There has been an awakening. Have you felt it?
April, 1997. Thurrock, South East England. The carpark outside a Vue cinema. A seven year-old boy and his father stumble out of the theatre’s exit into the dying light of a Saturday afternoon. For each of the man’s giant strides, the boy must make two hops with his little legs to keep up. “And is Darth Vader really Luke’s father?” the boy asks his dad, wide-eyed and still not quite able to straighten this mother of all twists out inside his frazzled schoolboy mind.
“Wait and see,” the man replies.
“What about Han Solo though? Do they save him?”
“Wait and see,” the man repeats.
“Dad! Tell me! Do the goodies win?!”
There is a twinkle in the man’s eyes now as father and son reach their car (not least because its unlocking beep reminds them of R2-D2). Watching the original Star Wars trilogy (and, in particular, that moment from The Empire Strikes Back) has become a modern day rite of passage between parents and their children, right up there with the utterance of introductory garbled words; anxious, tear-streaked debuts at the school gates; and nervously allowing adolescent forms behind the wheel of a precious automobile for the first time.
“Wait and see.”
And wait I did. I felt every one of the twenty thousand, one hundred and sixty-odd minutes that stretched between my Saturday afternoon screenings of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. However, the truth is: as a child, I never had to wait long for fresh slices of Star Wars. I guzzled down the entire original trilogy in just six weeks during their bi-weekly ’97 theatrical rereleases, then two short years later, the whole world was ablaze from the fire of the ill-fated, much maligned prequel trilogy.
The decade that elapsed after the conclusion of Revenge of the Sith in 2005 has been the longest I have ever had to go without a new Star Wars injection, which was perhaps made all the more difficult due to the total absence of plans to ever take us back to its universe.
Franchises have been born, burned, and reborn again – with no word from Star Wars. Characters have been created, swallowed up, reimagined, and spat back out – and still nothing from Star Wars. Outside the expanded universe, its time was becoming longer and longer ago, its galaxy was getting further and further away.
Then, October 30th 2012: after years of darkness, The Walt Disney Company gobbles up Lucasfilm (along with its maestro’s beloved magnum opus) for the princely sum of $4.05 billion, and millions of voices suddenly hold their breath. The first words uttered in the first teaser trailer for The Force Awakens – rasped by the smoky voiced Supreme Leader Snoke – now seem perfect: there had been an awakening, and we all had felt it.
Lightspeed past the one thousand, one hundred and forty-three succeeding days (my workspace is beginning to mirror the ribcage of the rusty AT-AT carcass upon which our new heroine Rey tallies her continuation with existential scratches), and Star Wars – Episode VII: The Force Awakens storms into cinemas, riding furious tsunamis of hope, fear, hype, and overwhelming good will – no doubt aided by a triumvirate of delightful, internet-breaking, and joyously spoiler-free trailers.
There was a price, of course, for all this excitement, all of this energy, all of this expectation: this film couldn’t just be good – it had to be amazing.
But not all films are born equal, and The Force Awakens has not been afforded the pedestrian opulence of being just another movie – regardless of its quality. In terms of business, it has to be a confident enough spark to ignite (although maybe fuel might be a more appropriate word to use for Star Wars‘ already globally-ubiquitous merchandising saturation) a commercial bonfire, and start returning on the House of Mouse’s colossal, multi-billion-dollar investment. In terms of the franchise’s fandom, it has to be both a heartfelt, nostalgic love letter to that grand, eccentric space opera that powered the ’70s, ’80s, and generations of childhoods, as well as an apology for the sickly triptych of the noughties. In terms of cinema, it has to be a sequel, reboot, opening chapter of a new trilogy, and trumpet for a resurrected franchise.
Cynics could even argue – quite strongly, actually – that The Force Awakens is also a photocopy remake of A New Hope, and they’d be half right – while missing its point entirely. A lot of the birthmarks from the saga’s first chapter can be found upon the flesh of its seventh instalment: important details being buried inside the mind of a droid; a sinister puppeteer seducing a cloaked and masked warrior to the dark side from the light; a Freudian nightmare of a paternal relationship; a marooned orphan, dreaming of a future beyond the stars, who is about to discover the true nature of their mystical destiny.
