A Same Old New Hope: My Rambling Review of The Force Awakens


Wookies probably take the deaths of humans in their stride; if you were to live 350 to 400 years, you’d have to see a lot of them die of old age. Let’s not forget that the events of Star Wars: The Force Awakens occurred only about seven Wookie years after the Battle of Endor. So I think in the scale of things, although Chewbacca was obviously shaken by the whole affair, he’s probably been able to quickly see the bright side of the death of his little man-friend. First of all, he doesn’t have to watch him grow old and doddering while he remains a middle aged Wookie in his prime, and secondly, he got a brand new human to fly around the galaxy doing whatnot with for the next six or eight Wookie years. AND he got the Millennium Falcon.   Yeah, we’re all sad about old Han – a close friend of mine openly wept in the theatre – but cheer up, think of how Chewie really came out ahead in the end.

I’m definitely a Star Wars fan by default. I cherished them as a child, but I have also come to more realistic terms with them as an adult too. Truth is they’re all kind of terrible [gasp!] and we love them anyway. I sat down with my son and watched the dialogue between Luke, Leia, Chewie and Han in that bit of post-Wampa-attack exposition in Empire Strikes Back. This is meant to be the best of the original trilogy, but that scene is just awful on so many levels – the pacing, the acting, the writing, everything. “Laugh it up fuzzball”. I guess my 10-year-old self thought that was funny, but now it just sounds vapid and stupid. Was it Leigh Brackett or Lawrence Kasdan who first penned that, or was it one of Harrison Ford’s interventions? In any case, it’s bad.


My Brother Jason and I (labeled) 1977, the last time I had an uncomplicated relationship with Star Wars.

So this is my kind of review, an in it I want to strike an odd balance. I both love and hate Star Wars as I love and hate myself, and as I love and hate this modern world in which we live.  In my early childhood, when we watched Star Wars in the cinema, that was it, it was done, unless we bought tickets and watched it again. Slowly, through the 80s people acquired videocassette machines, but I seem to remember that Star Wars on VHS was really quite hard to come by. I also remember that it would occasionally air on television, and a video recording of one such showing was how I got my first distorted, grainy copy of A New Hope. It wasn’t until after I left high school in the early 90’s that I remember owning a copy of the trilogy on VHS, and that melted in my car on a hot summer afternoon. I had to wait until the re-release came out in the late 90s, with all the unnecessary extra footage, before I could see it again. All in all, I think my early love for Star Wars relied in part on this austerity of viewing options. Though on the other hand I remember there was some kid in high school who watched his VHS copy once a day for like a year or something, so maybe not. Anyway, I stopped paying attention during the hopelessly depressing prequel years and hadn’t really given it a lot of thought until I had a kid of my own in the late naughties. Then my wife and I thought, what the hey, all six have come out on DVD, and that includes copies of the unaltered originals. Let’s do this. Well my son, now 7 years old, doesn’t give a shit, really, and prefers to draw pictures whilst listening to Radio Head. This brings me up to the here and now, with JJ Abrams and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, or as I have come to think of it, Star Wars: The Same Old New Hope.

Why was Leia Organa replaced by a nice American lady in her late 50s? Princess Leia Organa was the adopted daughter of Bail and Breha Organa of the Alderaan Royal family. She was brought up in an extremely privileged court environment, and she had the accent and mannerisms that accompany that upbringing.   Listen to the way she speaks to Grand Moff Tarkin in A New Hope: she’s posh. 

General Leia, on the other hand, is the same likeable, zany Carrie Fisher that we know and love from her stage shows and interviews – just as likely to grab Han Solo’s ass as she is to give him a chaste little cuddle. Do not get me wrong here, I love that Carrie Fisher. She is definitely the most talented, intelligent, and generally all around interesting member of the original Star Wars cast (and please don’t equate Harrison Ford’s box office success with his talent as an actor – he may have been paid 56 times as much as Daisy Ridley, but he was not nearly as good – and while I’m settling into a good parenthetical statement here, can I just say that I thought Ridley was excellent – her face when she was brain duelling with Kylo Ren was actually great!). I think the problem with General Leia is a problem with direction, and not with Fisher as an actor. But hey, what does Carrie Fisher care? As she herself has pointed out, a big pay acting job for a woman at her age is pretty damn rare.

