I was too young to see Star Wars, Episode IV when it was originally screened in the UK, but my family went to watch it when Empire was released. I would have been only six or seven, my brother a couple of years younger, but we watched both films back to back, and although my dad remembers me being terrified by the eeriness of the Dagobah system, I was hooked. My memories of going to see Jedi a few years later are incredibly lucid: sitting in the cinema aged nine next to my best friend Jayne, hugging each other in thrilled anticipation as the 20th Century Fox fanfare erupted, followed immediately by the main theme in the same key. (B flat. Sorry.)
My brother owned an impressive array of Star Wars toys and characters including, among others, the millennium falcon, an AT-AT, a scout walker, an x-wing fighter, Jabba the Hutt (complete with dungeon and trap door), various figurines of Han and Luke (in their original designs, before manufacturers made the absurd decision to muscle them up, He-Man style), and the rancor monster – all of which, I believe, he sold for very little money a couple of decades ago. Deep breaths and moving on …
My first boyfriend (the excellently named Rupert) and I bonded over a figurine of the emperor’s royal guard I bought him for what was probably his tenth birthday; I don’t remember now, but I remember that figurine, resplendent in its flowing crimson cloak. Even my dad was impressed. I read Star Wars comics and crappy novelisations of the films, learning the names of characters seen but not identified on screen: Nien Nunb; Jabba’s gamorrean guards; the enslaved dancing girl, Oola; and my personal favourite, Salacious Crumb.
Then, of course, there was the music. I once watched a so-called celebration of of Star Wars that made not one mention of its soundtrack – can you imagine!? In my considered opinion, no film or series of films has ever topped it. I could write a dissertation on why, but now is not the time (I’d prefer for you to keep reading!) I will say, though, that I have managed to incorporate Star Wars very successfully into my classroom teaching. I am not alone in attempting this: if you Google Star Wars + leitmotifs thousands of results are generated, many of them academic in nature and several aimed specifically at music teachers.
A leitmotif is a musical idea, or theme, identifying a particular character, mood, idea or event, and can be musically modified to suit different circumstances. Luke has his own leitmotif, immortalised in the Binary Sunset scene early in Episode IV, as does Leia (she has two, actually, although one is a love theme, shared with Han). Yoda also has his own theme, and of course the most famous probably belongs to Darth Vader (even most non-fans would be able to pom-pom-pom along to the Imperial March).
Until last week, no cinematic experience had equalled Jedi for me. It was there, with the previous two films, established as a rock of my childhood and embedded in my consciousness for ever. As the years passed, thanks to the power of betamax, arid Tattooine, leafy Endor, icy Hoth, even the creepy Dagobah system, began to feel familiar and safe; John Williams’ beautifully crafted melodies recalled their respective, beloved characters and the bonds between them in a heartbeat; all was resolved and reconciled in the end; and Han Solo became the love of my life.
The force was certainly strong with me.
You may understand, then, my reluctance to watch The Force Awakens. Like most fans of a certain age, I considered the prequels a washout and simply brushed them aside. A sequel, however, would be tampering with material and characters already established and had the potential to twist and damage what I, and millions of others, held dear – and, more importantly, what our innocent childhood selves held dear.
Still, it was a night out with my husband – a rarity these days – so we went.
I’m not sure exactly what I had expected, but my fears of glaring continuity errors, or nursing a growing resentment towards new, youthful, uncharismatic leads, or squirming in my seat at cringey moments featuring original cast members, were entirely allayed. I was swept straight in from the opening chord – although I did miss the 20th Century Fox logo and fanfare.
I am not a film buff and know little about cinematography, but it was gratifying to see that so much had been filmed on location. Unlike the prequels, The Force Awakens looked and felt like a Star Wars movie. There was a comforting familiarity about the settings. Jakku strongly recalled the desert landscape of Tattoine, while Takodana had echoes of both Mos Eisley and Endor. And speaking of familiarity, ahh, how wonderful it was to be back on board the now battered, creaking and dusty millennium falcon with fond reminiscences at every turn (my favourite was the holographic monster board game).
Happily – very happily – Han Solo was still absolutely Han Solo. I had been very worried, having seen Harrison Ford in other recent films and thought “Hmm, no, I think he’s lost it”. He was starting to put random, superfluous commas into his lines. (Peter Capaldi does it too, which is one reason I don’t like him as Doctor Who. The other reason is that he is not David Tennant.) But no: Han was back, and he was brilliant. The mock incredulity, the sarcasm, the banter – all so, so good.
Han’s interaction with Leia was well handled. The two characters are pretty much where you might expect them to be: no longer together, but at the point where the pain of the break up is now water under the bridge. It is summed up well when Leia says “You still drive me crazy”. Those of us who know, and probably even those who do not, instantly pick up on the balance of attraction and exasperation in roughly equal measures that was ever thus, but which is now slightly muted; tinged with the sadness of time.
So is the film little more than a nostalgic indulgence for fans of the original trilogy? No, it isn’t. From the outset the focus is squarely on the new leading characters, particularly Rey and Finn, both of whom I found increasingly engaging, intriguing and likeable as the plot progressed. The reason the film (and the die-hard fans) cope with the death of Han Solo is that viewers are, by that point, sufficiently convinced by his new friends to put themselves in their hands. It is certainly a shocking moment, but I didn’t wail and scream “nooooo!!” in the middle of the cinema. In fact, I managed not to cry at all until Chewbacca came to Rey’s rescue some time later, flying the millennium falcon on his own. That was just too much.
The aspect of youthfulness in the film is worked to great effect. Heroine Rey is young, abandoned, craving a sense of belonging; yet she is also feisty, ballsy and practical. She is initially unaware of her potential, and for me perhaps the greatest joy of the film is the gradual, shaky realisation and testing of her powers. Unlike Luke, Rey has no mentor, and apart from a few wise words from Maz Kanata it is all a case of trial and error. During one magical moment, which left me trembling both times I viewed the film (yes, I went back a few days later!), Luke’s lightsaber rebuffs the outstretched hand of Kylo Ren and flies defiantly into Rey’s, accompanied by the highly emotive Binary Sunset theme.
Kylo Ren is another inspired creation: a gangly, angst-ridden, self-doubting young villain who spends as much time unmasked as masked, and whose fear and spite make him potentially more dangerous than Darth Vader’s assured, meticulous but generally one-dimensional baddie. Kylo Ren is unpredictable. We know he will become stronger, as will Rey, but there is so much more to be played out here.
And what of the final scene, where Rey eventually tracks down Luke? As the hooded figure slowly turned towards the camera my stomach sank and I thought it might not be him … but it was. And the expression on his face: the regret, the sorrow beyond yearning, the defeat, made me want to stand on my chair and shout out to him: “I know! I know! I’ve aged 32 years with you and it’s not how I thought it would turn out either! Life is complicated and difficult! All the idealism is gone!”
It’s probably a good thing that I didn’t.
On the way back to the car, walking in reflective silence with my husband, I suddenly burst into tears. I couldn’t explain to him exactly why I was crying, but it was something to do with having revisited that nine-year-old girl who had sat, wide-eyed, watching Return of the Jedi back in 1983.
Life has been kind to me: I have a loving husband and three children who are my joy and delight. I would not turn back time or change a thing en route if I could. But the absolute freedom from responsibility one has as a child, and the wonder and simplicity of enjoying something amazing as a child … reliving that feeling is potent.