The Force Awakens is a sincere effort to recapture the excitement of the original Star Wars trilogy; it’s resolutely grubby, small scale and human, just like the originals. JJ Abrams seems to have spent the last few years brooding over the millions of voices which cried out as one that Phantom Menace and the rest of them had way too much CGI and way too much talky nonsense about high level politics. So he’s gone practical as much as he can, and there’s no galactic parliament to drag things shrieking to a halt every few minutes. And - so far - there’s no Jar Jar Binks, though I won’t relax until Abrams tells us all exactly what the JJ in his name really stands for.
And yet. If you’ve seen the originals, The Force Awakens is going to feel familiar in some bad ways too. There’s a super-weapon in the shape of a sphere. It blows up a peaceful planet or two, and then the good guys have to blow it up in the nick of time before it gets used to blow up the rebel base. And to do that, they have to attack a thermal exhaust port. Which is protected by a shield which a plucky ground expedition has to nobble first. And along the way, an old wise mentor gets chopped up by an evil Jedi and chucked off a bridge. And there’s a confrontation between a father and a son. And a desert planet with an economy which doesn’t make a lick of sense and horrible traders taking advantage of people. And an orphan who doesn’t know who her parents really are. And a cantina full of aliens and jazz bands. Yes, we liked the originals. But they’re on DVD and Blu Ray. We could just watch them again. We wanted something new that felt the same way, not a movie which at times feels as though it was scripted by taking all the fun action bits from the first three movies and putting them in a slightly different order.
And yet. If you can watch the X-wings coming to the rescue at wavetop height and not feel a little shiver of joy, there’s something dead in you. The Force Awakens works as a movie, and works as a Star Wars movie. Which is to say that it’s held together by outrageous coincidence and a magnificent disregard for the laws of physics; the interwebs will pass off the coincidence as the Force in action, and spend the next two years concocting ever more elaborate explanations for how Finn and company can see a star system light years away getting exploded within seconds of us watching the weapon being fired at the same target. It can be this generation’s Kessel run.
Which brings us to scene-stealer-in-chief Han Solo, still effortlessly the most magnetic thing in the Star Wars universe. I don’t know if it’s just Harrison Ford’s own talent, or the fact that Han Solo as a character has never had the weight of destiny hanging off him; Han just makes sense as a space adventurer. Whenever he’s on screen, the nonsense around him becomes magically more plausible. He’s the personification of the simple SF principle that weirdness becomes believable if someone normal acts as though he’s seen it all before. The younger cast are doing their best, but the whole point of the movie is that everything’s coming as a shock to them, so as hard as Boyega, Ridley and Isaac work, they can’t beat the world-weariness which only a seventy year old who never even liked the movies can bring to the game.
Now, about the Dark Side. Which is, unsurprisingly, back. And not making any more sense than it has up to now. There’s a scene in the middle of the movie where Domhnall Gleeson is firing up the troops with a speech before firing up the super weapon. When I wasn’t trying to see if a toothbrush moustache was emerging mysteriously from his frothing upper lip, I was brooding on the Dark Side’s business model, which seems to be strong on super weapons and vast faceless armies and light on anything which resembles a purpose to all the badness. The First Order seems to be in business to be evil, just for the sake of being evil. I don’t have a problem believing that, but where’s their marketing department? No matter how objectively wicked any operation has ever been in human history, there’s always been a comforting narrative from the people in charge about the purity of their motives and the benefits for the foot-soldiers. As I’ve said before, Bwa-Ha-Ha is not a mission statement.
Brooding on that one, it suddenly hit me that in the Star Wars universe, humans are the bad guys. The Empire, and now the First Order, are exclusively staffed by humans. The Resistance is a raggle taggle mixture of dozens of races, all working together to stop the baddies; the baddies are a mono-culture of faceless humanoids massacring all before them. There’s the occasional alien hire here and there, and the First Order even has some non-Aryan employees in subordinate positions, but for the most part, as long as there’s been a Dark Side and a bunch of maniacs to push its message, it’s been all humans, all the time.
Now the Dark Side starts to make sense; it’s the same old Dark Side which has brought us the wonders of our own history, from the Roman Empire to the Mongol Hordes to Manifest Destiny and everything in between. Schwack them other dudes which is not like us, take their stuff and keep their land. Pretty sure that JJ and the guys never even noticed that one as they tried to figure out what comes next.
There’s two ways to look at that. One is to think of The Force Awakens as a re-imagining of A New Hope, which would mean that whatever we get next will have the vibe of The Empire Strikes Back, which is probably the best - and most low-key - of all the Star Wars movies to date. The other is to think of The Force Awakens as a brisk recycling of all the good stuff from the original three movies, freeing up the second movie to be a recycling of the prequels….