The last time I was writing at length about a major release it was Spectre and the Bond franchise's ongoing attempts to both celebrate a storied history and present a contemporary film that is in touch with both that history and modern audience interests and values.
Perhaps that prism of analysis should have been saved for Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
Ten years on since the last Star Wars film, director J.J. Abrams' problem is very much the same as Bond director Sam Mendes, with an added twist. On the one hand, Abrams has original cast members Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and (a little bit of) Mark Hamill. Whilst presenting his new take on the franchise, Abrams also has to pay service to its roots, to the films which made these actors and characters household names. Abrams task though is complicated by the last time this franchise attempted this very manoeuvre. Looming over The Force Awakens like a spectral Jedi are George Lucas' prequels. Prequels which managed to retrospectively tarnish some of the lore of Star Wars (midichlorians, anyone?) and prove that going back to see beloved characters isn't always the best idea.
Abrams' first job, possibly under orders from new Star Wars masters Disney, is to establish some new stars for the franchise to hang off in the future. Hamill is not famed for his charismatic leading presence and both he, Ford and Fisher are not getting any younger. For this franchise to survive (and let's not forget: Disney wants Star Wars to run in some form for a long time yet), new marketable leads need to be established and established well.
The result of Abrams' labours in this particular area should not be underestimated. The current crop of people 'on the edge' of stardom is not a list which makes positive reading (I will always and forever trot Jai Courtney out as an example here: two franchises have already tried to relaunch with him in tow. Both have failed). Picking any of the usual suspects could have seen The Force Awakens nose dive into a desert of public antipathy. Instead, we get Daisy Ridley and John Boyega and boy, do we get them.
Abrams hangs this film off Ridley and Boyega more than he needed to. Hamill appears for two shots at the end. Fisher is in only a handful of scenes, spanning just two locations. Ford's Solo gets much more to do, including partaking in one of the film's key moments, but his build-up is only so that his exit has resonance. Notably, he leaves with Rey (Ridley) and Finn (Boyega) looking on.
Meanwhile, Finn and Rey hardly ever exit the camera. Both are introduced separately, but soon join forces. Occasionally they separate again, but never for so long that they do not lead the film. Both struggle with a shared conflict and personal ones; fighting The First Order, waiting for someone to return (Rey), getting far enough away from the forces of evil so that he cannot be returned (Finn). Their motivations are drawn fairly cleanly and quickly and the times that they run exactly parallel are simply joyous. This normally occurs during a moment of high drama (an initial escape from Jakku during a First Order raid, another escape from the Millennium Falcon), where Abrams is keen to push a message of equality, something, again, which he does well. Rey consistently complaining about Finn grabbing her hand to lead her from danger should be slightly annoying, a very on-the-nose rejection of masculine-led Action norms, but it is not. In fact it's charming and it feels even more charming the further away from it I get.
The reward comes as the characters enter the third act and each defines bravery in their own way. Neither has anything to do with leading the damsel in distress away from that very distress. Each feels true and honest and the characters separate on those terms and more. Think about where their relationship could go; they are just as easily believeable as a romantic couple as they are brother and sister, valued friends, or spiritual brothers in arms fighting for the resistance. The nods back to Luke and Leia are clear but this is something better, something to be valued and treasured in a mainstream film.
Problems begin though with the plot Abrams puts his new leads into. Was there really nothing better for the First Order to do than to ape their predecessors and try to bring about something (what exactly?) through the use of a hugely destructive spherical object? As screenwriter Andrew Ellard mentioned on Twitter, The Force Awakens is less a retread of a single original entry in the Star Wars franchise, more a collective bundle of your nostalgia, repackaged for your contemporary enjoyment.
