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Abrams makes “Star Wars” his own

His new movie is the best in the series since “The Empire Strikes Back”

Tom Shone | December 19th 2015

The director J.J. Abrams was 11 when the first “Star Wars” came out, and a fan. But that is not enough to make a movie. And “Star Wars” is not just any other film, but the original megafranchise in whose image the entire film industry has remade itself. In agreeing to make the latest instalment in the series, Abrams took on an entertainment calculus of almost fiendish complexity: satisfy the original fans (including himself), for whom any sequel amounts to a reboot of their childhoods; appeal to a new generation of fans who may well have never seen a “Star Wars” movie; resuscitate the franchise in a way that leaves room for all the forthcoming films Disney has lined up — oh, and bring the whole thing off with something of the original’s heart, humour and esprit de corps.  

Let’s get verdicts out of the way: “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is probably the best in the series since “The Empire Strikes Back”. It is first-rate entertainment, fast and funny, yet filled with the prickly, goosebump-inducing sense of fate a saga like this needs, and also surprisingly moving. Indeed, Abrams is pretty much peerless in channeling our collective warmth for past pop culture. He has made five films so far — “Mission Impossible 3”, “Star Trek”, “Star Trek 2: Into Darkness”, “Super 8” and now this — two sequels, two reboots and one homage to his mentor, Steven Spielberg. His hit reel is a mass of other men’s copyrights. Somewhere between a remixer and a cover artist, he is expert at smuggling his virtues into the pre-existing grooves of others’ formats and franchises. And yet you know a J.J. Abrams movie when you see it – the dynamic framing, the unfakeable sense of pep and optimism, the fascination with mystery-box plots in which characters stumble out of aliases and into their true vocation. The identity crisis of multitaskers: it’s a very Abrams theme. 

It’s the theme, too, of “The Force Awakens”, which is full of track-switchers, unexpected alliances, reinventions, sudden reveals. The experience of watching the film is a fascinatingly novel one, almost uncanny, in the true sense of the word: to see life breathed into elements so familiar borders on the eerie, like seeing a puppet move by itself. It’s magic in its purest form. Here they all are, the old tropes. The sand planet. The hot-shot pilot. The father set against the son. The opportunist who may or may not grow a conscience. But they are all seen from pleasingly unfamiliar angles. Lucas pretty much exhausted the typology of planets — ice, water, snow, desert — so Abrams wisely seeks out new contexts for the key pieces of eye candy: lightsabers in rain, X-Wings churning up spray over a lake, the Millennium Falcon skimming sand, and Imperial Star Destroyers rusting in the desert. He’s a master defamiliariser. 

One of the smartest decisions he and his screenwriters, Michael Arndt and Lawrence Kasdan, have made is to set the events of the original “Star Wars” in a mythic, much-talked-about pre-history, thus echoing the misty-eyed reverence many of us feel towards the original films. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has vanished, leaving everyone guessing why. Han Solo (Harrison Ford) has fallen back into his mercenary ways. “They talk about what happened,” says Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger on the junkyard planet of Jakku who is essentially the new Luke, a newbie whose introduction to the ways of the Force will doubtless form the dramatic spine of the new movies. It was clever of Abrams to centre them around a woman — Ridley has spit and vigour and an appealingly fanged grin — thus removing at a stroke the suspicion that “Star Wars” was the ultimate toy for boys. The Force, it turns out, is female. 

Abrams works quickly and efficiently to cultivate affection for and between his characters: between Rey and Solo, between Finn (John Boyega), a rogue stormtrooper who has defected, and the resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) who helps him. Resuscitating his role as Solo, the great cynic now turned true believer, Ford twines curmudgeonliness and benevolence with great skill. Indeed, the moments you remember from the film afterwards are all acting moments — little dabs of pluck, humour and impudence. You might even completely forget about the effects sequences, which are mostly deluxe versions of things we’ve already seen — a canyon run through the skeleton of a Star Destroyer; a newer, bigger Death Star — although I loved the crackle and heat of the new lightsabers. After the over-orchestrated pyrotechnic ballet of the prequels they seem deadly again: they singe and burn. 

Kasdan and Abrams have also resuscitated the great “Star Wars” tradition of having the characters spout great reams of space gibberish and not give a hoot about exposition. One scene in particular teems with talk of the “Tryillian Massacre”, “Gwardian Death Gangs” and the “Kanja Club” — all of which sound like Eighties pop bands badly in need of a hit. We don’t want context for such talk; we want to feel the wind in our hair as it flies over our heads. That, after all, was the problem with the prequels, which were gripped by a pedantic mania so colossal that Lucas seemed to be writing whole libraries about grains of sand: May the Bores be With You. The creator got lost in his own creation. 

The original “Star Wars”, of course, lacked all context, except that provided by its invocation of old genres, with elements of Western, Samurai epic, second-world-war dogfight movie, silent slapstick — all run up to light speed by a film-maker who couldn’t wait to get from one end of his newly minted galaxy to the other. “What a piece of junk!” exclaims Luke when he first sees the Millennium Falcon. “She may not look like much, but she’s got it where it counts, kid,” says Han Solo. “I’ve made a lot of special modifications myself.” Our foremost cinematic tinker and tailor, Abrams has souped up Lucas’s junk epic, given it a quick spit and polish — and made her fly again.

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