The Knack once sang that you “can’t put a price on love”. That may be true, but the events that happened a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, chronicled in Star Wars, one of the most famous film franchises of all time, have made a lot of money out of love. $20 billion and counting of licensed goods has been sold, this is in addition to $4.4 billion in tickets and $3.8 billion in home entertainment products. Is now a good time to mention the films spawned a religion too? 176,632 people in England and Wales identify themselves as Jedi Knights, making it the most popular faith in the 2012 Census ‘Other Religions’ category and the seventh most popular faith overall.
The original Star Wars trilogy has always been greater than the sum of its parts; even George Lucas, the creator of this revered story is dwarfed by its power. He knows better than anybody in any galaxy anywhere that the pressure to get Star Wars right is immense. I visited a Star Wars convention in Dublin earlier this year and had the opportunity to chat to Peter Mahew, the man inside the walking carpet, Chewbacca. ‘Everyone will love this film” he assured me. “J.J. has done an incredible job and we all knew it from the moment we walked on the set for principal photography. We were back together, dear sweet Carrie with no filter, she speaks before she engages her brain but she gets away with it because she makes everyone roar with laughter. Harrison, he was on fire with his performance. This is going to be a great film!” I wanted to know more but I’d only paid for one autograph and time was tight.
To answer the all important question now – yes, Peter Mayhew was absolutely right, The Force Awakens is a great film. Abrams plays it safe when it comes to the look and feel of this far, far away galaxy. Everything looks and feels exactly as it should. We can wrap ourselves up in the familiar sunsets and sand, whilst extraordinary risks are taken elsewhere, risks that pay off to make for a thrilling and emotional journey. I was so very relieved that I was free to fall in love with this film, without any reservation, that I cried. A lot. And then I went straight back to the box office, bought another ticket and watched it all again, just to make sure.
If J.J. Abrams had thought about what fans didn’t want, then it was clear from seeing film that he and his team had put a lot of thought into what we have all been yearning to see. Essentially, The Force Awakens references all the cherished elements of A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back and The Return of the Jedi. The humour and emotional depth so lacking in the prequels are restored, alongside exhilarating action sequences and brilliant performances from newcomers John Boyega and Daisy Ridley. Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren is complex and compelling whilst Harrison Ford brings the benefit of age to Han Solo whose swagger and wisecracking charm is as irrepressible as it ever was.
There’s so much more I want to say about the specifics, but I’m going to resist temptation. The air of secrecy that surrounds The Force Awakens is as deserved as it is necessary. Do whatever you can to avoid the spoilers. Don’t listen to the excited conversations of those exiting the cinema as you’re queuing for your popcorn. In fact, if you haven’t seen it yet, get off the internet and don’t let yourself anywhere near it until you know why secrecy is your friend.
Instead let’s take a minute to examine the power of the force, in this galaxy, today. The Star Wars fan convention circuit is a weird world where people dress up in impressively realistic costumes, queue to view film props and buy autographs from film extras who have travelled the world for over thirty years on their couple of minutes of screen time. At both fan conventions I attended this year I witnessed adults spending eye-watering amounts of money on everything from second hand action figures to incredibly intricate life size ships. One man in Dublin left the convention five hundred euros poorer and wondering whether he would still have a marriage when his wife was introduced to the range of figures he’d bought. Standing at the same stall and much to our children’s amusement, I had an animated conversation with my boyfriend who wanted to buy a fairly large Biker Scout for the living room mantelpiece. I wasn’t convinced, the figures have never really been my thing, but I went along with it. The Biker Scout has since been joined by a similar sized Tie Fighter Pilot. I’m not delighted but I’m prepared for more to join the party.
This week I read a couple of comments from friends on social media who believe emphatically that Star Wars is purely a vehicle to sell merchandise, but surely the films have to connect with their audience on a meaningful level for the merchandise to have any appeal? For my boyfriend and my younger brother, Star Wars figures and associated ships were a huge part of their childhoods. Each Christmas and birthday can be remembered in terms of which figures were received and when. For me, a particularly memorable Star Wars related incident came in the form of my brother, aged eight, attaching a length string to a ring pull, hooking the ring pull over the prong of a plug and inserting the whole thing into a socket – bang! My brother got a significant electric shock, my parents had some decorating to do and Luke Skywalker had to find a safer method of securing his zip wire.
The films, the figures, the moral code and the mystique of the force have accompanied us into adulthood and given us something tangible to pass on to our children. I will never forget the moment I watched Star Wars with my young sons, waiting for Chewy’s roar at the end of the medal ceremony so I could gauge their reaction – and decide whether they were worth keeping for the long haul. Fortunately they both enjoyed it, but in an age of game consoles and hyper-realistic animation, Star Wars has had much to compete with for the ongoing affections of the children of the noughties. Both my sons attended Star Wars conventions this year but neither shared my excitement at meeting Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca), Kenny Baker (R2-D2), or David Prowse (Darth Vadar). My youngest son acted as designated photographer. He later requested that I only ever take him to another fan convention if he has done something worthy of extreme punishment. However, The Force Awakens has given me a new hope for my eldest son who sent me a text at 3am to tell me he had seen the film and thought it was “brilliant”. The force is strong in my family after all.