By Drew Germaine (Australia)
The Force Awakens – Why It Works, and the Prequels Didn’t
The Force has awoken! The official of opening of J.J. Abrams hugely anticipated and heavily ‘secrified’ new Star Wars epic exploded across big screens this week, and though it is definitely not the best Star Wars film ever made, it is a damn sight better than any of the prequels; and to quote one of the most well-known and passionate devotees to the franchise, Kevin Smith: “The magic is back.”
I have to admit, being a huge fan myself, and having many of my first film memories entrenched in 1977’s original Star Wars and it’s successive two sequels, I went into this premiere so excited that I was actually shaking and fist pumping as the obligatory ‘big yellow words’ rolled down the screen accompanied by John Williams’s ultimately familiar musical score.
Redemption was what I was after. With all my Star Wars loving heart I just wanted something that could stir my emotions like A New Hope did when I was four years old, and that could take us all back to that Galaxy far, far away one more time – without all the multiple mishaps and countless shortcomings of the prequels.
The Force Awakens starts fast, and the pace rolls out much like Return of the Jedi – and of all the films it did feel like Jedi lots to me. Sleek and modern, it is set in a universe that’s moved 30 years forward in time from the end of the initial Lucas trilogy, and it is a credit to Abrams’s attention to detail and true love of the original Star Wars classics that this film makes it across the line.
Let’s talk about why?
Firstly, like any successful TV series or commendable big screen blockbuster, the new main characters are all strong. Really, really strong. They are funny, brave and endearing, and their plights and flaws are intriguing to say the least. Abrams has paid full homage to the original trilogy by imitating many things about Lucas’s original works – including throwing in all the old cast members, keeping a similar pace, not getting too complex, and keeping the heroics and badassery very much on high. Yet, undoubtedly, the greatest strength of Awakens is these new casting additions.
We have John Boyega’s Finn, formerly a Stormtrooper, who on his first mission turns his back on the sinister replacement of the Empire – The First Order, and joins the Rebel alliance. We have Daisy Ridley’s phenomenal Rey, Finn’s partner in crime for much of the movie who has Jedi written all over her, and who plays an exceptional lead for an actress who was basically unknown beforehand. We have Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron, who is an ace fighter pilot, and a man of integrity, witty remarks and unmatched bravery, and who will go to any length to shut down the tyrannical First Order. And then there’s BB8, R2D2’s much smaller and faster mechanical ‘cousin’ – who is just captivating to say the least. (I mean he’s a ball droid! Think about that for a minute, and he is REAL. No CGI here thank you very much).
Then we have the bad guys: Andy Serkis doing his usual, but always amazing, CGI thing as the super-evil and mysterious Supreme Leader Snoke, who I will not elaborate on for spoiler sake. Domhnall Gleeson’s General Hux, who is as ruthless as Grand Moff Tarkin ever was, and who has a distinctly Hitleresque quality to him, that truly makes him malevolent.
Then there is Hux’s peer and rival Kylo Ren. The troubled and ruthless main antagonist, who is as original in his idolisation of former Sith Lord badass Darth Vader, as anyone possibly could be. In fact, Adam Driver steals the show as the Awakens main villain, and his potential for growth, like all these pre-mentioned characters, is ultimately limitless.
What this film does that George Lucas’s prequels could never deliver is ultimately apparent from the first scenes. The dialogue is not stilted and stylised, ultimately making the prequel actors seem like morons through all three movies. The story of the new film is flowing and compelling, and has no ridiculous political undertones. Nor is the new casting, as mentioned, in any way responsible for any of the few faults this movie may have. There is no Jar Jar equivalent. There is no Jake Lloyd or Hayden Christensen, horribly miscast and bumbling through their roles. (Though there has been talk of Hayden being cast for future films. I truly hope that this rumour is false).
Also, and most importantly, there are no GIANT plot mishaps, like that occurring in The Phantom Menace, and ultimately ruining the prequels from the very first film.
Let’s talk about this for a minute, briefly, and expand somewhat on how Abrams has gone right, while Lucas went so very wrong…
The biggest mistake, besides the horrible casting and atrocious scripts of the prequels, was that they killed off the ultimate bad guy – Darth Maul – in the first film. Even the most spiteful of prequel haters will admit that Maul was one of the best Star Wars characters in the entire canon. We had waited decades to see a fully functioning Sith Lord in his prime, and we got him in all his double-bladed, dark-side glory in the first prequel film, taking on two Jedi at once, in arguably one of the greatest fight scenes ever put on screen. George should have had him through all three films as the main antagonist to finally battle Anakin for Sith Lordship in the final chapter – but no, he killed him off in the first film, then replaced him in the second and third with a near dead Christopher Lee as Count Dooku (Darth Tyranus) and the ultimately stupid and underwhelming General Grievous, as a character that could almost be referred to now as comedy relief. Sort of like an evil Jar Jar Binks.
Then there was Jar Jar himself. A poor man’s Chewbacca, and meant to be ultimately marketable to the mainstream (especially children), yet who was, and still is, hated across the realms of Nerdom on levels not seen since John Travolta donned fur and ears and laughably tackled the father of Scientology’s – L. Ron Hubbard’s –Battlefield Earth.
For me personally though, the death of Maul was the biggest mistake Lucas made in his prequels. Here was a driven, silently strong and terrifyingly intelligent character, with an amazing potential for a back-story and a future as one of cinema’s most curious villains. His hatred of the Jedi was palpable, and his wickedly tattooed and malicious face behind those red force-fields was the screaming high point of a trilogy that fell painfully – cut in half and falling to its death – below the mark.
Abrams has not replicated any of these failed elements, and has learned well from Lucas’s many mistakes. I’m not going to give it away, but I can assure you, there is nothing to worry about in this respect. The characters that matter, good and bad, endure. The potential of the next movie in the series, scheduled for 2017 is mind-bogglingly spectacular, and that’s all you need to know.
I was a little underwhelmed with the original cast members in this new series – especially Carrie Fisher – who has lost all her pizazz, but thankfully who’s part is kept small and tucked away in the back. Also, the film does lose its way a couple of times script-wise, and could have maybe elaborated further in certain parts. Yet, ultimately, J.J. Abrams has done a remarkable job in taking on a task where the pressure to meet and potentially exceed past standards would have been a sensationally difficult and hazardous journey into potential career suicide. He should be commended for his efforts, and bravery, as the Force is strong in this film; and as a result there’s a lot more of these amazing characters to come, that’s for certain. I can’t wait for the next instalment, but I’ll patiently wait those two years, and probably watch The Force Awakens just a few more times until it finally does comes out.