Rey of Light

Self-portrait with lightsaber, by Isobel, December 2015

In the summer of 2014, I introduced my seven-year-old son to Star Wars, which made him a few years younger than I was when I saw it at the Hoyts cinema in Hobart in 1978. And I do mean Star Wars—that is, Episode IV, the retrospectively renamed A New Hope. I’d picked up the special edition DVD with the bonus disc of the original (taken from old LaserDiscs) a few years before, so that he could see it as I had, a long, long time ago in a cinema far, far away. His first sight of Darth Vader Force-choking an underling freaked him out, but he liked the movie, and enjoyed V and VI when we watched those (again in their original forms) over subsequent weeks. The Ewoks, he told me, were his favourites.

I held off on the prequels, because I was concerned that Episode III would be a bit much for him. Then we saw The Phantom Menace while visiting his cousin last summer, which wasn’t nearly as awful as I’d remembered it, though it was still pretty ordinary. W. liked that a lot, too; in fact, he soon claimed this one was now his favourite, especially the pod-race. I guess it’s hardly surprising that a now-eight-year-old would enjoy a movie about a victorious nine-year-old more than the ones featuring a whiny teenager (IV) and all of that mushy kissy stuff (V, VI).

With the Force Awakens clock ticking, we watched Episode II in October. I quite liked that when it came out, for the Blade Runner-ripoff scenes on Coruscant and one or two other moments. But ye gods, the plot was so incoherent. W. was asking me again and again what was going on, and I could barely remember. I was pleasantly surprised at one point when it looked as if Count Dooku was actually going to turn out to be on the side of the angels, seeing through Sidious’s plans where the other Jedi hadn’t; what a nicely ironic touch. But no, he was in cahoots with ol’ wrinkly as well. As for the ridiculous Anakin-turns-dark and Ani-and-Amidala-fall-in-love plots, the less said the better (you can imagine W.’s reaction to the latter). One thing that haunted me afterwards was that C-3PO spent a decade hanging around Uncle Owen, who then didn’t recognise him at all when they met again twenty years later in IV. Trying to join up all of those characters across the years was so unnecessary, when Lucas could have told any story in the prequels that he liked.

Finally, the weekend before A Star Wars Christmas, we sat down to watch Episode III, with a slightly older friend of W.’s who had already seen it. I wasn’t keen to watch this with him so early, but he wanted to be all caught up before the new one came out.

It was a much better instalment from my point of view—certainly the best of the prequels—although it still made a mess of Anakin and his motives. The volcano planet scenes were indeed scary for W., but it was the scene of Anakin getting his Vader suit fitted on the operating table that shook him up the most; he’s had a few painful encounters with hospitals himself. Episode I remained his favourite of the prequels, though by now he couldn’t remember a lot of IV-VI; eighteen months is a long time for a kid.

I had booked us tickets for The Force Awakens for the afternoon of December the 18th, to minimise the chance that one of his schoolmates would spoil the plot for him. He was in two minds about going, because Episode III was still worrying him and the new one carried the same 12A rating in the UK. But the excitement of the build-up convinced him.

He need not have worried. He absolutely loved it. It’s his new favourite.

As for me, it can’t top the two I saw as a kid, when there only were two, but it comes as close as any of the others have. The experience of watching it with my son at the movies was probably as close as I’ll ever get to re-living the time I saw The Empire Strikes Back with my parents and brother at the Chinese Theatre in Hollywood on the day it opened in 1980 (we were visiting the western U.S. when I was twelve). It turns out that being Gen X and an older dad has made me the perfect target audience for The Force Awakens in 2015.

These Are Not the Spoiler-Free Paragraphs You’re Looking For


I spent the holidays reading all of the raves and nitpicking in this enormous thread at Metafilter’s movie discussion site, which contains a wealth of links to reviews, analysis, speculation and behind-the-scenes insights. We saw the movie a second time last week, and enjoyed it just as much as the first time; it stands up to repeat viewing tremendously well. W. was more scared by Kylo Ren this time around, knowing what was coming. It’s hard to believe they’ve come up with a villain to match the Vader of IV and V, but they have; taking off the mask was a master-stroke.

Unfortunately, some random online commenter spoiled the biggest surprise of the movie for me the day before we saw it the first time. But it shouldn’t really have been such a surprise. Harrison Ford is 73; if they hadn’t shuffled him off in this one, they’d be facing the increasing possibility of having to patch in CGI Solo on the Episode VIII or IX scenes he didn’t manage to complete before he shuffled off in real life. Or of having Han Solo die off-screen between episodes. Imagine how well that would go over.

Among the many wonderful lines, my favourite on a first viewing was an old character’s reappearance: “It is I, C-3PO!” I love the idea that none of the humans around him could be bothered getting his replacement arm resprayed. He was like an old Ford Falcon with one door the wrong colour.

One moment I loved on my second viewing, which reminded me of nothing in Episodes I-VI, came in the attack on Maz Kanata’s place after the X-wings arrived. Finn is watching one X-wing in particular as it flies across the nearby lake; the shot tracks from left to right, following that X-wing off in the distance, which stays dead centre in the screen; and at the end we cut to Poe Dameron and conclude it’s his (though Finn doesn’t know it yet). Fantastic.

Unlike many, I wasn’t bothered by the New Improved Death Star. Given humanity’s track record with weapons of mass destruction, I’d have expected the First Order and the Resistance to go full Cold War on them anyway. Death Stars for everybody. Stockpiling Death Stars and testing them on asteroids. Mutually Assured Deathstars. A Doomsday Clock, set at one minute to A Long Time Ago. The Strategic Deathstar Initiative, popularly known as “Star Wars”.

Speaking of Death Stars, I’m now stoked for Rogue One. Even though Disney have been careful not to use the P word, the story—as much as we know of it—sounds like the prequels done right: not focusing on Vader or Kenobi or Yoda, but on entirely new characters set in the same galaxy (though I won’t mind if they have a cameo for the Big D). The Force Awakens has shown us what excellent dividends new characters—and actors who can act, and screenwriters who can write—can deliver.

I still can’t get over how much I love the new characters, Rey and Finn and Poe and Kylo Ren and BB-8 and just about all the others, with Snoke the only so-so addition. There were precious few new characters in I-III who I actually cared about: Ewan McGregor’s Obi-Wan at times, Padme at times, Palpatine in II and III, Anakin in III—kind of. George Lucas’s complaints about VII suggest that he still doesn’t get why I-III weren’t as well received as IV-VI or indeed VII. Thank the Force he had such effective collaborators for the originals, and what a missed opportunity I-III were.

All of which leads to the moment that really made me well up: when Rey force-grabbed the lightsaber from the snow. After a year of Gamergate, it couldn’t have come at a better time. I can’t wait to show this to my daughter when she’s old enough. Judging from the self-portrait she drew the other day, neither can she.

6 January 2016 · Film