Thank the Maker!

star-wars-the-force-awakens-copyWelcome to 2016 everyone!

To usher in the New Year, Dr James Cooper (Creative Writing Coordinator at Tabor Adelaide and Star Wars fanatic) has written a review of The Force Awakens, explaining why he thinks J.J. Abrams has given fans ‘a new hope’, in more ways than one! [NB major spoilers to follow]. Enjoy…

 

Secret information concealed within a droid, crucial to the defeat of a sinister galactic order and its planet-destroying super-weapon… A young desert dwelling orphan, whose gradual discovery of a half-forgotten family history and burgeoning awareness of a mysterious psycho-kinetic power, thrusts her deep into a knife-edge battle between good and evil…

Now where have we heard that before?

While there has been some gnashing of teeth online about the recycling of plot devices in The Force Awakens, I confess to finding this the least interesting or compelling of any possible criticism. Indeed, I venture the familiarity of it all is largely what’s behind the collective sigh of relief let go by most reviewers to date, given the cinematic debacle that was episodes I-III. (Granted, the extent of Lucas’s fall from grace in the prequels is debatable – here I’ll bow to consensus, plus my own mother’s good advice: ‘Least said, soonest mended’).

‘Some things never change,’ muses Han Solo to his estranged other half, General (a.k.a Princess) Leia Organa, midway through the film. And he’s right. What’s more, the observation calls to mind another useful adage: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. What Abrams and Kasdan seem to have accomplished in this film (and what Lucas evidently forgot in the prequels) is to tap back into the mythic roots and associated archetypes that made the original trilogy such a memorable and enjoyable romp – that and the creative and judicious use of practical effects and location shooting. But despite the obvious parallels between TFW and A New Hope, I seriously didn’t mind, and found myself glued to my seat and engaged to the end. When I saw the film a second time, I feared I might lose interest. But it was not so. Quite the opposite, in fact. In the same way, I can watch episodes IV-VI over and over and not lose interest. Why is that? I think precisely because it’s familiar, and, on some more fundamental level I won’t go into here, because it’s true.

Yes, I would say that Starkiller Base is an unnecessarily vast step up from the Death Star – I mean, where to from here? But in all honesty, the plot to divulge and exploit its weakness struck me as a relatively minor thread in the overall narrative. The attack on Starkiller Base is but one (albeit spectacular) battle in what is clearly a protracted war between the Resistance and the New Order. As such, it serves effectively as a backdrop to what is in fact the more important and interesting part of the story – the life and times of the central characters.

In Abrams’ reboot of the franchise, we have at long last and once again some believable and likeable (nay, lovable) characters – people whose grizzly demise we wouldn’t openly welcome (sorry, Jar Jar Binks). Again, most reviewers have offered a positive appraisal of the scripting and performances of, especially, Daisy Ridley and John Boyega in their respective roles, and to this I add my hearty ‘Amen!’ Boyega energetically exudes all the confusion, fear and exasperation his character is meant to be feeling, while in a masterstroke of casting, Ridley pulls off the almost impossible – endearing us to a leading female character in what has long been (and will probably remain) a boy’s own adventure movie. One review I came across suggested that Rey is not so much a ‘strong woman character’ as ‘a strong character who happens to be a woman’. This may seem a meaningless distinction, but I think it underscores the fact that, as cast in this film, Rey is no mere work of PC window-dressing. She doesn’t come across as having been inserted to fill a quota, or tip the scales in favor of gender equality. Rather, her being a young woman seems perfectly suitable, while her genuine beauty and femininity remain refreshingly undiminished by any gratuitous muscle flexing or recourse to heaving cleavage.

Also highly likeable is Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron – every adventure story needs a swashbuckling, smart-talking hero. To begin with, Poe and Fin’s relationship is merely pragmatic, formed along lines of mutual self-interest. But in no time, and owing no doubt to the fact that the defecting storm trooper’s heart is genuinely in the right place, the two become close buddies. Simplistic? Pathetic? By no means – this is Star Wars! Consider how long it took Luke and Han to hit it off, and how there’s nothing like being thrust together into a tight spot to forge a lasting friendship. Again, it’s all familiar stuff, but it works because it’s true.

Add to the mix BB8 – how cool is he? Not only a very clever piece of robotic engineering, but as lively and personable as were C3-PO and R2-D2 when we first met them. And then there are the villains! (But I’ll get to them later). All told, there is a chemistry going on here between the new cast of characters I have not felt since… Yes, you guessed it. Speaking of which, what of the reprised roles of Han Solo, Princess Leia and Luke Skywalker in this film?