All of these things can be found in both Episodes IV and VII.
But this is not laziness on the part of the studio, nor does it make J.J. Abrams a plagiarist. Instead, these details, these similarities, are badges of honour. The real, grin-inducing triumph of the universe being presented by Star Wars‘ fourth director is that it is absolutely not wholly new. All of the ingredients, all of the flavours we tasted and adored from the original trilogy – especially A New Hope – are present in The Force Awakens, but microwaved piping-hot.
Unlike Zack Snyder’s upcoming superhero gladiator match Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (a film that also has similarly gargantuan responsibilities weighing upon its burly shoulders), which has had to purposefully differentiate its co-main character from his last, incredibly lucrative iteration (possibly to legitimise such an expeditious reinterpretation), The Force Awakens can luxuriate in the veritable depth and warmth of time in a way that perhaps only the epic novel or long-running soap opera can truly enjoy.
Episode VII absolutely exists within the same universe that exploded into life with the release of Episode IV, right down to their shared granular details. It is no further leap of imagination to believe that the numerous suns that illuminate the landscapes of The Force Awakens might well have once massaged the youthful features of Princess Leia Organa; that the winds that howl through its ramshackle spaceships could have once tussled a wookie’s fuzzy mane; that the stars upon which Rey hangs her fragile, unpretentious hopes might be the same balls of fire a young Skywalker also once used to power his own boyhood dreams.
“Chewie, we’re home”, Han Solo murmurs at the close of the film’s euphoric second teaser (which also turns out to be the character’s first uttered words in the saga for more than 30 years), and they most definitely are – and so are we.
The Force Awakens is an exhibitive blockbuster with all the hallmarks of a four-quadrant studio movie, but the pulsing source of its formidable energy is most intrinsically present within scenes such as these. Alan Moore’s philosophy for writing fiction is to “never give the audiences what they want”, but Abrams and Kasdan (and presumably Michael Arndt) gamble with the inverse because they so obviously understand the structure of Star Wars on a deoxyribonucleic-acidic level, as well as the potency of nostalgia, and the sheer influence the saga has had upon the lives of its legions of fans.
The revival team appreciates exactly what audiences are most hungry to see, and are subsequently able to play these scenes as symphonies of sentiment. It’s risky, for sure – in the wrong hands, such sections could appear mawkish to the point of parody – but Abrams is a masterful musician of emotion. He chooses to supply particular moments – the ones we want so badly – as “events”; each are cinematic curtain calls.
Witness the Millennium Falcon roar back to life; see it swoop and hurtle instantly into a thrilling dogfight with a series of TIE fighters over the barren vista of Jakku; hear the bellow of John Williams’ immortal score; and feel the warm yank and tingle on your heart and soul and memory.
Detractors might scoff at some of this recycling, using it as as yet another citation for how Hollywood is feasting upon its own entrails, but any echoes of plot points and motifs within The Force Awakens perform as rather poetic continuations of Star Wars‘ rich and long-established junkyard traditions.
George Lucas himself forged the original saga from lashings of Flash Gordon, a couple of fizzing electrodes of Buck Rogers, and bucketfuls of molten Kurosawa.
His set decorator, Mr Roger Christian, kitbashed most of A New Hope‘s spaceships from chunks of battered plane parts, scooped up from scrap piles, and most of the film’s most iconic blasters are weaponry Frankenstein monsters; composed from the regenerated skeletons and marrows of guns across the spectra of time and space.
Therefore, if anything, it feels entirely in keeping with Star Wars‘ spit-shine mythos for The Force Awakens‘ engine to use some salvaged meta parts. And yet, while Abrams does categorically borrow from the saga’s museum of narrative, he and his team still manage to upcycle many of these treasures into something modern and millennial.
