Film (2015). Lucasfilm/Bad Robot/Truenorth Productions. Directed by J J Abrams. Written by Lawrence Kasdan and Abrams. Cast includes John Boyega, Daniel Craig (uncredited), Adam Driver, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, Domhnall Gleeson, Mark Hamill, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong'o, Daisy Ridley, Andy Serkis, Max von Sydow. 3D. 135 minutes. Colour.
This smooth and splendiferous resumption of the Star Wars main story relegates to "Legend" status the baggy faute-de-mieux "Expanded [sic] Universe" laid down in the Star Wars über-timeline in an attempt to keep the franchise going after the end of Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983). Thirty-two years is a very long time for a film franchise to survive without a film to carry its story arc forward, and the strain showed. The three entropic bromide-strewn CGI-poisoned prequels curated by the gouty George Lucas had an ongoing septic effect on the enterprise (see Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace ; Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones ; Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith ); nor did the slew of novels-in-the-world-of Star Wars set in times beyond Return of the Jedi manage to supply much pulp gravitas to the relic-laden arc (see the Star Wars entry's incoming "people" list for dozens of authors recruited to perform Ties in the fog). All this is reason enough to rejoice in the new film: because it returns to the story, which it redeems both by honouring the first films through repetition of key scenarios and venues, and by edging the story arc forward.
Another reason to welcome J J Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan's glossy rehabilitation of basic values lies in the narrative clarity of their understanding that the underlying family-romance structure Star Wars is best articulated as fantasy not sf: despite the galaxy-spanning Space Opera arena in which it takes place; despite a Galactic Empire at stake, in which a dynastic quarrel is repurposed as a war between Good and Evil; and despite the operatic Spaceships and Weapons (though Mecha are absent this time round, and there are no Scientists available to supply upgrades). Underneath these gestures towards sf, it is all fantasy. Vast energies are generated by wands. Sketchily urbanized planets dissolve as though daylight had struck a Vampire. As before, the Robots on view are pets who fixate like familiars upon their various owners. No computers or cellphones or Internet can be seen; if they exist, they are tapestry. There are no cities left to smash flat. There are no populations.
There are, on the other hand, great Edifices à la Albert Speer [for Edifices see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below], and Keeps, and pubs, and bazaars where ancient weapons and gear are bartered for groats, and illimitable landscapes, and steeds disguised as fighter planes, and Monsters. The Dark Lord (Serkis) is something like a demigod; the magus who in self-imposed exile embodies the Force – Luke Skywalker (Hamill) from the central trilogy – has become a Secret Master who must rouse himself (or be roused), and whose cadre of Jedi knights comprises a Pariah Elite asleep in carven attitudes as they brood upon the awakening [for Once and Future King see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]. There are duels to the death galore, and clashes of armies at night. And in the end, as in any great fantasy, the tumult and the shouting are a cover for something more intimate: in this case a generation-spanning family psychodrama whose most intense moments – these moments being central to the movement of story – are conducted almost in silence (or at least quietly). For all its well-spent $200,000,000 budget, The Force Awakens is a chamber opera.
Thirty years have passed since the hope-filled last moments of The Return of the Jedi, but the passage of time has not been good for the family firm, whose disasters are described in backstory soundbites. After failing properly to enfold into the Force young Ben (Driver) – the son of Han Solo (Ford) and Princess Leia (Fisher) – who has gone over to the dark side, Luke Skywalker has abandoned his people and now sulks – we may assume magisterially – on a craggy island on a planet whose location remains a mystery. The worlds that once (we guess) housed the Republic of old have decayed into belated desert "Third-World" slums, inhabited (as far as we are shown) solely by nomads and/or refugees who survive by scavenging the wrecks of old warships from a time when there were Giants in the Earth. Princess Leia is now a general in command of a rump of freedom-loving fighters, eager to ride their steeds into action. But the fallen Empire has been replaced by an even more conspicuously Nazi-style totalitarian regime which calls itself the First Order. Young Ben has renamed himself Kylo Ren and has replaced Darth Vader as consigliere for the Dark Force, though under the ultimate control of Supreme Leader Snoke (the Dark Lord quasi-incarnate), whose enormous image evokes (almost certainly with deliberation) L Frank Baum's Wizard of Oz as channelled through the Nazi-style Totenkampf in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004).
An ace resistance pilot, Poe Dameron (Isaac), escapes from a First Order stronghold with a cute droid which contains part of a map which reveals Skywalker's location. Both the First Order and the freedom fighters want to find Skywalker, and the map fragment serves as a McGuffin to shape the action sequences which introduce the new cast, who will carry the story forward into further sequels: Dameron himself; Rey (Ridley), who turns out almost certainly to be Skywalker's daughter (a relationship signalled in the first few minutes of the film when she dons what appears to be his battered helmet from the original series, which she seems to have retrieved from a midden of crashed ships); Finn (Boyega), a First Order AWOL grunt whose conscience does not permit him to kill. The chase scenes featuring these three are only modestly intrinsic to the main flow of action in The Force Awakens, but are very expertly filmed, with CGI antisepsis only visible when necessary, and live action in real locations whenever possible.
The protagonist of the film is, perhaps surprisingly, not any of the neophytes but Han Solo (Ford) from the first trilogy [Harrison Ford is here given top billing for the first time in any Star Wars film], thirty years older, but very much the same under the seams of healthy ageing. The continuity of his character clearly has something to do with the continued vitality of the actor in question, which the filmmakers were able to exploit; but also serves to mark the desolateness of the interregnum since Return of the Jedi: for Solo has reverted to his buccaneering past, along with his colleague Chewbacca (Mayhew), the only non-human character given more than an eye candy role in The Force Awakens. He has become, once again, in other words, a scampish parasite. His redemption – and viewers' introduction to him in the current film – begins with his fairy-story entrance, through a previously locked hatch, into the interior of his old ship, the Millennium Falcon, which Finn and Rey have found in a rubbish tip and managed to escape pursuit in. From this point, his rediscovery of his wife (Princess Leia), his son (Ben/Ren) – and his central role in the shaping of times to come – serve to mark not only his personal redemption but also the redemptive recovery of a propulsive story arc for the series as a whole, as dramatically manifested in his death at the hands of Ben/Ren, a conspicuous enactment of the tragic Oedipal crux, when the son kills the father; and it may be the case that, though we are not actually given sight of Solo's body (normally a sign that "death" is revocable), Solo is in fact permanently gone. In any case, this underpins the carrying power of the central family drama as it begins to unfold, though in terms as childishly simplistic as always, in an arena where humane values can vie plausibly against a barely disguised Nazi totalitarianism.
By the time The Force Awakens closes in a powerful Slingshot Ending, three decades of Thinning have been purged by two moments of Recognition [for these terms again see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below], the second being the discovery of Skywalker in the last minutes of the film. These two moments, in each of which a loaded baton is passed, promise a story to come. More cannot be asked of such an artefact as Star Wars in its fourth decade.
The novelization is Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) by Alan Dean Foster. [JC]
Previous versions of this entry