Because what the world really needs is another blog on Star Wars… My thoughts on The Force Awakens (MASSIVE SPOILERS!)

UPDATED – SCROLL DOWN FOR JOHN WILLIAMS’ THOUGHTS ON REY’S THEME…

Okay before we get into this, let’s try a little warm-up. Get on your feet, jog on the spot a bit, breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth, and just keep repeating to yourself: It’s only a film, it’s only a film, it’s only a film…

I mean, obviously, in about five hundred years’ time, after the atomic wars and the mutant uprising, Star Wars will be the basis for a worldwide religion, but until then let’s just remind ourselves that it’s a story designed to entertain and delight. I mention this only because the release of STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS has brought out the cray-cray in people, and not just the wonderful geeks queueing in cosplay, but the morons who tried and failed to generate a boycott of the film because John Boyega happens to be black, or the fuss over Max Landis’ assertion that Rey is a “Mary Sue” character, or my friend on Facebook who went off on a rant about how the whole series is “one huge expungement of western guilt”, which is an interesting interpretation of the films, perhaps straying from the filmmakers’ conscious intent, but it got him so much flak that he just got more ranty and it became embarrassing for all concerned (by the way, all of Hollywood is one huge expungement of western guilt… start picking at that thread and the whole system collapses!).

So, anyway, the film…

BE WARNED – FROM HERE WE’LL BE IN THE SPOILER ZONE – DO NOT PROCEED UNLESS YOU’VE SEEN THE FILM!

 

YOU’RE STILL HERE AND HAVEN’T SEEN THE FILM? YOU’VE ONLY GOT YOURSELF TO BLAME!

 

LAST TRAIN OUT OF SPOILERVILLE…

 

OKAY, HERE WE GO…

 

I’ve seen it twice, once in 2D, then in 3D, and I loved it both times. If anything, seeing it the second time without the weight of expectation and me being a smartarse trying to second-guess the storyline, was even more enjoyable.

It’s not perfect; essentially a greatest hits, tribute band, mash-up of the first trilogy. But with a $4.5 billion investment at stake they were always going to have to play to the gallery a bit, especially that big Chinese gallery at the back, which can make or break your membership into the billion dollar box office club, and China doesn’t have the social and historical association with the series which can guarantee a big turnout. So, the order of the day was to stick to what works and put it in a safe pair of hands… Who’s done this kind of high-risk reboot before? Hmm. That JJ guy seems to know his stuff… So let’s take all that as a given, put it to one side, and enjoy the film on its own terms. Here are my thinkings…

Things that niggled:

There is a Star Wars tradition known as the Terence Stamp Contingency, whereby they hire great actors, make a huge fuss about them in the pre-release publicity, and then not do very much with them in the finished film: here’s hoping Max Von Sydow, Domhnall Gleeson, Lupita Nyong’o, Gwendoline Christie, and the guys from THE RAID can console themselves with a few deleted scenes on the Blu-Ray.

The Maz Kanata sequence: so Finn suddenly realises out of the blue the First Order can’t be beaten, decides to do a runner and then five minutes later, he’s back. Did we believe any of that? An oddly muddled chunk of the film that could maybe have benefitted from a bit of a trim.

Snoke: he’s clearly compensating for something with that enormous hologram. Maybe he’s a Jawa fed up with jokes about his height? I’m sure more will be revealed as the series goes on (a current leading fan theory is that he’s Darth Plagueis), but for the moment he seems a tad… unfinished… The CG made me think of THE MUMMY, and that’s not a good thing.

Nostalgia: I think this harks back to the “greatest hits” agenda that set the tone for the film. I love an in-joke or callback as much as the next uberfan, but I wonder if they’ll become grating with repeated viewing? New rule for the next film: no in-jokes. Not one. Make your own history.

Stuff I’m on the fence about:

The 3D: The Star Destroyer poking out of the screen was a genuinely gasp-inducing moment, and 3D conversions have come a loooong way since I last saw one, and the aerial sequences were cool in a Disney-ride way, but I’m not sure what it added to the film, and there were a number of wide shots where small buildings looked like models. Not something I noticed with the 2D screening.

R2D2 seemed to be running a Apple OSX software update throughout the story. Seems a bit of a waste of a much-loved character, but then is there room for two cute robots in the same movie?

There are GRABBERS in the film! An odd crossover, unexpected, but welcome…

What I liked:

The opening crawl: Luke Skywalker has disappeared! Wait, what?! That’s how you grab people’s attention. None of this trade embargo balls.

