Great, kid. Don’t get cocky

JJ Abrams taps into Star Wars’ an­cient en­ergy with­out break­ing new ground, and the skel­lig al­most steals the show, writes

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FILM REVIEWS -

STAR WARS THE FORCE AWAK­ENS Di­rected by J J Abrams. Star­ring Har­ri­son Ford, Mark Hamill, Car­rie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ri­d­ley, John Boyega, Os­car Isaac, Lupita Ny­ong’o, Andy Serkis, Domh­nall Glee­son. 12A cert, gen release, 135 min Vari­a­tions on a sig­na­ture shot ap­pear about half-a-dozen times in JJ Abrams’s ab­surdly hyped ad­di­tion to the Star Wars cy­cle. The cam­era pauses for sev­eral sec­onds to ex­am­ine an un­oc­cu­pied cor­ner of a quiet cor­ri­dor (or for­est or bulk­head or what­ever). What’s go­ing on? We are, of course, await­ing the ar­rival of some vet­eran from the first tril­ogy. We can’t have Han Solo or Gen­eral Leia (as she now is) just blun­der­ing on like any old schlub. Rev­er­ence must be ac­corded.

The Force Awak­ens works quite well con­sid­er­ing it is lum­bered with an un­shak­able neu­ro­sis through­out. The film can never al­low it­self to be just an­other space opera. Abrams’s romp must main­tain the tone of Geoge Lu­cas’s cre­ation and find con­stant op­por­tu­ni­ties for old friends to slip in. The di­rec­tor was never go­ing to be per­mit­ted the li­cence he was ac­corded when re­boot­ing Star Trek.

Work­ing with co-writ­ers Michael Andt and Lau­rence Kas­dan, Abrams has made the canny de­ci­sion to re­work struc­tures from the very first film. The Force Awak­ens con­cerns a young out­sider from a re­mote world whose life changes when she en­coun­ters a wan­der­ing droid with an im­por­tant mes­sage from rebel forces. Sound fa­mil­iar? Daisy Ri­d­ley kicks dust and ass as Rey, a desert scav­enger who, one bak­ing af­ter­noon, res­cues BB-8, a robot com­posed of two or­ange spheres, from less for­giv­ing com­peti­tors. We al­ready know that BB-8 is car­ry­ing an elec­tron- ic map that will lead the finder to Luke Sky­walker’s se­cret hermitage (in a mar­itime cor­ner of Mun­ster, we’re bet­ting). Later, she meets up with Finn (John Boyega), a for­mer stormtrooper who has seen the light, and they flee the planet in a fa­mil­iar, bashed-up space­ship. Han Solo and Chew­bacca hitch a ride soon af­ter.

Al­though it’s nice to wel­come bits of our child­hood back on to the screen, The Force Awak­ens is at its best when mov­ing among its young he­roes. Kick­ing back against Star Wars’ pa­tri­ar­chal roots, the script al­lows Rey to emerge as se­nior part­ner in the re­la­tion­ship with Finn. Be­gin­ning the film as a bor­der­line-cow­ard, he con­stantly makes pa­thetic at­tempts to take her hand pro­tec­tively dur­ing mo­ments of high violence. Early on, we learn that Rey is likely to be hand­ier with a light sabre. Both ac­tors are charm­ing through­out.

The vil­lains are more prob­lem­atic. Adam Driver is stuck with an im­pos­si­ble role as the archetyp­i­cally evil Kylo Ren. When not wear­ing his sub-Vader hel­met, he comes across like a Brook­lyn flautist fail­ing to con­vince as the Sher­iff of Not­ting­ham. With pot on, he looks like a gi­ant bi­cy­cle pump in an ano­rak. Domh­nall Glee­son, ac­cent clipped in the Sand­hurst style, has more fun as a gin­ger Nazi with no ap­par­ent sense of hu­mour.

Han Solo and Chew­bacca aside, the re­turn­ing char­ac­ters from the open­ing tril­ogy – The Force Awak­ens is set 30 years af­ter Re­turn of the Jedi - are asked to set­tle for lit­tle more than ex­tended cameos. Car­rie Fisher is de­cid­edly un­der­pow­ered as an older, sad­der Leia. R2-D2 and C-3PO no longer as­pire even to the sta­tus of Rosen­crantz and Guilden­stern. Fur­ther links with the past are se­cured via a score by John Wil­liams that lav­ishes vari­a­tions on the old themes with­out find­ing any fresh songs to sing.

In­deed, you could ar­gue that there isn’t a sin­gle orig­i­nal idea in The Force Awak­ens. Lu­cas’s bor­row­ings from Flash Gor­don (many du­elling space­craft), Joseph Camp­bell (ev­ery ma­jor char­ac­ter is cor­ralled by des­tiny) and Akira Kuro­sawa (the sa­mu­rai as Jedi) are passed on to a new gen­er­a­tion with few sig­nif­i­cant al­ter­ations. The most amus­ing scenes are vari­a­tions on very fa­mil­iar themes: a mo­tion-cap­tured, sweetly voiced Lupita Ny­ong’o is ter­rific as the owner of a tav­ern that re­calls the Mos Eis­ley Cantina in the first film.

Fair enough. Abrams was not asked to re­boot or re­model the fran­chise. His job was to re­dis­cover the an­cient en­ergy that ebbed away dur­ing the sorry pas­sage from The Phan­tom Men­ace to Re­venge of the Sith. A slack mid­dle pe­riod aside, the film pretty much meets those expectations. Oh and, as we ex­pected, Star Wars Is­land (for­merly Skel­lig Michael) makes only a brief ap­pear­ance, but it ac­quits it­self quite bril­liantly. No com­put­er­gen­er­ated im­age could have sat­is­fac­to­rily re­placed the lo­ca­tion shots. We look for­ward to its re­turn.

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