(Warning: this review contains spoilers so please do not read any further if you have not yet seen The Force Awakens. Whatever my criticisms of the film, I do appreciate the fact that - wherever you are in the world - nothing 'unites' across cultural and national boundaries quite the way Star Wars does)
I was there.
Well, sort of.
I saw Return of the Jedi first. I was a little boy and absolutely loved every second of it - even (especially!) the Ewoks. I was too young to question the inherent silliness of a vast expansive evil Empire failing to stomp all over a few pint-sized furry woodland critters. In fact, I was so taken by Return of the Jedi that I began buying into the merch - and my poor mum eventually even searched high and low for a Yoda figure, to no avail, in an attempt to complete my collection of figures (my older sister, then a nanny in West Germany, finally found him in Berlin! It is a gift I cherished beyond words).
I managed to rent the original movie on VHS - not long out of diapers. The Empire Strikes Back as well. Even back then I knew Empire was the shining light of the three. I adored Luke's training, the snow-Yeti and Cloud City and Han's blossoming chemistry with Leia. Hell, Mark Hamill, who I eventually met and interviewed in 2010 (and who told me 'just call me Mark' at the end of our chat), was the first and only fan letter I ever wrote. He sent me back an autograph and I was over the moon. I lost count of how often I watched that trilogy of films - Carrie Fisher was even my first love. I adored her. And Star Wars was everything to me: I dreamed about new movies and new stories, featuring - naturally - Luke, Han and Leia. I recreated sequel after sequel with the toys I had.
Yes, once I met and interviewed Mark Hamill. Life-affirming!
In time, though, the figures were collected and put away in carrier bags, handed into charity shops or just chucked out (doh!). I grew into my teens where girls, university, history, Hong Kong cinema and other new discoveries held my attention. The time when I discovered Santa Claus didn't exist because I found a boxed AT-AT fighter under my mum's bed in primary three passed into distant memory. The euphoria of the Christmas that I awoke to find myself unwrapping a present that turned out to be a much saught after Jabba the Hutt set also faded - as did the Halloween where I dressed up as C3PO, clad in an uncomfortable costume that was far from friendly to a bout of heavy Scottish rain.
Of course, it took until 1999, when I was in university, for a new Star Wars movie to emerge. As with most fans, I saw The Phantom Menace on opening weekend and naively hoped for something that would stimulate my then-adult desire for nostalgia and the comfort of childhood. It had also not yet sunk in for me that Star Wars, as I knew it, was already dead. I had been amused by some of the changes to the first three films in 1997 and I snapped up the widescreen VHS releases but I did not suspect that George Lucas was never going to give us his initial theatrical versions ever again. And when The Phantom Menace did roll around I was already suspect about how Star Wars could really be 'Star Wars' without Luke, Han and Leia. The trailer, to me, looked very CGI-heavy and nonsensical but I wanted this prequel to be amazing. I hoped I would fall in love with it. Instead, I just exited the cinema thinking it looked like a video game. I was largely nonplussed by The Phantom Menace but I didn't feel it 'raped my childhood' as so many others did. I just thought it was a boring sci-fi blockbuster with bad acting, Jar Jar Binks, a lousy child thespian and too much happening on the screen. Anyway, what did I care? I was going through a break-up with my first girlfriend and trying to score tickets to a comeback gig from Pulp and also an Edinburgh Film Festival preview of a new horror flick called The Blair Witch Project (I succeeded with both). I was also doing some stand-up comedy and hosting a little bit of the Edinburgh Fringe on Princes Street (yes, really). I had other things on my mind - my studies, my private life, my future... The Phantom Menace was just a rubbish Hollywood movie and there were plenty of those around.
Inevitably, I went to see Attack of the Clones - with low expectations - about a week after it hit cinemas, with a group of Star Wars-savvy friends, and this time I just felt exhausted. If The Phantom Menace was a giant bore, Attack of the Clones was headache-inducing. Big CGI blobs blasting or interacting with other big CGI blobs in cluttered landscapes of nonsense characters and awful acting. My brain couldn't digest what was going on most of the time and nothing interested me - even Christopher Lee. I was now resigned to the fact the prequels were awful and mildly amused when blockbuster-championing magazine Empire gave it a rave review. I still cannot believe anyone would mistake Attack of the Clones for anything approaching a halfway decent film.
