Director/co-writer J.J. Abrams had only one thing to do with this – not screw up a franchise that Disney have invested heavily in. So the elements of George Lucas’s prequel trilogy repudiated by audiences are quietly dropped. Indeed, the streak of the cutes and mawkish kiddie humour which runs throughout all Lucas’s Star Wars films is curtailed, but for one moment when C-3PO intervenes to spoil an emotional reunion before backing out of the film and shutting up for the rest of the running time. Why fans gave C3PO a pass but drew the line at Jar Jar has always puzzled me. BB-8, the new droid, rolls around impressively, but does a lot less burbling than R2D2, who is depowered except for a crucial plot bit. Abrams’ main safe play is modelling this new entry so closely on Star Wars that a major character only has to step onto a bridge opposite the new chief villain for audiences to see how it’s going to play out.
The opening crawl establishes a reset of the universe since the end of Return of the Jedi whereby Luke has disappeared and the old factions are back in their old uniforms though the Empire is now the First Order and the Rebellion is now the Resistance. Almost every set-piece and character from the first film gets a make-over. Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the new villain, is the son of Han and Leia, seduced over to the dark side by a giant alien hologram emperor replacement (Andy Serkis, inevitably). Ace pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) entrusts a doodad to BB-8 the way Leia gave a message to R2D2 and it winds up with desert-dwelling scavenger orphan Rey (Daisy Ridley) the way that message got to Luke. Too many of the action set-pieces are jittery replays of those of Star Wars – escapes, massacres, a bar full of aliens, a death star-like system-killing weapon in use, a bombing run, an exploding evil lair. There’s one well-staged and fun runaround in a vast freighter where Han Solo and pals are caught between two rival criminal factions and escaped toothy-tentacly 1980s-type creatures (imagine crossbreeds of Critters and the Deadly Spawn) and a climactic light sabre duel in a snowy forest finally manages some grandeur.
A new element is added by sort-of viewpoint character Finn (John Boyega), a stormtrooper who refuses to take part in a massacre (evidently, this is his first rodeo) and helps Poe escape, then poses as a resistance hero when Poe seems to go down in quicksand with his ship. It’s actually a significant step that a Star Wars film can be built around a young woman and a black guy – both British, though Boyega does an American accent – but Finn is a frustratingly ill-written character. Surely, a brainwashed killer who’s just made his first moral decision would be more like the traumatised Kurt Russell character in Soldier than the half-savvy, half-chicken hustler who services this plot before being rendered comatose by what seems like a light sabre thrust to the ass in the climax. There’s minor chaste hugging between Finn and Rey – which might lead to a transgressive interracial relationship in a later film or could as easily be dropped the way the Luke-Leia romance was when they turned out to be brother and sister.
Yes, for long-time viewers (even those who don’t care that much about the series), it’s hard not to get emotional when Han (Harrison Ford, finally getting top billing) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew, back just to show his eyes through fur) appear in the Millennium Falcon, which Rey has heisted from a junkyard …and later when Leia (Carrie Fisher) shows up with a new hairstyle. But I also got misty-eyed when Ford and Karen Allen reunited in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and we all know how that turned out. I assume Mark Hamill, barely seen here, will come to the fore next time around. Again, lifting from the original trilogy format, there’s msytery about Rey’s origins – who were the family forced to abandon her in the desert? – but it’s revealed early on that Kylo is the estranged son of the heroes of the earlier episodes, trained in the Force by Luke (who went off in a sulk when that didn’t work out well) and of course grandson of Darth Vader (whose mangled head he seems to have collected). Unsurprisingly, Kylo turns out to be the most interesting of the new characters – he tries hard to be Vader when his black mask is on and does a lot of Vadery things, but gets more distinctive when he shows his real face and seems almost vulnerable. In 135 minutes of surprisingly flat dialogue (disappointing from co-writer Lawrence Kasdan, hopping back after The Empire Strikes Back), the single best line is Kylo’s ‘thank you’ to his father, for giving him the opportunity to do something utterly reprehensible and banish the temptation of the light.
In the way that Jesus was a Jew, Lucas’s film was one of those personal-to-the-auteur 1970s projects his success shoved out of the marketplace in favour of presold childish franchise blockbusters modelled on Star Wars. Disney/Abrams do a pretty good job of faking it, but it’s still fake – the passing decades allow for more diverse casting in place of the original’s whitebread trio but also trim the sense of epic and the few moments of quiet contemplation which gave a sense of scope to it all. The fallen spaceships and ‘all the legends are true’ bit were more evocative in the trailer than the film – though one shot of a collapsed and abandoned imperial walker is cool. Never has a galactic conflict seemed more like a Skywalker family spat than it does here as we whizz from one place to the next effortlessly. Tracking down the long-lost Luke is just a matter of following galactic google maps to find him standing on an Irish cliff (has he been doing that all this time?). Even the cool riff shot of TIE fighters against red clouds – a shoutout to the fact that Apocalypse Now was originally a Lucas project? – is over too soon to be resonant.
Like Joss Whedon on the Avengers films, Abrams still seems more like a TV creator rather than a cinema filmmaker – this aspires to be space opera but turns out as soap opera.