Film review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Director: J. J. Abrams)
By Sascha Krieger
Forget the hype, ignore the merchandise machinery. Star Wars Episode VII is finally upon us and it is – surprise, surprise – first and foremost a film, two hours and some of sitting in a cinema chair and watching characters – in 2D or 3D, as you like – enact a story. Simple as this. That Star Wars has gained a significance far beyond that of a film franchise, that it has played a key role in recent mass culture, that it has invaded and even partially shaped politics and public debates on pretty much anything, is well-known and has been the subject of countless research projects. That the quintessential fight of good versus evil in which good is never just good and evil is never just evil, both requiring choices, particularly resonated at a time in which the world seemed to be on the brink of annihilation as the result of a struggle between two polar opposites, is also not exactly news. And neither is the fact that the original series‘ optimism, its refusal to follow the black vs white opposition to its bitter gave a glimmer of hope to many in times in which hope was often frowned upon as naive. And so the fairy tale that is Star Wars imagined a world ion which harmony triumphed over war, despite all evidence to the contrary.
Alas, now, 32 years later, the fairy tale is gone. The „Happily ever after“ was only an illusion, the triumph short-lived. The Dark Side rises again, the source of good has vanished, history is not linear but moves in circles. This is probably the new film’s most revolutionary aspect: Instead of being a fairy tale in which good ultimately wins and happiness remains, Star Wars is now what in reality it always was: an alternative history, an admittedly distorted and embellished mirror image on world history, a metaphor for the human struggle. So the fact that many places, stories, characters of the original trilogy find their equivalents in the first instalment of the new one, is only logical. There is a new Darth Vader, a new Yoda, new Lukes and Han Solos – even though the old remain. A new generation takes over, supported by the old one. The struggle begins again, between light and dark. It has always been a strength of the franchise – even of the much maligned prequel trilogy – that this struggle mostly takes place within the individual.
This is true for The Force Awakens, too. J. J. Abrams‘ reboot focusses on the inner struggles, makes them more varied and the characters somewhat gain in complexity. Light and dark, despair and hope, anger and love compete in all of them , the new ones and the old ones. The new crop of very unlikely heroes is quite impressive: Daisy Ridley’s demon-ridden, yet naively hopeful Rey and John Boyega’s insecure Finn, a former Stormtrooper struggling with an onset of individual identity, look like they might well carry the new trilogy on their shoulders. Even the new villain, Adam Driver playing Kylo Ren, emancipates himself from the Vader-likeness and begins to come into his own late in the film, more insecure, much angrier, a mixture of ruthless cunning and a restless sense of being lost. For lost they all are, trying to make sense of a world that, much like our own, refuses to be made sense of. For behind the action and space battles, the world we see is – and has always been, one inhabited of people struggling to live with or against each other.
The action is supreme. Abrams‘ dives deeply into George Lucas‘ original playbook, especially the battles feel like 1977 and look like 2015. The choreography of intimacy and blockbuster opulence, words and action, mass combat and the franchises key feature of one-to-one confrontation – in word, mind or fight – is revived in the freshest of ways. The humour is more subtle than in the earlier films, the comic relief coming mostly from the cutest Droid ever and the blustering helplessness of the ex-Stormtrooper. The crudeness of the prequel trilogy’s attempts at humour is gone, all feels more natural, more relaxed, more self-assured. Despite all the pressure on its success, the film has the feel of dealing with a situation one has encountered before – which is indeed at its core. There is no need to comment on photography, editing, sound, music – all of this lies in the most capable of hands and is as good as when Star Wars first hit our screens.
For one thing we must not forget: Star Wars: The Force Awakens is after all one thing first: pure and nearly perfect entertainment, full of action, suspense, visual spectacle, emotional depth, romance and humour. The complete package. Of course, the story has its flaws, the story feels rushed at times, especially towards the end, is a little to close to the original at others, but flawlessness has never been Star Wars‘ business. Like all of us, the universe, having gone through a lot, will always be worse for wear (just look at the Millenium Falcon after 30 years of abuse!). If all is not perfect, so is the world we live in, so are we. Star Wars, that’s blockbuster popcorn cinema coupled with a deeply humanistic message. And a smart one: if we’re not careful, history is bound to repeat itself. Like in 1977, it seems to arrive at exactly the right time.