By Paul Risker.
Stories as in life have no true beginning, middle or end. Rather they are just a series of events running together like a never-ending piece of string that creates the linear structure of time. It is perhaps within the individual chapters that a beginning, a middle and an end exist, of which the end merely presents a junction of multiple and uncertain possibilities. With Lucas’ prequel trilogy – although debacle might be the more appropriate adjective – out of the way, J.J. Abrams and his co-writers Lawrence Kasdan (The Empire Strikes Back, 1980) and Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3, 2010) step into the uncertain future to determine the path by which events would logically transpire if Return of the Jedi (1983) were relieved as the temporary full stop. And in Abrams’ hands, Jedi’s romantic and optimistic ending is punctured with the realisation of a more turbulent fate for its heroes, in which good and evil continue to tangle for supremacy.
Any discussion of this, the resumption of the Star Wars saga should not ground itself in a simplistic reactionary perspective of whether it is either good or bad, nor should it simply explore its successes and failures. A fitting approach is to discuss The Force Awakens (2015) in context as a first step in the beginning of a renewed process to expand a popular cinematic world.
In as much as Abrams, Kasdan and Arndt are propelling the saga forward, they are fundamentally taking the route of creating something new out of something old. Seen as a kind of spruced up version of A New Hope (1977) would be a crude way of phrasing it, but if one imagines episode IV as a canvas painting, then Abrams, Kasdan and Arndt have taken it and painted over it with their own image. Yet the original picture still creeps through as the DNA of the narrative structure and set pieces of The Force Awakens is exposed as having definite shades of A Hew Hope. It therein creates a cyclic connection in which the beginning of this new episodic trilogy mirrors the first episode of the middle trilogy or adopts a tried and tested narrative within the world it is expanding. The only drawback is The Force Awakens has the treacherous path to walk as both a self-conscious and forward thinking entity that could feel equally worn, redundant or unnecessary.
Within the first part of Abrams’ expansion project, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) is a character that is used to particular good effect – not simply as a throwaway or exploitative reference to the original trilogy, but rather as a figure that propels the series forward. Without spoiling much, know that he assists the younger generation in their new mission. And if the ending of Return of the Jedi implies that Solo had turned his back on his smuggling ways, we find the cantankerous hero turned rebellion general back in the smuggling life with his trusty friend, Chewbacca, still hunted by those he has swindled. Through his humorous disposition Solo remains one of the more flexible characters and therein he is the ideal character to pass the torch to the film’s new generation of heroes: Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Finn (John Boyega). This is an integral act of The Force Awakens and the scenes Solo shares with both Rey and Finn serve to validate their place as both the present and future heroic leads of the series. It’s as if the previous generation offers a blessing to the younger fans to both root for and invest ourselves in these strange new faces, without which the series is invariably on a course towards disaster.
From its inception Star Wars has been a franchise at the forefront of creating cinematic magic by pushing the boundaries of the technology. As such a part of its identity is one of a technological franchise. The success of Abrams over his predecessor is the authorial control to not allow the technology or technical aspects to consume the film. While it is true that Lucas entered the past to illuminate the backstory of his characters (in Episodes 1-3), his infatuation with technology ultimately consumed the films on an aesthetic level, denying them the texture that was so readily evident in the original trilogy. And now in the hands of Abrams, Star Wars once more possesses a more authentic texture that is not beholden to technology in the same way as his predecessor was. The Force Awakens looks as if we could reach into the screen to touch and feel a world. What we are seeing here is the restoration of an aesthetic quality to the franchise that has long been desired and after a long wait has been delivered by the series’ new authorial voice. And perhaps what The Force Awakens in us is the understanding or appreciation that in as much as it is a film series that either pushes or calls upon technology to bring its vision to life, it remains one built upon a grand stage: an iconic confrontation between good and evil that consumes one family and group of sometimes disparate friends. Without bated breath Abrams, like Kasdan did with director Irvin Kershner in The Empire Strikes Back, uses the emphasis on the family drama and tragedy to give the operatic space drama a more powerful resonance and legitimacy as a mature rather than a fanciful and flaky drama. Although as a space opera, A New Hope remains a lighter tale of good versus evil. But here lies a definite reminder that technology is merely the crutches, while narrative, mythology and family drama has and will always remain the heart, mind and soul of Stars Wars.
There is however a moment in The Force Awakens which allows us to witness the creative mortality of J.J. Abrams. The name Storm Troopers alone has always been an inference to Nazi Germany, and beneath its drama the series has always featured a focus on totalitarianism and the oppression of the many by the few. There is a stark scene at a military rally in which Star Wars’ historical consciousness and the fact it is born out in part from our historical reality infers more potently than before the look back into the dark chapters of history; specifically to the Nazi rallies. And it is here that Abrams’ creative conviction is questioned and his creative mortality evident. An opportunity to go for the proverbial jugular is missed and the angry seething hatred Domhnall Gleeson, as General Hux, pours into his speech misses. While Abrams and Gleeson would have been acutely aware that General Hux did not share the same absolute authority on the hierarchal structure as Hitler, had their character captured a more watered down imitation of Hitler’s blunt yet orchestrated movement between, body language, voice and words, it would have created a synergy between historical reality and fiction yet to be fully conceived in the series.
After the debacle of the prequel trilogy that sent Star Wars spiralling into the abyss as a hollow technical exercise, the mandate for Abrams perhaps was as simple as to restore a sense of confidence in the franchise. And to all intent and purposes Abrams achieves this, although the prequel trilogy is by no means a useful measure by which to gauge the film’s success. But when contrasted to the original trilogy one might silently ask the question why didn’t they just leave well enough alone? As storytellers and audiences we seemingly have this inability to allow a film or film series to sometimes exist shrouded in the mystery that lies beyond the end credits – definitively knowing how events transpire superseding the emphasis on us daring to imagine uncertainly. More of a stabilising film that needed to put the breaks on the franchise’s previous descent trajectory, The Force Awakens was unlikely to strike a sensational high, although it does in part feel worn, redundant and unnecessary. While Abrams has breathed life into a dying saga, is its prolonged life anything more than indulgence for either those behind it or we, its audience? Star Wars belongs to a period when films looked and felt a certain way, and were a collection of films loved for their imperfection. One must fear that The Force Awakens’ endurance and attempt to belong outside its time may still not end well, despite the fact Abrams has awakened in the saga something that defies absolute indifference towards it. But the film is merely the first step in a bigger journey, and only at the conclusion (?) can this expansion venture perhaps be adequately judged or critiqued.
Paul Risker is an independent scholar and film critic who contributes regularly to Film International. He is an Editor for Mise-en-scène: The Journal of Film and Visual Narration, which will launch in Fall 2016.