Author Thomas Wolfe once said ‘you can’t go home again’. For me, that’s pretty much how I felt going in and out of the cinema to see Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens; the original trilogy, in spite of all the retrospective criticisms, cannot be measured up to.
Some have described the new Star Wars film as slick and stylish. But despite the original being known for its ground-breaking visual effects, it was not meant to be slick and stylish, but somewhat rugged. For all its imaginativeness, Star Wars was actually fairly modest in scope, providing a more intimate atmosphere, almost claustrophobic as we follow the hero’s journey in the big, wide galaxy. Contrasting Luke’s youth and inexperience with the expanse of the galaxy was how we came to understand the greatness of the Star Wars universe. The new film, however, replaces the cosiness of its characters and settings with fast-paced action, light and effects. The narrative, of course, is there, if not replicating that of the original Star Wars film (familial issues at its heart once more).
The originals were not so self-conscious, and in their limited scope they provided an intimate atmosphere. It moved slowly, propelled more by its narrative and burgeoning mythology than it did by action and anticipation. What this new film lacks is that innocent sense of whimsy present in the very first film. This is what made Star Wars so different to begin with, for imaginative kids and world-weary adults.
Suffering under the sheer burden of its legacy, this film, as various critics have noted, aims to please its nostalgic adherents. This is what it does, with carefully placed cameos and reveals, but this is also not what the original trilogy set out to do. Its own story was enough to keep it going.
There are pleasing moments, amusing touches and parts that give you goosebumps, but not the kind that the originals delivered. They are goosebumps brought on by fandom and familiarity. Harrison Ford is in quite good form as both smuggler and now-famed rebel fighter, though it is quite difficult to get past the wrinkles. Carrie Fisher, too, has not only aged but her voice has also deepened, a far cry from the peppery Leia we knew. These things shouldn’t matter, especially when the film is conveniently set 30 years after Return of the Jedi, but they do.
The characters, moreover, lack the charisma of the original actors. As Rey, Daisy Ridley is a little insipid, lacking the monumental weight of the original desert-dweller, Luke. Her English accent also feels a bit misplaced in a galaxy we all know is distinctly American. Finn, on the other hand, played by John Boyega, is quite capable, especially when it comes to humour, though a few scenes are wooden and feel forced. But Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron is the one who balances both humour and drama the best.
Lucas copped a lot of criticism for his almost all white-male cast throughout the films, so it is good to see this balanced out with fresh new characters who satisfy both race and gender equality. But again, the actors in the film, both past and present, simply suffer from constant comparisons to the original. This is made abundantly evident through the blatant similarity between this film and the original Star Wars (renamed A New Hope). Another death star, another mission involving a droid (the more able-bodied BB-8 in place of R2-D2), and another hero-to-be plucked out of boredom and obscurity to fight in a galactic battle. Abrams is clearly a huge Lucasite, which is both positive and problematic. He understands the source material, but his fandom ultimately intrudes upon the narrative. Perhaps inadvertently channelling the force, I found myself being able to predict some of the dialogue and even some of the events (I felt the line ‘Kill them all’ coming on before it was uttered, while anticipating the episode’s most heart-wrenching, unforgivable death before it happened). This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But when it comes to dialogue, I felt that it could have been more inventive and less dependent on cliché.
The originals seemed to have fun with filming, urged on by the newness of the narrative. The Force Awakens, for the most part, belongs to the brand of all-too-serious, CGI-infested films of the 2010s, and in so doing it robs its viewers of the ability to imagine. For all that, it is still a partly satisfying film, though as soon as I came home from the viewing on its opening day, I immediately re-watched the original trilogy, which left me with the feeling I was missing from Abrams’ new film. What counts, though, is that I am indeed left wanting more from the film’s ending, which is a good sign, even for a film that is largely bereft of the kind of wonder synonymous with the franchise as a whole.