I wouldn’t describe myself as a Star Wars fan these days, but the original film (which I’m going to call Star Wars, because that’s what it was called when it came out, and calling it ‘Episode IV: A New Hope‘ just feels weird) was the film that first got me interested in films, and in science fiction. It’s probably impossible to explain to anyone much under 50 just how extraordinary it seemed back in 1977, just as it’s impossible for me to truly grasp why Rock Around The Clock was such a big deal to the kids of the 1950s. (There’s an interesting article here by Devin Faraci, who writes very well about George Lucas’s achievement, and why the sequels and prequels could never recapture it.)
So I was keen to see The Force Awakens, and prepared to forgive it quite a lot. (I’m glad that I was able to do so before I read any spoilers. If you haven’t seen it, I’d strongly suggest you read no further…)
Actually, the big surprise about The Force Awakens is that it’s not really a sequel to the Star Wars films, more a kind of reboot, which repeats all the major plot elements of the first film. So there’s another droid carrying secret data, pursued by the usual bad guys, rescued by another young protagonist on another desert planet with the help of another wise-cracking hero who claims to be out for himself but ends up joining the Rebel Alliance – sorry,’the Resistance’. There’s no attempt to explain what happened after the end of Return of the Jedi – the Star Wars universe has just been reset. The evil Empire, which we’d thought had been defeated, turns out to have just changed its name, like a dodgy roofing company, and is now trading as The First Order. The New Republic is presumably the government formed by the victorious Rebel Alliance, but it doesn’t seem to have a military, and instead just ‘supports the Resistance’… oh, I don’t know, none of it makes any sense at all, and the lack of any context for the action is one of the things which eventually makes the film so oddly unsatisfying.
But for the first thirty minutes or so I didn’t care, because, from the instant the yellow Star Wars logo appeared and John Williams’s score kicked in, I’d sunk happily into a warm bath of nostalgia. There’s a moment when good stormtrooper Finn drops into the gun turret of the Millennium Falcon and the old retro targeting system lights up which made me feel eleven years old again. (It didn’t look retro when I was eleven – it looked like The Future.) And another a bit later, when a door opens and Han Solo and Chewbacca stroll in as if they’ve never really been away…
The new characters are mostly good, too. New droid BB-8 is cute and ingenious and fits straight into the Star Wars universe (though I can’t understand why he’s being used to sell oranges when there’s another character, voiced by Lupita Nyong’o, who basically is an orange.) Desert scavenger Rey perhaps remains slightly too much of a mystery (her background will be explored in future episodes, no doubt) but petulant teenage Vader-wannabe Kylo Ren has potential, and I liked John Boyega as good Stormtrooper Finn; he’s slightly goofy and instantly likeable in the same way that Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford were in the original Star Wars. I suppose you could argue that he’s also surprisingly articulate and sociable for someone who has been raised from birth to be a faceless minion, and that he switches sides and takes to slaughtering his former friends with very few moral qualms, but Star Wars was always painted with a broad brush, and that’s the sort of nonsense you have to overlook if you’re going to enjoy the ride.
But pretty soon (about a third of the way into the film) a bit of nonsense arrives which is so big it can’t be overlooked, and my happily suspended disbelief gave up the effort and crashed to the floor. The nonsense in question is called ‘Starkiller Base’, and it’s basically a planet with a laser cannon the size of Greenland built into its equator. Now I like a laser cannon the size of Greenland as much as the next man, but I have no idea how this thing was supposed to work, and the film offered very few clues. It gets its power by draining all the energy from its own sun, then unleashes a pretty red death-ray which can blow up five planets in one go. Then, presumably, it moves on to another sun to start recharging. I know Star Wars has never claimed to be hard science fiction, but Starkiller Base might as well be magic. As far as I could tell (since there’s never any explanation as to where it actually is in relation to anything else) it can hit targets instantaneously in other solar systems. If that can happen, then the internal logic of the Star Wars universe has been bent to the point where anything is allowable.
It isn’t even bedded into the plot properly. You’d think the action in The Force Awakens would be All About That Base, but in fact it makes no difference to the story whatsoever. The first Death Star was fairly silly too, of course, but it was completely integral to the plot of the original Star Wars – almost everything that happens in that film happens on or because of the Death Star; it’s mentioned in the opening title crawl, and the climax is built around its slow, menacing advance on the rebel stronghold. In contrast, Starkiller Base feels like an afterthought. You could cut it out of The Force Awakens completely and still tell the same story. Maybe someone will do a fan edit – Finn and Han Solo could still launch a reckless mission to spring Rey from some conventional base, and you could still end with the same climactic duel. It’s a lousy piece of storytelling, and I don’t think it can be blamed on the writers or director; I reckon it was shoehorned half-heartedly into the script on the orders of studio executives who think a Star Wars film has to end with X-Wing fighters battling their way down a fortified trench.
Once you realise that, you can see the same mindset at work all through the film. Some of the concept art (from the Art of The Force Awakens book) has been appearing on the internet, and it shows landscapes which look far more interesting than the desert world on screen. Who looked at pictures like the ones below and said, ‘We can’t use this stuff. It’s a Star Wars film. It has to start on a desert planet.’?
The thing is, Tatooine wasn’t just some pretty dunes: the first 30 minutes of the original film manage, in a few brisk scenes, to sketch in a whole fragile economy; the nomadic scrap-dealers, the farmers they trade with, the bandits who prey on both, and the long trek to the grubby local spaceport. That’s what grabbed my imagination when I first saw it. Jakku has entire starships buried in in the dunes instead of the alien skeletons we glimpsed on Tatooine, but we never sense how it works. It’s just the backdrop for a theme-park ride (as I write this, Disneyland is presumably importing many tonnes of sand.)
The second big surprise about The Force Awakens is how quickly and how completely people have invested in what looks to me like a fairly cynical corporate rebranding exercise. Fan art based on the film is everywhere, and a lot of it is gorgeous. Some viewers seem to see great emotional or political depth in Rey and Finn. Emo Kylo Ren on Twitter is far smarter than the movie which inspired him. There’s a second-string character called Poe Dameron, who I barely noticed – he seemed to be just a device to get Finn into the plot (I half thought he’d died when their TIE fighter crashed on Jakku, and felt it was a slight cop out when he turned up again later). But lots of people did notice him, and are busy creating whole stories of their own about him. Why?
Perhaps it’s a generational thing. While eleven-year-old me was gawping thunderstruck at Star Wars, the older generation were bewildered by its popularity. Michael Moorcock grumbled that it was ‘a compendium of other people’s ideas’. ‘Totally unoriginal, feebly plotted, instantly forgettable, and an acoustic nightmare,’ sniffed JG Ballard. But to me, that first Star Wars feels like a fairly solid bit of Hollywood storytelling. Now I, in my turn, find myself bewildered by the trend Star Wars has spawned; echoingly empty tentpole movies which sling some beautiful design work and good-looking actors on the screen and leave it to a worldwide web of willing fans to fill in the plot-holes, and write extra jokes, and project personalities and motivation onto underwritten characters. Maybe that’s more democratic, in a way – big films have become just raw material, out of which fans can build their own stories. Maybe that’s why The Force Awakens and most of the other big movies that I see these days always feel like the trailers for something else…