I wrote this for a short-lived publication named The Keep published by some friends back in 2017 - but my review didn't make the cut. It has never been published before - see if you agree with me. Published here March 19th 2020.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
2015, 135 minutes, Colour, Dir: J.J. Abrams
Why you can never go home, and George: I'm sorry.
When the original Star Wars came out I was 16, and the movie became very much a part of my emerging pre-adult consciousness. The stuff of teenage years is the stuff that hangs onto you through life, and Star Wars remains firmly embedded in my psyche, along with much else from the seventies: The music, high quality sitcoms, orange juice as a starter, appalling cars and a sneaking suspicion that the labour party may actually prefer infighting to government.
When I saw the first Star Wars for the first time I was open-mouthed rabbit-in-headlamps blown away, and although I've seen many, many, better movies since, I've never - and will never - enjoy a movie more. I loved it, beginning to end. It was everything a great movie should be: Exciting, absorbing, expanding, uplifting. Among the plethora of great ideas, the hardware, the look, the vision, there was one thing I loved more than anything else: That this was a universe that was old, and tired, and utterly normal. True fantasy is the fantastic made workaday, the fabric of the world merely a canvas for the story.
It was a game changer for me, it was a game changer for almost everyone, and not always for good: One might argue it infantilised cinema overnight, and shifted film production away from fine storytelling and into a cynical new era of merchandise-led entertainment, where storytellers were squeezed out and replaced by the dominance of licensing deals.
So I booked my tickets to The Force Awakens and toddled off oh-so-dutifully to the first screening on the first day of release. Some of it I found delightful. The aged characters returning to reprise their original roles, the retro-seventies feel, the hardware, the John Williamesque score. But for the most part, I found it ... tedious. Boring, even.
And against the almost universal acclaim, I blamed myself. I was looking for that enjoyment and wonder I had first experienced in the Odeon Leicester Square back in 1977, when the cinema literally shook with the surround sound and Luke Skywalker went from disillusioned farmboy to hero of the rebellion in 120 minutes, accompanied by a completely original smorgasbord of special effects. That I wasn't back there, I concluded, was because you can't go home. Those days are over, the law of diminishing returns rears its head and life, you know, will never be quite as colourful as it was in one's youth.
So I went home, disappointed that my nostalgia button had not been sufficiently pressed, and blamed my tired, cynical, fifty-four-year-old mind for not being sufficiently open to once more ... believe.
But then I got to thinking: Perhaps it wasn't me. Perhaps the reason the movie failed was due to precisely that: The nostalgia button had been pressed so firmly by the producers that it had become stuck, and far from being the mythological battle of good and evil that had so thrilled me in 1977, I had actually been subjected to a series of set pieces directly lifted from the original trilogy: Cute little robot; X-wing/TIE dogfights; father/son struggle conveniently above a deep drop; old and wrinkly alien dispensing sage-like good advice; protagonist down on their luck stuck on a desert planet; wildly inaccurate gunfire from Stormtroopers; a large planetoidy thing that needs to be destroyed and the Millenium Falcon still overdue for its one hundred parsec service.
It wasn't me and my 'you can't go home' bullshit, it's because I'd already seen the movie. I didn't want the same, I wanted ... more. More about the expanded universe. We had the good and evil, but without context as to what the rebels were actually defending, we had nothing. All we had was the Gunfight at the OK corral, and nothing about the Earps, Clantons, McLaurys - or the politics of Tombstone, which was undoubtedly fairly complex, and probably involved trade. All we saw of the New Republic was a brief shot of terrified citizens before they were vaporised, and all we got of the First Order was a review of the troops. We didn't see their citizens at all. Not a single one.
Wouldn't it be totally cool if someone made some Star Wars movies that expanded on these worlds? Gave us a taste of the wider and more complex universe that Luke and Han and the rest were dedicated to protect?
Something like what George Lucas was trying to do in the prequel trilogy, perhaps?
And this is when I started to reappraise what Lucas had been trying to give us. A contextual overview of the entire Star Wars universe. He had shown us the gunfight, the final act, and was now attempting to explain why the Death Star had to be destroyed, and not only that, but the seeds of evil itself, the political machinations and an overview of the cultural riches of the republic: The clothes, the architecture, the civilisations. I'll be the first to admit that he might have missed the mark somewhat - Jar Jar Binks being a case in point and Anakin as a kid, yes, truly annoying - but I can now see what he was attempting to do: To build and extend and widen, rather than imitate and repeat.
And that also got me to thinking: That the rebooting of the Star Trek series was precisely the same. JJ Abrams is a strong and gifted pair of hands bringing together familiar tropes in a financially successful and slick and enjoyable package - but what he doesn't do is take risks.
George Lucas did. He risked everything to do what he felt was important: To innovate, to elevate, to experiment, to move the franchise forward. And with his prequel trilogy, the risks were vast. He risked the ire of the fans, he risked his credibility, he risked forever tainting a cultural markerstone of inestimable beauty. To risk all that takes some serious artistic commitment and vision, but that's what true artists do. It took the copycat Force Awakens to make me realise it.
So Mr Lucas, sir: I'm so, so f***ing sorry I derided your Star Wars prequels. They are far from perfect, but I can see now what you were trying to do. After the mythological simplicity of the oh-so-wonderful Star Wars, you wanted us to grow up, move on, and start reading Middlemarch rather than The Beano. You wanted us to understand how trade and economics govern conflict, how a culturally rich and peaceful civilisation require sacrifice and duty, and how vulnerabilities and conflict, loneliness and misplaced expectation can drag an individual to the Dark Side. You risked everything to bring a greater vision to our screens.
But we didn't want trade wars and Machiavellian struggles, we wanted X-wings, laser-cannon, easily understood villains, droids doing weird stuff, lovable rogue space pirates and a gigantic explosion right at the end.
You tried to take us to the library, but we opted to stay in the nursery.
And sadly, that's where I think the franchise will now stay. But I remain hopeful and I will keep on watching them, because that's what I do, and that's what I am: A denizen of late twentieth century British culture constructed of seventies sitcoms, music, movies, bad food, Austin Allegros and political scepticism. And always: Star Wars.
May the force be with you.