Lucas without Lucas
Warning: This review alludes to aspects of the plot and the fate of characters. It contains SPOILERS is what I’m saying, so don’t read it until you’ve seen this title. Spank you.
Who’d be J.J Abrams? Has any filmmaker faced more pressure to mint an instant pop culture milestone than he? George Lucas has a claim. Back in 1994, interned in his Xanadu, he began work on prequelising his empire building Star Wars trilogy. Sure, he’d sullied said triptych by undermining the production of Return of the Jedi, and yes he’d made intrusive and unnecessary changes to the movies in their 1997 “special editions”, but Star Wars fans trusted him to create a better backstory than their imaginations dared. What they got was avant-garde. No child of Lucas imagined an Episode One stocked with racial caricatures, cartoon backdrops and a medicated Terrance Stamp (who got a Phantom Menace stencil set for his trouble). A bad feeling? Try no feeling.
The prequels (no referent necessary) destroyed the trust between fan and creator in three punishing hits from 1999-2005. Star Wars went from being an unassailable and cherished cultural landmark, or two and a half great movies, to two and a half in six. The brand was tarnished. That nebulous bunch known only as “the fans” felt betrayed. Lucas was served with more indictments for child rape than the Red Army in 1945. He bitterly vowed never to make his once threatened sequel trilogy. Calls for him to change his mind, stayed in his mind.
Enter Disney. Enter lifelong Star Wars acolyte and the George Lucas of the Star Trek universe, J.J Abrams – the Ren to the series’ Vader. He cared about the audience, damn it. Perhaps, as we’ll see, too much. He’d cried with them. Once he’d made Mission: Impossible, now he had it: make Star Wars good again. What did good look like? Full of wonder, adventure and fun. A movie the internet couldn’t destroy.
Disney, who acquired Lucasfilm for $4bn, hired the young Spielberg clone to make it new. They had childhoods to monetise. During production the weight of expectation fell and crushed returning star Harrison Ford’s leg. Abrams broke his L4 (that’s his vertebrae not a droid) trying to lift it. He’s literally broken his back for this thing. On production of The Phantom Menace the worst thing that happened to Lucas was a one-day strike by Starbucks workers.
The Force Awakens, the 7th Star Wars movie, arrives with anticipation restored. It’s a film that’s been marketed with Imperial Stormtrooper-like precision, with teasers strewn over an entire year. Better yet it comes with a friendly pedigree. Abrams acquired original trilogy stalwart Lawrence Kasdan to co-write the new sequel. Kasdan, who’d had three decades to recover from his bruising collaboration with Lucas on Jedi, a period that saw his storytelling instincts trammelled by the merchandising imperative, had the unfinished business of a more adult, camp eschewing episode to complete. More importantly, he had a Han Solo to kill, 32 years later than planned.
How, wondered the lightsaber wielding commentariat, would this play out? Lucas’s prequels reduced the space a new filmmaker had to challenge the formula to the width of a Jawas’ member. So to recap, the new movie had to be reassuring and fresh, safe and bold, nostalgic and forward facing, manna for the original trilogy’s genre-literate generation and the best movie their kids had ever seen. Who’d be J.J Abrams?
Now the movie’s finally here the answer’s about half the fan base. Awakens will split the Star Wars faithful, much as newcomers Kylo Ren and Rey are symbolically separated in one of the film’s many kinetic setpieces. That’s not because it’s a bad movie, the new production’s light years ahead of the prequels in terms of design, scale, texture and good old fashioned human interest, rather it straddles the line between reverence and pastiche, between a story that romantically cannibalises the original trilogy’s iconography, structure and classic scenes, and a film that uses said beats to frame, then subvert audience expectations. If you’re unkind, and you are, Awakens is maddeningly derivative, a film that you slip into like your favourite tauntaun. If you’re feeling more generous, it’s simply self-reflexive, continuing Lucas’s much mocked “rhyming stanza” philosophy; an assertion thought by many to camouflage the narrow scope of the bean counting beard’s imagination.
The problem, as Awakens continues, is the sense that Abrams has misjudged the extent to which prequel hating fans want to see a great cover of their favourite tunes, rather than new material. Perhaps there are no original stories left in this universe, or maybe they’re to come, but for now you have a movie that doubles down on Lucas’s 1975 assertion that “[the original and then in production] Star Wars is built on top of many things that came before.” The Modesto merchandiser was talking about the 1977 film’s textual influences – Flash Gordon, adventure serials. There’s more in the mix here than regurgitated story matter – shades of Apocalypse Now, both visually and thematically, but the substantive portion is Star Wars eating Star Wars – Lucas without Lucas.
Could Abrams and Kasdan have made a movie that didn’t count on the audience’s familiarity with its predecessors to lend weight to the story’s relationships, or add resonance in respect of new characters? Surely. But fear of making something too different, too distanced from the films the fans worship, has boxed in its creators. Within that restricting framework Abrams and Kasdan have experimented with a little more psychological intrigue – welcome notes that lay the ground for layered sequels, but that, for older viewers, is all there is.
Those new to the franchise will take much of what older children took from A New Hope, plus a little of the tragedy from Empire Strikes Back. The new characters, particularly Daisy Ridley’s wide-eyed Rey and Oscar Issac’s charmer, Poe Dameron, are excitable audience proxies – great ambassadors for the film’s brand of old school adventure. In John Boyega’s Finn, there’s even a new idea, a First Order defector who spends much of the story scared shitless and learning to be a hero. And what of the villain, the heir to the dark side, Kylo Ren? Adam Driver’s volatile Sith wannabe has a useful, and from the perspective of the filmmakers, convenient in-movie reason for parroting Darth Vader (he’s a cultist with a family connection) and the notion of someone trying to actively resist being seduced by the good in them is a nice inversion of Luke’s original trilogy dilemma. But that brings you right back to the problem with this movie – it depends on what’s come before to achieve its effects.
So if we can’t have an original story, in the purest sense, or even original characters, we’re asked to be content with a Star Wars film that’s aesthetically rich, lovingly made and true to the meat and potatoes storytelling fundamentals of old, or whatever passes for them in modern movies. A film that moves at a lick, skimping on plot and character detail. The irony is that for a movie so shrouded in secrecy, there’s ultimately very few surprises. Foreknowledge of the originals, information that’s ingrained in 90% of those attending, allows you to predict the story’s twists and turns with ease. You keep waiting for a new direction, or a fresh bit of mythos, but only in the film’s final moments does that sense of the unknown make itself felt. Only then, with genuine anticipation, do you truly feel the force.