Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (2015)

Star Wars[Spoiler Alert] Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is missing, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) have deserted, leaving the fate of the galaxy in the hands of the New Republic and its Resistance, now lead by Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher). When her star pilot (Oscar Isaac) is captured by the First Order, the new face of the Galactic Empire, he entrusts vital information concerning Skywalker’s whereabouts to a droid who is left on the planet of Jakku. There it seeks assistance from Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger who, along with reformed Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), agrees to return it to the Resistance, steeling a ride aboard an abandoned Millennium Falcon and narrowly escaping the clutches of General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson). The First Order have other plans for the Resistance, however, mostly involving a new weapon that makes the Death Star look like a Jedi training ball. [Spoiler Alert]

When the first of George Lucas’ prequel films was released in 1999 it was met with widespread disdain, with most criticising the fact that the film was too different from the original trilogy. What was once a story about rebellion was now a treatise on trade law; where once the galaxy had felt lived-in and battle-damaged it now sparkled and shone; while what in childhood had once inspired wonderment and awe now seemed to adult eyes childish and insipid. Nobody seemed to notice the similarities: this was once again the story of an inexperienced Jedi, plucked from obscurity on a distant desert planet and thrust into the midst of an apparently eternal struggle between good and evil. For this consistency, for his single-minded determination to make films that served the ongoing franchise he had conceived rather than the fanbase that had adopted it, he was met with ridicule and contempt, and was ultimately forced to relinquish control of his creation. Because in this day and age, even in cinema, it appears the customer is always right.

Disney bought Lucasfilm for $4 billion, and gave J. J. Abrams the job of rejuvenating the franchise, or rather redeeming it in the eyes of the most vocal members of its audience. He had previous experience, having recently restored Star Trek to perceived relevancy with his 2009 reboot, so his appointment was welcomed by many, even as Star Trek‘s own fanbase criticised him for taking too much of a revisionist approach to their beloved continuity. Whether as a reaction to this, or because of his own self-professed love for the original trilogy, Abrams soon sought to reassure fans that Star Wars: The Force Awakens would be a continuation of the saga made by the fans for the fans, even as he avoided referring to it as Episode VII and thus risk placing it in the wider, prequel-recognising series (though this subtitle was thankfully reinstated for the theatrical release). In keeping with this populist approach, stars Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher were re-signed, while all involved took every opportunity to satisfy fans that the less illustrious elements of the galaxy far, far away — the Gungans, Ewoks and midichlorians of Lucas’ world — would not appear. Whether it made sense within the story for them to or not.

The result is a film that bears a closer resemblance to A New Hope than even The Phantom Menace (there’s no pod-racing or choral choirs to distinguish The Force Awakens). Lucas often spoke of the poetry of his Star Wars saga, of a story that echoed down the generations, and there is an undeniable symmetry to the original and prequel trilogies. With Lucas gone, however, disharmony has crept in, and there’s an element of confusion to this latest stanza, the discord of an imperfect rhyme. The Force Awakens features familiar worlds with unfamiliar names, recognisable characters with unrecognisable faces, and traditional themes refracted in non-traditional ways. It’s uncanny at times, particularly where the returning characters are concerned. Like pastiche, like pantomime, there is a celebratory, self-congratulatory quality to The Force Awakens that feels out of place in a universe used to such high stakes, of galaxy-obliterating super-weapons and fatal family feuds. Everyone seems too happy, too eager to please, with past conflicts forgotten in favour of an out-of-place comfort. Even the perennially pessimistic C-3PO seems uncharacteristically content, as if scared to upset the film’s fervent following and therefore risk expulsion from future instalments. After all, who would want to be the next Jar Jar Binks?

None of this is to suggest that The Force Awakens isn’t enjoyable, because it undoubtedly is, or that is doesn’t take any risks, because it does. The film is fast, frenetic fun, J. J.  Abrams ensuring that the pace doesn’t let up long enough for the plot holes to register, while his decision to cast trained actors instead of matinee idols pays dividends in the work of the key newcomers, who break the blockbuster mould in a number of refreshing ways, even if their talents rather outshine those of the established cast. Daisy Ridley, John Boyega and Oscar Isaac are all terrific actors, the best (and most diverse) the series has ever seen, but they’re somewhat hamstrung by characters who don’t make a whole lot of sense. Their backstories and motivations are either concealed or contrived, so that Rey keeps alluding to a childhood trauma that is never elucidated on and Finn is left to make decisions completely at odds with everything we know about his background. Abrams just doesn’t have the same flair for iconography that Lucas did, and has made a career out of playing with other people’s creations. Jedi has become a recognised religion, while the ships, worlds and even jargon of Star Wars transcend not just the series but cinema itself. Even the prequels registered and resonated with the public consciousness, with their battle droids, padawan learners and Order 66 entering the wider lexicon. Nothing invented specifically for Abrams’ film makes quite the same impression — except perhaps BB-8.

