'Secrets of the Force Awakens: A Cinematic Journey': SXSW Review

Exactly what you expect from an hourlong DVD featurette.

This rote making-of will be a fine featurette in a Blu-ray package, but what's it doing at a serious film festival?

A by-the-numbers making-of chronicling one of the most intimidating film productions of our day, Laurent Bouzereau's Secrets of the Force Awakens will be wholly acceptable as a featurette in the Blu-ray package for Star Wars Episode VII. As an offering at a serious film festival, though, it reeks of shamelessness on both sides: For Disney, taking an unneeded publicity boost at the expense of indie films seeking exposure elsewhere on the program (wasn't planting a life-sized TIE fighter in Austin this week showy enough?); and for SXSW, whose desire to have something to do with this cultural phenomenon has led it to program something with no place in the fest. As programming choices go, the forces of sell-out are strong with this one.

South by Southwest and other fests have often welcomed corporate-promo films in the guise of music docs. But often, coming on the 20th or 30th anniversary of some famous album about to get the reissue treatment, those films are far enough away from their subjects to allow for unvarnished revelations. The producer was a jerk, maybe; the drummer was too strung out to make it to the studio.

Here, interviewees might as well have had their responses vetted by Lucasfilm PR. Is it possible to respect a film about The Force Awakens in which no speaker hints, much less says openly, that the biggest creative challenge at hand was not to be as lousy as Episodes I through III? The word "prequels" pops up a single time here, when someone in the art department says working on them helped him find a sense of design continuity between the Lucas and post-Lucas films.

Then there's that gratuitously dishonest title, promising "secrets" in a film offering little if anything we don't already know. As cameras pan by pre-production art, we may be titillated to see that someone toyed with the idea of making the elder Luke Skywalker a blind man; elsewhere we learn that Poe Dameron was supposed to die early in the film, until Oscar Isaac was offered the role and objected. That's about it, unless it counts as secret that Peter Mayhew, an septuagenarian actor who'd had a knee replaced, wasn't in the Chewbacca costume during action scenes.

Complaints aside, Secrets does hold pleasures for fans of this surprisingly wonderful return to a galaxy far, far away. Some are things we saw a couple of months ago in the last Disney PR blitz: Endearing stories from John Boyega and Daisy Ridley about becoming parts of the Star Wars universe; admissions by director J.J. Abrams that, well, he was a little nervous about taking all this on. But then we get long scenes about the meticulous recreation of the Millennium Falcon; shots of puppeteers bringing BB-8 to life; the story of a superfan who built his own R2-D2 for fun and, after cornering Kathleen Kennedy at a convention, got hired to do the same for the film. In what comes as a surprise for longtime fans who've come to suspect Harrison Ford may be just a bit of a grouch, he delivers a funny anecdote about Episode IV that is a small highlight of the film.

This is all fun stuff, though you don't have to be a superfan to wish for much more technical and art-department material. For that, Lucasfilm would surely like us to remind readers, fans can always buy the DVD.

Venue: South by Southwest Film Festival (Special Events)
Director: Laurent Bouzereau
Producers: David Jessen, Brian Kwan
: Jeff Pickett

Not rated, 69 minutes


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