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Sunday, 10 January 2016

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The force has awakened

The new Star Wars movie turns out to be a lot like the old Star Wars movie, except all cleaned up for the 21st Century. The hero is a woman this time, a scavenger named Rey (Daisy Ridley) who lives on a desert planet where people trade scrap metal for food: think of her as Mad Maxine. She's deadly with a sword, fast on her feet, able to pilot all manner of spaceships and, it turns out (alert: first of several spoilers!), a she-devil with a light saber.

Rey is swept up into the Star Wars universe, a place that - fictions about 'a long time ago' and 'a galaxy far far away' aside - exists alongside our own universe, but with more merchandise opportunities. Since we last visited, the bad guys in The Dark Side have morphed into the bad guys from The First Order, which is now embodied by a Darth Vader sound-alike named Ven (Adam Driver, playing villainy with the sort of petulant loner anger that makes you suspect he's still living in his parents' basement.)

But one of his Storm Troopers, Finn (John Boyega), has suddenly realised that he's on the wrong side of history, as they say, and has escaped, along with a pilot for the good guy rebels named Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac). They crash-land on Rey's planet, and she becomes part of the propulsive plot of The Force Awakens: to find Luke Skywalker, who has disappeared as thoroughly as Mark Hamill, whose career has become, in the 38 years since the first Star Wars, a new life in the unseen (albeit lucrative) world of voice actors.

And off they go into the future and also - in the screenplay by Star Wars veteran Lawrence Kasdan, director J.J. Abrams, and a few others - a visit to the past. This Star Wars, for all its futuristic sheen, is very much a nostalgia trip, and at times you can feel the new movie straining to be carefree and loose even as it is trapped by its own mythology. Fans take this stuff seriously, and one must pay tribute to the convoluted series of relationships and history that have grown like cobwebs on the Millennium Falcon, the original spaceship that's dusted off for a new voyage here.

Abrams is probably the ideal director for this material: an adept director of sci-fi action - The Force Awakens has a propulsive forward thrust - who also cares enough to stop occasionally to smell the droids. About an hour into the movie, we welcome visitors from the olden days. Han Solo (Harrison Ford), looking slightly grizzled but still game, and Chewbacca, his abominable snowman companion, burst into the Millennium Falcon with the words, "Chewie, we're home." Devotees will be in tears.

Their hunt for Luke takes them to evocative settings - a bar where the flotsam and jetsam of the universe gather for drinks is an especially welcome side trip - that honor the past even as they add layers of family complications. The Star Wars universe has been knee-deep in Oedipal subtext ever since Vader revealed that he was Luke's father, and that, in fact, Luke and Princess Leia were twins. The Force Awakens (another spoiler alert!) builds on that.

Eventually, all of the old favourites join the hunt, including Leia herself (Carrie Fisher, who now looks like an old childhood sweetheart who you meet for coffee after almost 40 years and realize, in her careworn face, that you probably got really old too.) There's also room for R2D2 and 3CP0, although that's just for the purists: the rest of us will be satisfied with BB-8, a new droid that looks like what might happen if Wall-E had mated with a soccer ball. He's an adorable little rolling prototype for what, one imagines, will be a tsunami of themed toys, Disneyland rides, movie spinoffs and continuing adventures.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens feels like a cleaning of the slate, a dismissal of three dismal prequels and a return to the rocket ship fun of the first three films. It's not as fresh, but it couldn't be: this is a palate cleansing, a between-courses reboot that sets the stage for what is to come. There's no end in sight. The force has awakened.

-The Ex-Press

 

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