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The Decline Of My Empire: Aidan Moffat On The Force Awakens
Aidan Moffat , December 18th, 2015 13:03

Aidan Moffat senses a presence that he's not felt since... (Contains very slight spoilers)

The rot set in on my eighth birthday, April 10th 1981. This was my D-Day, the first small step toward the decline of my Empire. It was on this date, as I unknowingly celebrated the past and looked to the future, that George Lucas re-released his already classic Star Wars, and he’d made a change. Just a little one to begin with, but there it was, right at the start – the movie was now subtitled Episode IV: A New Hope. A little odd, starting with the fourth chapter, but he said he had a plan, a plot for nine episodes that he hinted of over the next fifteen years. And then dinosaurs ruined everything. Lucas was so impressed with the work that his own special effects house had done on Jurassic Park, he declared technology had finally caught up with his genius, and thus began his relentless addiction to revision, a seemingly insatiable thirst for augmentation and enhancement to rival the most ardent celebrity sawbones. The original Star Wars trilogy was being defiled and vandalized by its own creator, as unnecessary as tattooing a child.

And yet, I watched. The four-year-old in the dark of the Falkirk ABC Cinema, excitedly waiting for his first Star Wars, already holding a Luke Skywalker figure, such was the hype in ‘77; the obsessed seven-year-old begging his grandfather to take him to see The Empire Strikes Back on holiday in Blackpool, then dragging him round the local toyshops; the ten-year-old in the bookshop, scanning the pages of a Return Of The Jedi novelization to find out if Darth Vader’s bombshell could really be true. We never gave up. We kept the faith; we crossed our fingers. We bought tickets for The Phantom Menace.

The prequels disappoint for myriad reasons – the writing, direction, acting, and quickly outdated CGI among them – but mainly, I think, because it’s a story that didn’t need to be told. We’d already imagined the heroic young Darth Vader when Alec Guinness’s ghostly Obi-Wan, sitting by Yoda’s deathbed, told Luke – and us – the tale of the once great Jedi’s descent into darkness, and the movie that played in our minds turned out to look a lot better than the one in George’s. This still sounds cool: Your father was seduced by the dark side of the Force. He ceased to be Anakin Skywalker and became Darth Vader. When that happened, he betrayed everything and everyone that he had ever believed in. The good man who was your father was destroyed. You know what doesn’t sound cool? Trade disputes; a big, clumsy, racist frog; death-sticks; padawans; midichlorians; dying of a broken heart; Darth Vader screaming, “NOOOOOOOOO!”; almost every word of the stilted, trite dialogue.

But for all the prequels’ flaws, there’s one detail that to me is so destructive, such an act of bewildering sabotage, that it just about cut me off for good. When I thought that Darth Vader was a fallible humanoid lured to the Dark Side in a moment of weakness, he was relatable, I understood. Everyone knows anger; we’ve all had bad days. But to then reveal his virgin birth and suggest he’s a physical embodiment of the Force itself – his midichlorians are off the scale! – and recast him as some mythic messiah, a “chosen one who will bring balance to the Force”, makes him harder to empathise with. Maybe we could all have been the Darth Vader Obi-Wan spoke of, or we could all, at least, imagine ourselves a Luke or a Leia; but none of us can be a god. Even Lucas wasn’t convinced – come Revenge Of The Sith, he was dropping hints that Anakin might have been created from raw force energy by an evil Sith Lord with a daft name. So was he devil, angel, or both? I’d stopped caring by then.

And yet, I watched. I tried to like the prequels, I really did. For a few weeks in 2002, I even convinced myself that Attack Of The Clones was secretly brilliant, and I just needed to see it more often to uncover its hidden depths. I went to Glasgow’s Barrowland market, a legendary hive of shady trade, and bought a bootleg DVD to watch and re-watch. After a few weeks, I had to concede. It was shit. But still I didn’t give up. I craved that thrill, that old passion; I wanted to relive those summers of love and merchandise. With my son, I watch the Star Wars Rebels cartoon, which doesn’t fill the hole but still bests the prequels; we watch the Lego animations, and rather than tedious toy ads we find funny, irreverent spoofs; and when I hear there’s going to be a sequel, an Episode VII , I can’t help myself, I feel the hype machine’s tractor beam pull me in, as helpless and hopeless as a lovesick drunk. And what’s more, it seems to be getting everything right: More real world, less CGI? Tick. A lonely kid with a dramatic destiny? Tick. Cool robots? Tick. Cool bad guys? Tick. And, crucially, this time we don’t know how it ends.

