"How prepared he is to look old, and vulnerable,
and scared, and trapped. It’s all there from the getgo,
written in the gray stubble on his lined face.
Something’s wrong with Han. Badly wrong."
So this one is going to get very spoiler heavy. If you have yet to see The Force Awakens, and you want the experience to be spoiler free, stop reading now.
To the rest of you - welcome. Blimey. I feel like we have a lot to talk about.
I’ll do the inevitable biography bit first - Jedi was my first cinema outing, at 5 years old. Star Wars was one of the best things about my UK childhood Christmases (because they showed them on TV). I wanted to be Luke. My favourite colour is green. Because, Luke’s saber. I made my sister cry on long car journeys by calling her Darth Vader over and over in a sing-song voice until she cracked - normally only took five minutes or so.
I don’t mind the special editions (apart from Han shot first, obviously) - loved seeing them at the cinema. And Simon Pegg circa Spaced has my proxy on the prequels. I hated Sith so much I didn’t go back to the cinema at all for about 5 years - not really the fault of the film itself, more that it took the accumulated weight of all my prequel disappointment. I thought it somehow would all come good in episode three, and, well, spoilers, it didn’t. I have not seen it since, and can’t imagine I ever will.
And now I’ve seen The Force Awakens. Twice.
I enjoyed it. It think it’s a good Star Wars movie. That said, I liked it a hell of a lot more the second time than the first. I’ve been trying to figure out why ever since. Hence this article. Here are Some Thoughts, in no particular order:
● First time was in 3D IMAX. It was my first 3D IMAX. And I was excited as hell about that, honestly. Felt fitting, a way to revisit that amazing ‘first-time-in-a-cinema’ feeling from Jedi, maybe. And in a way, it worked: the problem is, the way it worked was that I was totally overwhelmed at points. I didn’t know where to look. The space battles almost gave me motion sickness. I kept getting poked in the eye by star destroyers. And IMAX is BIG. Don’t get me wrong, this film was well made, and the ‘shot for IMAX’ sequences were breathtaking (the closing saber fight was fantastic, and one of the few times I missed the 3D on the re-watch) but overall, especially coupled with the even-better sound, it was too damn much, and at points I found it actively distracting. There’s SO much going on in this movie that giving me one extra new experience to process just caused overload. Experienced 3D’ers will scoff, as they should. Still, that was my experience.
● I think I was nervous, the first time. I think I underestimated just how badly I was scarred by the prequels, how much I was trying to prepare for disappointment. And I’m so glad I was wrong about that, and that it was a more than decent movie, but I think I enjoyed the second viewing much more because I wasn’t holding my breath, waiting for it to turn crap suddenly.
● I didn’t realise that it was a remake. I mean, it isn’t a remake. But it kind of is. I’d avoided reviews, for the most part (I’m a terrible spoilerphobe, as those of you who are Facebook friends will be well aware, what with my constant Walking Dead rants) but nothing I’d seen used the word ‘remake’, and I think if I’d seen the word somewhere, it might have helped me make sense of what movie I was watching. To be crystal clear, I don’t mean this as a criticism or insult - it made good sense to re-run A New Hope with some ...Empire elements mashed in, and the Star Wars universe is almost uniquely suited to that kind of re-telling, given the enormous focus, even in the original trilogy, on bloodlines and the sins of the father and all that. I mean, after thinking about it for a while, what else could they even do? It had to be about the next generation, it had to take place 30 years after Star Wars, because Harrison Ford has aged well, but not, like, that well. And given that, it also had to be about how history repeats, how stories echo down generations. That’s a big part of Star Wars DNA from 1977 on down.
Still, I wish I’d known. Which leads me to…
● The opening crawl. Because 30 years have gone by. And, I mean, damn, kind of a lot has happened, and little of it good. The last time we saw our heroes (and, remember, for me, the first time too) they were celebrating on Endor, the empire defeated, the Emperor dead, Death Star destroyed, Leia and Han a couple, and Vader redeemed and reunited on the other side with Obi-Wan and Yoda. And of course things had to go wrong again - otherwise you gotta re-name the franchise Star Peace, and I’m pretty sure they did that already and it was called Babylon 5, and anyway that’s not what we paid our money for; we want stormtroopers and shootouts and X-Wings and Tie Fighters and lightsaber fights…
Except there’s a price to pay for all that, and the price is the happy ending - THE happy ending, the one from my childhood.
And that’s weird. And unsettling. In fact, it’s worse than that - it’s kind of sad. The word I’m frantically trying to avoid here is traumatic - because perspective, dude, get some. But honestly… it kind of hurts. Because in that opening crawl, we’re casually informed that MY hero, Luke Skywalker, has vanished. Worse - he’s the last Jedi (so apparently Leia never got her training sorted, which is a bummer all by itself) and The New Order (from the ashes of the Empire, so, you know, those guys) are hunting him. Leia is leading The Resistance (which, yay, obviously, but also boo, because why couldn’t she have just settled down on the Falcon with Han and become a Jedi pirate smuggler or whatever?) to try and find Luke, because The New Order is kicking the new Republic’s ass… and it’s just sad, man. Everything’s gone to shit, and all my heroes are older and sadder, and the baddies are just as bad, like they never got their asses kicked.
