Stars: Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong'o, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew and Max von Sydow
This is the seventh and last entry in my Star Wars I-VII Runthrough, which aims to look at the entire series of feature films with three things in mind: quality, progression and the fan theory of Jar Jar Binks as ultimate villain. Hello, Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens!
While the other six films have been out for years, if not decades, this one is still playing in theatres. Unlike my regular reviews, this runthrough contains major spoilers. If you haven't seen the film, I'd recommend that you don't read this until you have seen it. Instead, check out my regular review which does not contain spoilers. It'll post here as part of Monday Night Roundup on the 11th and at the Nameless Zine.
Thirty years after Return of the Jedi, the Empire has fallen and been replaced by the First Order. The Rebel Alliance is now the Resistance and one of its pilots has acquired a map to the location of the last Jedi. However, under immediate attack, he has to secrete it inside a droid and let it go, hoping that it will find its way back to the Resistance.
The primary players are Han Solo, now an old smuggler still working with Chewbacca; General Leia Organa, leader of the Resistance; Luke Skywalker, the last jedi, now in seclusion in parts unknown; Snoke, the Supreme Leader of the First Order; Kylo Ren, major player in the First Order who uses the dark side of the force; Poe Dameron, a resistance pilot who acquires a map to Luke Skywalker; Finn, a stormtrooper who flees the First Order; Rey, a scavenger on Jakoo who is searching for her family; and Maz Kanata, who runs a cantina on Takodana.
From moment one, the horror stories that resonated out of the first viewings of The Phantom Menace were forgotten.
There's much that impresses quickly here, even after watching the previous six movies in six days. Things are initially a little shakier, a little darker, a little grittier. But hey, there's Max von Sydow and a very cool new droid called BB-8, a brutal Lidice type massacre led by a snappier Vader named Kylo Ren and some intriguing scenes with a stormtrooper with the catchy name of FN-2187.
And he does, wonderfully, highlighting that this is a fan film first and foremost and what follows is precisely what a lot of people want to see. Clearly J J Abrams was one of those Star Wars fans who Lucas pissed off with The Phantom Menace, so he played this as safely as he could to make the fans happy. From that angle, he didn't just succeed; this is the best film ever made. It features everything we want to see in 2015 technology with an insane budget to make it work. It's glorious stuff.
For a start, the entire plot revolves around a secret map that contains the location of Luke Skywalker, the last Jedi. Whoa! Why does such a thing even exist? Who creates a treasure map to a human being, who can and probably will frickin' move around over the years, especially if he's trying to remain hidden? Why is it broken into multiple pieces? That suggests that someone expects someone else to put those pieces together. Where did it appear from and why?
It's easy to skip over this, at least initially, because we want to know where Luke is, given how the rest of the old gang have already shown up and also because of the increasingly mythic angle given to the force. Is Luke a myth? Are Jedi a myth? Is the force a myth? It sure seems that way to the vast majority of people a generation after the last Jedi vanished. But, if we actually start thinking about it, it makes no sense whatsoever and this whole house of cards falls.
I couldn't believe what I was seeing and my better half burst into giggles every time he took off that helmet because she thought he would introduce himself as Vinnie Barbarino. It's like Darth Vader, the personification of evil for a generation of moviegoers, was revealed to be nothing but a spotty little oik. Frankly, I bought Rick Moranis as Dark Helmet more than I bought Driver as Kylo Ren and he annoyed me more than Jar Jar Binks ever did. There's absolutely no way that this guy could ever be the son of Han and Leia!
As a standalone movie, this might actually work. Lucas started with Episode IV of an imaginary series. Imagine Abrams starting with Episode VII of an imaginary series and maybe it improves. As part of the Star Wars universe though, a movie with no less than six others preceding it in chronology, it feels like we're missing a movie, especially when we consider the template set thus far.
Given that the prequel trilogy depicts a rise, fall, rise for the Empire and the originals depict a rise, fall, rise for the rebels, then this should be a rise, fall, rise for the First Order. Instead, we get the middle film first, the Resistance taking on the First Order, even though both feel like they've been conjured up out of thin air. We feel like we're supposed to care because it's clearly another rebels vs Empire story, just in different clothing. It didn't take long for me to realise I was watching Episode VIII not Episode VII.
What's oddest, from a progression standpoint, is that, before the First Order start exploding planets with their powerful new superweapon du jour, we're told that the Republic is back in effect and it's apparently been running things for a while. So why is there even a Resistance? Why aren't we watching the Republic take on the First Order? This doesn't make sense.
Abrams is more successful at re-introducing old favourites. He brings back a whole host of characters from previous films to give them new life and entrances combining emotion and style. This pageant begins with the Millennium Falcon and proceeds through Han and Chewie, Leia, C-3PO, R2-D2 and, eventually reaches Luke, who's the MacGuffin of this film but will surely help to shape the next one. The droids get very little screen time, replaced for the most part by BB-8, who serves much the same purpose without any bickering.
I've wondered about the pace of technological change in this universe for a while and this film gets even more inconsistent. The First Order have a new superweapon that's a massive leap forward, but they're still flying TIE fighters out of it and taking on X-Wings. The Millennium Falcon was junk thirty years ago and it's still junk today, but it's somehow still able to outfly everything else in the universe. After six movies of R2-D2 leaping into any vehicle like there's a universal connector standard for droids across the galaxy, BB-8 does the same thing here. Of course, the bad guys are still building startlingly long and thin walkways over vast chasms without thinking about adding railings. Apparently nobody gets vertigo in the Star Wars universe.
Oh, and following up on yesterday's realisation that Return of the Jedi was an absolutely ridiculous title for that film, it's precisely the title that should have been used here. In Episode VI, no Jedi return from anything (except Luke to his training under Yoda that never happens) and we leave the film with half as many Jedi alive as when we start it. Yet in Episode VII, the Jedi order has become a myth because most people, at least on the planets we visit, aren't even sure if they were ever real. They believe in the Force like they believe in the Easter bunny. Yet the core of this script is the search for the last Jedi who is finally tracked down in the last seconds of the film. If we could retitle Episode VI to The Force Exits Stage Left, then we could dub this one Return of the Jedi, because it's the only title that actually makes any sense.
Jar Jar Binks
No, Jar Jar doesn't show up in The Force Awakens, as far as I could tell. If the capital planet of the Republic that's blown up by the First Order is actually Coruscant, maybe he was there in the brief scene we see of people waiting for the beam to hit.
However, the fan theory that he's really been behind everything the dark side has done is still consistent.
We have a new big boss bad guy, Supreme Leader Snoke. We have no idea who he is, where he is or even what he actually looks like, given that we only see him in the form of a gigantic hologram that is clearly playing at being God and compensating for something in the process. No background is ever provided, so Snoke could be Jar Jar as much as he could be anybody.
What's more, if we expect the sequel trilogy to follow the rise, fall, rise pattern of the other two trilogies, the only way that fits is from Snoke's perspective because it's the dark side's turn. As he's only ever a transmission, we can only assume that he wasn't on Starkiller Base when it was destroyed, so he'll be back in the next film to show us what other tricks he has up his godlike sleeve. Only time can tell!