At times The Force Awakens feels more like fan-service than film-making, and come film’s end it’s questionable whether Abrams’ has added anything new to the Star Wars mythology. It’s strange, therefore, that he should have been so wary of spoilers getting out in the first place. As with Star Trek, he pre-empted this not just with heightened security but with misinformation, so that he wasn’t just mollifying audiences but misleading them. That’s not all it has in common with Star Trek (and, for that matter, Star Trek Into Darkness), for only in its last few moments does Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens promise anything resembling a new direction, by which time everyone’s too relieved to criticise such an unsatisfying ending. The Force may have awoken, but to what end is not yet clear.



Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Call me sheepish (or a bog-standard copy-cat), but having kick-started HeyUGuys’ Video Vault tribute to the Star Wars saga with my own take on A New Hope, I have found myself unwilling to relinquish my soap box just yet. As a result, here’s my retrospective review of the second film in George Lucas’ (largely) esteemed franchise: Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, about to arrive on Blu-ray in every half-decent retailer near you.

Now, for a long time Empire Strikes Back was my least favourite film in the original trilogy – I know, kids are stupid – it spent half its time in tedious conversation with a rubber puppet and the rest being all dark and serious and (forgive me) boring. Where was the swashbuckle? The happy ending? The Ewoks? Naturally I have grown to love Irvin Kershner’s sequel – joining the rest of the civilised world in championing it as not only the best in the series, but one of the finest movies ever made.

Having relocated to Hoth for a bit of a winter break, the Rebel Alliance is regrouping after the events of the first movie. On a routine surveillance mission, Luke Skywalker is preparing to return to base when he is suddenly clawed off his taun-taun by the planet’s abominable snow-thing. Han and Leia have problems of their own, as they intercept an Imperial signal and destroy a probe droid, but not before it has alerted the Empire to their location.

Saving Luke from his predicament in time to take on Vader’s infantry, the rebels separate when their defences prove futile. As Luke heeds a ghostly vision’s advice and heads to the Degobah system, Han and the others depart Hoth with the Empire in hot pursuit, taking refuge first in a dubious asteroid and then on the mining colony, Bespin. Betrayed by acquaintance Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), Han is subsequently probed (literally) for information regarding Skywalker.

Alerted to his friends’ situation while learning about The Force from Jedi Master Yoda, Luke departs for Bespin against his teacher’s wishes – promising to return and complete his training once his friends are safe. Ambushed by Vader, and too late to save Han from being encased in carbonite, Luke loses his arm in battle, learning a terrible truth in the process: that Darth Vader is in fact his father. Taking a leap of fate and escaping death, Luke reunites with his friends (sans Han), whose own escape was facilitated by a repentant Calrissian, and prepares to save Han from the clutches of Jabba the Hut.

The thing I love about The Empire Strikes Back – and the thing I missed during my informative years – is how funny it is. Obviously, I’m not talking hysterics or giggles of the inadvertent variety, but a good humoured script that plays its characters off one another to charming – and occasionally comic – effect. While A New Hope was a particularly massive technical achievement, it is hardly famed for its adept characterisation. A cast of archetypes, it worked because it attacked its story with infectious bravado, more than happy to accept its standing as a fairy-tale in space.

Kershner, however, injects a welcome dose of soap opera into Lucas’ universe, beautifully complimenting the creator’s expanding mythology and increased interpersonal conflict. Han Solo and Leia Organa in particular benefit from this greater emphasis on character, their relationship deepened through Lando’s intrusions and their unrequieted feelings for one another, ultimately leading to a very real emotional climax – important because of the lack of story resolution come the closing credits. R2D2 and C3PO continue to brim with personality, too, with the former’s resolve and the latter’s prissy pessimism comprising an engaging double team, C3PO’s ability to rub everyone and their space-ship up the wrong way leading to some of the film’s most entertaining scenes.

For many, however, it is the narrative expansion that gives Empire its edge. By introducing Yoda and the Emperor, Lucas teases a history that will not be further explored for another thirty-odd years. The Empire Strikes Back isn’t the whole story, but it nevertheless manages to deliver an accomplished and hugely satisfying story in its own right. In willing to not only tease a wider mythology but leave the story in disarray and its heroes in transit, Empire is the main argument for the saga being more than just children’s entertainment. For better or worse, it is Star Wars at its most mature.

From Hoth to Bespin, Yoda to Lando and the frying pan to the fire, Star Wars: Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back is an absolute delight. To the tune of John Williams’ Imperial March, Kershner duly rises to the challenge and delivers the movie George Lucas never could. Sure, I never grew up wanting to be a two-foot tall frog puppet living in exile on a swamp planet but, like I said, kids are stupid.

Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977)

A long time ago, in a living room far, far away (well, Elgin), I remember sitting down to watch Star Wars for the very first time. Now, twenty-odd years, a full franchise and hundreds of pounds worth of merchandise later, I am sitting down to watch it again in anticipation of the saga’s encroaching release on Blu-ray.

The problem with Star Wars, however – and there’s a sentence I never thought I’d type – is that it doesn’t feel like a movie. It feels like so much more than that. A childhood spent mimicking the sound of a YT-1300 light freighter (not) making the jump to lightspeed; the rush of endorphins that dutifully follows the recitation of the series’ theme music; a deep conviction that Han Solo shot first; and a general aversion to any religion which doesn’t grant you Force powers and a complimentary lightsaber. It’s a part of who I am.