Then came Revenge of the Sith in 2005. I actually almost knocked George Lucas over at the Cannes Film Festival that year - I was exiting from the wrong door of the Carlton Hotel just as he was on the way in. He gave me a bemused look which I will always remember. To be fair, Revenge of the Sith attempts to 'right' the 'wrongs' of the previous two pictures. It has a dramatic core and a relatively (careful now, I said relatively) smooth narrative casuality that actually allows each plot point to lead into the next. I still didn't buy Vader's transformation. Was he just naive? Bi-polar? Easily led? Who knows. At least we finally got an end to the whole debacle and the final fight between Obi-Wan and Vader. It is not that Revenge of the Sith is a good film - it really, really isn't - but it feels a bit more Star Wars-ish than the two that came before it.
Still, it is easy to conclude that we didn't need these three prequels. We really didn't need to know about the Clone Wars or how Darth Vader was once a little kid or that Boba Fett is basically a robo-sperm-bank-Kiwi baby. We didn't need to visit the Chewbacca planet or see CGI Yoda or learn about Obi-Wan and his (generally boring) early years. It all added nothing to the Star Wars mythology except to put Hayden Christensen into the end of Return of the Jedi, give us Samuel L. Jackson as a jedi (still the best thing about these movies) and to forever make us aware that Darth Vader is a whiny blonde haired American underneath the dark armour. When you damage your own villain you are in deep shit, and Lucas achieved that - which is a testament, in a way, to his utter hopelessness at expanding his own universe. The prequels put serious dents in the proverbial Star Wars armour because they altered everything - midichlorians, 'Annie', Obi-Wan the bore, Yoda the CGI kung-fu sprite, trade federations, clones, Natalie Portman as Luke and Leia's mum. Of course, you can pretend these films don't exist but 1) as long as you only have those wretched special editions they most certainly do and 2) let's not be naive: you are never going to erase the fact Darth Vader is Hayden Christensen is Darth Vader.
Slow hand clap to George Lucas right there.
The Force Awakens, of course, brought back Han Solo. Which was the first indication this might be something to get excited about. I was psyched. No one wanted to be Obi-Wan when we first saw Star Wars. We wanted to be the nerfherder - the handsome, arrogant, charismatic badass with the blaster who counts a seven foot arm-ripping monster as his best friend and gets the girl. It didn't matter that the prequels were terrible - this was going to be a new Han Solo flick for fuckssake. Moreover, the trailers looked tremendous and J.J. Abrams knows his way around a blockbuster: I actually enjoyed his 2009 reboot of Star Trek and Super 8, from 2011, was just delicate enough to hit the right notes.
Of course, I also suspected Han Solo was probably going to croak in The Force Awakens. It is no secret that Harrison Ford wanted the character to die in Return of the Jedi and he was front and centre of the advertising for the new Star Wars at the clear expense of Fisher and Hamill. So that bit was no great shock. It was rubbish (I'll get to that) but not shocking. Even so, I went into The Force Awakens after managing to avoid everything about it and, naturally, eager to find out if this really would be the Star Wars movie we had all been hoping for since 1983.
Come the crawl and the first signs are promising - the idea that Luke Skywalker has gone missing ala Obi-Wan is, whilst hackneyed, at least a way to keep the narrative moving forward and a simple one at that. Go back and read the opening crawl to The Phantom Menace - no wonder people were so confused. On the other hand, The Force Awakens gets straight to the point: from the ashes of Darth Vader and company has come The First Order and Luke is missing but needed. Okay, fine - let's get this monster rolling.
