Movies changed forever, beginning in 1975 and culminating in 1977. Two films, both of which ‘experts’ dismissed as wastes of time and money, appeared and film-making, and watching were never the same again. It is not the place of this post to discuss whether or not that is a good thing, but the release of Jaws in ’75 and Star Wars in ’77 convinced studios and the accountants that run them, that a money spent on a big film with an even bigger initial release, could bring profits the like of which were unknown to the great studio moguls of the ‘golden age’ of Hollywood.
But while Jaws was an example of an old-fashioned story, with old-fashioned effects (remember how bad the shark really looks now) but a modern sense of story and editing, Star Wars showed us things we had never seen before. Building on special effects developed a decade earlier by Stanley Kubrick for 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), George Lucas, using the latest in motion-control cameras, travelling mattes, and modelling, created a whole new galaxy of wonders–wrapped around a hoary old story of good v evil, damsels in distress, and coming of age.
Thirty eight years later, the force, and the story, is still with us, minus a few actors with a few back for the ride, familiar plot-lines and, but the original creator, George Lucas missing in action. Famously selling off the ‘franchise’ for billions to the ever-expanding Disney empire, the oft-told, and nearly run-aground tale has been, in the current parlance, re-booted by that master shoemaker, J. J. Abrams.
I can categorically state that Star Wars, The Force Awakens (2015), is the best sixth sequal ever. That doesn’t place it in exalted company, mind. Remember Saw 3D (2010), Friday the 13th, part VII: The New Blood (1988), and I’m sure there must have been a seventh Halloween or Nightmare on Elm Street. And if you think about it, Diamonds Are Forever (1971) is the seventh Bond, and was hardly worth the wait. Connery in a pink tie and Jill St. John. Need I say more?
The above sounds like the start of a sneering diatribe about the latest behemoth dominating our multiplexes. But it isn’t. Star Wars (forget all the qualifiers–what else should we call it?), is a great movie (with all the caveats and qualifiers that that phrase includes). I thoroughly enjoyed it, despite the fact that what I’m about to write was already in my head, for the most part, well before seeing the actual picture.
This is not a review of Star Wars. What would be the point? Anyone who wants to see it will have likely made up their mind before sitting down in the dark (or to the endless adverts, and sadly few trailers, that precede any movie. Most will come expecting to, and actually, loving it. Some (George Lucas?) will be disappointed, but that is for his psychiatrists and accountant to deal with. Otherwise, what is the point in doing an in-depth analysis of what is as much a financial and sociological event as it is a cinematic one?
But a few things probably should be said, just to establish that I actually did watch the thing and that I paid attention. First, rather than a re-boot, it’s a re-make of the first film. Maybe not shot for shot, but all the old elements are there. Lonely droid, lonely orphan teen-ager, this time a girl, desert planet, crazy creatures and other species in trading post and bar, that retro feel that is de regeur for all space films these days (except for the woeful middle three of the franchise), search of someone, dazzling space battles, will-they, won’t-they love angle, and climactic light sabre battle. If these elements weren’t in the new version, there would likely have been rioting in the ailses (don’t laugh, they did it at the premier of the Rites of Spring–look it up).
If you’ve seen the movie, you know what I mean, and if you haven’t, it doesn’t matter. No, I’m writing this because it is a great example of why some films work and some don’t. Why the first three, in decreasing quality, succeeded, and why the prequels did not. It is why anything we see on screen moves us or leaves us cold. Excites us or drives us to our phones. Stimulates us or is forgotten by the time we pay the parking fee.
This one works because…wait for it…it has a good script, honest performances, and competent direction and editing. It’s a good story, told well and with conviction but without sanctimony. Obviously, what I’m saying is that the previous three, as beautiful as they were to look at, and as anticipated as they were for story exposition, were dead on the screen (obviously, you may choose to argue with this opinion, but you’ll have your work cut out for you).
Star Wars (the original) was striking because we had never seen anything like that before. The effects were new, the technology was new, and the story, though old, was universal enough to complement the visual spectacle. Unfortunately, now you can see effects like those on television. The latest developments in CGI are seen in Transformers films. We’ve seen space battles before. We’ve seen sword fights before (has anything ever topped The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) or Richard Lester’s The Three Musketeers (1973))? What we always need, is a story.
The re-boot tells its story with wit, economy and a script that doesn’t leave you cringing even in the more sentimental segments. The actors are believable saying these words (does anyone not feel for poor Ewan McGregor and Liam Neeson trying to get their mouths around the dross in the Phantom Menace–you could literally see McGregor pining for the words of Irvine Welsh and Neeson thinking that the Taken trilogy makes him sound like Noel Coward by comparison). Exposition is cleanly inserted into the script and just enough back-story is provided to make sense of the present. I’m not sure what those who haven’t seen the previous films will make of it, but odds are it won’t matter. And after all, how many people seeing this one will have missed the others?
So we’re all in agreement: the new version works and is a very good, even great movie of this genre. So what? Why does any of that matter. George Lucas may have to look in the mirror and admit that he’s really a very poor director and writer, but a very good mogul and now he’s billions richer because of his sale of the franchise, so don’t go worrying too much about his feelings.
J. J. Abrams remains the king of the re-boots, but like Tarantino, is he really an artist and creator, or is he only a modifier, piggy-backing on other, original work, that he can indeed improve upon. But what of his own vision. He is clearly a force in television. And yet a glance at IMDB shows his future projects as…another Star Trek, another Star Wars (why not) and a Cloverfield sequel (why). Are we likely to see something by him at the Watershed anytime soon (snob alert)? Probably not. And that’s ok. But like Quentin, you have to wonder what their output would be if they were as curious about all sorts of things as say, Spielberg. Yes, he’s horribly sentimental and now a bit hit and miss, but he remains the most versatile director of our age. Just wondering.
And what of Star Wars, the Force, and the whole mythology. Good v. Evil, and the line between the two, is always something worth exploring. Science fiction and fantasy are not about the future, but about the present. How we see ourselves now and where we think we might go. The best stories take our current fears–Russian invasion, pandemic disease, the threat of world annihilation, and translate these into stories that either solve, or show the consequences of our present actions.
So what about Star Wars, The Force Awakens? You don’t have to look too closely to see parallels with the crisis in the Middle East, the hubris of great technology (note that despite the presence of inter-stellar travel, many still live a subsistence existence in this future), the impotence of democracies in the face of unified and fanatical despotism, and the hair’s breath between power for good and the corrupting nature of its excess.
Is that too fanciful and high-falutin for this space opera? I don’t think so. We continue to watch because the story continues to illustrate things we need pictured. Will the world change because of the Republic, the rebels, and the–can’t seem to remember the name of the new bad guys–New Order? No that was a seventies/eighties band–Last Order? No that comes around 10:50. Well, the bad guys. Probably not. But stories continue to remind us of where we are, where we might be headed, and the best ones inform our decisions about the kind of world we want to live in.
Watch and learn (or just have a good time).
But what I’m really looking forward to is The Revenant!