Wednesday 6 January 2016

Star Wars, Episode VII: The Force Awakens


You can't beat a good Star Wars film for the ultimate cinema experience. When those words flash up on-screen: "A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away," and the triumphant theme music blares around you in surround sound, with the narrative crawling up the screen: this is what the movies were made for. To watch a new Star Wars movie like that: it feels a little like living through a moment in history, a nostalgia for a time before I was born. And yes, I know I have experienced this before, but those were episodes I and III, and we don't talk about them.

Admittedly, I'm not a Star Wars obsessive. I love the films - the original trilogy, that is, I have no strong feelings about the prequels which I regard as an optional extra - but I wouldn't be able to tell you the names of many character not named in script, and I haven't read any of the Expanded Universe novels. A decade ago I argued in favour of the series in a Wars vs Trek debate with one of my friends; now I have turned to the Dark Side as this blog has documented. But it doesn't have to be an either-or thing. Star Wars is magnificant, magical storytelling at its finest.

In the promotional material for The Force Awakens, fans across the world were asking the same question: "Where's Luke?" We knew that Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher were all signed up to reprise their most famous roles in the new installment, so what was the big secret? Had Luke, dear, eager, pure Luke Skywalker turned to the Dark Side? What a punch in the gut that would be. Or perhaps, almost more unthinkable, he'd actually died in the time since Return of the Jedi and would only appear as a Force ghost...

All became clear from the start of the opening crawl. "Luke Skywalker has vanished." Well played, J.J. Well played. Out-of-universe, we'd inadvertantly been asking the same questions as the characters in-universe. Where's Luke?

Luke, who turns up only at the very end, stouter and bearded and oh so sad, and Leia - now General Organa - appear really only as cameos in this film (much like Leonard Nimoy as the elder Spock in the 2009 Star Trek reboot.) Han Solo has a bigger role,but the focus is solidly on the next generation of characters. There is Poe Dameron, the star fighter pilot in Leia's Resistance to the First Order, the new baddies. Then there is Finn, formerly known as stormtrooper FN 2187, who has defected from the Dark Side and just wants to get away, but keeps on being drawn back to danger on the planet of Jakku. Finn is lovely character, fearful yet brave, with some great moments when he tries to be all chivalrous and rescue Rey, who is quite capable of saving herself, thankyouverymuch. Rey is a resourceful, rather angry young woman who was abandoned on Jakku as a child and left to fend for herself as a scavenger on a junkyard. And it is she who is at the heart of The Force Awakens; she who fills the ordinary teenager-turned-hero role originally held by Luke (and isn't it great for little girls to have a hero of their own?)

And as for the villains. Out of the ashes of the evil Empire has risen the First Order, overruled by Supreme Leader Snoke (a giant hologram of a creature) but the face of the villains is unmistakeably Kylo Ren, who proved to be a far more intriguing and multi-faceted character than I could have imagined. I saw his image in the promotional material and said, "Seriously?!" J. J. Abrams had replaced the most iconic baddies of all time, Darth Vader, with another tall dude with a cloak and a bucket on his head?

But that's the point. Kylo Ren idolises Darth Vader - conveniently ignoring the fact that he'd switched back from the Dark Side in the end - and of course he's never going to be as impressive, or live up to Vader's memory. He is powerful with the Force, but unstable, unhinged, lacking in self-control. There's a wonderful moment where one of his minions (no, not a little yellow squeaky banana-man! Despicable Me has ruined that word forever) comes to Ren with a look of terror on his face, to confess a failure to recapture the adorable droid BB8, with its map of "where to find Luke Skywalker." Being used to Darth Vader, the minion - and the viewer - is prepared for a ruthless and speedy death. Instead, Ren turns his lightsaber onto his expensive and complicated machinary. Where Vader was cold, Ren is hot-headed, immature, dangerous yes, but not fully-grown into his power.

And Kylo Ren does have a lot of power. How could he not? For before he wore the mask and took on the name Kylo Ren, he was simply Ben. Ben Solo, son of Han and Leia, nephew to Luke, grandson of Darth Vader himself. As a trainee Jedi, he turned on the rest of his class and slaughtered them all, it seems, causing a devastated Luke to disappear to an unknown planet. But what could have happened to turn the son of our heroes to the Dark Side? What kind of parents were Han and Leia? Could they have done anything to prevent his fall? Ren's commitment to the Dark is not absolute; we see him wrestle with the temptation to turn back to good, and his mother believes there is hope yet. And Han, the cynic, though he suspects Ben is lost forever, reaches out to him nonetheless. They meet on a bridge (it is always a bridge) and Han urges his son to come back with them. That would be interesting, wouldn't it? To have the bad guy in the midst of the Resistance, with his parents, striving to come back to the light. That would have been an interesting Episode Eight plot. And it looks, for a moment, as though Ren is tempted. He falters. He expresses his inner turmoil and anguish over "what must be done." And then I had another horrible dawning realisation, as Ren handed over his lightsaber. It looked awfully like he was begging Han, his own father, to kill him, to put him out of his misery. There would be a painful struggle, but I didn't believe Han could do it. He's not as hardened as he wants you to believe...

But as it happens, he was saved from having to make that agonising decision, once Ren activates his lightsaber just as it's directed at Han's heart.

I did not see that coming. I should have seen that coming, but I did not. I fell for it. I fell for that manipulative piece of work and gaped in disbelief as Han reached out to his son, forgiving him even for his own murder, and tumbled off the bridge into the darkness. Well. That made things much more interesting! And we see that there is more to Kylo Ren than the wannabe villain emo kid with a bad temper. Can there be any coming back from this?

I'm pleased to be able to conclude that Star Wars has recovered from the disappointment that was the prequel trilogy, and is back up to a high standard. My only criticism, bringing it down to four stars instead of five, is the amount of repetition, visual and plot, from the original movie. Instead of the Empire there is the First Order. Instead of the Death Star which can destroy a planet, there is the Starkiller Base, which looks an awful lot like a planet-sized Death Star which can destroy an entire solar system in one go. And, once more, it is taken out by a fleet of ace pilots. You get the Big Bad murdering the mentor figure in front of the fledgeling Jedi. All this seems very familiar. But Han Solo highlights some of these similarities with disdain: "So, it's bigger." It's very safe ground to return Star Wars to its former glory, and if the plot takes the shape, it is a classic shape of storytelling: the hero's quest. Already it fits into the canon as if it were always part of the story (a feat the prequels never managed) and, as my friend Paul said the other day, it's good to watch a Star Wars film without knowing what was going to happen next. Roll on Episode VIII!

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