We meet Max Von Sydow as Lor San Tekka - a wise old resistance fighter on the planet of Jakku. His brief appearance in The Force Awakens is excellent. Christopher Lee, whilst never Laurence Olivier (or Alec Guiness), at least added an old classic screen presence to the prequels and Von Sydow does the same here. We really believe in his nonsense dialogue and the fact new droid character BB-8 houses a map to Skywalker which his keeper, Poe Dameron (the dull as dishwater Oscar Isaac) must rush to get to the Resistance. We are also introduced to Kylo Ren, the new Darth Vader-ish villain who slaughters a village full of Jakku people just so we know he is really, really mean. His methods of torture include tying up characters such as the stinky Dameron and giving them a slightly bloody smack around the face before using mind control to obtain their secrets. Okay, look, I know this is Star Wars but after the Jakku slaughter I was becoming concerned: why was this even happening? For what purpose does The First Order exist? Remember how interesting Darth Vader's Gallactic Empire was in Star Wars? We began with all out crisis on a massive space-liner where Vader was seeking to crush a rebellion that was up against his cruel dictatorship. Vader was brilliant because he was fighting a civil war and his leadership, power and credibility depended on his ability to infiltrate and annihilate Leia's apparently democratic front. Han Solo was great because, during a time of civil conflict, he did not give a flying fuck - he was going about his life and making money as a smuggler and swindler. Why should he care who was fighting who? And, anyway, Vader was not just randomly slaughtering people - what was the point in that? He wanted to rule the planets, not wreck them (I will get to Alderaan). He didn't blow up Tatooine because it would have been pointless. Luke was even about to go to pilot school. People lived normal lives under Vader. His beef was with Leia and her rebellion.
So I was expecting that The First Order would become more grounded - we would know who they were and what they wanted. Alas, all we find out is that Kylo Ren is the son of Han Solo and Leia. He trained under Skywalker but rebelled and embraced his dark side (obviously passed down in his genes). He and his English-accented men do really shitty things because they want to rule. But rule what? And why? They blow up four planets because they have a big new Death Star that allows them to blow up four planets. They talk about ruling everyone - but for what means? And how can they rule anyone if they keep exploding planets and killing all the inhabitants?
Why does Kylo speak to a big CGI Gollum?
Why is it the new Death Star channels all the energy from the Sun but everyone in other planets is still alive anyway? Wouldn't everybody be dead?
Why does Kylo take off his mask and reveal himself to be a shaggy-haired emo? The sort that once followed My Chemical Romance on tour and seemed awfully dour and introverted on the back of the number 10 bus from the city centre?
Seriously: what the fuck is even going on in this film?
Okay, so The First Order have no purpose. I have seen some people online argue they represent ISIS which makes no sense because 1) As one of my best friends so eloquently stated, they are not riding around beheading anyone who doesn't believe in the Force 2) They have and accept women to their high command and 3) Kylo and company embrace modernity and all of its flashy accomplishments - there is no attempt to unite everyone under an impoverished collectivist mindset based around ancient teachings. If anything, they seem to represent the Cold War era - all raising up their fist and walking in unison with no indication of individualism. This factor would, in a way, make sense (hear me out here) as we are in a post-conflict environment in this Star Wars and the idea of two new orders taking shape - democratic and hardline authoritarian - would mirror the Cold War itself. Unfortunately, even this reading makes no flipping sense because after the fall of the Gallactic Empire wouldn't Leia, Han and Skywalker have had the bulk of the universe's riches and support ala the United States after 1945? If The First Order is Stalin's USSR - which benefited from being allied with the Western powers anyway - then how have they risen from the ashes of an impoverished movement? More to the point, why has Luke Skywalker passed into myth after thirty years? This is like someone asking you if Live Aid actually happened - 'Status Quo. Did they really open the event? I heard it was a myth. No one would have been that stupid surely?'
I think The First Order idea could have been salvaged too - all it would have taken is for some characters to establish that life was better for many people under the rule of Vader and his men. This is how all draconian parties maintain power. Look at North Korea. If you are an elder and you remember the Korean War you remember the utter obliteration of your capital city. Now you have a big new Pyongyang that has risen from the ashes thanks to the apparent will of 'The Great Leader' Kim Il-sung and his children. The North Korean propaganda machine tells its people that life in Seoul is a lot worse than life in Pyongyang - they have unemployment and you have work, they have 30,000 American troops stationed there and you have a closed-off, self-sufficient society. That is how you crush any revolution - you inform your people they have it good and the alternative is much, much worse. Moreover, even now, you have plenty of people who miss the old Eastern bloc in Europe. Why wouldn't life have been better for a lot of the population under Vader and why wouldn't others have embraced that way of ruling the galaxy? It could even have raised questions about the benefits of democracy - say Leia being the popular option but her rule, however well intentioned, not really supplying to all of the people so authoritarianism is becoming more popular. Okay, look, so that's a shitty idea but then I am not paid to write this stuff. Besides, instead of any explanation for the rise of The First Order (does anyone even know Vader became redeemed at the end of his life?) we just get the drippy son of Han Solo and another whiny Skywalker brat but this time he is doing lots of nasty, nasty deeds for no reason at all. It is all rubbish.