I even start to feel sorry for George. My debt to his imagination is undeniable, my gratitude for those first three movies undimmed. But when at last it seems like Star Wars is starting to feel right again, when the net starts buzzing and the fanboys are gushing, the truth is it took a four-billion-dollar purchase by Disney and a new director to do it. Lucas has had no input into The Force Awakens; his original plans for episodes 7 to 9 were abandoned by Disney before they hired JJ Abrams to helm the new one. And, unfortunately for George, that’s why it’s great.

The Force Awakens tries hard to please from the moment the BBFC certificate card disappears; sensibly, Disney’s fairytale castle logo is nowhere to be seen before we launch into the familiar yellow preface. And then we get Star Wars max: we drift down from the stars, there’s a Star Destroyer, lots of cool aliens, a wise old man, a valuable message, a dusty desert planet, and a lovable robot. Indeed, new droid BB-8 – otherwise known as Christmas 2015’s must-have toy – is a surprising highlight, and possibly even my favourite new character in a cast of favourite new characters. Daisy Ridley’s confident, tenacious Rey, the kid with the destiny, is pure Star Wars; John Boyega’s conscientious stormtrooper Finn is great fun; and Adam Driver pitches Kylo Ren perfectly, both volatile and vulnerable. The weakest of the new team is X-Wing pilot Poe Dameron; Oscar Issac plays him just fine, but he seems underwritten. Of the old crew, Chewbacca – strangely for a beast that speaks only in growls – gets the best lines. He and Harrison Ford’s Han Solo have matured into exactly the kind of Morecambe & Wise double-act you’d expect, and Ford, after quite reasonably phoning in his last Indiana Jones performance on the dreadful Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull, is excellent, completely engaged and clearly enjoying himself, while C-3PO, who I’ve always thought was a bit of a tit, makes a perfect entrance. In fact the human cast, in the flesh or in costume, in what seems like their solid, physical galaxy, is so engaging that when we first encounter the two motion-captured, CGI characters – publican Maz Kanata and the (literally) big new baddie, Snoke – they feel out of place, and serve only to echo the episodes we’d like to forget.

But what of Luke? Who is Rey? Who is Finn? Where did Kylo Ren come from? I’m not going to tell you that, you’re going to watch it anyway. But I will say that this new story feels right, it works as the natural next step in the Skywalker saga. But The Force Awakens loses a star and gets marked down to B+ for its biggest flaw: it’s too eager to please, too desperate to mirror the originals; some scenes and shots could easily slot into the first three movies and you’d hardly notice. The plot’s overly familiar too, and we’ve seen the same battle with the same climax before. When former Princess, now General Leia commands the war room as the rebels – sorry, resistance – search for a weak spot in a massive new space weapon, you can’t help but groan. The Force Awakens suffers from a lack of real surprises; it’s a little too scared to break out on its own. Perhaps the sequels will bring the real twists and shocks, but for now at least we have a great, if tentative, first step; a hugely enjoyable mission statement filled with promise and intrigue, which is just about the best we could have hoped for.

But did it bring back those feelings from ’77? Did it give me the tingles of the 80s? Did I watch my youth replay before me? Of course not, I’m a middle-aged man; the past isn’t coming back. But what I did get was a film I can enjoy many more times with my children, an almost perfect gateway drug for the next generation of junkies. I’ve already booked my second visit; I’m taking my son at the weekend. Like his father before him, he’s already got one of the new toys, a cuddly, talking BB-8, and he’ll be bringing it with him. Can’t wait.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is in cinemas now. Duh.