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Tuesday, 12 January 2016

STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015) // Rising stars Daisy Ridley and John Boyega sets the STAR WARS universe alight as new kids in the Falcon - Finn & Rey!



In 1977, as a boy still not quite in the dizzy heights of double figures, going to the cinema for the first time - the film I went to see was STAR WARS. My grandmother took me to see it. Although I loved the film, and had the required lightsaber battles against the other kids in the road with sticks in the garden as soon as I got home, I also remember telling my parents that I'd seen the most disgusting thing ever - some creature with its arm chopped off in the middle of the film, with lots of thick red oozy blood pouring out.

I'm convinced STAR WARS creator George Lucas has changed that massive flow of thick alien blood in the years since, to appear less grisly, as these days it's just a dribble. But at the time, that blood flow looked like something you'd find vomited out of a Slush Puppy machine, back in the day. Then, at bedtime the night after seeing the movie for the first time, and despite complaining to my mum that I had been traumatised by the big screen nasty that my granny had just taken me to see, I replayed the entire plot of STAR WARS in my head before I went to sleep - every, single, scene! Off by heart.
To this day, I still know every single scene in Star Wars off by heart, despite Lucas tinkering with the first six movies (the latest - THE FORCE AWAKENS - is the seventh) and adding new effects year after year, rebooting famous characters (Jabba the Hutt, going from skinny normal-looking chap in STAR WARS to bloated, slobbering, toad-beast in second sequel RETURN OF THE JEDI and then being morphed into new fat Jabba in future re-releases of the original STAR WARS to boot) or repeatedly changing a lead character's point of view (who shot first in the STAR WARS Cantina - Han Solo or the skinny green alien thing with jug ears and a hose-nose that Solo owed money to?).

I wanted to be that man - Han Solo. Han was an archetypal anti-hero, the bounty hunter-chased smuggler with a cool jacket, gun, spaceship (the Millennium Falcon) and seriously long ammo belt, reluctantly helping out freedom fighters Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) and the whole of the Rebel Alliance to battle the evil Empire led by Darth Vader - Dark Lord of the Sith (the Sith being the opposite of the do-good Jedi Knights, and the dark side of the Force). Both Sith and Jedi come armed with lightsabers (that, as boy's toys in the late 70s were just hugely disappointing extending coloured plastic tubes that had a torch inside and didn't ever really look that great, except maybe in the garden, in the dark).

Over three original movies and beyond (three further prequels) the Rebels kept facing off against the Empire and the Jedi kept fighting the evil Sith, with the two worlds always colliding. Cool characters came and went: Luke's tutor Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness - possibly hating every minute of being in it, but still putting on a brave and encouraging face on set), Boba Fett (best character ever, with kick-ass armour and weapon and the most wanted toy figure, for kids like me and my mates at school!), Jedi master Yoda (especially playful and downbeat in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, the follow up to the original movie and Part V in the storylines - also the most dramatic of all the films) and, err - Jar Jar Binks from 1999's EPISODE 1: THE PHANTOM MENACE (shot fourth in release order).
Jar Jar was horrendously irritating to many fans on first viewing with his tall lolloping posture, over-sized ears and droopy tongue - like Bugs Bunny on acid while listening to Bob Marley.  On repeated viewings he is almost endearing - I can't explain why. Maybe it's nostalgia.

George Lucas, a few years ago, sold the STAR WARS rights to Disney and the first film in the newly re-Jedied series (EPISODE VII - THE FORCE AWAKENS) reached our screens in 3D in late 2015. It soon broke, predictably, many records for box office returns (if not all, by the time you read this). The latest STAR WARS didn't look like it would ever exactly flop, but the magnitude of success may have been unexpected even for director J.J. Abrams who is perhaps best known for the popular Star Trek big screen prequels and hugely successful reboot.

George Lucas, the eternal true father of STAR WARS always had the grandest ideas and in the first three movies we were treated to a heady mix of: thrilling space battles; a princess in a gold bikini; teddy bears with spears; traitors hiding out in cloud cities; planet-destroying weapons; scary men in cool masks; and the constant mythology of the Force. Silly things too, like the dippy stormtrooper who banged his head on the ceiling in the first movie, or the phallic slime monster in the waste disposal chute from the same film that seemed to have an unhealthy interest in young master Luke (but was somehow still pretty terrifying) - all of which became seared into our subconscious minds forever.
While the three George Lucas directed prequels: PHANTOM MENACE (1999), ATTACK OF THE CLONES (2002) and REVENGE OF THE SITH (2005) were not as well received by some fans, with their now more CGI-based approach and complex plotting, they were still sci-fi films crafted by an auteur filmmaker who wanted to show, in a grand scale cinematic way, how a Galactic Empire could rise, and a man (Anakin Skywalker - soon to become Darth Vader) could fall. He did this in such an effective way that, by the end of the hugely traumatic finale to EPISODE III: REVENGE OF THE SITH, we could barely watch as Anakin (horribly wounded and scarred) crawled to the dark side and put on the mask that would imprison him forever as Darth Vader.

