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A force awakens… again

[WARNING – MANY, MANY SPOILERS]

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The film may have come out a year and a bit ago, but I’ve finally sat down to watch the Blu-Ray extras for Episode VII: The Force Awakens. Sure, I had to go to the ‘Deleted Scenes’ first (who wouldn’t?) but they don’t really lend much to what happened, and there’s no real nuggets in there, nothing that really (rightly) felt that it shouldn’t have been left on the floor. Because the film didn’t feel anything but lean. But the ‘Making Of’ was a really special viewing. I’m also not afraid to say I shed a tear watching the scenes with Carrie Fisher, both on set and off. It seems ever more tragic that she’s not going to be here to see how the universe develops in front of our eyes. A part of my childhood really did die when she left us.

The Read-Through alone sent shivers down the spine. Seeing Carrie, Harrison Ford and Mark Hammil in the same room, with Peter Mayhew, Anthony Edwards, talk through the words in that universe again… it still didn’t seem real. God knows what it must’ve been like being part of it. Because this is a film (no, not a movie) that I never thought would happen again. After the three ‘prequels’ that let down so many people of a certain age, I felt the stories had run their course. I’d never immersed myself that much in the books when I was a kid – sure, I read a few, but they never gripped me the way that first roll did on A New Hope – so for me, the films were the centre of all of it, and while I love the original trilogy (ok, I’m obsessed by it) and I still watch them regularly, I’d resigned myself to that being it. A sad, underwhelming and overblown successor that drowned in SFX, clunky dialog, toyshop characters and none of the real magic of the first three.

But of course, the last two years have proven how wrong I was. And as a 42-year old man, there should be something a bit sad about being so excited and overwhelmed by a couple of films, but then this is my youth, returning, and in a world that’s so grim, grimy, chaotic, unsure and angry, it’s no surprise that many of us are revelling in the escapism that such a vibrant, colourful and enticing universe that we all find so familiar gives us over the rest of reality.

There’s so much beautiful synergy between the old and new. And yes, some of that is a purposeful, heartstring-tugging intention to rope us olds back in, but it’s also such a reverence to the original films, because JJ Abrams gets that it’s a legacy, not just a money-making machine, churning out ever-decreasing chapters for the next decade. He was a fan himself when we were watching Empire as a small kid, he was a teen in LA, seeing the very same magic. So, where the old generation hand over to the new in The Force Awakens, it’s not just in front of the camera. Just looking at Nien Numb, who so memorably appeared in Jedi in the Falcon in the final battle of Endor, back as a pilot in the base on Yavin, or, even more sweetly, Warwick Davis, Wicket in Jedi, now returning (so much more known to many for Extras) as Wollivan alongside his yellow-headed monster daughter in the bar scene at Mas Kanta’s. It’s that incredible charm and character that’s indelibly inked onto the new films that makes you feel such a connection to them, where it wasn’t expected or assumed. There’s over a hundred creatures in VII, so many of them non-CGI, from the returning Gonk droids, to new pilots, musicians, bounty hunters.

That’s one of the greatest beauties of the  new trilogy so far is Abrams’ and the entire team’s willingness to only use CGI when there was no other means to achieve their ends. As many of us felt Lucas slowly diluting the rough-hewn charm of the original trilogy with needless new effects shots and reissues, leading to an almost shiny, blurred, CGI-laden set of prequels that fell into the era’s obsession with effects, the Force Awakens went back to what worked best: real models, characters, creatures, sets, effects, which felt so much more visceral and real. It always does, and it should be a lesson to filmmakers out there, that computer-generated SFX should be the point of last resort. Gareth Edwards showed that, more than anything with Monsters, a beautiful looking film made on a minuscule budget, whose effects were part of the tapestry, rather than the end-point of the whole fable.

I can’t even imagine what is must’ve been like being part of it, but there was something wonderful about how the younger actors – John Boyega especially – were so blown away by being on set, wanting a hug from Chewie, a walk through the Falcon. It says something that over 200 people were crowded onto the set when – for a day, they set aside a WHOLE DAY – when Han and Chewie get to utter the line that made a million adults squeal: “Chewie, we’re home.” It’s lovely to hear that, even as the film was being so meticulously made, pretty much the entire cast and crew were as excited as the rest of us were anticipating it, and watching it. And all of it soundtracked by John Williams, at 84 years old, still vital and perhaps one of the most important and iconic people in cinema today. Music that is as much part of our lives as Luke, Han, and Leia, but also Indiana Jones, ET, Jaws, Superman, Home Alone, Schindler’s List, Empire Of The Sun, Saving Private Ryan, Harry Potter, Lincoln and War Horse. Who else has been nominated for 50 Academy Awards?

The ILM work is still just incredible. Seeing so much referencing the original trilogy, whose effects were groundbreaking at the time, back against the new film is wonderful. The best CGI is the stuff that doesn’t look like it’s even there until you look, and for every shot that is obviously FX, there’s a bunch of stuff happening in the background that you don’t know is even unreal. And the new stuff: The Black X-Wing, the new TIE-Fighters, the updated Falcon, the Star Destroyer Graveyard, new Stormtroopers. Seeing them photograph the old 5ft model Falcon and take the little motifs the original model makers left (the ‘Drive Safely’ stickers!) and mapping them onto the ‘new’ Falcon so that the little details perpetuated into the new chapters. You’d have to know these details and watch it over and over, so it’s great to see that this is just ‘what had to be done’, even though many of us would never even spot what’s there. It’s just another example of the rich detail, thought and love that went into it all.

There are so many amazing insights into the making of the film. That JJ Abrams himself came up with the basic concept of BB-8. That Poe was going to be killed early on before they changed the story to keep him in. That Kylo Ren’s suit was going to be chrome (ugh) but when it was dumped it ended up as Captain Phasma. The fact that so many of the original crew from the first trilogy were part of the team that made The Force Awakens, in many cases using inspiration from the iconic Ralph McQuarrie, or the original designs, photos, and in one case, one son’s own inspiration from his father’s snowspeeder drawings in Empire. It felt like not just the handing on from one generation to another in front of and behind the camera, but really bringing so much of the history back together to ensure that the magic of the first trilogy was sprinkled all over the newest one. That may seem obvious, but it’s really the most important and intangible thing that, done wrong (especially overdone) would’ve seemed clumsy and too broadly brushed. They got it nailed.

As a film geek anyway, these behind-the-scenes things are catnip to me. It’s why I’ve started a Saturday that I couldn’t get back to sleep at 7am by thinking ‘I’ve been meaning to watch a bit of this for ages” and sitting here on the sofa for almost 3 hours gorging on the entire extras for the original Blu-Ray, feeling like a 6-year old kid again. But the mechanics of putting something so huge together is fascinating. I feel as excited watching this as I did watching grainy extras on the VHS tapes back in the mid-80s, or reading through the articles in the papers and magazines at the time. I wish I could take a weekend out and watch the whole lot from all of the films, but I’ve got packing to do!

Really, it’s an incredible thing to just immerse yourself in every now and then. I know that I’m a bit of an obsessive. How can you not be that excited about watching a universe unfold in front of your eyes that you first witnessed as a small boy (I was barely even walking when the first came out) and want to dive back into that? It’s part of my lifetime. It always will be.

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