Saturday, 26 December 2015

STAR FUCKING WARS

My memories of the 1999 release of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace are numerous but hazy: there was definitely a lot of hype, and for some reason I remember the guy who played Darth Maul (Ray Park?) doing a lot of telly promo (surely Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor and Natalie Portman must have done some as well..?? I genuinely don't remember them doing any) and I remember that the conventional cultural wisdom that it was awful was definitely not formed straight away… but I don't feel like I was overwhelmed by excitement and I don't think I saw it at the cinema upon release (this despite having gone to see all three rereleased editions of the originals a couple of years beforehand) though when I started uni I did catch it at some random cinema in Leeds that I never went to again.

That was almost half my lifetime ago, but I feel like the film was treated differently to Episode VII: The Force Awakens not because it was a long time ago (in a university far far away) but because the (perversely reflective) cultural narrative of the original trilogy being degraded by the prequels and needing redemption via a new, younger generation had not yet been established.

With The Force Awakens I'm fascinated by the extent to which we – and I certainly include myself – find ourselves wishing to believe in the greatness of what is nominally the least cool sort of art going, the seventh film in a blockbuster SFX series of space films created by bastard evil corporate bastards Disney. People are not only excited about it but terrified of having it 'spoilered', lest the purity of the experience be contaminated for them (though as a sidenote it was probably surprisingly difficult to have a film spoilered in '99 unless somebody explicitly talked you through the plot). It's difficult to think of another artform that could elicit the equivalent reaction: there is no theatre or visual art or book that is too big for cynicism.

But maybe that's the point: the Star Wars films and series are of such monolithic scale and ubiquity – a scale and ubiquity that could only be achieved by a Hollywood blockbuster – that they can act as a form of common ground between far more members of the human race than any other medium could hope for.

Maybe that's not quite right: they represent the IDEAL of a meaningful shared experience between all of us, the hope or promise that their appeal lies not in series of weary, familiar, loud, button-pushing gestures a la so many blockbusters, but because they have heart and imagination and even a degree of depth: their appeal is 'of value' compared to Michael Bay-style garbage. (On a sort of connected sidenote: my friend Andy is a live artist who sees and curates an intimidating amount of experimental theatre and roundly despises every mainstream theatre show I take him to – admittedly I tend to deliberately take him to shit ones – but he absolutely fucking loves the films of Kevin Costner. He's explained to me that a lot of the appeal lies in the essential charm of Costner's unswerving, all-American, everyman decency – he doesn't have much acting range, but what range he has connects with large numbers of people in a positive way: you feel enriched rather than manipulated after watching Costner be Costner).

And at the very least it's difficult to regard the Star Wars with serious antipathy. All of them are a lot better than probably 95% of films with the equivalent or higher budgets, they have wonderful characters, the vivid palette of quirky aliens in the original trilogy in particular is just gloriously imaginative, and if only by dint of its cultural ubiquity the notion of 'The Force' feels like an acceptable reclaimation of the idea that goodness, decency, etc is something to be aspired to that's not couched in either schmaltz or religion.

It genuinely delighted me when esteemed theatre blogger and professional cynic Andrew Haydon – admittedly a lot cheerier these days – did a Facebook status update that simply ran 'Star Wars seen!! :)' – because if he's not going to be cynical about Star Wars, then maybe part of its appeal is that it exists as a thing that none of us need to be cynical about, or if we are cynical about certain aspects of it – ie Disney – then the grand sum of Star Wars is somehow removed from all this.

PERVERSELY, it's the very scale of the Star Wars love has sort of brought out my obsessive need to devil's advocate, not least for the poor benighted (smash hit, multimillion dollar) prequels. I remember when I first started getting into REM in about 1997 and there was a sort of underlying received wisdom that Monster wasn't very good – it had sold a truckload of copies but it became a bargain bin staple shortly thereafter. As this was the pre-streaming age and I didn't have much money I think I probably put off getting it for something like two years because of its reputation, which was stupid because it is a fucking righteous album. A lot better in fact than The Phantom Menace, but MY FUCKING POINT OKAY is that I think it's pretty rare that the cultural narrative wherein a hitherto beloved artist or series of works suddenly loses all merit – especially when people appear to have only decided this in retrospect – is entirely accurate.

I rewatched the second two prequels recently and they're not horrible: grandiose and overblown and rambling and a bit CGI-shiny and with crappy dialogue, but I liked (most) of the characters, the fights are genuinely remarkable, and Revenge of the Sith has a pretty cracking story and could probably be described as a pretty successful film. Moreover, despite often shooting himself in the foot with a needlessly elaborate CGI-rendered space cannon, it does at least feel that George Lucas has a story to tell (even if much of it doesn't kick in until Sith).

So I feel a bit mistrustful of the new narrative PREQUELS BAD! NEW FILM BRILLIANT because ultimately there are flaws with the new film that are in some respects as palpable as those in the prequels. Also the third coming of Star Wars feels like a special cultural moment at present: I'm genuinely curious as to how all this goodwill holds up in a decade's time, when we'll have had at least four further Disney Star Wars films foisted upon us.

