Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Film Review - Star Wars: The Force Awakens (12A)

Chewie, we're home.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens made me a fan. 

I should have been on board with Star Wars long ago - the first film was released when I was nine, so I was target audience! But the Iveagh cinema was a distant nine miles away in Banbridge, and we weren't a cinema-going family, so the whole phenomenon passed me by. I was in my twenties by the time I watched the original trilogy on VCR. By then Star Wars was such a part of popular culture that I knew who was going to die and all about the Skywalkers' complex family dynamics. It was a fine way to pass a few hours, but the real magic was sadly lost on me. 
And then there were the prequels. What can I say about the prequels?
They were really, really bad, and in so many ways.

Nonetheless I went to the cinema last Christmas with hope of something better. The trailers were intriguing, the buzz was positive and the fans were positively foaming with expectation. At least, I figured, I'd bathe vicariously in the enjoyment of those who'd watched Star Wars as kids, and in the enjoyment of their kids.

And then something miraculous happened. 

It began with a frisson when Luke Skywalker got a mention in the traditional scrolling prologue at the film's opening. Then the new young leads were introduced - a devil-may-care rebel fighter pilot called Poe, a conflicted storm-trooper who adopted 'Finn' as his name and Rey, a feisty scavenger with a knack for self-preservation. They were energetic and funny, sparking with chemistry and thus igniting the story for a whole new Star Wars audience and for me. 
As for the chief villain, he was young and prone to fits of psychotic rage, but also had an interesting streak of vulnerability. This guy was much more than Darth Vader 2.0, in other words.
That was all before Han Solo's famous spacecraft made its first appearance. As John Williams' original theme soared, I was thinking, Look! It's the Millennium Falcon! like it finally mattered to me. The newbies were taking control of the franchise along with the ship, getting into all kinds of scrapes in their commandeered vehicle... and then they were joined by members of the old-guard, who looked grizzled (Han) and matted (Chewbacca), but like life-long friends returned. I was sold. This film franchise mattered to me. And from there it only got better - and sadder, and more thrilling, right to the perfect final shot.
The Force Awakens gets so much right that the abominable prequels didn't. The Star Wars universe looks solid again - big studio sets, along with real forests and actual deserts. The cast are interacting with stuff, not swimming in a great soup of computer-generated images. The fight scenes have heft and the jeopardy is real. The script is playful rather than ponderous. The protagonist is female and rescues herself. Even the new robot is properly endearing. 
Basically the whole thing is old-school Saturday matinee fun, with an new injection of life and surprising emotional weight. It retreads all the story beats of the original films, it's true - but somehow that doesn't matter. It's executed beautifully, this cowboys-in-space tale, and with love. So much so that I got it. I understood.

For the first time I watched Star Wars not as a cynical adult, but as that nine-year-old boy who missed it the first time around. And that's an experience to cherish.

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