A long long time ago in a galaxy far far away, dashing resistance pilot Poe Dameron (18” figure £25 from John Lewis) inputs a secret map into his BB8 droid (plush toy £33, Debenhams). Soon, new look Stormtroopers, (morphsuit £49.99 from Escapade fancy dress) commanded by Kylo Ren (bobblehead £10.99 from Zavvi) destroy this Jakku village (Hot Wheels Jakku playset sadly only available in USA).
As well as highlighting the ridiculous merchandising empire that is built around what is essentially a series of sci-fi films whose best days were thirty years ago, this merch runthrough highlights the experience of watching this film. It often feels like a child painstakingly trying to recreate the original Star Wars with his toys, embellishing certain aspects that he finds cool.
Which in effect is exactly what director J.J. Abrams has done. With Star Wars such an incredible cultural force, and the last attempt at sequels universally derided, he really had no option but to play safe and go back to basics, working out what worked about A New Hope and Empire (though not Jedi that film is crap) and replicating it. ‘They didn’t want Phantom Menace and do want A New Hope’ Abrams seems to think to himself, ‘well I’ll goddamn give them A New Hope, plot and all’.
In effect, this means that everything that is great about those two films is here. We have the stunning visuals of the original, with its galaxies created around the idea (revolutionary in 1977) that the universe should look lived-in. In fact, images like Rey standing in the shadow of a felled AT-AT and the opening shot of the Star Destroyer passing over a moon or planet show what this film could have been, a film that took the ruins of the franchise and spun something new in the shadow of it, instead of taking the decades-old AT-AT and trying to make it run on the fuel it still has.
If everything great about Star Wars is present and correct, so too is every failing of the franchise. The characters are pre-New Hollywood (which film fans will remember Star Wars basically killed), all broad strokes of either black or white characterisation. Take Finn (John Boyega, whose only emotion in this film is a shade of bewilderment) as an example. The idea of a stormtrooper-turned-good is a fascinating idea for a character or even a whole film, but The Force Awakens does absolutely nothing with it. Basically, he’s bad up until the point that he’s good, and then he’s good for all time. When met with stormtroopers in battle, he is able to indiscriminately slaughter them without any guilt despite the fact that these are people just like him who he has grown up with. That’s straight-up sociopath behaviour, but the film fails to acknowledge the fascinating degrees of light and shade inherent in this character. While they had Harrison Ford, they could have done a lot of good by looking at his far superior sci-fi epic set in a lived in future-past, Blade Runner.
There are, however, some improvements. Abrams’ Star Wars-verse is far more ethnically and gender diverse, which is a good thing for those who didn’t want an uprising of Tumblr Social Justice Warriors. Rey (Daisy Ridley) is an action heroine up there with Ripley, though not quite at Furiosa levels of greatness (not the only way this film pales in comparison to Fury Road). Plus, Oscar Isaac and Adam Driver do great work that makes you feel sad that they have sold out to blockbusters this early in their already great careers. Driver particularly adds a much needed vulnerable streak that stops Kylo Ren from being just a Vader clone, a Star Wars equivalent of Björn Again or Fake That, and Isaac out Han Solos Han Solo as Dameron. He also does young Harrison Ford-like characters far better than Chris Pratt did with his Indiana Jones knock-off in Jurassic World.
All in all, The Force Awakens is a good film. It’s fine. It does enough to put the franchise back on track and justify the existence of the legion of sequels already in production. It sits comfortably as the third best Star Wars film, but it’s not like the competition was stiff there. More than anything, though, it does a great job of selling toy lightsabers, remote control BB8s and action figures, which is pretty much what anyone at the studio was hoping for.