Rey’s theme. The score doesn’t have an immediate, bombastic theme like the The Imperial March or Duel Of The Fates, but it does have a beautifully light and subtle theme for Rey, which makes me want to gaily skip off with a knapsack on my back and have an adventure of my own.

 

UPDATE: John Williams on Rey’s Theme and the promise of adventure…

Han’s death. We all knew that they only way they were going to get Harrison Ford back was by offering him the glorious, redemptive death scene he was denied in Return of the Jedi, didn’t we? And it was pretty heavily telegraphed from the moment Han chose to go back into the lion’s den. It didn’t quite land for me the first time, but on a second viewing there’s so much going on. I love the way he touches his son’s face before he falls away. And compare the dialogue here — “I don’t know if I have the strength to do this. Will you help me?” — to Revenge of the Sith’s “The Jedi are evil from my point of view” clunk-a-thon. These are two human beings here, father and son. Kasdan does this stuff so well, and I get a bit lip-wobbly now just thinking about it.

Kylo Ren: Now this is how you do inner-torment and a young man turning to the dark side. Adam Driver is a fine actor and Kylo Ren promises to be the most conflicted and interesting villain of the series.

Skellig Michael: The first Jedi Temple is off the South West Coast of Ireland. Whoda thunk it? And which of us will be the first to swing a lightsaber there? I hear tourist trade is already booming. It’s heartwarming to see such an extraordinary location being used to great effect. And so windswept that it’s done wonders with Luke’s hair.

Rey and Daisy Ridley: Yes, the scene where she whips Luke’s lightsaber out of the snow, yes, when she flies the Falcon through the wreck of a Super Star Destroyer, but most of all for yelling “Oi, gerrof!” in a London accent in the cockpit of the Falcon… a first for the series, I think.

Finn and John Boyega: this guy is my new hero. On the press tour he’s been funny, smart and charming, and he’s the perfect mix of fanboy and actor. He’s got great drama and comedy chops in this movie, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.

Poe Dameron: So good they brought him back from the dead. Apparently his character was supposed to die in the Tie Fighter crash, but Oscar Isaac escaped the Terence Stamp Contingency to live again, leading to one of the lamest “I woke up and you were gone” plot hole patch-ups ever. But, who cares? I want to see him and Finn having more adventures.

BB8: the adorable bastard child of R2 and Wall-E, so expressive and done for reals as shown on this cool website.

The fun: this has more gags than most comedies, and has such a delightful tone that it could draw criticism for being too light, but man that stuff is hard to get right, and this tone is the biggest callback to the original Star Wars, and one the filmmakers should definitely keep for the remaining films.

So, yes, they played it safe with the plot, and here’s hoping they’ll take a few more risks next time, but when a film is made with so much verve, love and delight that I can forgive its minor sins and enjoy for what it is. A film. An entertainment. A delight.

May the Force be with you. Always.

Skyfall and how the writers made the most of a unique opportunity **massive spoilers**

First of all, apologies for two Bond posts in a row (but it’s all Bond fever round these parts, y’know), and secondly if you haven’t seen Skyfall, then read no further. This one’s riddled with spoilers

All good? Let’s go…

Skyfall is getting the kind of notices that genre movies dream of; fans and critics alike seem to be united on praising this as one of the best Bonds ever. And it deserves it, with some great action, a fun villain and a light smattering of Komodo dragons.

But what really sets this Bond apart is that Sam Mendes and the writers have taken advantage of a fairly unique situation that gives them the chance to tell a story with real emotional heft, the likes of which Bond fans haven’t seen since On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

Just checking one more time – spoilers ahoy – anyone here who hasn’t seen the film should leave now. We’ll be here waiting for you when you get back…

Okay, as we all know, Judi Dench’s M dies at the end of the film. I guess she announced to the producers that she was retiring from the role and that she wanted to go out with a bang. So, for once in a Bond movie, we get to see the death of someone who really matters to us and to Bond. She’s been in the role since 1995, she’s done seven movies – as many as Connery and Moore – and she’s a national treasure. Everybody loves her. How often does a Bond writer get a chance like that?

So it’s great that Purvis, Wade, Logan and Mendes made the most of it and caused friends of mine, who aren’t big Bond fans, to shed a tear at the end.

But here’s the rub; some poor sod has to follow that. Okay, it’s probably going to be Logan. A fine writer. But at the end of Skyfall, we’ve hit a reset button. We have a new M, Moneypenny, and the set of M’s office now looks like the wood-panelled room of the Roger Moore era. You can’t help but feel that they’ve painted themselves into a corner and been too clever for the franchise.

