Saturday, January 09, 2016

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens … or should that be Indiana Jones and the Lost Droid?

I’m not a big fan of Star Wars. I remember reading one or two of the novelisations while at primary school, but the Force wasn’t strong. It’s okay if you find my lack of faith disturbing. In 1999 I watched Episode I: The Phantom Menace (with its podrace mash-up of hot rod racing and Formula 1) in the cinema with work colleagues and was thoroughly unimpressed.

A couple of years ago I gave in to curiosity and borrowed the boxset to watch the first six films (in episode order I-VI). It was clear that Episode IV: A New Hope (the original Star Wars film) was the best, and everything went downhill as you moved left or right through the rest of the franchise.

So I’d no plans to view the new Disneyfied Episode VII: The Force Awakens until so many friends saw it but so few reported hating it. Barely a hint of discontent. How could they not have been disturbed by JJ Abrams’ treatment of George Lucas’ science fiction universe? So this intrepid blogger went along to a matinee screening to see for himself …

The first character on screen is the crowd-pleasing spherical BB-8, a rolling football with a head. Disappointingly while most of the universe has standardised on English, personal droids haven’t evolved past burbling that could have been produced by the sound chip in a BBC Micro Model B back in the 1980s.

It’s very retro and full of cliché (mostly thirty nine year old Star Wars clichés and memes). Intergalactic inter-species bar scenes. Tick. John Williams score is familiar with sinister horns blowing over sweeping strings. Tick. The style of over-the-top fancy wipes when switched between scenes and locations are retained from earlier episodes. Tick. TIE Fighters, X-Wings and even the Millennium Falcon make an appearance. Tick. (Though the Millennium Falcon is a real work of science fiction as the only space ship in fictional history that can bounce off desserts and bump into solid objects like a car driving through Paris without sustaining damage.) Not to mention C-3PO who is as forthright as ever (“it would take a miracle to save us now”) and is still king of the understatement.

It’s not terribly subtle. The contradiction of nameless pristine white-suited Storm Troopers who are accustomed to carrying out genocide is made all the more obvious by one soldier who carelessly gets blood on his otherwise immaculate white helmet and starts to show emotion.

At its heart, Star Wars has a family tree with the dysfunctional tragedy and messed-up loyalties of Dallas combined with Dynasty. Yet despite the light years that separate one side of a star system from another, the main dream team protagonists have the knack of dropping into each other’s back yards to impossibly reunite without as much as a glance at a map.

One leading character whose position in the family tree has been left ambiguous until mid-2017 and Episode VIII is Rey (played by Daisy Ridley). She fights, she flies, she flees, and she just happens to be female.

“Without the Jedi there can be no balance in the Force.”

[Spoiler alert] The Jedi remain absent for much of the 135 minute film. So lightsaber rattling is kept to a minimum … though Kylo Ren’s red cross-shaped lightsaber is a neat innovation.

It’s very commercial. Some scenes only seem to have survived in the final edit to introduce animals and animatronic creatures that can later be given away in Happy Meals. Though I can’t see any food franchise wanting to licence the dodgy looking green muffins Rea prepares. A lot of the flying and dogfighting sequences have a video/arcade game feel to them that will easily jump to consoles.

Old friends reappear. One being-chased-by-a-monster sequence feels more like Indiana Jones and the Lost Droid than Star Wars (Indiana Jones is another George Lucas vehicle for Harrison Ford), and there’s definitely a little of Hillary Clinton in Princess Leia.

“Why are you doing this?” “Because it's the right thing to do.”

The dialogue is streets ahead of the latest Bond abomination Spectre: Episode VII’s lines are better and there are a lot more of them. Thankfully the temptation to launch into grandstanding speeches and space philosophy was avoided.

It’s quite repetitive. You don’t seem to need names in space: time after time, major characters only drop their names in twenty minutes after the audience (and the rest of the cast) first meet them. There are a few too many meaningful glances thrown across the set.

Peril is the norm, and at times the stress of relentless chasing and fighting was nearly too much for me, particularly since Abrams favours cutting his daring escape sequences boldly short which further compresses the audience recovery time. Though everything slows down to near bradycardia whenever R2-D2 is involved.

I’m baffled by the improbability that every major sequence in the film takes place during daylight. Other natural orders have been suspended too: allowing cast members to shout from one end of the Millennium Falcon to the other (eg gunning turret to the bridge) and be heard!

At its heart, Episode VII: The Force Awakens has truth and lies, loyalty and treachery, modernity and antiquity. And more than a touch of Highlander. But its nostalgic reliance on the very first Star Wars film for look and feel must be the reason that I – along with so many others – don’t dislike the film and (at the very least) grudgingly appreciate its blockbusting success.

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