abrams isn't directing Episode VIII (Rian Johnson is definitely an interesting choice for this), as maybe we'd see him do the opposite of his Star Trek films and deliver a great second film. The Force Awakens is solid entertainment, but its mere existence seems to be the sole reason for the perplexing hyperbole surrounding it.

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