Star Wars The Force Awakens review: Revamp lost in space
The latest movie in the sci-fi saga shows Star Wars is a franchise that should have been left well alone, says Andrew Johnston.
Around Christmas 1977, unprepared for the demand for Star Wars merchandise, creator George Lucas released something called the Early Bird Certificate Package. It was basically a snazzy-looking cardboard box containing a piece of paper that could be redeemed for action figures in the New Year. The Force Awakens, the latest movie in the enduring sci-fi saga - and the first since Lucas sold the franchise to Disney for £2.5bn in 2012 - similarly looks great on the outside, but leaves you feeling somewhat cheated.
Amidst the fever-pitch excitement and canny marketing for the new picture there have been warning signs. Ignoring Lucas's unloved prequel trilogy of 1999 to 2005, the most recent Star Wars flick, 1983's Return of the Jedi, ended with the Rebel Alliance triumphant over the evil Empire. Darth Vader was dead, Luke Skywalker had become a Jedi Knight, and Han Solo and Princess Leia were in love. It was very much a cinematic full stop, So, what's the story?
The story is there is no story, or at least, not one we haven't heard before. The Force Awakens, directed by reboot specialist JJ Abrams, embarks on a quest to reprise everything audiences liked about the original trilogy.
The Force Awakens is another in the growing trend for remakes-cum-sequels. Like Jurassic World, Terminator Genisys and, er, Vacation, Abrams's movie takes whoever remains of the former cast - and here, that principally means a creaky Harrison Ford (73), as Han Solo, with lesser contributions from Carrie Fisher (59), as Leia, and Mark Hamill (64), as Luke - plonks them a few decades into the future, adds in some fresh, teen-friendly faces and essentially spins the same yarn again.
It has worked, financially - Jurassic World is currently the third biggest blockbuster of all time - and will no doubt do so again for The Force Awakens, but as a piece of satisfying filmmaking, Abrams's revamp is a flop.
What made the 1977 Star Wars so compelling was its identifiable characters, quotable lines, artfully constructed action sequences and a strong beginning, middle and end. Buried beneath undistinguished fight scenes and interminable aerial battles, The Force Awakens is all messy, meandering middle, falling over itself to insert in-jokes and fan-pleasing references at the expense of a coherent plot.
To delve any deeper would be to risk revealing spoilers, but suffice to say, Abrams's screenplay veers from cheesily dumb to an insult to the intelligence. On the positive side, John Williams's score is as stirring as you'd expect, while Dan Mindel's cinematography deserves praise. The Force Awakens is sleek and colourful, without the prequels' reliance on digital sets. Yet for a movie that has been trumpeted as a return to practical effects and costumes, there is a dispiriting amount of computer-generated creatures, and as ever, they are charmless and unconvincing.
Lupita Nyong'o's boggle-eyed space pirate Maz Kanata is poor, but Andy Serkis's Supreme Leader Snoke is astonishingly half-baked. The motion-capture actor's pre-release insistence that "you couldn't have gotten there with prosthetics" is outrageous. Not only could Serkis's villain certainly have been realised using make-up, but the Gollum-esque Snoke resembles something Peter Jackson would have scribbled on a napkin and discarded.
Meanwhile, the Darth Vader substitute, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), is another feeble effort. The black-clad bad guy is effective enough when stomping about, strangling underlings or scything them with his triple-bladed lightsaber, but when he removes his mask, he's about as menacing as Rick Moranis's Dark Helmet in the Star Wars spoof Spaceballs.
Still, Daisy Ridley, as desert scavenger Rey, proves herself an engaging screen presence, the underused Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) makes for a potent nemesis during her brief appearances, and Peter Mayhew and Anthony Daniels once again work their magic as Chewbacca and C-3PO respectively.
Without giving too much away, The Force Awakens climaxes on a daring shot that promises there is much more to come from Star Wars. It is entirely possible future entries in the series will correct the mistakes of Abrams's Episode VII, but for now, this is one franchise that should have been left to slumber.