There's no time travelling in Star Wars, is there? No, didn't think so. Watching "Episode 7: The Force Awakens", however, the much anticipated 2015 continuation of the original trilogy, you would think you'd been thrown back to 1977 and were watching, in some alternate dimension, a re-run of the very first film itself. Sceptics have been writing for years on the 'place' Hollywood blockbusters have in the canon of film as an art-form, deriding them for being derivative, or for too often coming to form replications of each other, but this really does take the space-cake. The film is, in fact, so reminiscent in certain places of Episode IV that you might just as well call it An 'Old' Hope.
The film begins with a mother-ship's silhouette blotting out a sun and the launch of a series of spaceships which head down to a nearby planet. The bigger ship, belonging to The First Order, which has risen out of the ashes of Darth Vader's old Evil Empire, in doing so infers a powerful ability to blot out or ruin anything it comes into contact with. Inside one of the smaller ships, the populous is cleverly introduced via some flickered lighting, which actually alludes to a later crisis of conscience one of the inhabitants will have. Once on the surface, they ambush a village with connections to the Resistance in looking for a piece of a map which will, apparently, direct them to the legendary Luke Skywalker, who, being the last Jedi, will win the war for the Dark once and for all if they find and kill him. At the last moment, a pilot called Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) hides the portion inside a small robot who escapes with it.
Enter the protagonist, Rey (Daisy Ridley); a young-ish orphan, who should probably look grubbier and uglier, living on the same planet and who trades in scrap from crashed spaceships of the first war for portions of food. Her literal harvesting of these parts from old cruisers of the first three films is, in some ways, a reflection of how the film itself is taking from past efforts. Into her world ambles said droid and the map, and then later still the character of Finn (John Boyega), who is a storm trooper for the Dark but decides to change sides. Finn's introduction to the film, like Rey's, is a slow unsheathing of a mask or helmet to reveal the face in close-up, inferring a kind of duality or connection - sure enough, they spend the majority of the film together and become close allies.
Dodging the incoming First Order, the two make off with one of the more famous pieces of Star Wars paraphernalia which they find lying around in the area, Rey demonstrating piloting skills you would have thought were beyond her without the ability to practise to any degree. After breaking down in outer space, they are caught up by two familiar faces in Chewbacca and Harrison Ford's Han Solo, who have become, in the years since the war, interstellar versions of long distance truckers. Their haul on this particular occasion are large man eating squid-like monsters. Do we think they'll escape and wreak havoc, or not? What do you think? The film then becomes somewhat of a race to rebel HQ, with the villains never too far from their tails. Later on, attention shifts to a weapon of mass destruction the First Order possess which, despite existing in the shadow of the old Empire, is ten times more powerful.
The film is not a disaster by any means, but it leaves a lot to be desired. I think it probably attempts to cram too much in for it to feel like a work of real substance: the decision by a trooper to defect; a sub-plot to do with a father/son relationship; the foiling of an evil scheme; the rekindling of two old flames in Solo and a certain Princess. Its approach is too pulpy to take seriously; I felt its introduction of Rey and her lonely world, a stretch of film that is told visually without dialogue for a about two minutes, could have gone on for another ten, while its finale is similar to, but probably not as thrilling as, 1996's "Independence Day" with its final assault unfolding in conjunction with a dogfight.
Then there is the issue of one particular cast member who had already said he didn't want to be a part of the franchise after this edition, so his character has been written out. This is sad for the fact we lose an old face, yes; but it also demeans the artistic pursuit of direction and damages the concept of auteurism. When decisions to take a project in particular direction are made by these means, and not by a creative vision, just what are we even left watching?
Essentially, "The Force Awakens" is a re-treading of Lucas' initial 1977 effort: the message being hidden in a droid; the Vader-style villain in black turning up with his troopers looking for it; the young desert-dwelling hero bumping into it; the stumbling into an intergalactic adventure; the tracking shot through the Cantina-style bar, etc. What is new is not even necessarily new either: a post-Hunger Games style heroine and a post-Wall*E style droid hardly blow us away. For all the crowing on increased diversity, read Manthia Diawara's 1988 essay 'Black Spectatorship: Problems of Identification & Resistance' on black and white characters sharing the screen for problems linked to John Boyega's casting. Diawara's observations of things in "48 Hours"; "Beverly Hills Cop" and "Rocky II" might just as well be applied here, particularly during the climactic lightsaber fight. What "progress" has even been made? In the end, JJ Abrams has created a decent actioner and provided us with the buzz of seeing some old faces, but nothing much else.
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