‘Star Wars’ geeks, we’re home
- Scott R. Garceau (The Philippine Star) - December 19, 2015 - 9:00am

Possibly one of the biggest tricks pulled off by Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens was keeping its story under wraps for so long. Trailers gave us glimpses along the way, but practically nobody spoke a word about the production or storyline, which, in this era of drone technology and constant surveillance, counts as some minor miracle.

All the better to sink down in your seat, as we did last rainy Tuesday at IMAX in SM Megamall, to experience an unveiling that has driven expectant Star Wars fans to distraction for several years. Add Disney’s acquisition of Lucasfilm to the mix, and you have levels of anticipation and hype that go well beyond hyperspace. In IMAX, we were treated to the presence of the 501st Philippines, that merry band of Pinoys dressed as stormtroopers, as well as a lightsaber duel by Fightsaber Philippines, whose admirable Jedi skills would have only been enhanced if there was a super-nerd off in the wings with a microphone making “whoosh!” noises every time their plastic sabers clinked.

The anticipation grew until the familiar “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” title card came onscreen, and then there was a collective nerdgasm as the John Williams score began and the “Star Wars” logo appeared. Star Wars geeks, we’re home.

The good news for fans is that The Force Awakens doesn’t reinvent the wheel so much as rewrite the wheel. When director J.J. Abrams said he was going back to what made the original Star Wars great, we didn’t know he meant they’d be recycling large chunks of its plot. All the main spokes are there in the story — a droid with a secret file inside, a bunch of rebels looking to blow up a Death Star-like monstrosity, and a crucial father-son relationship — but for the first time in a long time for SW fans, it’s actually a joy to reencounter them all over again.

It’s no exaggeration to say this is a retread of the Episode IV storyline: cute new droid BB-8 (or as some describe it, “a couple of rolling beach balls”) carries a secret map that must be protected from evil forces (sound familiar yet?); there’s a black-attired, mask-wearing dude with a deep voice (Kylo Ren, played by Adam Driver) who does not suffer fools or incompetence gladly; there’s an over-the-top British-voiced commander (Domhnall Gleeson as General Hux) who sneers out every line, and a venerable older actor in a robe (Max Von Sydow) who spurs the action forward in the opening scenes. There are several reveals of familial relationships that are better left un-spilled at the moment, but which recall similar difficult relationships in the original trilogy.

All of this, fortunately, is combined with a crucial element that was absent from the prequels under George Lucas’s pen and direction: a sense of fun.

It helps that Lawrence Kasdan and director J.J. Abrams’ script is so snappy and action-centered. We are propelled into the story in medias res, per usual, 30 years after the events of Return of the Jedi, as the rebels try to escape a reformed Galactic Empire (now known as the First Order) that is after a map to Luke Skywalker’s location somewhere in the galaxy. Skywalker, we learn, has not been idle these past years: he was busy running a training school for Jedi — until one of them turned out to be a bad apple, so he scrapped the whole boot camp scenario and became a hermit instead.

Key to our re-immersion is the sequence where we encounter the Millennium Falcon, left to rust in a junkyard on the planet Jakku. That scene — where defecting stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) points out the rust-bucket to fellow fugitive scavenger Rey (newcomer Daisy Ridley), and suggests they steal it, which she dismisses out of hand (“That one’s garbage”) — instantly recalls Luke Skywalker’s comment to Han Solo in the first Star Wars back in 1977 (“What a piece of junk!”). And yet when our new characters climb aboard this nostalgic old crate, first-generation fans (let’s call them “early adoptors”) will get goosebumps.

Yes, it’s the little touches that put us into a comfortable familiarity with the first three SW films — things like the animated chessboard on the Falcon, a new cantina sequence, and, of course, the welcome presence of Solo, Chewbacca, Leia, C3PO and R2D2 along the way. But it’s the new material that ensures they can safely launch the rest of the new trilogy.



First among these new additions is British actress Ridley, whose Rey emerges as a strong woman character with skills — martial, mechanical and otherwise — that make her engaging and interesting enough to encounter in the next two movies (slated for 2017 and 2019, fans). Rather than a Keira Knightley-crossed-with-Emma Watson clone, Ridley is sharp, focused, funny and feminine. Her male cohorts — Boyega and Oscar Isaac as hotshot pilot Poe Dameron — are less fleshed-out, but probably will stick around for the duration.

Interestingly, Disney has invested in yet another “empowered princess” in Rey: she’s clearly a badass female who is only beginning to understand her powers (check out her Jedi mind trick on a stormtrooper, and her dawning ability to recognize the Force). Will Rey draw female viewers to Star Wars the same way Luke and Han drew young male fans? She’ll probably draw both sexes, she’s that good.

A question remains, and it’s really a $4 billion question for Disney: how much of Star Wars’ enduring appeal will rely on the “early adoptor” memories and nostalgia, and how much will be generated through a whole new generation of fans? Disney knows the answer to this: it doesn’t matter, because older fans pass along their geek love for Star Wars to their kids, and grandkids, and so on. Somewhere along the line, those kids will get enticed into a story about a hero’s journey, whether it’s Luke or Rey, and the battle between good and evil. It’s mythic stuff, after all.

As for the recycled storyline, this didn’t seem to upset the fans at the worldwide premiere, who were up for some of the energy, the one-liners and detailed “used future” that Abrams’ re-launch provided. Yes, and some of the old magic. Star Wars has always relied on a knowing awareness that space operas have existed since Edgar Rice Burroughs and Flash Gordon serials; the original scripts were peppered with great lines that helped you root for the characters, but also poked fun at the whole retro genre. Here, Harrison Ford (along with his lifelong partner, Chewbacca) provides a lot of that mojo; but Isaac as a wisecracking pilot and Boyega as a stormtrooper defector in over his head also provide suitable comic moments.

Driver is certainly quite hate-able as the evil Kylo Ren (in wannabe Darth Vader headgear). He’s kind of like most millennials: thinks he already knows what makes the universe tick, and thinks he’s at the center of it all. Expect to grow to hate him even more. There are small but crucial roles by Lupita Nyong’o as Maz Kanata, a 1,000-year-old pirate who helps Rey find her way; and Andy Serkis plays the latest in a line of evil overlords, this one named Supreme Leader Snoke.

Mostly what director Abrams has done here, like his Star Trek reboot, is successfully resurrect a popular series by appealing to both hardcore fans and newbies. The humor in The Force Awakens tweaks the past, but in a respectful way. And, being a fan himself, he has reexamined what made Star Wars 1.0 such a worldwide phenomenon. Some of that mojo is captured here. May the Force continue to guide the second and third chapters, which we can’t wait to imagine.


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