While it certainly sucks that Ben Solo went off and turned into a masked Severus Snape because, I dunno, he got into hardcore darkside gangsta rap or something (it totally glorifies violence, you know), it isn’t nearly as alarming as the fact that all three of his siblings have been summarily pre-extinguished from existence by the people at Disney. Yeah, you know who I’m talking about (if you’re a total dork). I’m talking about Jaina, Jacen and Anakin Solo, of the bizarre world of novels, comic books, and video games that make up the ESWU (Expanded Star Wars Universe). The twins Jaina and Jacen were to become totally amazing Jedis in the New Order, but I guess we can kiss all that stuff goodbye now.   And I guess if Disney paid a sum equivalent to the GDP of Japan to buy Star Wars, then they can do whatever they want, and if that means axing the Solo kids along with a lot of things otherwise in the ESWU, then maybe it’s for the best. Basing my knowledge on the 1990s Tie Fighter Star Wars PC video game, I can say confidently that TIE fighters DO NOT have atmospheric flight abilities, but that kind of restriction would basically have made all of Episode VII impossible.

Truth is, ESWU or no, the whole damn thing operates on a parasitically self-referential level. I’d appreciate it more, actually, if they just went for that openly, and erased all pretence that this is a new story. Maybe JJ and Co. still can do so in future episodes. Think of all the material they can draw on – all those pop cultural references to Star Wars through the 80s and 90s. Surely this would be the true Star Wars of our times, no?   Kevin Smith could make an appearance as the Jedi Knight Silent Bob, and Mark Hamill will reprise his role as the Cock Knocker (a kind of low in his career, don’t you think?)

33-mark-hamill-jay-and-silent-bob500x300.jpgI'd imagine Mark Hamill is pretty happy about all this

While I’m fantasizing, maybe together at last we’d find Rick Moranis as Dark Helmet alongside the original cast of Hardware Wars in a madcap, half funny, half serious, totally demented fight against an even bigger evil round thing that can destroy, like, the whole freakin' galaxy. By this time Disney will have bought DC and Marvel, so the Avengers, Batman and the X-Men can chip in too. In the very end, we learn that it’s actually OUR OWN GALAXY we’ve been fighting for, but in the very, very end, the little boy from the Never Ending Story wakes up, again, and it’s all been a dream. OR HAS IT?! Our time in history is a vortex of derivative, referential, self-obsessed, cultural onanism: the ugliest face of our grotesquely wasteful, market fundamentalist, post apocalyptic, go-nowhere artistic wasteland future. Now I'm depressing myself.

OK, now onto sex. We’ve spent the last 35 years not really talking about this, so here we go. X-Wing fighters are winged space-dicks. Period.  They look like dicks.  In fact, they look so much like dicks that one wonders if the creators of Star Wars didn’t sit down in the late 70s after several bong hits and decide to make a spaceship that looked as much like a dick as they thought they could get away with, not knowing that the film would be so successful.


Exhibit A: Space Penis

And how can anyone say that there isn't at least a wiff of sexual performance anxiety in Garven Dreis’s failed attempt to, um, shoot his, uh, load, into that, um, hole, in the Battle of Yavin (“almost there!”)?   The solution to such inadequacy? Mystical quasi-oriental religion dressed up as “The Force”! It reminds me of what all those Hari Krishnas used to tell me in college about how meditation can turn me into some kind of spiritual sex-master, in total control of the timing and accuracy of my, er, photon torpedos.   Even if X-Wings are not only scifi phallic symbols, then they are these tiny little things that in their numbers penetrate a big egg-like thing and make it go boom.   Sex, sex, sex.  But it is getting a bit old, is it not?  The whole planet-with-a-big-gun thing is just the Death Star again. And like the first time, it gets blown up by a small X-Wing just before it has the opportunity to blow up the Rebel, I mean, Resistance base. Didn’t this also happen in the prequels? I can’t remember, because I can’t abide watching them again. But I’ll leave this door cracked for you, even if I don’t enter it myself: the blow-up-the-egg thing is a ritualistic symbolic affirmation of the patriarchy.  But what, you might ask, about this new, updated strong-woman-figure heroine? Well, I’d refer you to Admiral Ackbar about that one, frankly. You’d think somewhere in the $200 million spent on that film they’d be able to pay some clever man or woman to come up with some new plot ideas. Hell, I’d have a go myself and probably only charge a few thousand.  