And that’s just the fucking crawl. Things get, to put it mildly, worse from there. I mean, the reason Luke is in hiding alone…
But no. We’ll get there. Suffice it to say, I found this to be a huge downer, first time through. And again - not a criticism, at all. They absolutely HAD to do this. It’s got to be the fate of the galaxy. It’s got to be ragtag band against space nazis. I get it. And if we’ve learned nothing else from the prequels, it’s that watching things turn to shit for eight hours is a terrible experience. So even if you could magically de-age the main cast, this stuff all had to happen off camera. And second time through, it was fine. But first time… man, it hurt.
And lurking behind that, of course, is chronological whiplash, right? Remember that story that entranced you, with the dumb walking teddies and Jabba the Hut and the gold bikini and Darth Vader turning good at he last minute to save his son? 30 years ago, motherfucker! Blink again, you’re going to be in a rubber diaper in a room you don’t recognize whilst some child you vaguely remember as being your granddaughter is trying to tell you all about Star Wars Episode 38 and the upcoming Doctor Who 100th anniversary special while you try and remember your goddamn name.
I mean, whose bright idea was this ‘passage of time’ and ‘aging’ bullshit, anyway?
Anyway. So that was kind of a hammerblow. And for all I know, it’s just me. But fuck it, it’s my article, and I’ll experience existential dread if I want to.
Following that, you can probably guess where this is going (if you’ve seen the movie, that is. If you haven’t, this really is the last chance to turn back before I comprehensively spoil it for you).
It’s Time To Talk About Han.
Now, like I said, I wanted to be Luke. I was 5. Luke was the hero. My older brother, he wanted to be Han. Han, he informed me with casual dismissal, was Cooler. And once someone makes that observation, you can’t unsee it. He’s got the better hair, the better lines, and he gets the girl. Damnit, he IS cooler. And let’s face it, in 1977, in terms of acting chops, there’s really no competition at all. Harrison Ford IS a star. It’s that simple. He’s got a gravitational pull. In any frame that features Harrison Ford, he’s the most interesting thing in the frame, with very, very few exceptions.
And it’s Harrison Ford as Han Solo. The second greatest screen hero he’ll ever play (yes, I’m an Indy fan, get over it).
I mean, fuck.
He’s the reason I kept nearly crying (okay, often actually crying) when I saw the trailer. “Chewie, we’re home.” Goosebumps. And whilst that moment in the film wasn’t, for my money, quite as impactful as it had been in the trailer, it’s still a pretty knockout moment in the movie. Because HAN AND CHEWIE IN THE FALCON HOLY FUCKING SHIT!
Except… wow, Han looks like someone knocked the stuffing out of him, doesn’t he? It’s not just the aging - at least, I hope not. He seems… diminished. Lesser. All grump, no twinkle. It’s disconcerting. Like discovering your favourite uncle has developed a mean temper in his old age.
Second time, of course, it all makes sense. Second time, you realise just how special an actor Harrison Ford is. How prepared he is to look old, and vulnerable, and scared, and trapped. It’s all there from the getgo, written in the gray stubble on his lined face. Something’s wrong with Han. Badly wrong.
But first time… see, I’m basically an idiot when it comes to films, clearly, because first time, it was kind of distressing. Because yeah, it’s Harrison Ford, and yeah, it’s Han, and I can't take my eyes off him (in fact, he exerts a powerful gravitational force on the film narrative from the moment he enters our field of vision. It was super-smart, introducing the new characters and giving them 30 minutes or so to bed in with the audience, because as soon as Ford’s on screen ,we’re watching the Han Solo movie). But at the same time, it’s wrong. I found myself recalling The Crystal Skull, but no, none of the many, many flaws of that movie can be laid at Harrison Ford’s feet, so WTF is going on here? Why does he seem so sad and old? Why is he back to smuggling? Where’s Leia?
Like I said, I’m dumb at movies.
(Sidebar: It almost has to be deliberate on my part, and I think it ties in with my spoilerphobia. For me, there’s very few experiences in any kind of narrative art more satisfying than a brilliantly executed twist - it’s not the be all and end all of storytelling, but I can’t deny some of my favourite movies and books have that as a central component. And kind of by definition, they only REALLY work the first time, and you never get it back. I’ve seen The Sting a ton of times and loved the re-watches, but I think I’d give a lot to be able to see it over for the first time. Ditto Fight Club, Seven… you get the idea. I enjoy reading critical analysis a great deal, but in terms of my own personal experience of narrative, I’ll always be a feeler rather than a thinker, at least primarily).
Anyway. First time, it was really disconcerting for me - the movie had become The Han Solo Film, but I kind of didn’t want to watch. Because Han was clearly not a well or happy man. And sure, it all makes sense as soon as Leia is on the scene. But I can’t get back the 30 or so minutes that I had to watched a diminished, desperate Han amble about my screen with no idea as to why he looked so sad.
Lucky that all worked out okay, huh?
