A New Hope Dashed

I saw The Force Awakens last night and while I enjoyed it I was disappointed on a number of fronts. This post will contain spoilers so please don’t read it if you have yet to see the film.

I guess this is the part of the post where I establish my Star Wars credentials. I grew up with Star Wars and can barely remember my life before I saw it first. My cousin had a VHS machine back in the early 1980s and whenever we would visit them he and I would watch Episode IV at least once. I remember the first time I saw it and being complete entranced. I saw The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi at the cinema when the were released and owned nearly every action figure and model. When the originals had their cinematic re-release in the 1990s I saw them. Like all Star Wars fans I dutifully watched the prequels and was horrified by some aspects and excited by others. I would estimate my viewings of the original films in the hundreds. So, yes, I am a Star Wars fan.

Like all fans I have eagerly anticipated the new films. I felt shivers down my spine and cried when I watched the trailers and was desperate for the new film to be released.

Last night when “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” came up to that musical score so ingrained into my consciousness I felt like I was 7 again. And then the opening scrawl came up and immediately I thought “I have a bad feeling about this”. Although I can’t remember it word for word the gist was that Luke was missing and that somehow there was a New Republic that was sponsoring as Resistance to the First Order. It immediately sounded confused, but familiar. Much like the rest of the film.

Although the prequel films were execrable, they at least felt like Star Wars films. As soon as we were in the drop ships with the Storm Troopers and we had shaky cam my feeling that I was watching Star Wars evaporated. I appreciate that film making techniques have improved since the 1970s and 80s, but part of the charm of the older films which was brought across the the prequels was a certain style of cinematography. JJ Abrams is a great director and I thought the Star Trek reboots were great, but I am not invested in Star Trek. The Force Awakens feels like it lost something by being made with flashy use of focus, cameras that chase flying ships and clever camera angles.

In my opinion Empire is the best of the original films. It was dark, but it had great dialogue and really set up the audience for Jedi. The plot of The Force Awakens feels like a remix of A New Hope. Start at a sand planet. Add a cute robot carrying secrets. A character who is stuck there. A chance to leave and carry the important secrets to the Resistance. A new, bigger, more powerful Death Star. A bad guy in black with a mask who is related to some of the main protagonists. A discovery that the main character can use the force. A bar with strange alien creatures. Its all there, but mixed with the confusion of who the Resistance are, who the First Order are and what everyone else in the galaxy is doing.

After Jedi the New Republic have had 30 years to set up a new government. It isn’t clear how many planets were in the old republic, but the Senate looked pretty huge. We know that the Empire was crippled after the battle of Jakku and yet only a seemingly tiny fraction of the worlds are under control of the New Republic which are wiped out by the not-Death Star. None of this was important in the original films. The Empire was in control and Rebels wanted to stop them. There was mention of the Senate in A New Hop so we got the idea that power had been wrested from the people by a totalitarian regime, but we weren’t really expected to care. The prequels were all about the politics, to their detriment, and I feel like now the issue has been raised we need to deal with it. Surely if the Rebels succeeded in Return of the Jedi and subsequently at Jakku then there would be some kind of organised, out in the open, military force to fight against the First Order. Not a scrappy band of freedom fighters.

You might argue that I shouldn’t get bogged down in the details and that I should just let it go. Trouble is if you want me to feel the same way about the Resistance as I did about the Rebels I need to understand their raison d’être. Similarly I want to know what’s been going on for the past 30 years. The opening scrawl should have given at least a vignette.

The other thing that really bothered me was the use of the original cast of Star Wars. Believe me when I say I wanted to be Harrison Ford whether as Han or Indy. I thought he tried hard in Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull, but that even then he was pushing the bounds of credibility age-wise. In The Force Awakens he is tearing around again and it feels even more ridiculous. I kept worrying that he would fall and fracture his hip. If the makers of the film insisted upon the original cast being in the film they should have limited them to the trusted older advisor role. At least they did this with Carrie Fisher. Missing is any real detail about their lives and their split. For how long they have been separated we don’t know and neither is it made clear why Solo is not part of the resistance. Sure there is some hand-waving about their son’s turn to the dark side, but not much else and why are they not furious with Luke? None of the dialogue between Han and Leia rings true and it feels false.

C-3PO looks terrible and Anthony Daniels seems like someone playing 3PO rather than someone real. R2-D2 is, by a ridiculous contrivance of the plot, out of action because he would obviously steal the thunder from the amebic BB-8.

The new characters, Fin and Rey, are great. I really like them and really enjoyed their screen time. I just wish that the makers of the film had draw a line under Jedi and left us with the new characters in the post-Empire world. There are some nice bits of fan service, like when one of the characters finds the training remote that Luke used in A New Hope on the Falcon and the film avoids over doing it for the most part. It was nice to see the Falcon and I thought it was great when Fin and Rey hid under the floor of the Falcon after they were pulled in by the tractor beam. I got a bit of a thrill when they grabbed the gas masks from the same location that they are shown in Empire.

Kylo Ren comes across as psychotic and is genuinely scary. It is hard to see past the pale imitation of Vader, but since that is who the character tries to emulate in the film it does make sense. Adam Driver is good in the role, but not very believable as the son of Han and Leia. I felt like Gwendoline Christie was wasted as Captain Phasma whose character should have been more front and centre as a second-level evil. As General Hux, I felt Domhnall Gleeson did a good job, but the character was far too young. The Star Wars universe was full of late middle-age men who reliably ran the workings of the Empire’s military machine — think Tark and Needer.

Going back to Kylo Ren I hated that he was Han and Leia’s son. It just seems to make no sense. The idea that Luke was training Jedi and one (Ben Solo?) turned against him? Luke never felt like a proper Jedi even when he beat Vader at the end of Episode VI so I can easily see him messing up someone else’s training, but if this is the case why does anyone think that he is even worth finding. Why couldn’t the writers carry the optimism from the end of Return of the Jedi into the new films and let us have Ben as one of a new order of Jedis under Luke’s guidance.

Perhaps this is what I am most disappointed in. That my imaginings and dreamings of the past 30 years have been vaporised. If the new films were to follow that patterns of the old then this film should have ended on a mildly triumphant note. I wanted to see a fledgling new democracy led by familiar faces, but populated with new characters being challenged by a revived Empire. Instead it seems like we have a dark rehash of the originals with better camera work and fancier effects.

I’m going to go an see it again (I might even go tonight) and see if it improves with a second viewing. When the next episodes in the saga are released I’ll see then as well as the Boba Fett, Yoda and Solo movies that are slated for release. I still love Star Wars and it is because of that that I’ll hope for better films to come.

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