Thursday, 17 December 2015

Back in Force

It’s a poignant experience revisiting childhood friends to find them older and greyer, but still very able to pick up again where you last left off.

WARNING: Mild spoilers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens follow
— read responsibly, or see the film first

<Mild spoiler warning>

This film did not leave me with the instant buzz of euphoria which Star Wars (A New Hope) did back in 1977. 
And I’m not alone, given the somewhat muted applause which The Force Awakens end credits received in a cinema packed with costumed Star Wars fans.

What I am still processing, a mere six hours later, is more complex and reminiscent of the first sequel back in 1980. It’s a mixture of the joy of seeing beloved characters again and meeting exciting new ones, the kinetic thrills crafted by a skilled, fully invested director armed with technology pushed to it’s limits, and the sting in the tail which The Empire Strikes Back delivered. 
But this time the resolution is punctuated with an implacable exclamation point, rather than a hopeful question mark.

What at times seemed a playful and almost self-knowing reworking of the beats of the first film, a droid carrying an important message, a gifted youth propelled from a backwater planet into a galactic conflict, a masked villain and a vast super-weapon with an Achilles heel, is transformed by this plot turn into far more profound drama.

But despite the spoiler warning I won’t dwell on the end of the film (I went in with no idea what was going to happen and I sincerely wish everyone else can too) but focus instead on the new hope which The Force Awakens brings.

Our new characters Rey, Finn and BB8.
The new characters are instantly watchable, particularly Daisy Ridley as Rey, who not only brings balance to the woefully male-centric Star Wars universe but also gives budding young female Jedi viewers a very capable and competent role model.  Ridley is a very welcome addition to the pantheon.

But the biggest delight, and recipient of the loudest applause, was the heart of the original trilogy. Weathered, but still instantly recognisable and more than capable of carrying the film’s most exciting scenes: The Millennium Falcon.

Still evading TIE fighters, most of the Falcons scenes are in broad daylight
and pretty damn spectacular.

Harrison Ford returning as Han Solo is wonderful in itself, but I was unprepared for how large a role he actually plays, still cracking the best lines from the corner of his mouth and regularly demonstrating the total inadequacy of storm trooper armour against “a good blaster by your side”.

Best of all for me was the depiction of the character.  Rather than settling down to become a responsible leader of the republic and devoted husband to Leia, as the plethora of post-Return of the Jedi novels always assumed, instead we find him returned to his original smuggler’s life: reckless, up to his neck in self-inflicted trouble and desperately improvising his way out of one tight spot to the next with a certain faithful Wookie by his side.
Despite the white hair, this is Han doing what he’s always done, because at the core of his character he will never change — He’ll never grow up and we fans probably won’t either.

Humour is a welcome factor in this film — breezy, wittily delivered lines ‘pop’ as they should, and even Threepio is allowed to be genuinely funny.  Incredibly, even our new masked villain is responsible for a couple of the most amusing sequences. He is a ‘Vader wannabe’ in every sense, and knows it.

And this brings me to one gripe.  Max Von Sydow is briefly in this film, a consummate veteran actor with serious science fiction villain form.  But instead, our ‘big bad’ is flippin’ Andy Serkis with spots on his face, bringing another artificial-looking pile of pixels to unconvincing life.  
It is even more disappointing given JJ Abrams’ stated preference to use practical character effects whenever possible.  However, this is mitigated slightly by the fact that we do have a convincing and endearing CGI character elsewhere in this film.

Old meets new behind the scenes of this photo shoot for Vanity Fair.
But the rest of The Force Awakens fairly glows with the love, attention and respect for the original trilogy heaped upon it.  I knew this would be the case when I saw the last sentence of the traditional justified-text introductory crawl ending with a grammar-busting four ellipses, followed by the downward pan to a nearby planet and the rumbling entrance of an Imperial Star Destroyer.

"freedom to the galaxy, dot, dot, dot - and dot."
So we’ve had the best ‘the greatest hits album’ ever as an early Christmas present, and now the next films are tasked with showing us exciting new things which can be done in the Star Wars universe.

The Stormtroopers are actually precise shots in this film - but so is Chewie.

The Force Awakens is a film I thoroughly enjoyed a few hours ago, but which I know I will love when I see it again.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Death Stars

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