Lucas mentioned the evil Empire in A New Hope was symbolic of Johnson, and later Nixon, foreign policy in Indochina. It is a factor that still seems to disturb some American critics (obviously oblivious to the fact that American policy in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia was among the most reprehensible acts of the 20th century). Naturally, others see the Nazi imagery in A New Hope - the indoctrination, the Stormtroopers, the ending which evokes Triumph of the Will (quite clumsily given it is supposed to be a celebration of Leia's Republic) and the wealth and military-first policy of Vader's regime. Yet neither analogy really works. Whilst the Vietnam symbolism can be argued as obvious - the film even begins with the crawl 'it is a time of civil war' and Ho Chi Minh's Việt Minh were resistance fighters - the conflict in Southeast Asia was about a postcolonial battle for self-government and national freedom. It never began as a battle of Cold War ideology. To equate Luke's farmhand and Leia's order-restoring Princess as the Việt Minh - assisting in building a never-say-die resistance to a well-armed (yet totalitarian?) superpower - is cute but ridiculous. Aside from that opening crawl (which mentions Leia's will to 'save her people') there is no quest for national identity in A New Hope and there is little evidence that Vader's stormtroopers are comitting acts of genocide against a specific race. The destruction of Alderaan may evoke the American bombing of Hanoi, Laos and Cambodia, but in the context of A New Hope it is less genocidal, or even political, as it is about getting Leia to speak and to understand the power of the Empire. Likewise, the Nazi thing is too obvious - right down to the Stormtroopers and, again, genocide (and I use that word in the case of the Indochina War in the context of events such as My Lai) does not become a part of these films until, curiously, Attack of the Clones.
Instead, the Star Wars films seem to me to be about American exceptionalism and the dangers of military expansionism. They were Cold War movies. Leia as democratic against the totalitarian one-party Gallactic Empire. Lucas did not need to be a genius political mind - although he tries: after all The Phantom Menace begins with some discussion about a blocade of trade routes and taxation. It could actually have worked well, despite the naysayers - the idea that harmony in a galaxy could be thrown into turmoil because of a dominant superpower with more export than import bullying its neighbours to the point where peaceful trade emerges into all out war. However, Star Wars never needed to be about anything except democracy vs. dictatorship. When the Berlin Wall went down and we all became more international maybe these films just fell into irrelevancy too. The First Order is that problem - it symbolises nothing, it has no purpose, it just does really shitty things for no other purpose than to be really shitty. I don't need J.J. Abrams and writer Laurence Kasdan to be channeling live political events - like a lot of obscenely rich people it is quite possible they don't give international conflicts and disputes much thought - but, Jesus, can we get something? A mere soundbite for why the bad guys are doing their bad things?
Without a reason to be villainous, though, Kylo finally gets his stripes when he kills his dad. In a scene telegraphed about three minutes ahead of its conclusion and which no one in their right mind could have been shocked by. It succeeds only in giving Han Solo a dreadful farewell - undignified and indicating that the coolest character in all of the Star Wars universe is nonetheless apparently unable to comprehend that getting too close to a certified psychopath, even if it is his own brat, is an unspeakably stupid idea. What was Han thinking? 'Oh I know he just blew up four planets but maybe he will make an exception for his dad?' Maybe Greedo did shoot first after all.
Kicking Carrie Fisher's appearance in this film feels like a lowblow. Botox has made sure her mouth can barely move, the poor thing, and she will always be Princess Leia, who wore a gold bikini, so we will let that one slide. Except her part is confusing too - why does she operate out of a tiny base? Again, why has Kylo the Emo got all the money to build a huge whopping Death Star and not the Rebels? Who would be called upon, post-war, to rebuild the universe? Oh, hang on, is that a Scottish guy speaking to Han Solo? Why would he call in The First Order? Doesn't The First Order blow up everyone? How come people want to snitch to them? Two different personalities in the film say 'tell The First Order we have found the droid' - one of whom then faces the indignity of her planet being engulfed in brutal fighting and destruction. How does this make any sense whatsoever?