And it all started here: in garish yellow print before a jaw-dropping pan through space, right into the centre of a heated exchange between an asthmatic masked invalid and a princess of dubious nobility. Right in the centre of the action are two droids – the heart and mouth of a franchise that is taking its first gasps of life. R2D2 (Kenny Baker) and C3PO (Anthony Daniels) – or The Simpsons’ gay droids from Star Wars – are given a message meant for Alec Guinness (Alec Guinness) and carted off to the nearby planet of Tatooine, where they are quickly captured by a gang of intergalactic hoodlums and sold to a young farm-boy (Mark Hamill) and his Aunt and Uncle.

When Darth Vader (David Prowse) and Darth Vader’s voice (James Earl Jones) realise that precious information has been leaked, he sends his gleaming white Stormtroopers in search of the escaped droids. R2D2, determined to complete the mission set him by Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and deliver the plans to Mr. Guinness, leads Luke Skywalker and C3PO away from the farm moments before his relatives are searched and killed by Stormtroopers. United in the desert, Alec Guinness tells Luke that he once knew his father, having fought with him in the Clone Wars (you had to be there…or maybe you didn’t) as Jedi Knights.

With nowhere else to go, Luke accompanies Alec, along with chauffeurs Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) to the planet Alderaan aboard Han’s ship, the Millennium Falcon. Finding the planet in ruin, literally, they encounter a fighter ship nearby and inadvertently follow it into range of a giant, moonlike structure’s tractor-beam. Captured by this Death Star, Luke and Han discover that the princess is being held captive and is to be executed. Setting out to save her while Alec Guinness disables the space-station’s tractor-beam, they run afoul of a group of Stormtroopers and are forced to make an immediate escape. Fleeing aboard the Falcon, minus Alec Guiness who was killed in battle with Darth Vader, our heroes are followed back to a rebel base on Yavin IV, where they are forced to stand up to the Death Star before it can attack, and destroy Vader’s Empire once and for all.

As if you didn’t know. Star Wars, and this original film in particular, has punctured public awareness and dominated pop culture like no other. Phrases like “May The Force be with you”, “These are not the droids you’re looking for” and “The regional governors now have direct control over their territories” (OK, maybe not so much) have become common-place, almost independent of their source. While Trekkies hid in their basements, practising their Vulcan nerve pinches and sharpening their home-made bat’leths, the masses embraced Star Wars completely, as the droids left their mark on the Hollywood walk of fame and Jedi even became a practised religion in its own right.

A beautifully organic high-concept that kicks the traditional fairy-tale into orbit, George Lucas has created a film that speaks to people of all ages, helping to form the blockbuster concept and inspiring a generation of filmmakers to pick up the mantle. The film’s legacy is incredible, not only making way for another five instalments but sowing the seeds for Pixar (through Industrial Light and Magic) to later reap, patenting a lived-in future to be fervently mimicked by everyone from Ridley Scott and James Cameron to Joss Whedon, as well as instigating  innumerable other stylistic and technological innovations without which modern cinema couldn’t conceivably exist.

While there may be naysayers who claim Star Wars to be derivative, poorly written and over-blown (and who may, dare I say, even have a point), there is no denying that Star Wars is much more than the sum of its parts. Taking characters from The Hidden Fortress (1958)scenes from The Dam Busters (1955) and elements of the setting from Dune (1984), Lucas has nevertheless worked his influences into something endlessly compelling, beautifully realised and utterly timeless; something that has inevitable gone on to pay its own dividends in terms of homages (take a bow, Robot Chicken and Family Guy). Star Wars may just be a kids movie, a Saturday morning matinee in the vein of Flash Gordon, but it’s so rewatchable, so entertaining and so completely majesterial that that is of no consequence whatsoever.

Laying foundations that will be built upon (and…well, the opposite of built upon) by its two sequels and three prequels, Star Wars has continued to represent the very best in sound design, special effects and blockbuster filmmaking, overcoming its flaws with an inherent quality that is perhaps best evidenced in John Williams’ continued loyalty to the  franchise. Say what you will about clunky dialogue (who wouldn’t have a bad feeling about this?!), infantile comic relief (BUT SIR! C3PO remains my favourite character) and Lucas’ incessant tinkering that accompanies every re-release (OK, I’ve got nothing), but only a crazy person could find fault in a film which has brought us Williams’ titanic ‘Main Title’ and iconic score (‘The Imperial March’ didn’t come until later, the unmatched ‘Dual of the Fates’ until even later still).

But, whatever Star Wars means to cinema, however much money it made George Lucas (at last count: lots) and regardless of how thankful James Cameron might be that he was spared a career as a truck driver, I will always remember Star Wars as that little film that blew my mind. For years all I wanted was to be a Jedi, a Corellian spice smuggler, or, Hell, a Jawa if I flunked school. I loved Star Wars like I’d never loved a film before, and continue to love it to this day. Seriously, just ask my lightspeed impression, it’s very convincing.