Three decades after the defeat of the Galactic Empire, a new threat arises. The First Order attempts to rule the galaxy and only a ragtag group of heroes can stop them, along with the help of the Resistance.
In preparation of this landmark event, myself and a few friends marathoned the preceding Star Wars films so that we’d be ready for TFA. This also resulted in a fair amount of lively discussions as we weighed up the merits and flaws of the various films.
And in that regard, I feel it’s important to view TFA through the lens of the preceding films.
When Episode IV came out all those years ago, George Lucas and his mates didn’t have access to all the neat CGI effects that we take for granted these days. So some of the costumes and creatures are, by today’s standards, a bit corny. (And yes, half the shit Lucas puts in with the rebooted episodes was mostly unnecessary.) Yet it was very much the pulpy, slightly tongue-in-cheek self-aware humour of these early films that makes them stand out for me. They consciously play with the stereotypes and conventions. (Aren't you a little short for a Stormtrooper?)
Though I didn’t see any of the films on the big screen until Episode I, episodes IV, V and VI nevertheless had a huge impact on me at the tender age of 11 when I got to see them on telly. Bad SFX and all. I could suspend disbelief and get carried away by the sheer excitement of what is a classic case of a Chosen One prophecy.
I could segue off on a whole Joseph Campbell Monomyth vibe but I’m not going to because that discussion has been done to death. I use it often enough when running writers’ workshops, as it’s one of the most basic themes in many SFF stories.
I’ve always maintained that the true hero of the entire saga is Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader – the hero who is only able to bring balance to the known universe once he’s dabbled in the Dark Side. The first six films are all about him. Episode VII in that sense is a fresh start; it’s the Great What Happens After.
Except Episodes I to III fall flat for me not only because of the wooden acting and godawful dialogue, but because they lost the X-factor that made IV to VI awesome. That sense of fun is simply lacking, and we're left with a limping morass of doom and gloom. Which could have been fixed (and this series of posts offer some lovely suggestions).
Yet if we’re looking at cyclical storytelling (which is often inherent in all sagas) then the choices JJ Abrams makes for TFA, are perfectly sensible.
Episodes IV to VI have an energy all of their own. It’s typical farmboy-turns-hero. We are invested in ever-escalating badness. We are introduced to the planet-busting Death Star. A bigger bad behind Darth Vader is introduced, and lastly an even bigger, meaner and downright nastier planet-destroying secret weapon is vaporised. Everyone lives happily ever after. Well, kinda.
Episodes I to III bring nothing new to the table other than backstory, along with annoying amphibious locals in possession of prehensile tongues. We have a showdown between primitive tribes somehow beating a technological superior army. (Moon of Endor, anyone?) We have betrayal. We learn why Anakin went bad (because twu lub, y'know). It can be argued that much of the energy for episodes IV to VI is sorely lacking here, as our anti-hero is revealed as a snotty, whiny brat who pouts and stomps his feet when he doesn’t get his way. Obi Wan, so sagely expressed by Alec Guinness in IV to VI, is portrayed by a sorely ineffectual, under-utilised Ewan McGregor. Natalie Portman’s Padme has a single purpose – to be Luke and Leia’s mum and literally die of a broken heart at the end as a reason for the good guy to go bad. Her passing, of course, just seems like a by-the-by GRRM treatment to get rid of inconvenient characters. Basically, these prequels were three feature-length missed opportunities and pointless staring off into distances with teared-up eyes filled with unjustified emotional wangst.
So yeah, I was filled with trepidation when Episode VII came out. Would they find that fresh current that somehow recaptured what made IV to VI great (for the time in which they were produced)?
My verdict: a resounding yes. I am a huge fan of the Star Wars franchise, despite its many flaws. Episode VII delivered all the excitement and more. Was it a bit too self-referential? I mean, I’ve heard some folks say this is basically A New Hope rebooted. I’ll agree, that there were many moments that echoed the earlier instalments, but I’ll counter by saying that the echoing was necessary to pay homage to the existing canon and to provide a platform for fresh dynamics.
There is a touchstone of familiarity to keep the existing fans happy while not dropping us off the deep end. And oh, the delicious nuance. Kylo Ren has an opportunity to redeem himself, which he rejects. Han Solo makes a stand (and we’ve all seen how he’s been running for years) – and pays the price – but his sacrifice provides a vital pinch point in the plot. We have the call to adventure and the denial of the call (hello, Campbell). We have women plausibly in pivotal roles (thank you). We have diversity that doesn’t feel forced (once again, thank you). Rei, Finn and Damon make a delightful triad easy to love, to temper the rather creepy Kylo Ren. I'm really looking forward to see how they'll develop.
At the appropriate moments, I clung to my seat, shrieked and cried. Abrams certainly knew exactly how to play me.
TFA is a film that was clearly created by a fan of the franchise, for the fans. Is it fresh and original? Objectively, I have to say no. Has it revived the franchise? Yes. But does it entertain? Oh yes. Will I watch it again? Make that a HELL YES.