The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Star Wars: Before and After

Written by Isabel Rhodes.

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Don’t get me wrong it is awesome. It’s super awesome. It is directed by 2015’s most awesome director who did an awesome remake of Star Trek and stars one of the most awesome iconic actors as one of the most awesome iconic characters. It has awesome robots, awesome scenery and awesome dialogue. Finn is awesome. BB-8 is awesome. Poe Dameron is uber awesome with awesome on top. It is so awesome in fact that it looked at today’s most awesome TV Show (Game of Thrones), took one of its most awesome characters (Brienne of Tarth) and basically put her in the armour of the Original Trilogy’s most awesome supporting character (Boba Fett). But Star Wars - until all the Nerds grew up and started making films and the Hipsters decided the 1970s is now retro - never used to be awesome. It starred Mark Hamill for god’s sake and was about a moisture farmer with pet robots who got adopted by a monastic space grandpa. I remember going to see the re-release at the age of 12 and being legitimately embarrassed on behalf of all the actual grownups around me. These were films in which Rebel pilots were not hot bundles of amazing but all looked sort of like your Dad and were wearing orange jumpsuits before they were the orange jumpsuits from Star Wars. Han managed to be cool by sheer force of casting Harrison Ford but he spent all three films looking either confused or annoyed by everything that was going on around him. At no point did any of the Prequel Trilogy try to be cool. They weren’t self-aware, they weren’t hip, they weren’t knowing: they were wonderfully earnest, and I love them for it. I love the fact that, instead of being retro vinyl, Episodes I-III accepted that they were in the age of the CD and included scenes of magic Space Monks in Space Robes walking around a Space Temple and talking about Space politics. I also liked all of those things. I liked the shiny planets better than the moisture farm and I liked Ewan McGregor’s Obi Wan Kenobi better than Alec Guinness’. And not in an ironic its-so-bad-its-good sort of way, I mean I actually really liked them because, like a lot of things that fail to be awesome, they also managed to have actual ideas.

For one thing the Prequel Trilogy was different. Their problem wasn’t what they were trying to do or the direction they took the saga in; their problem was that they were massively uneven films who had one dreadful Anakin and one wobbly one, and thought that “from my point of view the JEDI are EVIL” is an acceptable line of dialogue. Yes there was too much green-screen, yes you are better off skipping the middle section of Phantom Menace, yes you can actually see Ewan McGregor trying to not die inside as he says the words “security”, “hologram” and “younglings”. But they also fell victim to an onslaught by Generation Simon Pegg who were so busy showing off about being in the cinema when Han shot first and there was no pink in the galaxy (seriously one planet with girl-themed sunsets and Gen X has an aneurysm) that they failed to realise that Revenge of the Sith is by a clear mile the best film of the lot and that the Ewoks are worse than Jar Jar. Yes, worse. Much, much, worse.

As well as being genuinely beautiful in their own ridiculous way Episodes I-III had a massively underrated set of balls to it, being prepared to realise that they were made in a very different world to their predecessors and being prepared to be very different films. Some of that manifested in the CGI-addiction that was responsible for Jar Jar and Watto (although FFS Yoda fighting was amazing and General Grievous had four lightsabers. Four. Lightsabers. You actually just can’t please some people). But the rest of it manifested in films that worked out that if you stop obsessing over how much better vinyl was for five minutes, you can have some actual thoughts about the era of the CD, allowing them to move us from the peppy rebels of 1977 to the outmanoeuvred politicians of 2005 with Natalie Portman’s “so this is how liberty dies, to thunderous applause” being a fairly effective assessment of Bush-era America as much as the senate in Coruscant.