For example, Rey (played with plucky charisma by newcomer Daisy Ridley, who treats the role like a pair of new shoes: a little difficult to break into at first, but you soon wonder how we did without them), treads upon some of the plot paving stones once laid by Luke Skywalker, but never uses his feet. She doesn’t appear as callow as Luke did in his formative years, nor is she as irritatingly self-righteous. Her initially lonely routine of scavenging, trading, then hungrily devouring her meagre rewards inside the decomposing husk of an Imperial Walker makes Skywalker’s pre-Jedi, menial lifestyle in the care of adoptive uncle and aunt seem rather peaches-and-cream in comparison.
Rey is the hero Star Wars has been looking for: clever but not omniscient; virtuous but not simpering; attractive but not sexualised and, after those clunky embryonic scenes, we clamp onto her like a magnet.
In fact, all of the new blood transfused into the saga’s towering resurrection proves to be strong and salty. Adam Driver, the actor handed arguably the most difficult task of The Force Awakens, has created a compelling, monstrous villain; a terrifying brat who could give even Kevin the Teenager a run for his money for most spectacular temper tantrum. Of course, no one could ever replace Darth Vader, and – to their credit – Abrams and Driver don’t bother with an attempt to. Instead, they skilfully weave this initial hamstring into a most credible instrument, and, in doing so, provide Kylo Ren with his obsessive raison d’etre.
John Boyega – an actor with a charming, infectious buzz – also supplies a fascinating twist on the lumbering stormtrooper form, and his natural charisma might have just aided Finn’s heist to steal this film from underneath his costars – new and returning. Even Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron, whom the internet have already baptised as the galaxy from far, far away’s answer to Ace Rimmer, is captivating to watch in his handful of rousing scenes.
But The Force Awakens belongs to its central umbilical cord which joins the past and the future: Harrison Ford’s eternal scruffy-looking Nerfherder Han Solo. Ford’s disdain for the saga that propelled him into international stardom is well documented, but his enthusiasm in The Force Awakens seems genuine – the crooked grin, the sparkle in his eye, the roguish confidence; they’re all home.
The spinal mystery of the film – namely: where is Luke Skywalker? – is cleverly used to push Solo front and centre in this story – one that is essentially serving as Han’s victory lap. The captain of the Falcon grips onto history and hurls it into the future – a proper continuation for the character in his own right, but also an opportunity to be a mentor for the saga’s hatching next generation.
Ford claims that Han does not “aspire to the position of Obi-Wan”, but he is this chapter’s de facto primary guardian – and one that manifests to be a far more emotive shepherd than Guinness’ Kenobi.
Blasphemy, maybe, but back in ’77, and as the meme goes, Ben Kenobi was just an eccentric hermit, isolated in the desert, attempting to radicalise a late-adolescent into murdering his father. In contrast, we already know – and love – Han Solo when he boards the Millennium Falcon and the franchise again. He isn’t perfect, but we adore him because he seemingly has just as many dents as his beloved spaceship. If The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi are siblings of A New Hope, then The Force Awakens must be its child. All children need a father figure, and Ford and his impish hero are the perfect, and most appropriate, paternal choice for this new episode.
Could The Force Awakens be the best film of 2015? Wrinkled and fresh-faced, old and new, past and present, Star Wars‘ seventh episode and sixth sequel is a spellbinding, impossible reunion with a much loved but long-deceased relative; a snatched, exhilarating couple of hours that we were never really supposed to have.
But they are no longer as they were at the end; they are not decaying; they do not smell funny; nor are they dribbling rambled nonsense about Gungans and Midi-chlorians.
No, they are rejuvenated; handsome, cheeky, warm; ready for adventure with their hand outstretched and waiting for yours.
The Force Awakens was always going to be the cinema event of this generation; we could only hope it would soar as high as Lucas’ original trilogy. Somehow, the ragbag team, sewing together 1977 and 2015, has delivered.
The wait is over and, this time, the magic doesn’t have to end.