I recently caught the beginning of The Man With The Golden Gun on TV and cringed at how it had the look and feel of an ATV series like The Persuaders: episodic, flat lighting and odd pacing. I don’t think for a second that Craig’s next films will end up like that, but by their nature Bond films are episodic and do seem to have a boom and bust cycle to them. So how long before Craig is driving an invisible car into a low Earth orbit space station to the tune of a penny whistle?

I once met Judi Dench. She really is lovely. Here she is giving me orders to kill the photographer.

PS. Oh and Albert Finney at the end… He was great, but do you not think that role was written with Connery in mind? 50th anniversary and all that…

PPS. Regarding Connery, I told you so…

Ending trilogies and The Dark Knight Rises (spoilers)

Please be warned: there are spoilers below. If you haven’t seen The Dark Knight Rises yet, then please come back when you have…

Winding up a trilogy is hard. You only have to look at the tombstones in the vast Graveyard of Part Threes to see how the mighty have fallen: The Godfather, The Matrix, Pirates of the Caribbean, Alien, and The Care Bears have all fallen at the final hurdle.

Even the greatest trilogies have limp, if not actually bad, final acts: Return of the Jedi, Back to the future 3, and  Spider-Man all have okay conclusions, but they’re not quite as good as previous episodes (though BTTF2 was a bit of a shambles in my humble opinion).

And the number of the truly outstanding conclusions is very small indeed: Toy Story and Lord of the rings are the most recent ones I can think of, and now I think we can add Dark Knight Rises to their number.

Why do so few of these work? There’s a strong argument that the second act of any story will always be the most interesting. It’s where your hero has everything thrown at them, you’re not bogged-down introducing the audience to your characters and their world, and you can have fun and ramp up the conflict all the way up to 11, knowing full well you can end on a whopping cliffhanger for part three.

But I don’t necessarily buy that for all movies. Very few film makers know that they’ll be seeing a trilogy through to the end. Peter Jackson is perhaps a notable exception, but most directors and writers need to prove themselves with part one before they can even begin to think about parts two and three*. Certainly the makers of the Matrix seem to have been caught on the back foot with this, and Alien3 killed off the survivors of Aliens in a mean-spirited way, suggesting that that the only way forward was to ignore the past. Return of the Jedi took characters that had been made complex and exciting in The Empire Strikes Back and did virtually nothing with them, essentially remaking the first Star Wars with a bigger effects budget.

So why did The Dark Knight Rises succeed where others have failed?

Christopher Nolan has stated in interviews that when he was making Batman Begins he had no idea that there would be any sequels, he concentrated on making the first movie as good as he could. So there was no LOTR-style master plan.

When I’m working on the third act of a screenplay I’ll almost always find that the solution to any story problem is not in what I’m writing now, but in something I wrote back in act one or two. Sometimes it’s something seemingly inconsequential that suddenly has a new resonance and it can mean that you end up looking at your story in a completely new way. It’s one of those golden rules of screenwriting, and the Nolan brothers and David S. Goyer have executed it beautifully; finding the themes that worked so well in the previous movies – part one’s fear and part two’s chaos – creating a new kind of anarchy for part three and stacking the odds against Bruce Wayne/Batman in a way that trumped the previous films without actually repeating the same beats. On top of this come new themes of loyalty and sacrifice that constantly remind you that you’re watching the finale, and that anyone can die.

As anyone who caught the end of The Amazing Spider-Man will know, a story is often about the protagonist asking ‘Who am I?’ To say that Bruce Wayne has suffered an identity crisis in this trilogy is something of an understatement, but here he faces a mirror image of himself: an orphan who clambered up from darkness with hatred in her heart, and a inversion of himself, a masked man who shows his henchmen no loyalty whatsoever and demands the ultimate sacrifice from so many of them. So Bruce must put aside his anger and hatred, recover from his grief, and offer himself in sacrifice to Gotham.

And when Batman tells John Blake that ‘You’ve got to wear a mask to protect those you care about’ we now have a hero who knows what he has become, where his place is in the world, and what he must give in order to save the day. Bruce Wayne’s story has come to a definite conclusion.

In the past, Batman has often been less interesting than his villains, but not this time.

TDKR is not a flawless film; it takes its time, but it never bores and the payoff is well worth the wait. To paraphrase George Lucas; ending a trilogy is fun because you get to tie up all the loose ends, but ending a trilogy is hard because you have to tie up all the loose ends.

*And if you think the graveyard of part threes is big, just have a look at the Cemetery of Trilogies That Never Got Past Part One… Flash Gordon’s “?” ending, anyone…?