Tuesday, 24 November 2015

"There has been an awakening..."

As we prepare to return to a galaxy far, far away, we explain why Star Wars: The Force Awakens is truly a new hope.

Of course, we've been here before. Back in 1999, the world was united in excitement about a new Star Wars outing. Every generation has a legend. Every saga has a beginning, we were told – and we couldn't get enough of it. The trailers were fantastic, so much so that there were stories of people buying tickets for a film, watching the Star Wars teaser and going home before the feature presentation even started. The trailers had promised epic lightsaber duels, incredible visuals, Skywalkers and the familiar sound of Darth Vader breathing...

It was supposed to be the seminal moment for a generation who had grown up feeling the Force, but instead we got trade disputes, senate chambers, a whiny kid, dodgy wigs and Jar Jar Binks. It was as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror, and refused to be silenced because the increasingly influential internet gave them the chance to vocalise their criticism of every little detail.

While the Star Wars prequels arguably aren't the complete disasters many people will tell you, they did get an awful lot wrong, tarnishing the unconditional love we felt for the Star Wars saga. A cynic might argue that Star Wars: The Force Awakens, also known as Episode VII, is destined for a similar fate to Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace (1999). But we don't think there is much danger of that. Okay, we have perhaps come to terms with the fact that Episode VII probably won't be the best movie ever – it is unlikely to even be the best Star Wars movie – but right now there are certainly enough good reasons to get excited about The Force Awakens to fill a space cruiser.

It has been three years since Walt Disney Pictures handed George Lucas a cool $4 billion for the keys to his Star Wars empire. Even though we have yet to see a single movie, it is already looking like the bargain of the century. There were moans back in 2012 that the move would lead to the Disneyfication of that galaxy far, far away – Jar Jar Binks with Mickey Mouse ears, perhaps – but that hellish vision doesn't seem to have come to pass. In fact, as they have done with Marvel, Disney seem content to allow Lucasfilm to make Star Wars the way they want to, with minimal interference from the boardroom – the trailers have even omitted the Cinderella castle Walt Disney Pictures branding. Disney are clearly savvy enough to know that they mess with the Star Wars fan base at their peril and that they could throw away a whole lot of good will (and potential dollars) if they get it wrong. Let's not forget that the Marvel movies since the Disney buyout have generally been better and more adventurous than the ones before.

If that fan focused approach was ever in doubt, look at the choice of director for The Force Awakens. When Disney bought Star Wars, J.J. Abrams was attached to the rebooted Star Trek movies, and initially turned down their approach. "I quickly said that, being a fan, I wouldn't even want to be involved in the next version of those things," he said at the time. "I'd rather be in the audience not knowing what was coming, rather than being involved in the minutiae of making them." Lucasfilm boss Kathleen Kennedy refused to take no for an answer, however, and eventually got her man. The lure of Tatooine, TIE Fighters and the Millennium Falcon was just too much for a guy whose solution for rebooting Star Trek was to make it more like Star Wars.

Like the other directors hired for the forthcoming Star Wars films between now and 2020 – Rian Johnson (Looper) for Episode VIII, Colin Trevorrow (Jurassic World) for Episode IX, Gareth Edwards (Godzilla) for Star Wars Anthology: Rogue One, and Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (The Lego Movie) for the Han Solo standalone – Abrams is a huge Star Wars fan. He doesn't have to guess what someone might love about a Star Wars movie because it is part of his DNA, the original movie being one of the formative cinematic experiences that shaped his desire to become a filmmaker. Even George Lucas, the man who created the franchise, didn't have that hotline to the fans when he came to make the prequels – arguably one of the reasons the films he wanted to make were so far removed from what the Star Wars faithful desired. And if Abrams ever wanted to get back to the spirit of the original trilogy, he had the good sense to draft Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Star Wars: Episode VI - Return Of The Jedi (1983) screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan to co-write when Academy Award® winner Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine) departed.

Abrams – and Lucasfilm as a whole – appear to be using the prequels as a guide of 'what not to do' with a Star Wars movie. Much has been made of the decision to film as much live action as possible, with real sets, costumes and props. When even BB-8, the physics defying ball droid, was revealed as a practical effect – even though it would have arguably been easier to create digitally – it was clear we were stepping into new territory. This is a welcome return to the lived in, used universe chic that reinvented screen science fiction back in 1977, and a much-needed departure from the digital cartoon sheen that made sure the prequels dated faster than movies two decades their senior.

And on paper the story after Return Of The Jedi has much more appeal than the prequels' predictable Empire wins/Darth Vader rises conclusion. We are in virgin storytelling territory here, every plot twist taking us somewhere new and unexpected. It makes complete dramatic sense that the death of the Emperor and the destruction of the second Death Star didn't actually lead to century long jubilation. The names of the factions may have changed in the 30 years since Return Of The Jedi – the First Order and the Resistance subbing for the Empire and the Rebellion – but the battle clearly continues. And the Star Wars universe is certainly more exciting when there is conflict at its core.

It is a chance for ordinary people on forgotten planets to come to the fore and become heroes. The prequels were completely lacking in characters we could relate to, humans and aliens battling the odds, and engaging character arcs – the Jedi were more or less indestructible, had limitless resources and were effectively superheroes. We may not know much about Finn (John Boyega) and Rey (Daisy Ridley), but it is already clear that they are cut more from the Han/Luke/Leia outsider template than say Obi-Wan or even Anakin.

And then there are all the fan buttons the movie is hitting. The Millennium Falcon, Stormtroopers, Han, Luke, Leia, Chewbacca, C-3PO, R2-D2... If Abrams did nothing else, they could have brought back those elements and still been on the right track. Those icons are the reasons we fell in love with Star Wars in the first place – we have seen movies without (most of) them, and there is no doubt that Star Wars movies work better with the screech of a TIE Fighter or Han Solo being, well, Han Solo. Because Star Wars is unique. People may love the Lord Of The Rings and Marvel films, but they live Star Wars. For millions of people, the original trilogy transported them to new worlds, and completely immersed them in a galaxy that while clearly never existed, always felt incredibly real – opening the door to big screen science fiction in a way nothing before or since has managed.

So look beyond the inevitable merchandise overload – this is, after all, as much a capitalistic endeavour as it is an artistic one – and believe the hype. For kids it is a chance to visit worlds unlike any they have seen before, for adults (and you get the sense this is who the movie has been designed for), this is the opportunity to be transported back to how we felt watching the originals all those years ago.

The Force Awakens, it's calling to you. Just let it in.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens opens in cinemas on 17 December.

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