Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (2015)

Star Wars[Spoiler Alert] Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is missing, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) have deserted, leaving the fate of the galaxy in the hands of the New Republic and its Resistance, now lead by Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher). When her star pilot (Oscar Isaac) is captured by the First Order, the new face of the Galactic Empire, he entrusts vital information concerning Skywalker’s whereabouts to a droid who is left on the planet of Jakku. There it seeks assistance from Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger who, along with reformed Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), agrees to return it to the Resistance, steeling a ride aboard an abandoned Millennium Falcon and narrowly escaping the clutches of General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson). The First Order have other plans for the Resistance, however, mostly involving a new weapon that makes the Death Star look like a Jedi training ball. [Spoiler Alert]

When the first of George Lucas’ prequel films was released in 1999 it was met with widespread disdain, with most criticising the fact that the film was too different from the original trilogy. What was once a story about rebellion was now a treatise on trade law; where once the galaxy had felt lived-in and battle-damaged it now sparkled and shone; while what in childhood had once inspired wonderment and awe now seemed to adult eyes childish and insipid. Nobody seemed to notice the similarities: this was once again the story of an inexperienced Jedi, plucked from obscurity on a distant desert planet and thrust into the midst of an apparently eternal struggle between good and evil. For this consistency, for his single-minded determination to make films that served the ongoing franchise he had conceived rather than the fanbase that had adopted it, he was met with ridicule and contempt, and was ultimately forced to relinquish control of his creation. Because in this day and age, even in cinema, it appears the customer is always right.

Disney bought Lucasfilm for $4 billion, and gave J. J. Abrams the job of rejuvenating the franchise, or rather redeeming it in the eyes of the most vocal members of its audience. He had previous experience, having recently restored Star Trek to perceived relevancy with his 2009 reboot, so his appointment was welcomed by many, even as Star Trek‘s own fanbase criticised him for taking too much of a revisionist approach to their beloved continuity. Whether as a reaction to this, or because of his own self-professed love for the original trilogy, Abrams soon sought to reassure fans that Star Wars: The Force Awakens would be a continuation of the saga made by the fans for the fans, even as he avoided referring to it as Episode VII and thus risk placing it in the wider, prequel-recognising series (though this subtitle was thankfully reinstated for the theatrical release). In keeping with this populist approach, stars Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher were re-signed, while all involved took every opportunity to satisfy fans that the less illustrious elements of the galaxy far, far away — the Gungans, Ewoks and midichlorians of Lucas’ world — would not appear. Whether it made sense within the story for them to or not.

The result is a film that bears a closer resemblance to A New Hope than even The Phantom Menace (there’s no pod-racing or choral choirs to distinguish The Force Awakens). Lucas often spoke of the poetry of his Star Wars saga, of a story that echoed down the generations, and there is an undeniable symmetry to the original and prequel trilogies. With Lucas gone, however, disharmony has crept in, and there’s an element of confusion to this latest stanza, the discord of an imperfect rhyme. The Force Awakens features familiar worlds with unfamiliar names, recognisable characters with unrecognisable faces, and traditional themes refracted in non-traditional ways. It’s uncanny at times, particularly where the returning characters are concerned. Like pastiche, like pantomime, there is a celebratory, self-congratulatory quality to The Force Awakens that feels out of place in a universe used to such high stakes, of galaxy-obliterating super-weapons and fatal family feuds. Everyone seems too happy, too eager to please, with past conflicts forgotten in favour of an out-of-place comfort. Even the perennially pessimistic C-3PO seems uncharacteristically content, as if scared to upset the film’s fervent following and therefore risk expulsion from future instalments. After all, who would want to be the next Jar Jar Binks?

None of this is to suggest that The Force Awakens isn’t enjoyable, because it undoubtedly is, or that is doesn’t take any risks, because it does. The film is fast, frenetic fun, J. J.  Abrams ensuring that the pace doesn’t let up long enough for the plot holes to register, while his decision to cast trained actors instead of matinee idols pays dividends in the work of the key newcomers, who break the blockbuster mould in a number of refreshing ways, even if their talents rather outshine those of the established cast. Daisy Ridley, John Boyega and Oscar Isaac are all terrific actors, the best (and most diverse) the series has ever seen, but they’re somewhat hamstrung by characters who don’t make a whole lot of sense. Their backstories and motivations are either concealed or contrived, so that Rey keeps alluding to a childhood trauma that is never elucidated on and Finn is left to make decisions completely at odds with everything we know about his background. Abrams just doesn’t have the same flair for iconography that Lucas did, and has made a career out of playing with other people’s creations. Jedi has become a recognised religion, while the ships, worlds and even jargon of Star Wars transcend not just the series but cinema itself. Even the prequels registered and resonated with the public consciousness, with their battle droids, padawan learners and Order 66 entering the wider lexicon. Nothing invented specifically for Abrams’ film makes quite the same impression — except perhaps BB-8.

At times The Force Awakens feels more like fan-service than film-making, and come film’s end it’s questionable whether Abrams’ has added anything new to the Star Wars mythology. It’s strange, therefore, that he should have been so wary of spoilers getting out in the first place. As with Star Trek, he pre-empted this not just with heightened security but with misinformation, so that he wasn’t just mollifying audiences but misleading them. That’s not all it has in common with Star Trek (and, for that matter, Star Trek Into Darkness), for only in its last few moments does Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens promise anything resembling a new direction, by which time everyone’s too relieved to criticise such an unsatisfying ending. The Force may have awoken, but to what end is not yet clear.