But no, it’s the same old same old.  And while I'm being kind of a jerk about this, the exposition of this film is truly terrible.  Why are the white hats called the Resistance, even before the core of the New Galactic Republic is destroyed by The First Order?  Surely the title would be better suited for the bad guys in this context.  It highlights just how important it is that the good guys be seen as the underdogs: an escapist trope par excellence.  Out here in the cold bleak real world the Galactic Republic would likely have already taken on the role of the Evil Empire to many of its citizens, and any resistance movmement would be against that core power base, and not some fringe offshoot of a previous one.  I know that this would never work in a multi-billion dollar film franchise.  One of the reasons why Frank Herbert's Dune series is so unsuitable as the basis for a pure blockbuster toy-selling film giant is that it's too realistic.  After the glorious rise of Paul Atreides, along with the Fremen resistance to the evil Harkonnens, we'd eventually have to face Paul's demise as well as the emergence of religious zealotry and violent jihad in his name.  It wouldn't have exactly fit the bill if Luke Skywalker had himself been the Supreme Leader of the First Order because it would have had too much of a bitter tinge of reality about it.   This is all fine; the fact that this is pure escapeism isn't a problem for me, (we'll it is, but not for the purposes of this writing - that's a bigger subject), but having no expositional sleight of hand at all in place at all to make any of the background clear just seems lazy.  

A quick side fantasy from another galaxy, far, far away: I wish Studio Gibli had had the money to buy Star Wars rather than Disney.  THAT wouldn’t be a flaccid capitulation to business as usual. Ben Solo would be raised by a single mom, struggling to keep up her republican duties without adequate family support from the galactic state.  Young Ben, having to come to terms with an absentee father who abandoned both wife and child for a life of scoundrelry, would befriend a benign but misunderstood Wampa who would help him cope with his loneliness and the weight of responsibility to his single mother. OK, never mind, I’m glad Disney bought it.

Don’t give into hate, Drew, we all know where that leads. This is the thing really: I, like Anakin, like Ben Solo, am conflicted. I could just as easily eviscerate or extoll the whole franchise, but this review is meant to bring about balance in, uh, reviews. So, what’s actually good about The Force Awakens? Well, it is hard to say, because one of my main points is that any real account of this film means entering into a rather cloudy area of judgement where objective analysis on the one hand, and the realities of appreciation on the other, tend to only be related in obtuse or lateral ways.   I can complain about the film, point out the gaping plot holes, the poor exposition, the hum drum derivative story line, the gratuitous and unapologetic reliance on pre-packaged emotional themes, the wooden acting, and sledge hammer-subtlety of the score, winged dicks, etc, etc – if it were a student work, like the several million that I currently have to mark, I’d probably give it a C, based on my assumed notion of the reasonable assessment criteria for a “good film”.   However, and this is the main thing, that would evade the central reality that I loved every damn second of it. I truly mean that, I was giddy with excitement from the get-go, of course I was!

That moment – you know the one – when Ray and Finn run for a ship that gets blown up, and turn instead toward the “piece of garbage” sitting half covered nearby, was to me one of the most affecting moments of any film I’ve ever seen. I was not that fussed, to be honest, by Han’s death – I’d guessed something like that was coming. But that moment – the Falcon moment – that’s when I got choked up. If JJ did anything truly wonderful for me, it was to recognise how dudes like me feel about the Millennium Falcon.   It is the ultimate symbol of ragged worthiness, and it was only right that it fall into obscurity after the demise of the Evil Empire, and that it returned in all its glory, just like King Arthur, when the galaxy needed it the most – our once and future spaceship.   Let’s leave aside that apparently Correllian light freighters don’t come equipped with ignition keys, and that sitting idle in a scrapyard for some undisclosed number of years didn’t seem to harm its ability to outmanoeuvre/shoot down two shiny, new, up-to-date TIE fighters.   One’s disbelief suspenders really need to be kinda flexible at times like these.

Other praiseworthy things? Well let’s be honest, spending $200 million and employing a medium sized army of enormously talented industry specialists means that there are going to be some incredible things about this film. Much of it (but not all of it) looked absolutely, unequivocally, amazing.   In the late 70s/ early 80s we were happy to be wowed by the effects that worked, and to just overlook or ignore those that were slightly less impressive (I’m talking about you, blurry blob underneath the landspeeder). Then there’s the overly drawn, antiseptic visual world of the prequels. I won’t say much about that, because like I said before, I thought that they were all so bad that I decided to never watch them again. But I can say that JJ and Co. definitely found a new and enticing balance here that manages to evade the pitfalls of overreliance on CGI while understanding how it can be used to make a world much more vivid.

