Episodes I and VII have a similar concept - both go back to a desert planet similar to Luke Skywalker; in The Phantom Menace it was still Tatooine, in Awakens, its analogue world Jakku. Both seek to emulate the pattern of the original film, although considering the "it's just a remake" cries from critics of the new film, Lucas' first prequel is just as guilty if more, right down to the victory parade that makes up the finale. But again, it's the re-occurance of images and themes, which in this case can easily be twisted to fit the narrative of whomever wants to either praise or criticise the given work.
But fuck that. Even with its flaws, Awakens is an experience great enough to make you forget that it was preceded by a middle trilogy. The basic parts are well-constructed; Lawrence Kasdan and Abrams' script is strong enough to provide a backbone for the huge task the film has to not only remind you of Star Wars but to reinvent it, and trusts the viewer enough to fill in the gaps without explicitly stating things, something which in this era of blockbusters is not at all a sure thing. The combination of practical effects and ILM's usual knockout CGI is a lovely thing and Dan Mindel's (film, not digital) cinematography has a somewhat rough texture to it that puts it firmly in a different generation than the glossiness of the prequels and the even rawer original trilogy.
But what will draw you in are the characters. Daisy Ridley's Rey is an instant classic, interestingly the opposite of Luke circa 1977 as all she wants to do is get back home, until the pull of adventure and making a real difference is too much. John Boyega's Finn also wants to get away from it all, especially as he has a First Order-full of stormtroopers on his tail, but again knows what he should be doing rather than what he's been told to do. And then there's Oscar Isaac's Poe, the Han Solo-esque rogue with a sense of adventure and cockiness as well as loyalty, an archetype very much missing from recent adventures.
And of course Han Solo is there himself, as well as Princess (General) Leia and Chewbacca, and we're all glad to see them, with a somewhat reluctant Solo in the mentor role. But again the new generation is what makes this movie, and we not only have BB-8 - an immediate fan favourite from his debut in that trailer so many moons ago and a wonderful combination of character and effects technology - and Adam Driver's Kylo Ren. What's interesting is how young Driver's villain is, and through his story, we learn not only what positions him as a somewhat tragic figure but also how it informs his terrifyingly unpredictable nature, driven by Driver's performance. It took three movies to see Darth Vader's real face but we see his acolyte's true visage early on, and Driver's fiery eyes and mix of arrogance and self-doubt gives a real dimension to the character.
There are some parts that seem perfunctory; the Rathtar scene is not terribly interesting and some of the pilot dialogue just seems to be there again as a callback to IV (same as the even worse pilot chat scenes in I), along with a couple of comedy moments that fall flat (Chewbacca's nurse is pretty irritating), but it's so much fun that you don't really care. So many images stand out as searing into the mind; the opening twist on the standard spaceship post-crawl shot as the gigantic monstrous new Star Destroyer blocks out the light of Jakku; the distant shot of Kylo Ren's shuttle landing amongst the flames where you see the true scale; Rey sliding down an embankment, clearly having fun, behind capital ship wreckage; the lightsaber flashback; the battle in the snow forest; and that final image of Luke Skywalker, clearly haunted and conflicted by seeing his weapon brought back to him.
Accompanying the film is a feature-length documentary, The Secrets of The Force Awakens, that charts the production from genesis to release. It's an essential companion to the film, not only with fantastic looks at the development of the film and the creation of the sets and effects and such, but also conversations with the cast and crew in different stages of production (at one point Ridley and Boyega are in a room together almost interviewing each other), and not only do you understand the incredible craft that produced this film but the love and dedication behind it. Gwendoline Christie tells us how she always loved Star Wars because she felt she fit in the world, Lupita Nyong'o hums the Imperial March as she films her motion-capture scenes, and we have all sorts of family members of those who worked on the original trilogy, along with ILM vet Dennis Muren who had a big hand in every episode so far.
Along with this are several deleted scenes, including one ('Maz's Tunnel') that is exclusive to the digital version. They're all pretty cool, but none of them add anything to the film and were rightly cut. We also have featurettes on the effects, the lightsaber battle in the snow (which incredibly was a set), the creature effects, and John Williams' wonderful score. So fairly substantial, although it does feel like a bigger set is probably in the offing, perhaps for when VIII comes out - hopefully in the vein of the huge Lord of the Rings sets.
But the biggest special feature is the film. As a fan since birth, it's been a painful journey full of mid-highs and depressing lows to have more filmic Star Wars that matches the original trilogy, and I guess it's maybe ironic that it finally happened without Lucas, but we all know of the collaborative nature on 77-83 that wasn't really the case on 99-05. Anyway, enough said - I'm off to watch it again.
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