Tag Archives: the force awakens

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.

A princess of Hollywood, gone to the stars.

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“You have owned my likeness, lo all these years, so that every time I look in the mirror I have to send you a check for a couple of bucks.” 

I am not remotely embarrassed to I say I’m obsessed with Star Wars. I’m one of millions. But it doesn’t change the fact that seeing that universe expand in front of me from the day I was old enough to watch A New Hope (on VHS, I’m not that old) changed my life. I’ve watched that film over 100 times, and know every word and every character’s movements and expressions like it was my own. The quote above, of course, comes from Carrie Fisher to George Lucas, one of many quips she so beautifully and bitingly made in a career that was so much more than just those films, knowing so astutely that she’d have to rail against that oversimplified outline for the rest of her life. In this context, it’s not an exaggeration to say that when news of her heart-attack came through before Christmas I just thought “oh god, not her too”. There was way too much more to still come than 60 years would allow, even for someone that packed in as much as she did. I dearly hoped she’d pull through, ready with some withering self-deprecation about her not being dead yet, to witness the outpouring of support, and to solider on for another decade or two. But it wasn’t to be.

Really, it feels so desperately sad. I know public grief is a cheap commodity these days, traded in competitive chunks on a daily basis like a modern currency, but at 41 I don’t feel ready to let so many of these childhood touchstones drift into the mists just yet. Not Carrie, someone that stood out so much in those films, like she did in life, and instructed me about women in ways I didn’t even understand at the time. Even though she often resented the ties that bound her to those films (famously describing the role as ‘a lot of it was just running down corridors’) more tightly than she ever may have wanted, the late-blooming return to this fantasy universe and the rush of adolescent joy it brought me and so many others, makes it all the more sad she’s suddenly no longer here. [Spoiler alert] I’m not sure I could stomach that last scene in Rogue One right now. It just feels too sad to see that fresh face against this backlit scene of contemporary sorrow.

She was my first crush, probably before I even knew what one of those was. But she was also, flagrantly so much more than a sex symbol, and everything many women in cinema weren’t usually allowed to be at the time – feisty, witty, sexy, funny, articulate, intelligent and forceful – and not even Han Solo or Luke Skywalker stood a chance against her in those three films. Even as she was planned for execution, she fought back, showing vulnerability even as she cracked jokes at Grand Moff Tarkin’s expense. What a woman, in so many of the right ways, not some silver screen cypher employed as window dressing. I was hooked from then on, by this mystical figure clad in flowing white robes, who was pretty handy with a blaster and didn’t seem to care for gruff, charming space pirates (well, not at first). She transformed, during those six years from nervous ingénue princess to a star in her own right, famous – sadly, above so much else – for that bikini, rather than killing the mighty Jabba, as she should be. Perhaps one of her best put-downs came from this very weary topic, answering an angry father: “‘What am I going to tell my kid about why she’s in that outfit?’ Tell them that a giant slug captured me and forced me to wear that stupid outfit, and then I killed him because I didn’t like it. And then I took it off. Backstage.””

She was fearless. The daughter of celebrity parents (Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, her mother now tragically joining her barely 24 hours later), born and raised into Hollywood royalty, she spent much of her life and career remorselessly skewering that privilege when others hid behind it, seeing no vanity or assuming no position from it, often making capital out of the litany of ‘you-couldn’t-make-it-up’ drama that befell her. In fact, her truth about the underbelly of the industry, on others, but much of her own often painful and scarred experience, came to inform her post-Endor life. A voracious chronicler, her books were brilliant warts-and-all paens to growing up inside the movie bubble, with Postcards From The Edge very loosely autobiographical, and made into the brilliant film with Shirley Maclaine as the tortuous mother and Meryl Streep in the title role (for if Meryl plays you, you know you’re a true character of note). She even appeared – indirectly, until I only realised very recently – in the lyrics of one of my favourite albums of all time, as Paul Simon (her husband for eleven ill-fated months) talked about the “window in your heart” he found after she’d gone, immortalised in Graceland. Added poignancy when no more were needed.

She published memoirs that laid bare the high and low points of her life, taking them on tour as one-woman shows, and showing the openness and vulnerability that drew us to her from the start. Even forty years later, she managed to raise eyebrows when admitting to an affair with Harrison Ford in The Princess Diarist, which landed only a month or so before her untimely death. To the end, she never dimmed the switch. She also had roles and work that were often – sadly – overlooked. She provided the comic chops and humanity as Marie in When Harry Met Sally, worked in Shampoo, Hannah And Her Sisters, The Blues Brothers, Soapdish, and more as well as television, from 30 Rock, Family Guy, brilliantly as Rob Delaney’s acerbic mother in Catastrophe (for which she’d just finished a new series before the fateful flight home she caught from London), and spiky cameos aplenty in everything from Sex And The City to Big Bang Theory and Entourage. She never stopped working, applying uncredited script work to Hook, Sister Act, The Wedding Singer and more, even if many foolishly thought there was nothing between Jedi and The Force Awakens. Her epitaph is so much more than A Galaxy Far, Far Away.

She was also fearless in her openness about mental illness. Suffering from bipolar disorder from a young age, she never shied away from what it led her to, or the complexities of being a sufferer. Being the daughter of Hollywood royalty would be hard enough to cope with, but fighting bipolar disease, it’s actually incredible to think she had a career at all, given the rates of suicide it induces. But addressed it she did, and head on: “I have a chemical imbalance that, in its most extreme state, will lead me to a mental hospital,” she spoke over two decades ago. In a still-incredible interview, she talked in understandable terms about how her battles manifested themselves. ” I have two moods,” she explains. “One is Roy, rollicking Roy, the wild ride of a mood. And Pam, sediment Pam, who stands on the shore and sobs … Sometimes the tide is in, sometimes it’s out.” It’s for this reason alone, and her honesty, that she should perhaps be lauded more than anything for helping switch around the usual mental health narrative. She showed that that real, famous, great, successful people suffer from these conditions just as much as the rest of us, and the effect it can have on those people that feel alone and side-lined and unable to feel they can talk to anyone about it. Taboos are there to be broken, and Fisher did this with all the vim of Leia or Marie, realising that if it came from her, then another wall could be broken down.

But the part of me that aches the most is still that boy that watched entranced back in the early 80s, as this whirlwind in white, that grew up with that adoration and admiration unchanged, seeing that return in 2015, and feeling privileged to be living through both ages of the life of the person I knew as Princess Leia. From childhood crush to full-on adult infatuation, to middle-aged reverence, that person on and off-screen that never played by the rules, never kept quiet when it was expected, never felt she should fulfil the role of which she was expected. She suffered, wore that as a badge of honour, and never stopped seeing the positive side of her fractured existence. As my 40s trundles on, it feels like too many of those we held dear in our formative years are being taken away too early. Perhaps this is just what getting old is like, and this is the start of a long, uninterrupted march of those faces in front of us for the next few decades. But few will have the impact that the likes of Leia, Han and Luke had, and that emotional squeeze from the icons of your simpler, more brightly coloured childhood often hold onto you much more than those in our cluttered, complicated adult life ever could.

Sixty years old is way too soon, when so much felt still in front of her. The sadness is only compounded by the devastating death of her mother, Debbie, only a dayfew after her daughter. But for  a couple of lucky generations, we all saw that first clip and thought what Luke Skywalker did: “Who is she? She’s beautiful“. She was one of a kind, and the world is a far poorer place without her. May The Force be with you, Leia.