There was something genuinely beautiful and sad about the films. If Episodes IV-VI stuck us on the outer rim of a rotting, wicked, Empire, then the prequels took us to the core of the Republic that had allowed itself to be lost, and showed us what it was that Palpatine and Vader had destroyed - namely a fully established, functioning, Jedi Order. And the Jedi were the shit. Like in the spirit of full disclosure I should probably say that I am actually incapable of not enjoying a scene if it is set in the Jedi Temple. To the point where, genuinely, one of my favourite bits in all of Star Wars is when Obi Wan goes to the Jedi Library to look at a Jedi Map. While I realise that probably says more about my own brain than the films, the Order as realised in the Prequels was unexpected, fascinating, and sad.

Luke spent three films fighting to restore the Jedis, the only representative of whom were unambiguously-good, aged, Grandpas. The prequels showed us bad-ass warriors and, with graceful momentum, took them from the untouchable law-enforcers of Phantom, through the compromising politicians of Clones, and finally the defeated soldiers of Revenge of the Sith. There was a sense throughout the trilogy that the Jedi were losing a consensus on what a Jedi should be in a world in which they were increasingly out of step. Obi Wan was a big ball of lovely but the films saw him move from do-gooding Padawan to a military general and, let’s not forget, ended with him chopping the arms and legs off Anakin and leaving the closest thing he had to family to burn alive [spoiler: he didn’t]. The internet might reduce Obi Wan vs. Anakin to one line of bad dialogue but that fight was more interesting than anything The Force Awakens has to offer. Fusty Obi Wan physically beats the Chosen One by being a better military strategist and winning the literal high ground. He even spells it out for Anakin (there is a lot of that in this film) but the dialogue that ends the scene is graceful in its simplicity: “You were the chosen one! It was said that you would destroy the Sith, not join them. You were to bring balance to the force, not leave it in darkness”.

Any knowingness in the films is in service of Anakin’s journey to Darth Vader and while monumentally dreadful at times (Obi Wan: “Why do I get the feeling you’re going to the death of me?”, Anakin: “Don’t say that Master”, Audience: “are you fucking serious?”), it creates a sense of inevitability that underlines the fact that though the Jedi might be made of awesome they will fail. Badly. Like, spectacularly badly. Qui-Gon is blinded by his faith in the prophecy and seals his own Padawan’s fate when he death-rattle-guilt-trips Obi Wan into training Anakin (low blow dude); Mace Windu is too willing to compromise; the Council are too busy fighting a war on the outskirts of the Galaxy to pay attention to what is happening in the centre; and Yoda himself both entirely fails to notice he has been sitting in the office of a Sith Lord for the past 15 years and then fails to defeat him when the penny finally drops. Said failure also results in Yoda getting blasted by Force Lighting and the sight of his smoking Jedi-Pyjamas is the most heartbreaking thing I have ever seen in all of cinema. Then there is poor Anakin cracking under the pressure of being Prophecy-Boy and descending into brain-melt over the prospect of losing the people he loves and seeking counsel off Yoda who, bound by Jedi dogma, can only offer the sterling advice of “Everything dies dude *shrug*”, creating the sense that the Chosen One had been handed a task at which he could never succeed. Anakin’s fall to the Dark Side was rooted in admittedly limited acting but also in the context of the world he lived in - where the Jedi were entirely complicit in both his and their own downfall. Kylo Ren’s fall to the Dark Side is rooted in admittedly much better acting, but he is allowed no more context than “family issues” and “this shit happens in Star Wars y’all” because the world he lives in is from another movie.

Running parallel to all of this there was Palpatine, having a whale of a time and getting himself where he wanted to be by funding the separatists, manipulating the Jedi, and using Jar Jar Binks to overthrow democracy. Rad. Admittedly he is spectacularly unsubtle, degenerating into full mondo-cackling force-lightning pantomime villain by the end of Sith. But, for the record, a pantomime villain who gets you to vote him into power, gets you to vote to solidify that power, gets you to build him a clone army, and then wipes you out with that army, is infinitely more interesting than a pantomime villain who basically stamps “Dark Side Inc.” on his insignia (seriously Hollywood there are other shorthands for “authoritarian regime of dreadful” beyond black and red flags and one armed salutes) and then nukes an entire Galaxy for no other reason than neither he nor the writers can be bothered to work out what’s in it. Because, while fanboys howled with outrage over the new shiny Star Wars with pink skies and curvy spacecraft, the clash in aesthetic and tone between the two trilogies not only created meaning but added an impressive sense of momentum to the newer films as the balance of power tipped steadily towards Palpatine, and the Galactic status quo inverted.

