This article contains spoilers. If you are a Star Wars fan and have not seen the new movie and intend to catch it later, then you may want to wait before you read this piece
I’ve never been big on space. I loathe most science fiction (there: I’ve said it!), found all versions of the Star Trek TV show a little silly, have not seen Avatar and the only science-fiction movies I’ve ever liked (such as Ridley Scott’s brilliant Blade Runner – of which I have now seen three cuts!) have been those that are big on atmosphere and ambience rather than the ones that are more plot-focused.
Which brings us to Star Wars. For people of my generation, it is usually regarded as the defining film of our times. The conventional wisdom has it that Hollywood made great, quirky, serious, adult pictures before Star Wars came along. But the stupendous success of that movie changed all the rules. Now studios only make big, fantasy movies with special effects that have merchandising options (action figures, toys, video games, etc) and allow them to make sequels, or even create franchises.
Watch Star Wars The Force Awakens trailer
This may or may not be true (though on balance I think that it is a fair assessment) but Star Wars did not start off that way. When the original movie came out in 1977, nobody had any great expectations from it. Its director George Lucas had once been part of the trendy clique that surrounded Francis Ford Coppola but had wandered off to make more escapist fare, losing esteem in the eyes of his peers. (Trivia lovers and nerds will point to a scene in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now where a prissy military officer played by a then-unknown Harrison Ford was called ‘G. Lucas’.)
Lucas had to fight to get the financing to make the movie and when the first cut was ready, he still had not shot the spaceship battles and so he inserted footage of World War II dogfights to convey the effect he hoped to achieve in the finished movie.
Many legends – some of them apocryphal – surround that picture. There is, first of all, the strange case of Alec Guinness, the one real star in the cast, who later suggested to friends that he had not got his fair percentage of the box-office takings. Though Guinness came back for the sequels, he hated Star Wars. There is a famous story of a young girl who went up to him and said that she had loved his portrayal of Obi Wan Kenobi in Star Wars. Apparently, Guinness then leant down and told her quite solemnly: You must promise never to see a Star Wars film again.
Another story refers to Lucas’s famously clunky dialogue. According to this tale, Harrison Ford once told Lucas, on the sets, “You can type this shit, George, but you sure as hell can’t say it aloud”. (There are many versions of the exact line, but the story seems to be largely accurate.)
And yet, when Star Wars was finally released in the US, it received largely favourable reviews and smashed box-office records turning its catchphrase “May the Force be with you” into one of the most-quoted lines in the history of the movies. (Our Prime Minister used it at a gathering in New York a year ago, standing next to Wolverine, thus marvellously garbling franchises.)
I was at university in England when the first film came out and British critics were less than impressed. Bernard Levin, then the most famous columnist in the land, wrote that the fantasy elements (including Darth Vader) were inspired by The Lord of the Rings (then, unfilmed) and said that he’d never seen an uglier lead pair (Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill) outside of a movie actually called The Uglies.
But because so many of my college friends loved the movie, I dropped my usual objections to space pictures and went and saw it. I remember being struck by the pace of the film. You had the sense that the story had begun sometime ago and would continue far into the future. You were just seeing one episode in a much longer saga. There were some great performances (Harrison Ford who became a star on the strength of that movie and – as much as he might have hated it – Alec Guinness), great characterisation (the robots who were nicely humanised and, of course, Darth Vader) and a wonderful sense of pace. No wonder that hard-to-fund first movie extended into a trilogy.
And so I went back to see the next movie, The Empire Strikes Back and eventually, Return of the Jedi. By the end, I had turned into quite the Star Wars fan, thrilling to Yoda’s inverted syntax, giggling at C3PO and R2D2 and gasping as Darth Vader was revealed to be Luke Skywalker’s father. I loved the central, very un-Christian and extremely Eastern (Hinduism-Buddhism) idea of a Force that went beyond religion.
And then it all ended. Alec Guinness died. Harrison Ford became Indiana Jones. Carrie Fisher married Paul Simon. Mark Hamill was reduced to voicing Batman in the cartoon show. And George Lucas focused on Industrial Light and Magic, his special effects company. Star Wars had been fun. But it was over.
Most people of my generation reacted with joy when Lucas announced that he was reviving Star Wars at the end of the ’90s.We didn’t even mind when he said that these would be prequels and that, in this new chronology, the first Star Wars movie would now be called Episode Four.
It is hard to overstate how disappointed we were by the terrible movies Lucas produced for the second trilogy. The first movie, The Phantom Menace (released in 1999), was so dull that I had to struggle to stay awake for its interminable length. The original cast was gone. There was a terrible Ewan McGregor trying to sound like Alec Guinness as he played a young Obi Wan Kenobi and Lucas’s dialogues were even worse than usual. Lucas was so determined to reclaim Star Wars for himself that he wanted to have nothing to do with the team that starred in the first trilogy. Mark Hamill complained that they did not even invite him to the premiere.
I saw the second of the new films hoping that it would be an improvement. It wasn’t. And then I didn’t waste my time watching the third.
Eventually Lucas gave up and sold the rights to Star Wars to Disney, who announced a new movie and handed the project to JJ Abrams, the go-to-guy for rebooting franchises in Hollywood (Abrams revived Star Trek).
They kept Lawrence Kasdan, an original Lucas collaborator (he wrote some Indiana Jones movies too, which Lucas produced though Steven Spielberg directed) to oversee the script. And they pretended that the embarrassing second trilogy had not occurred. Instead they went back to the first trilogy, setting the action 30 years after the events of Return of the Jedi.
Would I like it, I wondered. I am still no fan of space and sci-fi. And to tell you the truth, I have not seen any of the Star Wars movies again on DVD. All I have is my memory of watching them in the theatres, over 30 years ago.
So I am delighted to report that I enjoyed the new movie a lot more than I had expected. I was particularly thrilled by Abrams’s decision to replicate the pace of the first movie: you feel that the story started long ago (well, 1977, at any rate!) and will keep going. Plus the film is full of references to the original movies. In the first film, R2D2 carries a holographic message to Luke who is living on a desert planet without his parents. Here, the robot BB-8 carries a holographic map and is found by Rey, who lives without her parents on a junkyard planet. In the original trilogy, Luke is Darth Vader’s son. Here, the new villain Kylo Ren is Han Solo’s son. The original trilogy had a Death Star. This film rehashes the same idea. And so on.
Plus there is Harrison Ford. I surprised myself by recognising Han Solo’s ship, the Millennium Falcon, when it appeared on the screen (without Han) and when another guy claimed ownership, I thought I had got it wrong. But no, suddenly when you least expect them, Han Solo and Chewie show up. And after that, it is Ford’s movie all the way through. No surprises there: with Han Solo around, who else stands a chance?
But for all the quotes and in-jokes from the first trilogy (when Ford meets Carrie Fisher again, he says “You have changed your hair!”, a reference to her notorious buns in the first Star Wars), this is a thoroughly modern movie which also echoes Game of Thrones and has a heroine who would not be out of place in The Hunger Games.
So should you go and see it? Of course! I still loathe space movies. But Star Wars is different. And this picture echoes the best of the first trilogy.
Lucas has gone. Long live Star Wars!
From HT Brunch, January 3, 2016
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