What a film. What a film.
The Force Awakens is easily the fourth best Star Wars film of all time, which may well sound like damning with faint praise. Let’s be honest, the fifth, sixth and seventh best Star Wars films (you know the ones) aren’t exactly stiff competition for even a moderately good addition to the saga. However, the truth is that fourth is as high as I can rank it given my complete inability to think objectively or critically about the original trilogy. If I were a rational person, it might get third, but I really do like Jedi, Ewoks and all, so that would be a hard choice for me to make.
A bit like the one a particular character is faced with towards the end of the new film, and like that character I don’t know whether I’d come through it too well.
The Force Awakens was better than moderately good, though. It made me grin, it made me tense, it made me “get something in my eye” at a couple of points. What of it?
I can recognise the merit of the main criticism I’ve seen in a couple of the more thoughtful reviews online. It is very indebted to the original trilogy in terms of its plot points and beats, and indeed the overall story it tells. I think it is done a bit more knowingly than some critics think, however; I think far from being lazily derivative, most of those are deliberate choices designed on the one hand to push fan buttons, and on the other to surprise them with the new spin the film puts on some of those rehashed moments. As one of the fans whose buttons were being well and truly pushed, however, I concede that I may not be in a position to see clearly on this point.
A couple of other points I’ve seen raised by more than one reviewer, however, seem less well-founded. If you’re worried by one-in-a-million coincidences driving the story, then you can’t have enjoyed any of the other films in the saga very much because they’re full of them. I mean, destiny, like the Force, is a very real factor in the universe of Star Wars. You either accept that or you don’t, I guess. Criticising this film on these grounds seems to me to be part of the trend in hip and happening modern-day criticism which basically consists of beating works up for not being something the critic would have liked to see but which the works themselves were never trying to be.
I also didn’t agree with some critics that the backstory or overarching plot was sketchy. Certainly, they were left vague apart from the terse outline given in the opening crawl (the fanfare! the crawl!) but I thought there was some very skilful, economical storytelling here; like the original films, The Force Awakens didn’t feel the need to over-explain details of its background, launching instead into a very well-paced series of set-pieces and character moments. This is how good Star Wars films (and good Indiana Jones films too) are made, always has been. The desire to explain everything combined with pedantry about aspects of the setting was one of the things (just one, mind you) that made the prequel trilogy so clunky.
Beside, the vaguer the big picture, the more room for fan debate and analysis – why would that ever be a bad thing?
Besides the spectacle of the set-pieces (which were, well, spectacular), the things that really sold this to me, which got all of the grins and eye-irritant moments out of me, were the characters and the performances. The new additions to the cast were fantastic, I thought, deftly written and sensitively played. Equally compelling, however, were the returning characters from the original trilogy, who of course had the weight of nostalgia and affection on their side, perhaps stacking the deck a little in their favour. With the exception of a bit of unsubtle dialogue in a couple of scenes (but again, would it be Star Wars without a bit of that?) all of the characters, “goodies” and “baddies” alike, really shone, providing a real counterpoint to the action sequences and, towards the end of the film, meshing with them to create a couple of standout scenes that might be the equal of anything in the whole saga.
You’ll know the ones I mean if and when you see the picture.
It’s that emotional resonance that Russell T Davies used to talk about when he was running Doctor Who, but which old grognards like me used to sneer at. It’s that deep streak of romance that runs through the DNA of Star Wars, what makes it space opera as opposed to mere soft sci-fi. In my old age, as in my young age, I find myself susceptible.
There’s a little bit, only a little bit mind, of real grit alongside that. It might just be the modern day special effects, although I suspect actually it’s another deliberate filmmaking choice, but this is possibly the first Star Wars film to look really, well, warry; the sky filled with smoke and flames; fields of rubble strewn with broken bodies. The parallel between the story being told here and certain current world events, and some much older ones, is also definitely acknowledged.
One character in particular is genuinely affected and changed by the experience of conflict in a way I don’t think we’ve seen before in Star Wars. It’s partly down to a crackerjack performance from the actor, but another character struggles with conscience and emotion in a way that we’ve seen in previous films in the series but never, I think, this touchingly and disturbingly.
So really, after worrying about it all week, I ended up being massively pleased with this film. I’d agree it could have shown a bit more originality, but I suspect, or at least hope, that is what we’ll get from Episodes VIII and IX. JJ Abrams was setting out the stall here, showing that the new films are “really Star Wars” and in my opinion at least succeeded magnificently in that aim. If you’re looking for a big, bold film with brave and resourceful protagonists and black-hearted, despicable antagonists, with bits that make you laugh, bits that make you sniffle, TIE fighters going <TIE_fighter_noise></TIE_fighter_noise>, I don’t think you can go wrong with this one.
Or that’s how I’m feeling right now, anyway, and to be honest it feels pretty good. Let me have this.