Film discussion

The Road to Solo… Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens

Did you hear it? There was an awakening. It’s known to happen when the biggest movie studio in Hollywood acquires one of the most famous production companies in the film industry for $4 billion. It could only mean one thing; Star Wars was coming back.

When Revenge of the Sith was released in 2005, it felt as if we might genuinely have seen the last of Star Wars on the big screen. Lucas wasn’t talking about Episodes VII to IX anymore, and there was talk of a live-action television series. Substantial work had been done for it, with the likes of Doctor Who showrunner Chris Chibnall and Life on Mars co-creator Matthew Graham contributing scripts, but once Disney decided to get into the Star Wars business, plans changed, and the series was coming back, with the story set to pick up after the events of Return of the Jedi.

Given the incredibly divisive reactions to the prequel trilogy, it’s fair to say that many had a feeling of trepidation about the possibility of new Star Wars movies, as well as the involvement of Disney, but it was also hard not to get excited about the prospect of a new film in the series, and come Christmas 2015, you could feel it in the air; the excitement, the hype, the expectation.

There was a feeling that the right decisions were being made when Disney announced that Kathleen Kennedy, a major player at Amblin Entertainment and producer on many Steven Spielberg movies, was being put in charge of Lucasfilm and, even more so, when, after much speculation, and after turning it down first time around, that Kennedy had looked over to the other big space set franchise in Hollywood and asked JJ Abrams to direct the first instalment of the new trilogy.

Anticipation was ripe as to who would direct the movie with the likes of David Fincher, Brad Bird and Guillermo Del Toro considered, but in the end the keys of the galaxy far, far away, would be handed to the director who helped Paramount get Starfleet up and running again as a movie franchise.

Initial drafts of a potential screenplay for the seventh episode had been written by Michael Arndt, but when he found himself unable to deliver the script in such a tight timeframe as the one that Lucasfilm and Abrams were asking for, both the director and acclaimed screenwriter of Episodes V and VI, Laurence Kasdan, took over.  Together they would still use elements of Arndt’s screenplay, but re-fashion it into something more of their own.

Abrams had steadily become one of the biggest names in Hollywood, a career that had taken him from writing screenplays for the likes of Regarding Henry and Forever Young, to co-creating the television series Felicity. It was his move into more genre related material that made people stand up and take notice; Alias was a cult hit for ABC and he helped shepherded Lost into a pop cultural phenomenon. Movies soon beckoned and he was put it charge of the third Mission: Impossible movie, whilst his capacity as producer seen him help bring Cloverfield to the screen, the success of which, along with directing the most acclaimed instalment of the Mission: Impossible franchise, saw him being offered the reigns to Star Trek by Paramount Pictures, the success of which made him a perfect choice for Star Wars.

Opinion on the film he delivered is deceptively positive. Reviews from critics were very positive and initial reactions from fans and moviegoers equally so. It would gross just over $2 billion worldwide, but the film would see a backlash in the months after its theatrical release, for reasons that aren’t entirely unfounded, but it doesn’t negate the fact that the film is a pure blockbuster that manages to be really great fun, moves like a rocket ship, has moments of genuine humour, emotion and action.

The biggest complaint that is frequently levelled at the film is that it retreads the narrative ground of A New Hope, and that is very much true; there are newer versions of the hero discovering themselves, we have a cocksure pilot character, a massive space weapon in the shape of a globe, a villain that wears all black and a mask, and a cute robot. Sometimes these tropes are beautifully subverted, such as the fact that instead of a farm boy discovering The Force we have a female scavenger named Rey, and instead of a space station being the weapon ultimate destruction it’s an actual planet, whilst any familial revelations about the villain are pretty much revealed straight away. Yes, a key member of the core characters is killed, just like Obi-Wan, but this is one death scene that cuts like a knife.

Is the film unoriginal in many regards? Yes. Is it good? Absolutely.