Jar Jar Binks, destroyer of worlds
Jar Jar Binks, destroyer of worlds

The only momentum Force Awakens is interested in is in circling around A New Hope’s navel to the point where it actually has the same plot - from frustrated-genius-pilot-on-sand-planet, through usb-in-droid, Darth-Mask-interrogation, farewell-Alderaan, to “Rebel Leader to base”-dogfight and “I was but the learner”-standoff. In fact, it was so unrelentingly similar that I wasted actual minutes of my life trying to work out how that was clever and did a thing that said a thing about some form of thing before giving up and admitting that what it actually was was meh.

Say what you will about the Prequels but every film had a planet that introduced us to something completely new. From Naboo and Coruscant through Geonosis and Kamino and even Mustafar at the end, each deepened the mythology in some way: whether introducing senators or the senate, separatists, clone armies or the Jedi Order themselves. Each was also filled with things I had never seen in Star Wars before: ships that went underwater, cities that were underwater, cities that were giant planets, Jedi Temples and Jedi Libraries, double bladed lightsabres and crazy space senator hair.

Force Awakens has nothing new. Not a single thing. It has a planet that looks like Tatooine, a planet that looks like Hoth, a planet that looks like Endor, and a planet that looks like Coruscant (woo hoo!) for about fifty seconds before they blow it up (oh.). Beyond that it has a triple-bladed lightsaber, mega x-wings, mega imperial destroyers, mega TIE-fighters and a mega massive Death Star planet (Return of the Jedi having already repurposed the Death Star into a mega Death Star) so they can wipeout the entire Good Guy Republic in one go and spare anybody the problem of having to come up with something different. Jeez: if I had any emotional investment in the New Republic or the first idea what it actually was I would be really quite upset by that. Its fine though - because there’s Chewbacca and he’s going ROooooaruuuuuurghhhhhhh. AWESOME.

“AWESOME” ends up becoming the story of Force Awakens, or rather “AWESOME - THIS IS THE AWESOME SORT OF STAR WARS, Look there’s Han Solo!!! Everybody loves him!!!... oh dear.” I know it’s less embarrassing to say Harrison Ford is cool than it is to be genuinely interested in the administrative procedure of the Galactic Senate but Harrison Ford being cool should be incidental to Star Wars, not the actual plot of it. Even if you don’t have a problem with a film about how cool Harrison Ford is, at least have a problem with the fact that that is just bleak because all it does is prove that no one today is as awesome and the 21st Century equivalent of Darth Vader is the disturbingly well-cast Adam-From-Girls. Which, among many other issues, means I now have to think of Lena Dunham when I watch Star Wars, and nobody deserves that.

Weirdly, despite said Han-love-in, no one is particularly bothered that he was killed off, myself included. It’s like we all saw him hobble his way around the Millennium Falcon and agreed it was for the best. And it is! It’s very smart. But where is the value in a story if you can be so cool and distanced from it that everyone’s favourite character gets lightsabered in the chest and thrown off a bridge and you can think “gosh yes, that is rather clever and necessary to move the franchise forward”. It would be like staring into Frodo’s decimated face outside Moria and thinking “yes, that was the right decision, the loss of Gandalf will allow for some necessary conflicts to be set up within the Fellowship”. You are supposed to be sad! You remember sadness JJ - it’s in the bit of your brain that operates all the emotions beyond “oh cool”.