● It’s Time To Talk About Leia. I love Carrie Fisher. My love is pure, gold bikinis aside (I was FIVE) and honourable. And I’m not going to fall into the clear gender trap of bemoaning her performance as ‘aged’ while praising Ford from the rooftops. For me, she was every bit as good, in the relatively paltry screen time afforded her. Her embrace of Rey at the end was particularly strong, although her reaction shot at Han’s final moment also brings a lump to my throat in recollection. Is that Fisher, or my memory of Leia? Better question - why am I asking that of Fisher but not Ford? Fuck that. She was brilliant. Yeah, as good as Ford.
And together, fucking hell they burned up the screen. Regret, old flame passion, scarred, cautious… it’s all there, in very few lines.
But… well, okay, I’m just going to say it - why the fuck isn’t Leia a Jedi? I mean, I get how in the original trilogy, Luke has a head start on the training and whatnot, but ‘the Force is strong in my family’ is one of THE punch-the-air lines in the original trilogy, for me. And I guess, in my personal headcannon, I’d always vaguely assumed that Luke was going to train her up post-Jedi. So it was a bummer to see that instead she’s… well, okay, she’s a general, that’s cool, but dammit she should be a Jedi!
Second time through, I’ve got a cooler head on, and of course I’ve fully absorbed the implications of the fallout from Luke’s attempt as setting up Jedi Breakfast Club, and like, of course Leia isn’t going to give a fuck about The Force after her son is effectively destroyed by it. Which of course leads us inexorably towards…
●It’s Time To Talk About Han, Pt. Two.
In retrospect, of course, it makes perfect sense. In retrospect, in fact, it’s inevitable. Star Wars is, after all, at its core a story about destiny, genetics, family. To complain about the genetic essentialism in a Star Wars movie plot is like complaining about how snow is cold. It’s an irreducible fact of the thing itself. And once Leia says, of her own son, ‘He just had too much of his grandfather in him…” But, no. It’s even earlier than that. As soon as we find out that Darth Emo is Solo’s son, Han’s death is inevitable. We don’t need Darth Emo’s exposition of how the Dark Side works, or the ‘temptation of the light’ - we know how that worked out for grandpa. DE is Han’s son. Han must face him alone.
Han must die.
Because Han has become Obi-Wan, the poor sod. Despite that he’s a pirate, despite that he didn’t even really believe in The Force in the original trilogy, at least for most of it, somehow, he’s become the Old Man whose job it is to tell the whippersnappers about How The World Works, before being cut down in front of them.
(Yes, confusingly, Luke has also become Obi-Wan. How that difference plays out is one of the things I, along with I imagine most Star Wars fans, am most interested about for Episode VIII).
But, I mean, shit. One of the totemic heroes from my childhood, after the happy ending, has had a kid with the love of his life, had the kid turn to the dark side and kill all the other Jedi, has run off to be a smuggler to avoid dealing with the missus, is dragged back into the fray by the same Force that’s basically made his life a living hell, finally confronts his son whilst trying to save the universe, again, and is fucking murdered by his own kid?
This is not the happy ending I was looking for.
Second time, I could see the scope - the shape of a new trilogy, the need to build up this kid as the new villain, and as noted above, the narrative inevitability of Solo’s death. But first time? First time, I was just gutted, honestly.
Because, no happy ending for Solo. No happy ending for Leia, whatever happens now. And really, I know nothing, but anyone who's got money on Luke seeing the story out on some Space SAGA holiday cruising the outer rim should probably just tear up that betting slip now - I know you got good odds, but there’s a reason for that.
I wanted my heroes of youth to be immortal. Like Indy at the end of The Last Crusade - drunk on grail juice and riding on horseback into the sunset.
I wanted the happy ending.
But, like you, I also wanted more.
More Star Wars. More story. Hell, just like The Jam, they’re all still alive - why not one more tour, for those of us too young to have caught the first trip - or for those of us with kids of our own, who want to vicariously relive the thrills of our own childhood through their fresh and innocent eyes?
Well, here’s why not: turns out, your heroes get old. Turns out happy endings aren't always actually either happy or endings. Turns out, if you want more drama, more action, more danger, there’s a cost. The cost is, your heroes get older. They get sadder. And sometimes, they die, unhappy, crushed by narrative or historical inevitability, run clean through by a new generation, hot with a fever to prove themselves by slaying a God.
That’s the price. That’s the cost.
Second time, I was ready for that. Second time, I could more keenly appreciate the new kids (who are great), accept the narrative arc, enjoy more of the in-jokes and nods, revel in a movie that was both Star Wars and had good dialogue.
The Force Awakens is a good Star Wars movie. When the dust settles, it may even be a great one - it feels close to that, for me. I don’t want to give the impression that I didn’t like it. I bloody loved it, truth be told.
The second time, anyway.
The first time?
Saying goodbye is hard. I didn’t just lose Solo. I lost my happy ending. And let’s face facts: this franchise will run now for as long as bright talents want to make it. That’s likely to be a very long time. And the upside of that is that there’s a good chance that there will be a ton of good Star Wars movies in the next ten, even twenty years.
And the fanboy in me rejoices at the possibilities.
But the five year old… well, he’s sad.
Because he just learned that happily ever after is a lie.