Film & TV

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is lots of fun | SPOILER ALERT!

Star Wars is back! And so is SPOILER ALERT – the deep-dive film/TV chat series where I chat rubbish while talking about specific aspects of things I’ve recently shoved into my eyeballs. It’s called SPOILER ALERT! because there will be spoilers. It’s a series of articles for after you’ve watched something and you want to talk about it, and geek out over all of the little slices of awesomeness within.

So it seems fitting to kick things back off again with new Star Wars.

I really liked The Force Awakens when I first saw it, but it demanded a second viewing before I could splurge my mind nuggets onto a virtual page. There’ll be a video to come soon, once I’m back in London and surrounded by working tech and decent internet (Somerset is not great for net speeds – amazing cider though) but for now, here are some rambling thoughts about Episode VII…

First up, I missed the 20th Century Fox fanfare. I know, I know, it’s Disney now, and I sort of appreciated how Disney respectfully declined to shove their logo in front of everything. That said, X-Wings descending on the Disney palace would have been cool, but would also have probably sent the wrong message.

That slight disappointment was banished completely by the main theme, the scrolling text, the familiar camera drop. The Force Awakens as a whole felt like a Star Wars film, imbued with the spirit of the original trilogy in terms of cinematography, gentle humour, themes, settings, and more. It’s possibly the bloodiest chapter yet (Anakin’s turn in the prequels would have been darker had ol’ Haydn been able to act without looking like he had severe piles, the writers treating it as a process rather than a switch flip would’ve been good too) but it’s also a wonderfully fun, sometimes silly adventure.

And I loved that.

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I’ll get on to Rey and Finn and the new human characters, but I can’t help but feel that BB-8 is the true star of this film. He’s somehow even more cuddly than Artoo, and the familiarity of entrusting a personality-stuffed droid with a bunch of secret plans/maps/info for the Rebels/Resistance was a nice parallel. Abrams does this a lot – he’s a master of pastiche, and it’s important to recognise The Force Awakens for what it is: a hard reset for a beloved legacy. There’s playful reverence at work here, but I think it enhances the film rather than takes away from it. Unlike A New Hope, which was standalone, The Force Awakens is the bridge between the classic trilogy and the start of this new one. It’s a doorway film, and it just needed to say two things: “Hey, Star Wars is back, but new!” and “We didn’t fuck it up!”

Anyway, back to BB-8. He reminds me of my tomcat, Olly, and there’s a moment when he discovers Artoo, and tugs off the blanket, and just headbutts him that reminded me so much of my lovely (but slightly dim) cat, who just bashes his head into everyone’s shins as a sign of affection. It just killed me in the cinema. I was watching with my girlfriend, and that moment just slayed us completely. See also: that moment where BB-8 trundles slowly, adorably down Maz Kanata’s staircase.

He also gives the best thumbs-up ever.

The film’s opening was brilliant, the heavy horns that usher in Kylo Ren’s shuttle sent shivers down my spine, and Adam Driver’s physicality is outstanding. You can feel the rage steaming from him, the aggression in every single movement. I love that his lightsaber seems to have been cobbled together such that the crystal inside isn’t quite refining the beam correctly. It hisses and spits as if it’s been put together too quickly – perhaps a sign of unfinished training, or simply that Kylo Ren’s laser stick is just as angry as he is.

Kylo/Ben Solo is a brilliant villain, and I’m so glad that his character seems to be an amalgam of Star Wars Legends baddies. The obvious parallel is Jacen Solo, but there are others in there – the hubris and penchant for star destroying of Kyp Durron, the ambivalent struggles of Kyle Katarn and Galen Marek (Starkiller). A colleague of mine theorised that Han would die in this film, and given the passing-of-the-torch nature of this new trilogy, it made perfect sense. I love the inversion of the Force-oriented struggle. For Luke it has always been about protecting against the seduction of the Dark Side, but Ren is worried about the pervasive calling of the Light. He worships the twisted mask of his dead and burned grandfather, and I look forward to seeing more of him in the future films and learning his backstory. Surely we must be in store for some flashbacks?

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Kylo Ren is also wonderfully juxtaposed with the other leaders of the First Order. Domhnall Gleeson’s Hux is that most disdainful of career officers born into power. His posture tells the entire story, head titled back, constantly looking down his nose at everyone and everything. He despises Ren and resents his position. Then there’s Phasma – the consummate Stormtrooper. Underutilised in this film, certainly, but history tells us that people shoved into trash compactors can find a way out. That all being said, I thought Supreme Leader Snoke was a bit shit. First of all, Snoke is the worst name for a villain I’ve heard in some time. I’m sure we’ll learn more about him in the coming films, but he was a bit of a non-entity. Even Andy Serkis doing a sinister voice wasn’t really enough to imbue this blown-up hologram with much menace.