Most frustratingly, while the Prequels had the balls to flip the status quo and move the saga from the outskirts of the galaxy to its core, Episode VII sets up a galaxy that isn’t even infinitesimally different to that of A New Hope, undoing the entire plot of the original trilogy in the process. Han is still a scoundrel, Luke is still sulking on a deserted planet and not returning the Jedi, and Leia is still with the rebellion even though no one is entirely clear on why the bloody hell it is the rebellion when the rebellion was won already. I mean seriously, who are they rebelling against? The government is on their side! Doesn’t that make the First Order the rebellion? You literally cannot be the rebellion and the government at the same time. That is not a thing you can do. Somewhere there is a more interesting film in which they admitted that fact and Leia’s government was attacked by First Order rebels. But I suspect that got lost under the desire to run screaming from anything that resembled the Prequels, and the desire to have a space base on a planet that looks a bit like Endor and a snow fight on a space base that looks a bit like Hoth won out in the end.

The film didn’t piss me off because they killed Han, it pissed me off because it refused to go to Coruscant or even acknowledge that it exists. Marooning us in the territory of A New Hope with the rebels and introducing the next fully-formed Regime O’Evil means Force Awakens doesn’t have to come up with a single idea about the state of the galaxy or remotely care. Instead it slaps on A New Hope like an iphone with a cassette-tape cover, shoving us back on the rim again for no other reason than its more legit to like Tatooine than it is to like Naboo and reverting to the status quo means that you can remake Episode IV without ever worrying that Attack of the Clones happened.

Maybe in the same way “do you ever wonder if we’re on the wrong side” was the Star Wars of George Bush the, “we won but nothing changed” school of thought would be appropriate to the Star Wars of Obama. But in the film’s pathological fear of anything that even remotely echoes the Prequels (including politicians, politics, talking about politics, planets where politics happens and an interest in the bits of the galaxy that aren’t a rebel base or a Death Star), we’ll never know.

One exception to this is the fledgling idea of concentrating on the little guys, or the guys who, as John Boyega puts it, “would have been extras in other Star Wars films”. Rey has to deal with the same look-of-destiny that dogged Anakin and Luke but Finn and Poe are ordinary in really interesting ways. They are funny and likable and choosing to have a Stormtrooper and an X-Wing pilot as two of your central characters also raises the possibility of explori… oh sorry, something else just fell out of the sky and blew up. Nevermind. Anyway, as awesome as their inclusion is, the manner in which it is executed is more about riffing on the conventions of Star Wars-the-genre than deepening your understanding of the universe. (Also Finn completely forgets the fact that he was raised in a military test tube with only fellow brainwashed soldiers for company after about two scenes so probably so should we.)

It feels a little bit like Star Wars has fallen down the same wormhole that Skyfall fell down after it worked out that Quantum of Solace was incomprehensible crap. Casino Royale impressively updated Bond, acknowledging that the Pierce Brosnan-variety probably couldn’t exist in a world with Jack Bauer, and giving us a very death-of-history type villain who, rather than being an ideological warmonger with a satellite of diamonds, was a banker for terrorists who had gambled away all their money. Skyfall got itself all freaked out and ended up being about putting James Bond back in a James Bond movie to the point where I wanted to beat to death Dame Judy with an Aston Martin and never hear another Tennyson poem again. Now Disney have the SW franchise I am sure there must be pressure to make it endlessly repeatable and there is a particularly annoying millennial way of doing that where, like Doctor Who or Sherlock, the plot ceases to use your characters to explore an awesome world and story but uses the world to explore how awesome your characters are, and, by extension, your own franchise. George Lucas, for all his faults, never rolled about in Star Wars-the-genre to the point where he lost Star Wars-the-story. Stories, Hollywood, remember those - the things with the beginnings and the middles and the ends.

When you stop the story the world becomes static: Emperors fall and immediately get replaced; Stormtroopers are forever lining up in hanger bays; The Jedi are always rising but never returning; and Rebels are permanently in dogfights with Death Stars on the outer rim. The only thing that changes is the face of the actor you are doing a close up of until the whole thing just starts to be like Sugababes: The Space Opera [wouldn’t you just pay to see that though].

