By now, anybody who cares is more than a little familiar with the concerns and expectations facing Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Could Disney and J.J. Abrams create a film that obeyed the aesthetic, narrative and mythological sensibilities of the Star Wars series? Would this film overcome the awkward and unsatisfying nature of the prequels and set itself apart as a legitimate achievement? And finally, would Abrams, used to a freer reign in his reinvention of classics, be able to shake off his own style enough to avoid distracting viewers with an auteur’s take on the series. Generally, the answers are yes, yes and yes. For a little more (spoiler free) information, please read on.
The original trilogy holds up for many reasons that I needn’t bother reiterating in depth. A New Hope is tightly structured, beautifully written and displays a directorial discipline that Lucas never delivered again. The Empire Strikes Back is a fascinatingly bleak journey into the heart of darkness, directed by the exceptionally talented Irvin Kershner. And while Return of the Jedi is a little looser in its structure, the film has always played like two hours of entertaining pay-off.
But while each of these films was differentiated tonally in some way, there were several things that each successfully delivered. All beautifully captured the sense of possibility in an endless galaxy of unexplored worlds, and each gave us an ever-growing collection of charismatic characters bound by a consistently strong chemistry and an underlying comedic edge. And as a result, each film provided a sense of adventure that was far less focused on intricate plot development than it was on character and momentum. All of these things were lacking in the prequel trilogy, which was heavily bogged down by a narrative loaded with the intricacies of political machinations, dry and emotionally disengaging characters, a general lack of humour, and retro-engineered philosophising.
Abrams is clearly aware of all this, and has gone back to the original films for his inspiration, to far greater effect. All of the new characters (and the performers behind them) are exceptional – the only unconvincing performance comes from one of the veterans – as is the chemistry between them. The storyline is also far closer to the spirit of the original trilogy, moving with an energy and sense of excitement that took me back to my earliest viewing of Star Wars. However, Abrams’ approach isn’t perfect. There is a tendency towards over-plotting at times (nowhere near the extent of the prequels) that comes across as an unnecessary attempt to cram too much of the past into one film. This also results in a few too many plot developments introduced purely for narrative convenience. But all in all, Abrams gets the job done admirably.
The prequel trilogy demonstrated one other indiscretion aside from those already mentioned; an indiscretion that ultimately leaked into the rereleases of the original trilogy. Delighted by the possibilities that CGI afforded, George Lucas found himself freed from the aesthetic and commercial constraints of the past when making the prequels. Unfortunately, constraints are often more likely to produce positive creative outcomes than unlimited resources. Lucas abandoned the real world and any semblance of common-sense or physics in his search for the ultimate spectacle. The result was a series of films that distanced rather than engaged, and exceeded the boundaries required to sustain the suspension of disbelief. Going further, Lucas then went so far as to tinker in various ways with the original films in order make sure they were up to scratch with contemporary CGI. But as one person pointed out to me recently, ten years later the old-world effects of the original trilogy are less dated than the CGI of the prequels.
As could probably be expected, Abrams, who has born into the world of CGI rather than having to adapt to it, has almost entirely circumvented the problems that faced the prequels. Abrams demonstrates a clear understanding that CGI is ultimately a tool to be used in order to support the development of a story rather than something that should be imposed on to that story, and as a result there is a general sense of seamlessness between the original films and The Force Awakens. While there are a few action scenes that skirt the edge of implausibility, they feel intuitively credible enough to not break the film’s momentum.
It’s easy to forget that the vast majority of Abrams career has been centred on producing television rather than feature film direction. In fact, he’s only directed five movies: Mission Impossible 3 (2006), Star Trek (2009), Super 8 (2011), Star Trek Into Darkness (2013), and now Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Interestingly, the first of these is a not-quite-successful effort to reinvigorate and reinterpret a film series conceived as a reinvention of a TV series that ran intermittently from the 1960s to the early 1990s. Super 8 is an attempt to rediscover the Spielbergian essence of late-1970s science fiction. And the Star Trek movies were a bold stab at reinventing one of the great science fiction franchises for a new generation.
Much has been made of the benefits and risks associated with Abrams having rebooted the Star Trek films. Some have suggested that they are a demonstration of his ability to do just that, while others see them as having removed the show’s more cerebral elements in favour of generic high-octane action and spectacle. Either way, the comparison is less helpful than it might initially appear. Before Abrams came along, there had already been six long-running television series and ten features released in the Star Trek franchise – most demonstrating a unique set of aesthetic variations and tones within the context of a freer universe. Perhaps the core reason for this flexibility is that Star Trek is essentially understood as a future-history narratively connected to our own world. Star Wars, however, is mythical in its structure. Each Star Wars film must be tied to the cyclical and formal arrangement of the greater whole, rather than exist solely as an independent entity. Everything from shot composition, editing, sound design, music, performance style, and narrative motifs must exude familiarity and oneness.
Once again, the good news is that Abrams has managed to achieve this oneness between The Force Awakens and the complete Star Wars cycle. The movie looks, sounds and feels like a Star Wars film. And given that I’ve made a vow to entirely avoid mention of any plot elements, you’ll have to take my word for it when I say that The Force Awakens fits comfortably within the broader narrative, even as it plays with and reconfigures many of the elements from the previous films. In fact, if I’m to be entirely honest, there are a few moments when it feels that Abrams has been too conservative with his choices, electing to go with the safety of a road well travelled over innovation. But all in all, this is undoubtedly the best entry in the series since 1983.