Right, the other characters.
Daisy Ridley's Rey is fine. She goes from idiot to Jedi in five seconds. I don't know - look, I am just a guy with a blog and Disney made a shitload of cash from this garbage so who am I to say this sudden character arc makes no sense? I hated it - I still don't get it - but, hey, whatever, the critics are loving this. Even Mark Kermode, whose agent once sent me a most angry email because I dared to ask him his five favourite sci-fi films in an interview and list them in an issue of The Star Wars Insider. 'Don't you know Mr. Kermode has no love for Star Wars?' went the email, obviously ignoring the fact I mentioned this in the very piece and just quoted Mark's top five sci-fi films. And as if believing The Exorcist is some kind of life-affirming spiritual experience and serious story about magical sky genies is less embarassing than being featured in a Star Wars journal.
Regardless, Kermode - who I rate highly, as a critic and writer - loved this. Honestly, I don't get it. I don't.
Ah, that's the other thing I forgot to mention. I also write for The Star Wars Insider, the official Lucasfilm magazine on the series. I even have a Wookieepedia page which is tragically under-documented when it comes to the huge amount of stuff I have done for the publication including exclusive interviews with the late, great Irvin Kershner, actor Kenneth Colley and effects genius Phil Tippett (among loads more not documented on the web site). You see, I really do love that original trilogy. So if you hate this review, at least accept it is being written out of a genuine fondness for three of the seven movies.
Right, back to the The Force Awakens...
Rey is a gimp character. Ridley is decent enough, she probably has a great career ahead of her but, oh man, idiot to Jedi in seconds? Yuck. On the other hand John Boyega as Finn I liked more. I thought the idea of Stormtroopers being raised from birth for the purpose of military strength was interesting but, again, confusing - wouldn't the Rebel Alliance know about this? And why would they, presumably just a few years after Return of the Jedi, not shut those camps down? I am confused. Again. Also, why would he not know they were going to kill lots of people? Regardless, I know, this is a terrible movie so we just have to accept characters suddenly chop and change and Boyega is good enough to keep us mildly invested in him even if his whole premise is just 'huh?' Indeed, if he had been so fiercely loyal to Kylo and the Gollum then why would he ever have taken any interest in where the new Death Star's weak spot was? Does Kylo include this in Stormtrooper training: 'Listen up guys, if ever you intend to bring this big piece of equipment down, and we all trust you are very, very loyal, then you need to deactivate this section of the ship and fire into this area... but obviously forget we just told you that because we don't want anyone to know.'
Come to think of it, why did no one learn from the events of Return of the Jedi? Building a Death Star with a huge vulnerable area is a bit silly really isn't it?
This poster got my inner child insanely excited.
By now you can probably tell that The Force Awakens is more or less a rehash of A New Hope - same parent/ son dynamic, same death of a beloved elder, same young scavenger and droid expert - this time with a gender swap - and same reluctant hero. Han Solo even says 'I have a bad feeling about this' in case you had any doubts.
Okay, another question - if Luke knows that all of his friends are coming a cropper at the hands of this new evil Empire why has he gone into seclusion in Ireland? It just makes him seem like a bit of an asshole. 'Okay guys, I tried, and I know you are all looking for me, but I like the fish and chips down my local and the cheap Guiness so fight this battle yourself, alright?'
What else, what else?
How come Rey also kicks Kylo's ass in a lightsaber battle? And then she sees the image of the crucifix in his eyes and says something spiritual (which I cannot remember off-hand)? Have we gone from midichlorians to not-so-subtle Jesus evocations? Also, why has Luke's lightsaber been kept in a box for three decades in a dusty old cantina? Wouldn't Han have known at the very least? Did everyone just go their seperate ways at the end of Return of the Jedi? Why has Kylo got Darth's helmet? Who gave him it? Why is it in this massive universe people keep bumping into each other and into important things? Finn just happens to bump into Rey five seconds after landing on Jakku by complete coincidence. The Millennium Falcon just happens to be deserted on Jakku by complete coincidence. Rey just happens to be able to fly it by complete coincidence. She just happens to land it on Han Solo's ship by complete coincidence. Han just happens to stumble across Kylo on the huge Death Star by complete coincidence. Finn just happens to be a dab hand with a blaster and lightsaber by complete coincidence. Rey just happens to suddenly learn the Force when she most needs it by complete coincidence.
