A dilapidated science-fiction franchise restored to its former glory. An intergalactic laughingstock turned into a 21st century blockbuster. However you want to describe it, JJ Abrams performed miracles when he took over the reins of the Star Trek movies six years ago.
So devotees of another fantasy franchise, Star Wars, had good reason to feel encouraged when it was announced that he would be sprinkling some of his magic dust over this series, which had fallen into disrepair after three largely disastrous prequels—Episodes I (The Phantom Menace), II (Attack of the Clones) and III (Revenge of the Sith). Tantalising titbits started to leak out about Abrams’s plans for Episode VII. There would be limited use of green-screen technology and an emphasis on real locations. Original cast members from the first Star Wars trilogy would return. George Lucas, the series creator whose stranglehold helped kill off any lightness the Star Wars movies once had, would not. With that it became clear: Sith just got real.
One scene in particular from the new movie, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, reflects what it must have felt like for Abrams to be piloting a series of films that he has loved since he was a child. Rey (Daisy Ridley) is a young scavenger from the desert planet of Jakku, where there is nothing but scrap-heaps and sand dunes as far as the eye can see. (The finishing school where she perfected her cut-glass accent must have been destroyed in a long-forgotten war.) After coming across a robot carrying a map that is highly-prized by the Resistance (the goodies), Rey teams up with Finn (John Boyega), an ex-stormtrooper for the First Order (the baddies). Finding themselves at the controls of the legendary and long-dormant spaceship the Millenium Falcon, these youngsters give themselves pep-talks: “I can do this, I can do this!” they each say under their breath, before launching the ship into the sky.
Like them, Abrams can do this. His capabilities are not in question. The reason the movie falls far short of Star Trek is that the demands are different. Where Star Trek was a reboot, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is duty-bound to maintain consistency with its predecessors. Whatever snazzy touches or cosmetic tweaks Abrams administers, he can only ever be like a ceramicist producing a brand new model from a faulty mould. The same flaws and shortcomings apparent in the rest of the series (the prioritising of plot over characterisation, the feeble humour and simple-minded morality) are beyond his power to correct.
With his fellow writers, Lawrence Kasdan (who also co-wrote The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi) and Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine, Toy Story 3), Abrams has devised a plot that gives the illusion of incorporating new elements without ever actually deviating from formula.
The map in Rey’s possession shows the whereabouts of Luke Skywalker, the Jedi knight who is the figurehead of the Force, that cockamamie belief system on which no Star Wars film would ever cast even the smallest aspersion. (“The Force moves through and surrounds every living thing,” says Maz Kanata, who has the voice of Lupita Nyong’o and the appearance of Edna Mode from The Incredibles. “Close your eyes and feel it.” Even the most visually exotic aliens in the Star Wars universe talk like New Age healers.) The map is valuable equally to the Resistance, who want to defend the Force, and to the First Order, which is hell-bent on destroying it.
Beyond that, it’s not exactly clear what the First Order wants. Where do they see themselves in, say, five years? General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) walks around in the time-honoured evil style, hands clasped behind his back, and gets angry a lot. Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) wears a fencing mask, reads people’s minds with his hand and smashes things up. Both report to Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), a robed, desiccated giant with a crack in his skull shaped like a question-mark. Wacky costumes and sinister mannerisms they’ve got. A coherent plan for ruling the universe seems to be evading them.
But then the movie isn’t big on detail. This is, after all, a film in which the Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) announces the plan for the climactic battle with the words: “We blow up their big gun!” That’s right: it’s destroy-the-Death-Star time again, just like in Star Wars and Return of the Jedi. Only now it’s not the Death Star. It’s three times the size and it’s called the Starkiller Base. That rather sums up Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It’s the same but bigger.
Any dramatic interest comes from scenes showing the reunion of the space pirate Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and General (née Princess) Leia, played by Carrie Fisher, who conveys a winning warmth despite an almost total inability to move her face. Whereas Finn is given one line to explain his motivation for abandoning the dark side (“It’s the right thing to do”), Han and Leia have an entire history to allude to. Their relationship always did represent the most adult part of the original trilogy, and it’s touching to see the old flames still flickering. There is also a kind of poignancy in the sight of two very talented actors returning to the sort of material they used to perform before anyone really knew how good they were.
Ford and Fisher aren’t the only ones who modify their abilities to fit the confines of the screenplay. Ridley and Boyega play variations on the theme of plucky. Isaac and Gleeson, two highly talented actors, have even less asked of them. It isn’t really a case of anyone drawing the short straw. It’s more that there are no long straws.
Well, just the one—and Adam Driver got it. Behind that fencing mask, he’s mildly disconcerting. Once he removes it, he is chilling and seductively feral in equal measure. (Viewers of Girls, the HBO series in which he is a regular, will know the sensation well.) “You know I can take whatever I want,” he tells Rey, stroking her face with his gloved hand. He’s talking about the contents of that map, and his own ability to read minds. But also: he’s not.
The world has been guilty for decades of overrating the qualities of the Star Wars films, which were only ever trumped-up B-movies that got lucky (with the exception of the genuinely complex and rewarding The Empire Strikes Back). Star Wars: The Force Awakens is smart enough to incorporate crowd-pleasing nods to the earlier instalments—some Jedi mind-tricks, a cameo by the robots C-3PO and R2-D2, an homage to the icky, monster-populated Cantina sequence from the first film. And Abrams can still mount spectacular images. In the most ravishing shots, fighter planes soar over the landscape of Rakku where vast objects from the earlier films (the dinosaur-like AT-AT machines or the odd Imperial Space Cruiser) lie partly submerged in the desert like ruins from a fallen kingdom.
But Abrams is also too susceptible to the solemn self-mythologising that always threatened to spoil the fun of any Star Wars film. He hasn’t made a terrible picture—just a safe one, where the farthest reaches of fantasy feel merely routine. Every crisis or moment of drama turns out to be a rehash of one that has gone before. Even Luke’s pivotal discovery from The Empire Strikes Back, in which he finds out that his greatest enemy is also his closest relative, is repeated here in a different form, with two characters unexpectedly occupying branches of the same family tree. Surely no one is going to be shocked this time. An altogether likelier reaction would be: “Wow—small universe!”
Star Wars: The Force Awakens opens tomorrow.