The newer members of the cast are wonderful, and their characters are warm and welcoming in a brilliant way. By the time end credits roll, it’s so easy to have become invested in Rey, Finn and Poe, whilst new robot BB-8 was not only a scene-stealer, but became the must have toy that Christmas amongst kids and grown-ups. While it does resort to similar storybeats, it wouldn’t be the first time that Star Wars, or a movie franchise for that matter, had done so. Return of the Jedi retreaded on some of the same ground as A New Hope, while a franchise like James Bond has repeated certain aspects of other instalments of its own over the course of is fifty year cycle.

What makes The Force Awakens a little bit different is in how it approaches these things. Daisy Ridley feels like she has become a sci-fi icon right away with her layered, charming and engaging performance as Rey, the image of her walking amongst the sands of Jakku with BB-8 at her side looking set to become one of the most famous images of the film. John Boyega is funny, sympathetic and gets many of the film’s best comedic moments throughout, even getting to become something of a great triple-act with Han Solo and Chewbacca. Oscar Isaac disappears for a stretch of the movie, leading us to believe he’s been killed, but he’s bucket of fun charm when he’s on-screen and actually gets to have great bromantic chemistry with Boyega that has fuelled all manner of fan art and fan fiction.

Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford return to their most famous roles and do so with gusto. The late, great Fisher brings gravitas and a sense of strength and regality that only she can as Leia. The idea of the next film in the series being the last time we’ll see her in the role is a genuine heartbreaker. Ford walks back into Han Solo’s leather jacket like he never left it. Unlike his return to Indiana Jones, there is no sense at all that he’s phoning it in, with his performance being the funniest and most charming he’s been in years.

The scenes that both of them share carry the weight and disappointment of the untold story that happened in between Jedi and this, and which is only hinted at in their scenes  together. The chemistry is still there, but it feels different. It’s still sparks, but the fact they aren’t together, but were so for long enough to have had a child together, makes it feel sad and poignant in a manner that is beautifully handled.

Of course, the big talking point of the movie (or not, since we’re all paranoid about spoilers nowadays), was Han’s death scene, which hits hard. It carries the weight of nearly forty years of iconic cinema and the moment it happens, at the hands of his own son, the intense Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), is one of modern blockbuster cinema’s most jaw dropping moments.

Whether or not Ren will become as iconic as Vader remains to be seen, but Driver’s performance is very layered and complex, albeit very moody in a wonderful way. His petulant anger could be easily spoofed and hard to take seriously (it was part of a very funny Saturday Night Live sketch), but he stays the right side of intense and fascinating, and it’ll be exiciting to see where the series will take him going forward.

The first part of a new trilogy, and an attempt to slide the franchise into the realm of a cinematic universe, for the first non-Lucas involved Star Wars film, The Force Awakens did what was needed of it. The backlash was perhaps inevitable and unfortunately it has become part and parcel of every successful film nowadays. It doesn’t negate the fact that while there is large part of it that is unoriginal, it does what Star Wars is known for doing and doing it really well.

If The Last Jedi ends up having Rey getting her hand chopped off by Luke while he declares that he is her father, while Poe Dameron finds himself  frozen or something, then fowl should be cried, but as it is, The Force Awakens is a lovely blast of fun, but fun with consequences, that isn’t afraid to portray evil, or to parlay the horror of a high body count and not afraid to kill off its most famous character to heighten the odds. It may have been Ford’s request when joining the film, but it’s a moment that works and is brilliantly effective at shaking the audience, not only for the remainder of this movie, but going forward with the trilogy.

By the time the film ends, with Mark Hamill’s one and only scene in the film, it leaves you wishing for it to continue just a second longer so we can get a glimpse or hint at what is to come next. It’s a mark of a great film that does that, and with The Last Jedi upon us, it will be intriguing to see where the series will go next with Rian Johnson behind the camera, a director capable of delivering dark, sci-fi smarts in a different way to Abrams.

While there has been a two-year wait for that film, Star Wars would be back the following Christmas, with a film set before A New Hope and a bold step in trying to make the series a more expansive universe in cinema, in a manner it had been in other media. Before we’d get to see what would happen next on that mountaintop between Luke and Rey, we’d get to see the greatest plot hole of the series finally be explained.

Rogue One was upon us…

Are you a fan of The Force Awakens? Let us know what you think of the movie.

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