I have tried to keep this journal entry spoiler-free, but I feel it is only fair to warn you that it is all about The Force Awakens. If, like me, you would prefer to avoid any discussion of the film until after you have seen it, then you may want to bookmark this and come back to it.
And just hurry up and see the film, for heaven’s sake!
There’s a new Star Wars film out. What’s that? You hadn’t heard. It had passed you by completely.
I don’t believe that for a minute.
I went to see The Force Awakens last night. Full disclosure: I am 33 years old and I was quite excited. It’s important to say that my excitement-levels were way below those that I experienced in 1999 for The Phantom Menace. I hardly need to explain how enthusiastically a geeky 17-year-old greeted that film, nor how that self-same enthusiasm would wain over the course of the prequels and the intervening decade and a half. Them tales are hardly new, and hardly mine alone.
You may also wonder why I am sitting down to write about Star Wars at all, what with this being a blog about writing. For a start, this is not a blog (see here) and this is also not really a website about writing. It sort of is, but it is more a website about stories. And that’s what gives Star Wars its appeal: the story-telling.
An expanding universe
Star Wars – the first one (or the fourth one, if you are as pedantic about these things as I am) – has been much-commented-upon as being an archetypal tale of heroes and villains, princesses and wise wizards. Which it is. And from that perspective, it is but one in a long line of such stories. For me, however, it was not just a film. It is a jumping-off point. Its success led to sequels, which expanded on the mythology and broadened the universe in which it existed. We saw new worlds, we learned more about the mystical forces that powered the stories (quite literally, the force) and we saw a deepening of the relationships between the characters. Han and Leia. Luke and Darth Vader.
It also led, from the mid-nineties onward (the perfect timing for someone born in 1982) to the expanded universe. And this, my little padawans, is where the story-telling really came to the fore for me. There were books. There were comics. In 1996, we had Shadows of the Empire. The films were full of fleetingly-seen creatures and characters that were incidental – nay, irrelevant – to the main thrust of the story. But in the stories of the expanded universe these men, women, aliens and droids became the centres of their own stories. That was very exciting to me.
Here was a universe that had innumerable tales within it. As long as people had the imagination, there were new stories to be wrung from the humble (okay, not-quite-so-humble) beginnings that were the original trilogy of films. And I lapped them up, to begin with at least. Soon, the pace of the Star Wars machine outran my budget, available time and, quite possibly, my enthusiasm. But the stories kept coming.
The dark side…
Then came the prequel trilogy. This is not a rant about those films, largely because I actually think that they are not that bad. True, you might have to bribe me quite substantially to get me to sit down and watch The Phantom Menace again, but I still have it on DVD. It was, in fact, the first DVD I ever owned; even before we owned a DVD player (don’t ask, I had to watch it on our family PC – ask your parents).
But Star Wars films shouldn’t really be “not that bad”. They should be filled to the brim with incidental characters and creatures that are jumping-off points for all sorts of other stories. It might just be me, but I cannot get excited for a story about Watto. The third alien at the back behind Jabba in Return of the Jedi? Absolutely. Tell me their tale. But Watto? Nah, you’re alright.
I cannot claim to have kept up with all of the expanded universe that exploded around the prequel trilogy, but my limited exposure to it tells me that the best of the new tales sprung from the things that existed outside of the films, not from the films themselves. The Clone Wars, for example. That had some interesting new characters and some stories to tell. I’m sure there are others, but I didn’t find them in the films themselves. The aim of that trilogy, I believe, was to drive you towards that final showdown on Mustafar at the end of The Return of the Sith. That is the scene that sets up Episodes Four, Five and Six. And it was pretty exciting to watch. But it didn’t really need a trio of films to get us there.
And the light
So… The Force Awakens. How does that fare?
For a start, I really enjoyed it. As a film. It is visually exciting and bold and it keeps your attention. Plus it’s funny. Far funnier than I remember any of the other Star Wars films being. It kicks along at a fair pace and it strikes an appropriate balance between the new characters and the returning cast. I had some worries that the old faces wouldn’t work: that they would either focus too heavily on the heroes from the original films, or that they would wheel them out for an irrelevant victory lap that brought the film to a crashing halt. Happily, neither is true. They give far more screen time to a couple of the returning characters than I had expected, but they work them into the story in a believable way, alongside the new faces.
On the downside, there are some overly-familiar beats in the film. It is honouring the original trilogy, yet sometimes it finds itself treading a little too closely to the story licks that were fresher the first time around. But if it ain’t broke…
Where it really succeeds, however, is in the feeling it instilled in me as the end credits rolled and John Williams’ music filled the air. I wanted more. Spoiler alert! It leaves you on a cliffhanger. Standing on the edge of a cliff, sort of, almost, literally. It is clearly setting things up for future films and that’s fine. We want more. It’s the Empire Strikes Back approach to endings. Roll on May 2017!
But outside of the main story threads (many of which are left hanging for the future films), I wanted to know more about the universe of the film. Is Poe the new Wedge? Quite probably. What are the stories of Maz Kanata’s castle? The film fills itself with these jumping-off points, and I doubt that is accidental. If you’re cynical you would say it is Disney giving itself a million new stories to sell. If you’re a story-lover, then it is a golden opportunity.
The man in the mask
An honourary mention must go to Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren. In the run-up to the release, I did worry that he would just be a Darth Vader-a-like villain. We’ve seen that before. But – Spoiler alert! – although there are similarities (and for good reasons), he is a very different villain. Petulant, almost. And the mask doesn’t stay on for the whole film. Darth Vader he is not. Interesting he is. More please.
But I don’t like Star Wars
Then why are you still reading this? I’m going to assume that anyone who doesn’t like Star Wars has given up on this Journal entry a long time ago. Luckily, there are many other stories out there for those people.
For the rest of us, however, I think that The Force Awakens has just given us an early Christmas present. An exciting film and a return to the world-building wonder of the first films. May the force be with you.