Enough of calling The Force Awakens "a remake of A New Hope". The first third is New Hope, the second is Empire and the final third is Jedi.— Andrew Ellard (@ellardent) December 21, 2015
The lack of back story is not necessarily a problem, but the lack of definition over many of the main players current motivations is. Why is Han still wandering the galaxy smuggling, some years after he has lost Ben and Luke? Why have the Republic not managed to stamp out the First Order? Why does the Resistance still need to exist, many, many years after the success of Return Of The Jedi? Why, considering they've been allowed to proceed unchecked, do the First Order need to destroy the Republic? Given past history, how has the First Order managed to build yet another destructive spherical object, completely under the radar. You would have thought that, you know, by now, people knew what to look out for. The thin veils occasionally stick (yes, OK... you can just about sell me that the Resistance need to go because it would contribute to a world with no more Jedi), but occasionally also reveal a lot of emptiness.
The most grating of all of those backstories is the arc which sees Kylo Ren revealed as the son of Han and Leia, a reveal which culminates in a passive face-off between father and son and Han's death at his hands. None of this worked for me for the simple reason that we have no emotional attachment to this relationship. We are told that Ben was turned by the shadowy Supreme Leader Snoke, that Luke's Jedi school was destroyed and that Ben turned to the dark side and became Kylo Ren, against, obviously, the wishes of his father and mother. None of that matters. We did not see Ben growing up, Leia and Han loving him, Luke establishing a bond with his nephew. We are told all of that happened, but it feels like it is plotting established by way of the force: the direct retelling of things we have not seen leaves us needing to feel those things rather than know them.
That the above creates a problem in the Kylo Ren backstory is one thing. That it sours the death of one of the franchise's most beloved characters is close to unforgivable. We are told that Solo dies at the hands of the son he once loved where, actually, he dies at the hands of a character we know little about, and have seen on screen in one film, for no more than thirty minutes or so. It's a shallow way for a hero to go.
In the lead up to his departure, it is almost as if Abrams prepares us for his death by reducing his charisma. Han has, somehow, managed to lose some of his sense of humour, his charm, through the years between Jedi and The Force Awakens. He gets few one liners (BB-8 nabs the funniest moment in the film), the tiredness of the off-screen plotting apparently weighing on his jaw, as well as his heart. By the time his departure arrives we've been convinced not to miss him by the absence of personality he offers and the effervescence of Finn and Rey, but the fact is that we, and the subsequent films, will miss him. The Luke character, rather famously, does not have the charisma to carry a film (or a rescue attempt) without his charming sidekick and Hamill's wide-eyed, held-too-long gawp in the final scene says as much (and where did that helicopter shot come from? It feels as though Moby should be playing in the background). As a fan, killing Solo in this way feels empty and lacking the worth and emotion it should have had. As an observer of film it feels poorly thought through from a structural basis, muddily carried out and far from the emotional apex of The Force Awakens it should have been.
The film does have Finn and Rey to save it both when it has a subdued Han and when it has despatched him and, presumably, the weight of responsibility will be on their shoulders in 2017's Episode VIII, rather than relying on Luke to lead. In an interview with Empire, subsequently reported by Vanity Fair, The Force Awakens writer, and franchise veteran, Lawrence Kasdan says of the saga going forwards that the introduction of Episode VIII and IX's writer Rian Johnson (who will also direct Episode VIII), will 'change the story “enormously”'. The inference from this was that Abram's remit was to not change the story enormously. Abrams makes sense for the first film in a new chapter for the franchise (he has, of course, launched-cum-rescued mega-franchises before). Johnson, with all of his invention, geek-appeal and indie-sensibility, now gets the open-ended freedom (well... as much of it as Disney will allow) to take it wherever he wants to. Given the largely positive reaction to The Force Awakens you can easily see that, three years or so down the line, it becomes ripe for reassessment as the 'safe and solid' member of the new trilogy.
All of the decisions to get the film to that point make sense but, as the furore begins to die down, you can't help but wonder whether something else could also have been achieved during Episode VII above and beyond just allowing Abrams to sort out the mess of the prequels and marry the original trilogy up to new characters in a way which gives Johnson freedom. The Force Awakens is good, at times very good, but it could have been more, more than a stepping stone from the old to the new, something that attempted to tell more ambitious stories of the stars and their inhabitants.