The sound design, not surprisingly, was excellent. I was particularly blown away by the sounds within the Falcon as they flew around trying to shake those TIE fighters. The generic “pew pew” laser blasts were still there – they’ve become a part of the semiotic world of Star Wars and can’t really be left out – but they were accompanied by sounds of such convincing weight and impact, to the point where they helped achieve the sensation of being in some rickety WWII era bomber over enemy territory (haha like I’d know!). Also, the sound minions (I hope they were well paid!) really understood how to manipulate that sound world of the original films.   I loved the way characters could hear TIE fighters before they could see them, and the light sabre battles – I want to watch the film again just so I can close my eyes and listen. Michel Chion would love it. The sound, to say the least, was … impressive, most impressive.

What else? I actually quite liked BB-8, which I only really comment on here because I read a few reviewers who found the droid pretty annoying. I simply fail to see how this benign little beach-ball-with-head could be anywhere near as irksome as C3PO.   C3PO lost his arm, apparently, but I wished he’d lost his voice, and personality, and had both replaced. I mean, honestly, what an asshole. Even if BB-8 were super annoying, allowing that this may be kind of a subjective judgement, she wasn’t really given that much screen time. But for me BB-8 is pretty cute, and her ability to actually function fluidly on a 3 dimensional plane is a real plus. OK, fine, she’s basically just R2D2 all over again (see above rant about our derivative current condition) – a plucky droid on a desert planet, pursued by bad guys, with important plans in her “busty innards”– but I liked her nonetheless.

Other things that stick out for me: The emergence of North Korea as one of the West’s chief anxieties over the last 30 years certainly played a part in referring to the big baddy head of the First Order, Snoke, as “Supreme Leader”.   There were actually a number of ways in which the updated language of the film fascinated me. Compare the banter between Finn and Ray aboard the Falcon to their counterparts in the late 70s – it was all so much hipper, so much more, well, millennial. Han Solo isn’t even all that much of a sexist prick anymore, or at least his chauvinism is slightly more benign (“kid, the thing you gotta understand about women is…”). And compare the machismo chatter of the X-wing pilots led by Poe (“here we go, light em up, give em all you got!” in your best Jarhead voice) to the square, stiff, nerdy speech of Wedge, Biggs, Porkins and company (“I can’t see em”); it’s all very punchy, post-Iraq-wars-films era dialogue in the new film.  It makes me think that despite all the obvious retro-gazing, there really is a lot that is new about it.  Perhaps the fixed ideas of Star Wars can be thought of as a kind of half-palimpsest on which JJ and Co. painted a newer, post-millenial picture.  (Perhaps they could also be thought of as a way of selling as much needless shit as possible, but you'll find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.) 

The new actors were very good, for the most part, much better I think than in the reprised roles. I had problems with John Boyega’s Finn, but they were not all really the actor’s fault. There were a few moments when I thought he wasn’t up to the task; look at him when Han dies, it’s like JJ was shouting at him from off set, “act John, yeah, that’s it, ACT!”.  And how does a clone warrior, stolen from his family at an early age, with presumably no normal upbringing or adult social life, develop that personality? I would have thought that FN-whatever-the-number-is would resemble Worm from Game of Thrones in personality far more than some guy you’d actually want to hang out with. And speaking of Game of Thrones, Gwendoline Christie’s Captain Phasma was pretty well done too, even if her costume was one step in the direction of the Hello Kitty version of a storm trooper.   I’ve already mentioned how much I liked Daisy Ridley, but I’m not sure if my appreciation is down to some internal double bluff on the fact that I hate, HATE that when strong women heroines are finally cast in films, they are invariably the types that look as if they’ve been feed on carrots and pea juice for the last ten years.  This is obviously not Ridley's fault - she is who she is - and I'm definitely wary of becoming yet another man trying to police womens' appearances in films, but I also have to recognise that for me, in order for this heroine to be truly progressive, they'd have done better casting Gwendoline Christie, who is an amazingly healthy and formidable looking person, and definitely looks like she could take Adam Driver in a fight. Actually, this is one way that we may have even regressed as a society. Carrie Fisher didn’t fit the wafer thin mint bill, but Natalie Portman sure did. Yeah, I remember the metal bikini, but somehow that seems more excusable than the action striptease of Portman’s Amidala in that god-awful “Menace” film. GRR  (Breathe, don’t give into hate.)

Anyway, that’s about all I got. My point is still this:  I love, love, love those films, I really do (except the prequels).   But I’ve developed too many critical abilities to not recognise just how truly terrible they are in so many ways. The Force Awakens was never going to be any different for me. In the short time since its release, I've witnessed grown men, hands clasped, jumping up and down gleefully squeeling about the reclamation of their childhood, and I've seen folks in a sour mood over the fact that this film is just a shallow marketing exericse (unlike the all the other ones?).  Calm down folks, let's wait and see what happens in Episode VIII, The Force Has Breakfast.