This seems as good a place as any to talk about the music. My first viewing, I was underwhelmed. There are so many themes, memorable refrains and movements in the original trilogy (and actually the prequels for that matter, Duel of the Fates anyone?) that my inability to pluck any out of this film felt odd. But a second viewing changed that. Rey’s Theme permeates so much of the score, often quite subtly, but it’s a theme of curiosity and wonder – not yet heroic. Ren’s bombastic horns herald his arrival on several occasions, demonstrating power, aggression, and demanding that you yield. So much of the soundtrack spins out from these two themes, with elements of both popping up here and there throughout. It’s only when we arrive at “The Abduction” that they come together, with horns eventually overpowering the woodwind instruments of Rey’s musical signature. The old Alliance fanfares are used very sparingly, and mostly in conjunction with the older characters. But we know who they are and, perhaps more importantly, they know who they are. Rey and Finn are just finding out where the hell they fit into this fragmented, broken universe.

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So, Rey and Finn. Rey is going to make for a fantastic protagonist for little girls to look up to. She’s capable, but cautious, yet she has the same sort of capacity for proactive faith in what is right that Luke showed – though Rey shows a much greater degree of patience in her determination to remain on Jakku in contrast to Luke’s yearning to escape the similar planet of Tatooine. (Side note: I do sort of wish that Jakku hadn’t been the spitting image of Tatooine. Parallels are nice and all, but couldn’t you have still had the remains of a galaxy-shaking battle scattered across a world that was slightly different?)

I did feel that perhaps the film could actually have been maybe 15 or 20 minutes longer in terms of fleshing out her progression from touching Luke’s saber to fighting Kylo Ren. The shift in pace is right for the film as a whole, but Rey’s development feels a little rushed, and undercuts the final battle a bit, particularly when you see just how powerful Kylo Ren is in the opening scenes of the film. Sure, she’s testing out her powers, and she’s a swift learner, but I still found myself having to suspend some serious fantastical disbelief on top of everything else. I know that might seem wildly hypocritical with everything else that’s happening in the film, but that really didn’t sit quite right with me. It was as if the writers had two points and needed to draw a line between them, but sort of fudged it.

The bit where Rey steps off the Falcon and just sees Leia, and Carrie Fisher is acting the hell out of her eyes (mainly because the rest of her face doesn’t really move), and they just wordlessly embrace with Han dead and Finn unconscious…floored me completely. It also underlines that the galaxy would be fucked without these two women. In the aftermath of The Massive New Jedi Omnishambles (not the official name) and the rise of Kylo Ren, Luke goes bonkers and hides himself away, and Han returns to “the only thing he knows” and the remnants of his life before the Rebellion. It’s Leia who rolls up her sleeves and gets her hands dirty. Han and Luke both reset to what they were doing before A New Hope – smuggling and mooching around  the middle of nowhere, respectively. Leia embraces her role at the end of Return of the Jedi, casts off the “Princess” tag and carries on as “General”. She’s too much of a badass to not fight for what’s right, and it seems that the same can be said of Rey.

Finn is the perfect counterpoint. He also has this conscience, but none of Rey’s skills. He stumbles through the film, picking up whatever weapon he can find, and often getting bested. But he’s ruled far more by the fear of the things he’s seen and been asked to do. Yet that is offset by the loyalty he instantly shows when someone recognises him as more than a number and believes he has something to offer. He’s wrong when he tells Rey that she looks at him like no one ever has, he’s forgetting his feel-good bromance with Poe in that moment. The banter is superb, and Boyega’s delivery and energy are huge reasons that Finn is so endearing.

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So that’s quite a lot. And I haven’t even talked about the brilliant cantina scene, or Oscar Isaac’s perfect hair, or Chewie’s cathartic rampage when Han disappears off that bridge, and how choked up I got when he came back for Finn and Rey and you realise that the seat next to him is empty. Or how Han and Leia’s theme just made me want to bawl my eyes out, and the way Leia just slumps when she feels Han’s loss through the Force, and how much I kind of hate Luke at that moment because how the hell can he not know…he felt the possibility of bad Things Happening On Cloud City, but was too wrapped up and bearded to see Han’s death? Seriously, the next film better have some seriously unhinged Hamill in it, because if Luke is even remotely sane, this isn’t going to make any sense. He got to really have no fucks to give.

I liked The Force Awakens the first time around. I loved it the second. It played things pretty safe, but that’s what you want from a bridge: stability. I found it to be exciting, thrilling, moving and fun. It had heart and charm that wasn’t forced (forgive the pun) and it left plenty of unanswered questions for the next two films to answer while also telling us “It’s okay, this is still Star Wars”.

Also, Mark Hamill has some serious beard game.