I suppose my conclusion is that I'm delighted Star Wars is back, but I'm torn between awe at its cynicism-levelling qualities and wanting to participate in the love in, and a desire to equivocate a bit without actually spoiling either my fun or anybody else's.

I want to be cynical, but I want to do so with love.

(Is that just the definition of a critic?).

SOME THINGS I LIKED ABOUT THE FORCE AWAKENS

1. It is very good for charmingly random incidental aliens. You could call it all a homage to the original films but obviously require imagination in their own right. Favourites include the massive mega-pig thing that butted Finn away from a water trough, and teh sort of hysterically ponderous scavenger dude who captures the droid BB8 in a net early on.
1b. It is quite good for charmingly random cameos from British theatre actors. Kate Fleetwood as a Star Destroyer pilot! Harriet Walter as a twinkly-eyed medic who humours Chewie about his injuries! It's fun rather than that that sort of 'oh, those poor Brit actors scrabbling for work in an American film.'
2. I like how director JJ Abrams has this eye for looking at the original world and asking 'what if?'. Much as I'm a bit iffy about his relentless post-modernism/self-referencing, a lot of his more compelling ideas – what if we got to meet the person under a Stormtrooper's mask? What if we saw inside a Tie-Fighter? What if we saw a Star Destroyer crashed down to earth? – kind of riff on the originals in an interesting way, zooming in disorientatingly rather than blowing everything up to alienating immensity.
3. Adam Driver is very good. You kind of feel like the character has a bit of coming together to do in the next film to really make sense, but Driver is great as this vulnerable, petulant, not-quite-psychopath.
4. The CGI is good. Much as it's been billed as some sort of return to brass tacks, you can't not use CGI in a modern film and a lot of it is beautiful: the X-Wings hovering in over the spray of the lake is an amazing, imaginative imaginary shot, while the visual realisation of Starkiler Base almost gets around the general silliness of Starkiller Base.
5. It is funny in the right way. If there was one area the prequels unquestionably fucked up it was in the (ironically Disney-ish) deployment of crass light relief characters. Here people just get decent one-liners - huzzah!

SOME THINGS I DIDN'T LIKE ABOUT THE FORCE AWAKENS

1. It is basically a remake of A New Hope. This seems to have bothered me more than a lot of people, but it really nagged, partly because there is the sense that it's ripping up and starting again rather than attempting to carry on 'the story' in the most satisfying way possible, mostly because there's a paucity of original ideas done with the excuse of homage. I mean, there is literally no way George Lucas could have got away with effectively doing the Death Star a third time, but it's okay here because it's somebody else referencing George Lucas doing the Death Star, so that's fine. It feels like it has used homage and (light) post-modernism as a crutch – it is 'clever' because it recycles and references, but is there not an underlying jadedness to that oddly counter to the spirit of the ordiginals?
2. Starkiller Base gets stupider the more you think about it. Kind of a continuation of prev point, insofar as it only appears to exist as a homage to the Death Star. But everything about it is daft, from the physics of it to the idea that nobody had noticed to being built, to the peculiarly underwhelming way Abrams has it murder several billion people but nobody is really THAT bothered about what is by some measure the worst thing that occurs in any of the films.
3. The new good guys aren't that good. Rey is tough and competent. Poe is suave and competent. Finn is more flawed and it's a lovely performance from John Boyega, but actually he's basically a generic joker-out-of-his-depth (interesting that this is a fole often given to black dudes) and much less interesting than he could have been given the character's background. Everyone's just a bit polished, like they're all professional heroes, unlike the dynsfunctional original bunch.
4. There is almost no sense of time passing. People just appear straight away in whatever part of the galaxy is convenient to them, which didn't happen in the original. (UPDATE: As my friend Jim pointed out, it rather undermines the notion of stuff happening on backwater planets, give you seem to literally be able to get anywhere in less time than my daily commute). And while you might explain that as some blah to do with hyperdrive, the final scene is ridiculous: Starkiller Base is blowing up, with the strong suggestion that it's taken about two minutes to do so, but a single line of dialogue – Snoke telling Hux to pick up Kylo/Ben and leave – seems to confidently suggest the bad guys have more than enough time to escape while failing to in any way suggest how this was possible.
5. It aspires to importance bit is often pretty stoopid. Thanks largely to the fanatically secretive launch, The Force Awakens has probably elicited the most obsessively anti-spoiler cult of any cinematic release ever, which gives the feel that its contents are all terribly significant. And I can't help but feel this air of faux-significance has given the moments of sloppiness – that surely wouldn't have been that hard to fix – a free pass. The most glaring bit is the finding of Luke's lightsaber (so glaring they have to acknowledge it), but stuff like Poe's survival and reappearance, Rey's rapid acquisition of superpowers, all the bad guys escaping at the end, EVERYTHING ABOUT STARKILLER BASE is borderline Michael Bay stoopid, but it's been let off the hook BECAUSE WE WANT TO BELIEVE. And maybe that's as it should be, I just can't help but feel the most anticipated film of all time could have been slightly better with minimal effort. Still. It's a larf like.

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