Maybe I’ve just broken and am totally oversaturated by a cultural output in which all of us - Generations X to the Millennials, JJ Abrams to DJ Yoda and Buzzfeed - seem to be totally incapable of saying anything other than ‘ZOMFG - we used to watch THIS as a kid”. And maybe I am being impatient and I need to chill - accept that this is the first part of the trilogy and if the prequels moved the Jedi from Coruscant to Tatooine then these might ultimately move them back again. But I suspect not. Because the cool kids don’t like Episodes I-III and Episode VIII is being directed by the dude that made Jurassic Park IV - the entire plot of which (with the exception of one slightly bizarre stab at weaponised velociraptors) is basically REMEMBER HOW AWESOME THE T.REX WAS IN 1993.

<i>Jurassic World</i>: When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth, again
Jurassic World: When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth, again

Fundamentally, although I get that Force Awakens is a well-made film, I just can’t see the point of it. For all their faults the prequels avoided being a self-congratulatory Bond franchise with endless iterations and tropes and clever twists on those tropes and iterations so everyone can have fun with how well we know them all and how much we love the originals (don’t do the joke that says that that’s just because the prequels avoided being fun or clever, just don’t). I understand that you could probably make a clever point about how that is just moving the films closer to the Saturday morning sequels that the original franchise drew so heavily upon, but I think that is failing to understand why the original films were popular in the first place. Admittedly I haven’t exactly researched reception around Star Wars circa 1977 but I would put money on the fact that the appeal wasn’t “hey this is a clever repurposing of all that vintage stuff from the 1950s that I spent Saturday morning watching as a kid”. I think it was far less knowing than that and far less cool. I think people loved it because people love myths and Star Wars told a cracking one.

They had plenty of moments that were outright crap, but the Prequel Trilogy, to their credit, were trying to do something other than be a clusterfuck of retro nerd-chic: they were also a beautifully earnest attempt to build mythology about a universe that at its worst was Jar Jar Binks and midichlorians [disclaimer: I actually have no problem with midichlorians. Sorry, I know I am supposed to. But I don’t care. I think they are fine.] but at its best was the Jedi Order and the Clone Wars and cities that were entire planets.

The new films have the potential to continue a story that was started in 1977 and build on an actual mythology, but Force Awakens is too busy being cool and ignoring what happened in the Prequels to be remotely interested in doing that. I’m not saying Episodes I-III were Dostoyevsky (although, you have to admit, from Anakin’s point of view the Jedi are evil) but they expanded the world, set up exactly what had been lost when Palpatine finally got his empire, and explored the framework that allowed all of that to happen. And, presumably, the framework that the rebels would have to deal with should Disney ever let the rebellion end [spoiler: they won’t]. And, for the record, I would take a conversation about sand over the self-referential orgy that was Miles-from-Lost discussing how to blow up a Death Star any day of the week. Because sand, at least, was about something other than the fact that this is a Star Wars film.

The Force Awakens is an awesome film: it’s witty, the dialogue is clever, and the new characters are super likable. But it is also the filmic equivalent of Damon Lindelof’s Bantha Tracks T-shirt or Spaced going off at the kid who tried to rent Phantom Menace; where Lightsabers and TIE-fighters are no longer part of epic storytelling - they are just awesome. The overall result is a film that falls down a wormhole of smug and ends up with emotional stakes so low that I ultimately feel more upset about random Jedi no.4 being shot in the back by Clone Troopers than I do by Han Solo being lightsabered in the chest by his own son. Maybe in a weird sort of way they are about the 2015 then. Because as the internet eats itself I can sit in the cinema watching a Star Wars character played by an actor who played a Star Wars fan in a show made by another Star Wars fan who is now making a Star Wars film about Star Wars films and using it to reference, in Star Wars, his show that referenced Star Wars. Thus causing my brain to collapse and The Future to give up trying to happen entirely, flinging itself off the bridge after Han… awesome.

This article was published on December 30, 2015.