3-Stars

Ten 2015 Movies That Can’t Come Quickly Enough

I have terrible taste in movies, or so I’m regularly told. But given that three of last year’s predictions made it into my Top 10 of 2014 (up from two in 2013) it would seem that I’m getting better. What’s more, just because Step Up: All In wasn’t quite as good as Under The Skin or Boyhood doesn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy it immensely.

There are a lot of big films due out over the next twelve months, and while the majority look very promising indeed there are only a select few that I am actively anticipating. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve watched the trailers for the following (where trailers are available), but I can tell you it’s more than all of the as yet unreleased-in-the-UK awards contenders combined.

Scroll down for my list of the ten 2015 films that can’t come quickly enough. At this rate, four of them might actually be worth the wait.

Kingsman: The Secret Service

KingsmanKick-Ass was one of my favourite movies of 2010, and while X-Men: First Class may have left me slightly cold the prospect of Matthew Vaughn making another comic book movie is still an appealing one, especially as Kingsman: The Secret Service will see him reunite with Mark Miller for another spoof, this time of suave spy thrillers in the Bond mould. The film — co-written with regular collaborator Jane Goldman — stars Colin Firth, Samuel L Jackson and newcomer Taron Egerton, and by the looks of the trailer a woman with swords for legs.

Big Hero 6

Big Hero 6Twelve months on and umpteen million renditions of ‘Let It Go’ later, Disney’s Frozen still isn’t getting old. (OK, maybe a little — but it’s still better than Tangled.) Even if it is wearing a little thin, however, rest assured that the studio’s next film, Big Hero 6, couldn’t be more different if it tried: a sci-fi adventure featuring little-known Marvel Comics characters, it swaps sisters for brothers and princesses for superheroes. Released last year in the US, following appearances at Toronto and Abu Dhabi Film Festivals, it has already opened to critical acclaim and box office success.

Jupiter Ascending

Jupiter AscendingNot every film on this list is based on a comic book, though the Wachowskis are admittedly no strangers to the genre. Jupiter Ascending marks their first original screenplay since The Matrix Revolutions, following a string of adaptations. It follows an unassuming cleaner and a very assuming wolfman-from-outer-space as they attempt to outrun an alien prince on rocket roller-blades. It sounds insane, even for The Wachowskis, but if it’s half as good as Cloud Atlas then it could be the film to beat this year. (It made this list last year but was pushed back to February 2015.)

The Signal

The SignalEvery list needs a wildcard (or a wilder card), and with an IMDb rating of just 6.2 The Signal could well be it. Another film with links to The Matrix, The Signal stars Lawrence Fishbourne in full Morphius mode as the head of an underground research facility tasked with mentoring a messiah, this time in the form of Brenton Thwaites (previously seen in just about every film released last year). The film earned some promising reviews when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival back in January 2014, and the trailer is very intriguing indeed.

The Spongebob Movie: Sponge Out Of Water

SpongebobDespite never having watched a single episode of the long-running, kids-turned-cult television series, nor the by all accounts bonkers 2004 movie with David Hasselhoff, the trailer for The Spongebob Movie: Sponge Out Of Water nevertheless has me hook, line and sinker. The only trailer to out-crazy Jupiter Ascending, Spongebob’s serves up two and a half minutes of the silliest, surrealist and squarepantsiest action comedy imaginable. After all, it stars Antonio Banderas as a pirate who forces a sponge, a starfish and a squirrel to leave their pineapple under the sea and become superheroes in order to retrieve a secret burger recipe.

Avengers: Age Of Ultron

AvengersNone less than the eleventh instalment in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, Age of Ultron reunites Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, Black Widow and Hawkeye for the first time since they had shwarma together at the end of 2012’s The Avengers. Never one for resting on his or anybody else’s laurels, returning director Joss Whedon is set to grow the roster by three as Vision, Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver join the fight against the titular antagonist. Presumably they’ll be facing off against one another first.

Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad MaxOstensibly a sequel to the original trilogy rather than a straight reboot, Mad Max: Fury Road managed to escape the blind vitriol and automatic animosity usually reserved for 21st Century reimaginings of 80s genre flicks — even though director George Miller has recast the role (with Tom Hardy taking over from Mel Gibson). In fact, there seems to be genuine excitement for it. This is perhaps less surprising when you consider just how astonishing the various trailers have so far been.

Jurassic World

Jurassic WorldJurassic Park 4 has been on the cards for years, and while always a juicy prospect it wasn’t until Colin Trevorrow was chosen to direct and Chris Pratt was cast as star that Jurassic World evolved into something truly exciting. The new film may share little connective tissue with the original trilogy (only supporting actor BD Wong is set to return) but the designs glimpsed in the trailer made it clear that the similarities would nevertheless be unmistakeable. Featuring all new dinosaurs (to both the series and science itself) the film promises brave new things.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Star WarsWhile the prequel trilogy may have disenfranchised some, it did little to diminish my own love for Star Wars. Looking forward instead of back, J J Abrams’ Episode VI promises to reunite audiences with their childhood heroes for another go at the dark side — this time with lens flares as well as lightsabres with which to wage war. Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher are all back, alongside mainstays Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker and Peter Mayhew, and they are joined by newcomers John Boyega, Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver. Oh, and the Millennium Falcon’s back too. I have a good feeling about this.

Victor Frankenstein

Daniel Radcliffe’s ongoing attempts to distance himself from Harry Potter have produced some remarkable results. Even so, Paul McGuigan’s Victor Frankenstein has always been the most enticing project, not least for the mixed reports variously pitching it as a horror, a comedy and a romance. All we really know for sure is that Radcliffe is set to play Igor opposite James McAvoy’s Frankenstein, and that the script is from none other than Chronicle scribe Max Landis. All we need now is a poster.

What are you looking forward to?