A massive movie looms on the star-studded horizon, turbolasers and ion cannons blasting with irresistible power. Supporting fire from a flotilla of media frigates and merchandising vessels drives millions of awe-struck film fans into movie theatres across the world to emerge, two hours and 16 minutes later, dazed, happy and desperate for the sequel.
But is it any good?
In November my blog “Star Wars 7” – 5 reasons you should Fear the Force set out how the trailers, plus the previous three Star Wars episodes, made me fear the worst for the new movie.
I was wrong. And I should know. This week I saw it twice the same day*.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a fine, entertaining movie. I was wrong to doubt it.
I’m not easy to please. If you don’t believe me, check out my review of Spectre: 5 reasons to miss it & 5 reasons you’ll see it 4/10.
So what made The Force Awakens better than I expected?
WARNING: THE FOLLOWING TEXT CONTAINS MILD SPOILERS, BUT NO PLOT REVELATIONS.
(i) the self-awareness I hoped for desperately in November is there in spades; the turgid self-importance of the previous three episodes has been banished to the outer fringes of the galaxy. When Hans Solo says something on the lines of: “So it’s big! We gotta blow it up. There’s always a way to do that” he neutralises the cynicism of every wise-guy in the audience. It’s a line worthy of Galaxy Quest;
(ii) the self awareness isn’t overdone. In my preview I said the “new kind of beach-ball droid, reminiscent of the beach-ball alien in 1974’s magnificent sci-fi classic Dark Star” gave cause for hope. In fact it’s better than that: the droid is called a BB8, presumably for Beach Ball. At one point Hans Solo even refers to it as a ball. But they don’t labour the point;
(iii) humour, or humor. The Force Awakens is full of laugh-out-loud jokes, like: “What’s your name?” “FN-2187”; or the scene where a protagonist has to share a fetid water trough with a spectacularly ugly alien. The bar scenes and chess-like board game from the 1977 Star Wars may be repeats, but they’re still funny. I look forward to the return of Jabba the Hutt in episodes 8 and 9;
(iv) amidst the entertaining but predictable explosions and dogfights, there are one or two moments of epic “I am your father” quality. Without wanting to reveal any spoilers, watch out for the moment where a person, threatened with The Force, suddenly finds that they can retaliate, leading to a thrilling power-duel and some fine acting. Did I say epic? It gave me goose-bumps;
(v) the sexual politics are reasonable, in particular in the admirable Rey, played by actress Daisy Ridley with power, beauty (much like a Bend it Like Beckham-era Keira Knightley) and intelligence. I’m not sure it passes the Bechdel test. But it’s better than most and there’s a fine running gag as Rey and fellow protagonist Finn spar about who is saving who;
(vi) The Force Awakens turns conventions upside down by having (mild spoiler alert) a Stormtrooper revealed as a human being, with doubts and shortness of breath. Of course the other Stormtroopers are still laughably vulnerable and unable to shoot straight (see this excellent BBC analysis of why a billion-strong army of Stormtroopers might not be much of a fighting force). There’s even a comic scene where Kylo Ren is having a tantrum and two stormtroopers decide to scarper.
So: enjoyable and definitely worth an outing.
It’s not perfect. The Force Awakens battles with the illogicalities of the earlier movies. Why is Kylo Ren wearing a sinister helmet if he can take it off, and why does his voice sound so different without it? Why, if the First Order has a superweapon capable of destroying star systems, do they not destroy the rebel base with it the moment they learn of its location, rather than sending an under-powered division of Stormtroopers needlessly to destroy a cool-looking temple/bar complex?
Most seriously, there aren’t enough of those goose-bump moments to make The Force Awakens ground-breaking. For that, I’d have liked to see a few more plot twists and a lot more new technology. As I said in my preview piece, most of the hardware (X-wings, TIE fighters, another Death Star, blasters, light sabres and so on) seems frozen in 1977. Hasn’t the First Order developed any new weapons of death in all those years?
As a wise person said: Imagine the Death Star reconstruction committee. “What about this glaring vulnerability?” says one of the team. “They’ll never notice that,” says another.
Give the First Order and rebel designers their druthers in Episodes 8 and 9, I say.
For: fun, a terrific new heroine, self-awareness and plenty of jokes;
Against: unfulfilled potential; leaves a taste of “is that it?”
*PPS the reason I saw “The Force Awakens” twice the same day was that the first time I watched it, in the beautiful big old Atlas Cinema in Istanbul, the action suddenly stopped around one hour fifty minutes into the story; then resumed around twenty minutes later, to show the final five minutes of the plot. That’s right! If you’ve seen The Force Awakens you’ll know exactly how much of the denouement we missed! Luckily we got our money back and went to watch it again later in the day in a less beautiful but more technologically robust cinema, including the missing segment. Sorry, Atlas… your time is up.