After the success, the backlash. The new Star Wars film seems to be getting a lot of negative press in the US to go with its billion-dollar (so far!) box-office haul, of which the best written and best argued is probably by my old Times mucker Stephen Dalton in the Hollywood Reporter. Funnily enough, the criticisms are mostly on the mark: yes, the plot is pretty much a mish-mash of the old films; yes, the new characters are much like the old characters, with the odd gender and race swap thrown in to keep things fresh; yes, you can see the big reveals coming a parsec off.
But these things are deliberate. With all due respect, JJ Abrams didn’t make it for the critics. Nor, I believe, despite some critics’ suggestions to the contrary, did he make it cynically to swell Disney’s coffers. He made it for the fans.
Fans like himself. Fans like me.
I first saw Star Wars as a sci-fi-obsessed teenager, and it blew my mind. As the credits rolled, I vowed to make the cinema my life: I wouldn’t have gone into journalism, wanting to be a film critic, or started writing screenplays of my own, were it not for Star Wars. Later, when I discovered that Star Wars was just one part of a trilogy that itself was part of a projected trilogy of trilogies, I literally prayed to God to spare my life until I had seen them all. [So if I drop dead round about Christmas 2019, don’t be surprised – He will have kept His side of the bargain.]
Imagine my excitement when, two long decades later, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace was released. I was still alive! I could watch the saga continue! I packed into the Odeon Leicester Square at 11pm on opening night… and fell asleep. No kidding. I was so bored that halfway through my mind shut down.
The second was marginally more fun, mostly because I got to interview George Lucas and take my equally Star Wars-mad son to the after-party. But on the whole, had I been run over by a bus on the way home, the last thought to pass through my mind would not have been fury at God for denying me the trilogy’s climax.
And so it must be with many die-hard fans. Abrams knew what we wanted – something with the same adventure, spectacle and occasional wit as the first films. And that’s what he delivered. The two young lead Londoners are both great, and Harrison Ford gets a lot more screen time than the simple cameo I had expected. And if few of the lines really zing, none of them clunk, either. Most of the joy, and the biggest cheers in the cinema (how many movies do you see which attract spontaneous cheers?), come from nostalgia. It’s half-reboot, and half-sequel. On purpose.
So no, Star Wars: The Force Awakens doesn’t have the freshness, daring and envelope-pushing of the original. How could it? Then it wouldn’t be recognisably Star Wars, it would be something sui generis. But I saw it as soon as it came out in the Odeon Leicester Square, on my own (my cinephile son turned his nose up at the idea), and had a great goofy grin plastered over my face throughout.
JJ Abrams has made exactly the film he wanted to make. And I, for one, am grateful.