Wednesday 21 February 2018

May the force be with you - another three whole times

We've already had prequels, trilogies and stand-alones. Now 'Star Wars' is back with another trilogy. But will Disney's €600m gamble pay off, wonders Ed Power.

Tunisian authorities hope a renewed interest in Star Wars will boost the country's tourism industry
Tunisian authorities hope a renewed interest in Star Wars will boost the country's tourism industry
Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars
Domhnall Gleeson
JJ Abrams
Ed Power

Ed Power

Does the world need another Star Wars trilogy? Disney is making a $600m (€430m) gamble that the answer is yes as shooting begins on the first in a new saga of movies set in the universe of duelling Jedi, humming lightsabres and princesses wearing their hair in Danish pastry buns.

For Irish audiences, there's an added emotional investment in Star Wars 2.0, with Dubliner Domhnall Gleeson unveiled as a key cast member (while details of his involvement remain a mystery, it's easy to imagine him donning an iconic Jedi knight cowl and uttering lines such as "These aren't the droids you are looking for").

But for all the excitement, fans of the original three films will have concerns. They've been here before, when George Lucas, creator of the franchise, unleashed his prequel movies, starting with The Phantom Menace.

Though enormously profitable, the prequels have not aged well – and were widely disparaged at the time. Our love for the originals was strong enough for the creakiness of Lucas' revisitings not to matter (too much).

However, another batch of duff big-screen outings would surely retroactively tarnish our opinions of Luke Skywalker and Han Solo's swashbuckling adventures.

One problem Star Wars must overcome is its sprawling, often contradictory, fanbase. While 'rival' property Star Trek has held true to its original values, more or less, by maintaining a narrow focus, Star Wars has become all things to all people.

You can enjoy Star Wars at the level of science fiction extravaganza – but also with tongue in cheek, whether by wearing an 'ironic' Stormtroopers T­shirt, playing one of the many, many underwhelming video game tie­ins or buying a Star Wars: Angry Birds plush toy (a product that would surely cause Darth Vader to spin in his TIE fighter).

Hard­core Star Wars devotees have mixed feelings about the new trilogy. In the first instance, they are straight up delighted that they will once again get to sit in a cinema as the iconic phrases 'A Long Time Ago ... In A Galaxy Far, Far Away ... ' appears on screen (followed by the inevitable downward panning shot).

Nonetheless, there are misgivings over the decision to hand the franchise over to director JJ Abrams, a master of spectacle whose movies are sometimes accused of lacking an emotional core.

His recent Star Trek sequel, Into Darkness, is held up as evidence for the prosecution, demonstrating, as it did, a tin ear for the qualities that make Trek beloved and essentially boiling down to a two-hour orgy of explosions and lens flair.

"I have my own concerns in terms of what he can bring to the table that is unique enough to make Star Wars work where other directors might fail," says Mark Newbold, co­owner of Jedi News, and a writer for the official magazine The Star Wars Insider.

"He's certainly a fan of Star Wars – the original trilogy, that is. He can handle visual effects and is adept at juggling ensemble casts, which is a huge plus.

"He's known for giving his actresses great character arcs and scripts and through the two Trek outings shows a deft sense of humour and Star Wars needs that wink to the camera every now and again. But the second Trek film Star Trek Into Darkness, while a feast for the eyes, was a famine for the intellect and that disappointed Trek fans hugely. If he misjudges the Star Wars audience in the same way, then we could have problems. "

"JJ can be a bit hit and miss on some of his projects," says Jim Gorman of Irish Star Wars costume club Emerald Garrison. "I think he has a good team around him in Lawrence Kasdan and Kathleen Kennedy. Lawrence was involved in the screenplay for Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi and Kathleen has been involved in high-profile movies such as ET, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Back to the Future, etc. I would see the upcoming movie as almost a relaunch."

The revival of Star Wars must also be seen in the context of Hollywood's obsession with franchises. Ours is the post­movie-star era, where the key to earning a fortune at the box office is a brand that audiences will flock towards, rather than a traditional matinee hunk or screen siren.

In the age of Avengers, Batman v Superman, etc for Disney, which acquired George Lucas' Lucasfilm for $4bn in 2013, not to revive Star Wars could almost be considered a dereliction of duty.

As shooting begins, the worst route Abrams could take would be to cleave towards prevailing cinematic trends by bringing the series in a 'darker' direction, believes Star Wars fan Frederic Ulrichts.

"My personal hope is that JJ Abrams will keep the same feel of the previous movies and will not try to make it a harder, darker, edgier sort of movie," says Ulrichts, publicity officer for Irish stormtrooper division 501st Legion. "I hope I will be able to show the movie to my son, who will be four years and a bit by time of the release, and that he will enjoy it as much as I enjoyed Star Wars."

The new trilogy is to be set in the future, 30 years after the fascistic Galactic Empire was vanquished (or was it?) in Return of the Jedi.

Original cast members Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher will return as Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Princess Leia – which raises the question: do we really want to see these iconic characters as the stagger toward their dotage?

"It's a scary thought Hamill is the same age (63) as Alec Guinness was when he played Kenobi in the original Star Wars and Harrison Ford is now 72," says Mark Newbold. The early thought is that this will be a transitional movie, easing us into a new era with familiar characters, but moving on to new heroes and villains . To not see the 'Big Three' on screen when they are all healthy? It's unthinkable!"

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