REVIEW: “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” – Torn in two

Firstly…SPOILERS, SPOILERS, SPOILERS!!! And LOTS of them! Okay, got that? Good. Let’s move on.

I’m depressed. Not a lot. But a bit. I’m definitely down. It’s been about 15 hours since the credits rolled on the midnight screening of Star Wars: The Force Awakens and the funk is still there.

Bad movie, you ask? No, not at all. In fact, while it borrowed heavily from the original (in order to assure my generation of fans that we were in safe hands, I suspect), and while there were some story issues, it was a resounding success, both as a stand alone film and as a new start for a film series torn apart by the taint of ‘the prequels’.

So why am I depressed? Well I’ll tell you…

Han Solo is fucking dead! Yup. He dies. Now, if you remembert the first film of the previous two trilogies someone ‘big’ dies: Obi-Wan in A New Hope; Qui Gon Jinn in The Phantom Menace. So it should hardly be a surprise. Furthermore, it’s a film crowded with new characters, some of them deliberately echoing the Han Solo of the first trilogy (and it’s well done, plus Oscar Fucking Isaac – I’d almost turn for him). Moreover, it’s public knowledge that Ford kinda dislikes the role (though appreciates the work i.e. pay cheque). Pretty sure he’d rather be flying (and crashing) planes these days. On top of all that, about a month prior to the release I had pretty much come to the conclusion that Han was going to die, based partly on the absence of Luke from the trailer – ish – and poster, as well as some of the points above.

So, considering all that, why should I be so depressed about Han’s death. Well, it’s very personal. As a kid (I saw the original film in cinemas at the perfect age of 10-11, 8 times over 12-18 months), having an absent father and no siblings, Han Solo became by my father/brother. I’m serious. He was that important to me. Not that I said it out loud, or even had the conscious thought. But he was. As I grew up and ‘left behind childish things’, Han remained, the memento mori of my childhood, and one constant connection to that time.

It was, like so many people of my generation, the film that started me writing ‘for real’. I’d written some Doctor Who and Star Trek ‘fan fiction’ (no, I didn’t call it that), but Star Wars: A New Hope was ‘the big one’. And, while I was enamoured with the whole film – the story, the production values – it was first and foremost about recognising Han Solo as a fellow traveller. A kindred, albeit fictional spirit.

And so I wept. I was so deeply affected that I had to physically restrain myself from utterly losing my shit in a sold-out cinema (I know, I know, it’s my issue). And then when I came out, I still had to keep it together because I was with guests and, well, it’s just too, too weird to blubber about the death of a fictional character. And everyone was so happy about the result, so renewed with enthusiasm about Star Wars. And then, by the time we made it home, after dropping everyone off, I was emotionally balled up inside, and have remained so since.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with crying about the death of a fictional character. Plenty have. I imagine many, many kids balled their eyes out when Dumbledore died. As a 13-14 year old, I wept at Spock’s death in Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan. I was with a good friend, and he understood, and I was an adolescent. So, I had no issues letting rip. But the depth of my despair about Han’s death is something else. It is – and I kid you fucking not – up there with my reaction to the death of a friend. It’s a very, very real sense of loss. I will never see this guy again. When I wake up tomorrow, he’ll still be dead. Exactly the process you go through after the death of an actual person (or well loved pet).

I also realise that his death is the second death of my childhood. It died once, moving into adolescence and adulthood, as the joy I got from childish things just faded. Then, as often happens in adulthood (particularly after having kids), there’s a renaissance, when you start to reassess and once again enjoy certain things that marked significant moments of your childhood: movies and television; silly ornamental things. In our house (as I have had for so long), I have my Han Solo shrine. It’s nothing fancy, just a small collection of important Han Solo memorabilia over the years. Walking in the house last night and looking up at the top of a bookcase where they sit was heartbreaking. But perhaps not as gut wrenchingly awful as the moment in The Force Awakens when the Millennium Falcon rises from a valley, and seated in the orange glow of a tungsten lit cockpit is the lone figure of Chewbacca, just visible and now forever without Han.

Weird? An overreaction? Sure. Maybe. For many, probably. But for me it hurt. And, unfortunately, unlike in A New Hope (Obi-wan) or even The Phantom Menace (Qui Gon), the audience wasn’t given the time to process. It was straight onto the next scene. And that’s a shame really. Because, for all the pain it’s caused me, I recognise that Han’s death was both necessary for other characters to shine, and done with the respect such an important character deserves. And not just in the history of the Star Wars universe, but in the history of  cinema and popular culture. Turn to someone nearby (probably over the age of 10). Ask them if they know Han Solo. He’s that big a deal. And what we needed – what I absolutely needed – was a moment to really grieve. To just ball my eyes out. Even if Han himself would’ve shrugged it off with a great quip.

As for the film, you ask? Simply, it’s a great reignition of a series that stalled after the horror of the prequels. Abrams brings back the joy and excitement. The visuals are spectacular, but not overstated. Abrams’ insistence on using as many in-camera visual effects as possible has paid off in spades. It’s feels real (unlike almost any moment in the prequels). The new characters are deserving of a place in the Star Wars universe (Finn is the shakiest, but may turn out to be the most interesting by the end of the third film). The casting of Adam Driver – which I was incredibly dubious about – is the real coup. It reminds me of the casting of Krysten Ritter in Jessica Jones: surprising, but in the end perfect. Morally dubious, powerful, but also vulnerable. His performance, along with the energy of Daisy Ridley’s work, is a real stand out. And the rest of the cast is very solid, including the smaller roles where they punch well above their ‘screen-time weight’. The always wonderful Oscar Isaac brings the cajones and the humour. John Bodega is nuanced in a perhaps the most difficult part of the major three. Domhnall Gleeson, in one of the smaller roles, is manically brilliant. BB-8 is a wonderfully realised addition to our beloved droid’s gallery. And, yes, Ford is once more in top form as everyone’s favourite smuggler and all-round rogue

Not that there aren’t issues – and unsurprisingly they’re story and script related. Essentially, the film is an unapologetic reboot of A New Hope, right down to it’s very own Death Star with a convenient flaw that makes it vulnerable. Will they ever learn? Strangely, the ‘world’ isn’t established clearly enough: is the Republic in charge? Are the Rebels (now Resistance) still a bunch of rag-tag soldiers…30 years on? What’s going on? I suspect the novelisation might clear it up. Then there’s Leia and Han’s reconnection after years apart. Even as forgiving as I feel toward this film, it was a little hard to take, with dialogue as creaky as hell (sadly, along with Fisher’s performance). And then there was the length. A good 15-20 minutes too long, with a final scene straight out of the Peter Jackson ‘Milk-the-shit-out-of-it’ handbook. The only shot I can think of with a longer hold then this one was at the end of Taylor Hackford’s Proof of Life, with it’s almost homoerotic obsession with Russell Crowe’s face. I’m sure it’s on YouTube. Watch it. It’ll leave you squirming.

Having said all that – including the painful emotional stuff (and apologies/congratulation for going through it) – Star Wars: The Force Awakens must be seen as a resounding success, at the very least in successfully restoring the series to it’s place on top of Franchise Hill. It’s fun, full of joy and pathos, and, most importantly, bodes well for the future.

May the Force Be With You*…always.

*still, keep a blaster at your side just in case.

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