It was, in a way - a rightful completion for Lucas and for STAR WARS itself, but the fabled and once promised (if not exactly fully planned) nine parts still lingered in the minds of many hopeful fans. This franchise was always going to be reborn one day. It was, however, quite a shock when it was announced that Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia, Chewbacca, R2-D2 and C-3PO would all be returning for the next chapter at the end of 2015. That's just not possible after all these years apart. Is it? - we thought, under our breath.


THE FORCE AWAKENS follows a similar pattern to the original movie: A feisty 20-something girl (instead of a 20-something boy) called Rey gets caught up in the escape plans of a rebelling stormtrooper called Finn, who has been helping gung-ho Resistance pilot Poe to escape from the evil Empire (on the rise again and now calling itself the First Order). This time around, the nemesis in a black mask with husky voice is Kylo Ren - a former Jedi trainee gone AWOL and son of Han Solo and Princess Leia. Han Solo himself, and loyal companion Chewbacca, soon join up with Finn and Rey, and take the rebelling twosome to the secret Resistance base, and to a meeting with the legendary Princess (now General) Leia no less . .
There's a climatic space battle to defeat the First Order's latest weapon as part of the film's grand finale, just like there was in the original STAR WARS and in RETURN OF THE JEDI, along with a climatic lightsaber battle between Rey, Finn and Kylo Ren (just like there is in every STAR WARS movie when it gets near the finish). It can all only end in tears - or a funny bit at the end where the rebels gather together, show that the droid has been rebuilt and isn't dead, and get an award from the top brass while smiling at each other in a silly way! (Note: this may only have happened in STAR WARS and THE PHANTOM MENACE, thinking about it).

THE FORCE AWAKENS is so full of new and refreshed memories, that you may have the urge to offer a round of satisfied applause at the end. It does feel like a historic moment in cinema, though clearly it's not an independent movie and is an unashamed Hollywood blockbuster. But sometimes it's fun to enjoy a movie that's been made mainly to please the fans and to enjoy with wampa-sized boxes of popcorn (though I wouldn't touch the stuff myself as I value my oesophagus too much). Everyone in the movie theatre I saw the film with, clearly loved every second. A young man behind me even did a wookiee impression to his girlfriend as the film credits rolled. A female fan gushed that Luke Skywalker hasn't aged much at all and looks even better now that he's older, especially with that beard. And most of the crowd stayed on until the very end of the credits, instead of the usual rush to the Saturday night Burger King next door.

I swear, everyone in that cinema watching the return of STAR WARS to the big screen felt like they were really part of something - some kind of audience rebellion. You could sense it in the way they all grinned at each other on the way out and looked ready to duel with a lightsaber (or nearby stick of wood or faulty railing). When that happens, in a cinema (and I remember how it felt after seeing Tarantino's PULP FICTION or Lynch's BLUE VELVET - stunned and woozy) you realise that movies are not just a couple of hour's entertainment for a tenner but in an increasingly hostile, depressing world, provide temporary freedom and escape, of the kind that Luke Skywalker himself once sought.

Yeah, it's all pulpy, big budget entertainment - glossy and perfect. But also a perfectly judged, unapologetic masterclass in blockbuster big screen entertainment and great escape. In that sense alone, THE FORCE AWAKENS is a triumph. But more than that, themes of self-doubt (Kylo Ren - in an almost post-modern storyline of trying to emulate a famous villain and often failing) and love, the unbeatable process of ageing and honour (Solo and Leia, central again to all the chaos around them) show the franchise hasn't abandoned its traditional blueprint of ambition and risk (remember, when George Lucas showed the first print of the film to his esteemed director mates, only Spielberg didn't think it would be a flop and predicted the film's huge success).

Space heroines have never been quite as feisty and ferociously stunning as rising star Daisy Ridley as the young Jedi (well - probably a Jedi!) - Rey. Petite, lean, perfectly skilled in kickboxing and saber fighting (or plastic tube with a cheap battery in it fighting) young Rey is a clear descdendent of Hunger Games-style strong female leads. With Ridley joining the likes of Chloe Moretz, Jennifer Lawrence, Cara Delevingne, Saoirse Ronan and Maisie Williams in the tough stuff (alongside the occasional quiet and reflective moment) - the current generation of female leads are stronger, angrier and crazier than most of their male counterparts. It's an exciting turnaround for what has often been a male-dominated (especially in financial terms - a situation that clearly has to change to keep up) industry.
Sure, Harrison Ford gets his name at the top of the credits in THE FORCE AWAKENS, but this is as much (if not more so) Daisy Ridley's film as his, and the actress takes a fearless and defiant centre stage throughout. The granddaughter of original Dad's Army star Arnold Ridley, Daisy's background in dance and ballet probably helps out with all the climatic lightsaber scenes in the snowy woodland that are the film's showstopper - moments that thrill and excite and ultimately blow you away with spectacular, if deliberately raw, uncertain and frenzied, fighting choreography. 