While almost entirely absent in person, Luke Skywalker is present throughout, a fact I found at first disappointing but ultimately delightful. You can see the end approaching from a distance (there comes a point when there just isn’t time for him to make a substantive appearance), but the final scene still manages to surprise. It’s the images that do the talking, and once again we’re thankful to be back on location instead of fudging our way in front of a green screen. With enough clues laced along the way to suggest their close (surely a family) connection, the final wordless exchange between Rey and Luke sends a shiver down the spine with its simultaneous sense of ‘mission accomplished’ and the promise of more intrigue and high adventure to come.

There was always a risk that the parts assigned to the original characters in this new movie would be tokenistic. This has been cleverly avoided, in the first instance, by not having them all written out of the story in the one episode. We’ll certainly be seeing more of Luke in the next movie (if not the one after that) and it seems likely we haven’t heard the last of Leia. At the very least, the demise of Han Solo has seen fulfilled a long-standing wish of Harrison Ford, who wanted his character killed off in Return of the Jedi. Some have suggested he played too slight a role in TFA, or that his death was too incidental or trite. I find these suggestions wayward, and to such people I say, ‘Switch off your targeting computer and reach out with your feelings!’ The film, after all, is not about Han Solo, or Leia, or even Luke (yet). It is clearly a passing on of the baton, and as I said the fact that this is a gradual process is most welcome. Gradual or not, the whole point of the process is to bring to centre-stage a new cast of characters, and so whatever role the originals are to play this time around, they should primarily serve that end. This, I believe, the writers of TFA have achieved perfectly well for Han Solo (and Chewy). We don’t get an in-depth treatment of what he’s been up to these last thirty years, but neither should we. Instead we get enough oblique references to fill in the gaps, and two key scenes that reveal in turn the kind of man he has become.

While some things never change, as Solo opines, not everything stays the same, and a touching exchange between the couple suggest the intervening years have been marked with all the triumphs and shortcomings, treasured moments and regrets, of a real long-term romance. Most crucially, however, for the role of Solo and the story as a whole, comes the revelation that Han and Leia’s son, Ben (a.k.a Kylo Ren), has been seduced by the dark side, setting himself the mission of fulfilling his grandfather’s (Darth Vader’s) thwarted project of galactic domination by force. As I’ve already suggested, the attack on Starkiller Base is best seen as a backdrop for the real drama, and so it is Han rides into battle with the forlorn hope of helping his son to see reason. As Rey’s opposite number, Kylo Ren’s seduction towards the dark side makes the perfect foil for her awakening into the light. Indeed, the contrast between dark and light runs throughout the entire film, from the arresting and evocative opening image (a First Order Star Destroyer overshadowing a pale blue planet) through to Ren and Solo’s final (tense and moving) exchange.

Adam Driver is brilliant as Ren, making palpable the character’s inner turmoil of manic ambition, self-hate and tested yet determined resistance to the light. Ford, for his part, milks the absolute most out of this scene. Shouting out his son’s name to snap him (and the audience) to attention, Ford matches Driver’s commanding presence and perfectly captures the manner of a desperate father chastising a recalcitrant child. But as the sun sets on Starkiller Base, meaning the solar-powered weapon is fully loaded and ready to be deployed, we see the final rays of light diminish, clearly mirroring Ren’s state of mind. Again we see it coming – the possibility of Solo helping his son to remember himself is surely too much to hope for. Finally, in an almost Shakespearean fit of wanton villainy, Ren does the deed he has been dreading, and in so doing, we feel sure, seals his doom. What I found most significant about this entire scene, however, is Han Solo’s pitying look and parting gesture before falling, dead, into the void below. His tender caress of his wretched son’s face speaks volumes about the man he has become, and one cannot help but feel the gesture will somehow make a difference to someone at some point.

By now it might seem as though I’ve nothing negative to say about the film. Maybe there is too much of my mother in me (she’s always telling me, ‘If you can’t say anything good about someone then don’t say anything at all’). But no, I’m not just being polite; I do think the movie as good as I’ve made out. That said, there are some things I didn’t like about it. For example, I didn’t much like the rathtars – those vicious tentacled monsters let loose in the Millennium Falcon. They were a useful plot device, helping the heroes out of a tense stand-off with Han Solo’s creditors. But they were so ludicrously savage and frenziedly CGI that they ended up not being very scary at all. I think of the garbage compactor scene in A New Hope – the brush of a tentacle here, the flash of a periscopic eye there, somehow achieved all the tension and dread one really needs. Even the full-frontal violence of Jabba’s rancor, in Return of the Jedi, was introduced slowly, with a menacing growl from some unseen dungeon, and the appalled expression of the onlookers to the carnage below. And when we do see him, there’s something about the slow, jittery motion of his man-powered animus that engenders in us that genuine fear of the unknown. (It’s what we can’t see and what we don’t know that tbest scares the breakfast cereal out of us). I gather Stephen Spielberg suggested Abrams cut out quite a bit of extraneous detail from some initial edits, helping him recall the golden rule that in storytelling, typically, “less is more”. For the most part, the final edit seems to have this in mind, but here and there (as with the rathtars) I found myself yawning, and longing for the next bit of plausible interaction.