Okay, look, we deserved this. I deserved this. We wanted the three original characters united on the screen. This never happens (unbelievably) but we do get them 'back in action' and it really, really sucks. Han Solo is iconic and now he is no more thanks to a really pitiful death sequence. We will all watch Return of the Jedi and think, 'Ah man, they can't celebrate for too long because soon Luke is going to retire to Ireland and grow a beard and Han is going to die at the hands of his own emo-brat.' Looking back, I didn't need to know what happened after Return of the Jedi. None of us did, really. Just as we didn't need to know that Darth Vader is Hayden Christensen is Darth Vader. It doesn't help those three original classics one iota.
Things have changed, though.
I am not a kid (and the child in front of me was bored enough to be playing with his light saber whilst I was bored enough to notice). I don't need to spend my money on more Star Wars movies. I don't want to see Episode VIII or a Han Solo spin-off. These new expanded universes just muck up the 'good movies' that came out in the 70s and early 80s. I, for one, have had enough. It is impossible to deny, of course, the power of Star Wars on so many of us. Read this rant for one - you can see the effect that George Lucas had on so many of us. He taught us young 'uns that cinema could be a great source of escapism - but he also birthed the modern Hollywood blockbuster which is, most of the time, a crass, ugly, vulgar thing that exists as part of a crass, ugly, vulgar capitalist studio system. In his book From Vietnam to Reagan, the late, great Robin Wood writes:
'Spectacle – the sense of reckless, prodigal extravagance, no expense spared – is essential: the unemployment lines in the world outside may get longer and longer, we may even have to go out and join them, but if capitalism can still throw out entertainments like Star Wars (the films’ very uselessness an aspect of the prodigality), the system must be basically OK, right? Hence as capitalism approaches its ultimate breakdown, through that series of escalating economic crises prophesied by Marx well over a century ago, its entertainments must become more dazzling, more luxuriously unnecessary' (p166)
I like Wood's writing a lot and I agree with his assumption - as Baudrillard's writing on hyper-reality also aptly suggests, we are all stimulation junkies today: living for big interactive 3D event films that can be channeled on our phones, fast food, merchandise, gadgets, video games, whatever. I sat through half an hour of tie-in advertisements and lookalike Hollywood blockbusters prior to The Force Awakens and felt more and more uncomfortable as each one showed itself. I kept thinking, 'Man, this just isn't me' - and it isn't. I always made an exception for Star Wars and I allowed myself to get caught up, reminded myself, 'Aw come on, if Lucas did kill cinema and corporate capitalism is the way of the day, at least embrace a little part of it - otherwise we need to accept it has all been for nothing'.
I wanted to love The Force Awakens, to think of it as something more than just a business deal where lots of rich white men get even richer at the expense of those of us stupid enough to be suckered into a nostalgia-fest of wookies and Han Solo and botox-Leia. And the reviews, the 95% favourable at Rotten Tomatoes, none of whom even mention the fact The First Order - you know, merely the villains of the film - have no motivation for anything they do, are lapping this shit up. You expect it from the likes of Empire, don't get me wrong, but from everyone, everywhere? Honestly, 95% for a movie which has an entire plot based around recurring coincidences? Where in the opening five minutes BB-8's name is repeated exhaustedly so the kids know what to ask their parents for when it comes to Christmas? Really guys? Really?
I know the first film was not exactly original but it was new. It made space look grimy and dusty. The set design and special effects were incredible. The characters were invigorating. It didn't matter if the acting and dialogue was occasionally ropey, these personalities captured the imagination of children and adults across the world. With The Force Awakens we get a terrible send-off for a great character, some slick filmmaking, beautiful scenery, excellent art design and a couple of curious new characters. However, it isn't enough to make me come back for Episode VIII.
I am of the age now where Star Wars can remain as these horrible A/V quality three films that I own on the old DVDs. Watching these wretched-looking things is the sole way I ever experience the oldies and putting myself through them, badly upscaled onto a new flatscreen TV, is tough. But maybe it is for the best. I am less inclined to revisit the originals thanks to that - and it means, finally, my childhood memories of Star Wars have - over time - remained in my childhood.