18 December 2015

The Force Awakens: The franchise redeemed


The astonishing global success of Star Wars is a partly inexplicable phenomenon. Why is this sometimes entertaining but always derivative space opera the most valuable piece of intellectual property the world has ever seen? That mystery is now part of its success. Decade in and decade out audiences queue and queue again, as if to repeat the question. Too often they come away miserably traduced by yet another cynical marketing manoeuvre – and of course the mystery of Star Wars only deepens. Now with The Force Awakens we have the latest instalment of the ‘franchise’. Fans and anti-fans the world over are in their different ways braced for disaster. Just how bad can it get?

It is the mark of Star Wars that however dire the product turns out to be at least it always cuts to the chase. So: it’s not in the least bit bad. It’s actually pretty good. It’s exciting, it looks handsome, there is a great deal that is familiar and just enough that is new. It is furiously paced (as Star Wars shows usually are) so that it does not feel like the two and a quarter hours it is, it has the best light-sabre duel yet, and there is one shocking and completely unexpected twist just when you fear the film may be running out of fuel. It works.

Above all, it has Harrison Ford, reprising his original role as Han Solo. A firmly mainstream actor who gets better and better, Ford now brings to the screen just a touch of the enigmatic power of late middle-period Clint Eastwood. His masterly underplaying seems to carry with it echoes of films past, films future, and galaxies far, far away. From the moment Harrison Ford steps into the screen (an exquisitely timed moment), you feel the deep hum of the film’s hyperdrive engines starting up.

Meanwhile, two new and little-known British actors have to carry a lot of the action for almost the first half of the film. John Boyega all the way from Peckham (despite his creditable American accent), and Daisy Ridley who will also be unfamiliar unless you are a fan of Casualty. They are lightweights, but only when marked against Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher – who were lightweights when the first Star Wars was released. Boyega and Ridley have plenty of potential. But the same cannot be said of the clever new ‘droid’, the irritatingly cute BB-8 which puppyishly fills the space vacated by R2-D2. Hopefully it will break down soon.

As for the plot, there is a lot of it, but it hardly bears repeating not least because it is the same as previous plots. Even the very select band of human beings who have never seen Star Wars are probably aware of the basic theology of the franchise, which is that there is good and evil manifest in the universe, that they must contend with much high explosive, and that while good does not exactly triumph it has all the best lines, and wins on points. That is what happens here.

And that is what has always happened, very profitably. The original Star Wars was released in 1977, and almost instantly it was celebrated for its success more than for its content. Write down the formula for Star Wars and it makes no sense. Watch it and you are immediately captivated. It is one of the most derivative films of all time – there is virtually nothing it doesn’t steal from, including Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Flash Gordon comics, Kurosawa’s samurai epics, TV pulp fiction series, Frank Herbert’s Dune novels, and most obviously from The Wizard of Oz. It is a film graduate’s film, made by a director with little feeling for character and played by actors who (one suspects) are trying quite hard not to laugh. But even that made for magic, setting the tone of light techno-comedy coupled with bloodless threat that has been the keynote of every successful Star Wars film since.

The Star Wars franchise has often been criticised for its infantilising effect on filmmaking in Hollywood and elsewhere, and for flooding cinemas with a genre of high-concept twaddle that continues in full spate today. Less often noted is its originality, often in unexpected areas. Never had there been a sci-fi film paced like this: in the old outer space things always happened slowly, as if underwater, but supercharged Star Wars overturned that at a stroke. The silence of space was replaced by a prodigiously inventive soundscape, from the sizzle of the light-sabre, to the awful groan emitted by the Galactic Empire’s bat-like starfighters, to the ghastly breath of Darth Vader. Old space was a chilly and aristocratically empty demesne. The Star Wars universe was hot and teeming with zoo-like noise and colour.

It helped that this universe was realised by some of the best professionals in the business, including the artist Ralph McQuarrie and a team of designers working in a draughty north London studio who invented the ‘second-hand future’ look out of sheer necessity (they had no money). The first film was shot by Kubrick’s cameraman Gil Taylor, a grizzled industry veteran who refused to tolerate some of director George Lucas’ barmier ideas but achieved a washed-out, high-key effect that was quite novel and complemented perfectly the essential innocence of the film. Add to all that the fact that Star Wars came out at the fag end of the 1970s, a decade that was already tired of itself even before it ended, and the success of a fantasy-fable of redemption is not such a big surprise.

What is more of a surprise is that this forty-year old formula still works. A contemporary Star Wars film is a heritage exercise, but that fits the times. When the first film appeared the story was all about finding yourself. Today it is more about what you can salvage from the past. The old characters can be re-hydrated and put to work one more time, the old storyboards dusted off and reshuffled. It is all a testiment to the imaginative fertility of the original. The one thing The Force Awakens cannot do is make it 1977 again, when the recipe was fresh.

This is not the best science fiction film ever produced. It is not even the best Star Wars film. But it is an immense amount of rather forgettable fun, and it will make an immense amount of cash. Some of that cash will help to fund many future film projects, among which there might even be – who knows? – something new.

Richard Walker is a journalist and communications advisor to financial companies.