There are quite a lot of characters in this film, and as a result the story sometimes feels a bit cluttered. But the central characters are mostly contained to the relevant scenes and so kept in focus. Maz Kanata – the ‘wise wizard’ figure of the story – annoyed me a little. What she has to say is fine, but there’s still something about the eyes and the lips of CGI characters I’m yet to make peace with, and her voice and mannerisms felt too familiar (too human), given her decidedly alien appearance. She also seemed just a bit too wise, almost as though she thought herself wise – a bit too “Lion King”, if you know what I mean.

Rey seems too adept too soon in the ways of the force. I’m guessing this is meant to suggest just how powerful a Jedi she promises to be, but even so it would have been nice to see her fumbling and faltering just a little bit more. But what about Fin, who takes up Luke’s old light saber and wields it like a pro? Is he meant to be strong with the force too? Nothing else suggests so. When I think back to Luke Skywalker’s first tentative parries, and the strenuous training he underwent with Yoda just to avoid getting totally flogged by Vader in the Empire Strikes Back… well, it all seems a bit quick and easy for these new youngsters. Must be all those computer games they play. The youth of today!

I’m also still struggling with R2-D2’s sudden and all too convenient awakening, which allows the Resistance to make sense of the map fragment retrieved earlier by Poe and BB8, and so learn the whereabouts of Luke Skywalker. In a recent interview, the Abrams suggested R2-D2 downloaded the Empire’s archives (including the location of all known Jedi temples) from the original Death Star in episode IV. Hence, in TFA, Abrams explains:

BB-8 comes up and says something to him, which is basically, ‘I’ve got this piece of a map, do you happen to have the rest?’ The idea was, R2 who has been all over the galaxy, is still in his coma, but he hears this. And it triggers something that would ultimately wake him up.”

I find this explanation less than satisfying, UNLESS it turns out that Luke has commanded R2 to reboot and hand over the map at a certain point, given a certain eventuality or set of circumstances. But the idea that R2 has been in some kind of grief-induced coma, and is roused at the mere mention of his master’s name, strikes me as dumb. This does seem to be what Abrams means, though, when he says:

“While it may seem, you know, completely lucky and an easy way out, at that point in the movie, when you’ve lost a person, desperately, and somebody you hopefully care about is unconscious, you want someone to return.”

Personally, I suspect there’s more to this moment than meets the eye; at least I hope so. In fact, I think this film has the potential to just keep giving, for it raises as many questions as it answers. There’s a good chance that the next installment will see many of those questions answered, and what currently appear like plot pitfalls simply evaporate.

As it stands, the strengths of the film far outweigh any genuine shortfalls, or whatever personal hang-ups I happen to bear against it here and there. I haven’t even mentioned John Williams’ outstanding score, in which he beautifully weaves together familiar themes with new arrangements. And then there is the other chief villain of the piece, the conniving and megalomaniacal General Hux, played charismatically by Domhnall Gleeson. When Hux gave the command (with total unselfconscious conviction) to “Use the ventral cannons!” I knew for sure we were back in the Star Wars universe I’d grown up with. And his Hitleresque speech trumpeting the end of the Republic (while intentionally melodramatic) is delivered so expertly, one has to laugh for the sheer bombast of it all! (Yes, there’s lots to laugh at in this film, and that’s a good thing. I didn’t laugh at all through the prequels).

I especially like the way the writers have set Hux and Ren up as rivals, each kowtowing in different ways to Supreme Leader Snoke, who is clearly using each to his own advantage. Snoke is the other great mystery wrapped in an enigma in this movie – who the hell is this guy? While I wish to high Heaven he wasn’t computer generated, I can’t wait to find out more about him, and love the fact that Rey (having more power with the force than she knows what to do with) has already been singled her out as the secret weapon Snoke has to have!

Listen to me! I’m rambling like a kid about this movie – and to my mind, that more than anything confirms its success. I’m yet to hear anyone intelligently complain that the film has any serious flaws. And whatever its minor and debatable shortcomings, I think most will agree that Abrams (together with Kasdan) have done a sterling job in finally restoring some much-needed balance to the Star Wars movie universe. Let’s hope Rian Johnson can carry on their good work.

J. Cooper

Jan 1, 2016

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