Ridley is matched by another standout performance from co-star John Boyega (whose few film credits so far include the 2011 South London-set sci-fi classic ATTACK THE BLOCK) as fallen stormtrooper Finn who, with a perfectly-judged mix of deadpan humour and faltering bravery, captivates and gains our sympathy from the moment he takes off his helmet (and even when he wears it). The first STAR WARS was always intended by George Lucas to star mainly unknowns, but young actors destined for great things. That tradition, in THE FORCE AWAKENS, has been kept.

Of the returning leads, Harrison Ford's Han Solo shuffles enigmatically with familiar (but even more so than we remember) hangdog heroism and battle-scarred weariness - lots of delightful care and thought clearly going into what his character would be like, almost forty years on from his heyday, from co-scriptwriter Lawrence Kasdan (who also worked wonders on EMPIRE and JEDI). Han in THE FORCE AWAKENS is still on the run from (romantic) commitments and money owed to bounty hunters - exactly as it should be! But it's the dynamic Han Solo we also know and love who kicks into action alongside sidekick Chewbacca before long (Peter Mayhew brilliantly adding a nicely mellowed, if no less ferocious, side to a working Wookiee in his twilight years) - chased by stormtroopers or multi-tendrilled creatures from Hell down those famous spaceship corridors of old.
Han Solo's climatic encounter with his son Kylo Ren is fist-clenchingly tense and instantly iconic. Adam Driver as Ren, has a calm, fearful and cruel presence that makes him one of the best and most complex sci-fi villains since Vader himself. Ren longs to be equal to Vader, his grandfather, but cleverly (and  scripted with subtle perfection) can't quite manage it - yet. Until, that is, one last act of true evil turns him towards the Dark Side, forever . .

Carrie Fisher as Leia has a hardened battle-weariness when she appears on screen, towards the end of the movie. This princess of hearts and mistress of blasters from the Star Wars saga of the past is still majestic and square of jaw and purposeful intent. When Han meets up with her, it seems after some time apart, the feelings of love seem never less than real between them. It's a good thing for some of us that, when that historic on-screen reunion takes place, our eyes are hidden by those dark black, 3D glasses.

Of course, the very best moment of THE FORCE AWAKENS is saved for last. The return of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) on a deliciously barren and isolated, rugged coastal landscape (Skellig Rocks in Ireland) is unexpectedly powerful and simply breathtaking for fans of the original trilogy. Yes - it's Luke, as found by Rey! The Jedi Master's green eyes still burning with that same quizzical, boyish intensity - a gaze that doesn't just look towards the person standing in front of him, but to places and friends far away and to a universe that still needs to be saved. You bet your life - the next STAR WARS film is going to be massive!

As a slight niggle, the planets and settings in THE FORCE AWAKENS aren't quite as fun or as inventive as some of those seen in the first three original movies. But when an Imperial Star Destroyer pokes out of the screen in 3D and seems so real that you just want to reach out and touch it or at least look in the windows, or when an especially breath-taking, simple and well-realised scene has Rey sliding down a sandy slope at exhilarating high speed so fast (and that looks so much fun that you just want to join in) you can't fault or do anything but admire the strut of this movie's good intent.
J.J. Abrams draws in the action right up close to camera while retaining that sense of grandeur and panoramic depth needed for a Star Wars movie. There are some delightful light touches too, such as when new droid star BB-8 makes the whole cinema room I was in erupt with laughter just by giving a thumbs up using a lighter positioned at the end his of his extending metal arm.

It's clearly going to be a tough task to come up with another franchise entry as smart, exciting, nostalgic and fresh as STAR WARS VII: THE FORCE AWAKENS has proved itself to be, but in the hands of the maverick and inventive Rian Johnson (BRICK, LOOPER) confirmed as PART VIII's helmer, the force should still be as strong in that one.

Maverick . . . inventive . . . we could almost be talking about George Lucas himself again here. And whatever you say about that man's obsessiveness and endless tinkering with the STAR WARS films and occasionally flawed ambition with the spectacular, grand and gloriously darkening prequels, Lucas deserves our thanks for bringing such a fantastical world as this one to life - for allowing it to be strong enough a concept to live forever. STAR WARS is about as real, for many fans out there, as cinema gets. And that can only be a good thing - in space, nobody can hear your apathy.


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