Saturday, 19 December 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Off to London's Science Museum to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Fourth of the Star Wars films. The Science Museum has a big 70mm IMAX print so I decided to see it there. They're showing it in 2D, which suits me fine. If God had intended for people to see films in 3D, he would have given us three eyes and depth perception. NB If you're the kid that dropped your blue iPhone - you were sitting in front of me, then you and your dad moved back up into the stands - I handed it to one of the attendants. There is good in me.

Star Wars films come around once in a blue moon. The last, Return of the Jedi, was released thirty-two years ago. I have vague childhood memories of the marketing hype that surrounded it. The first three films were extremely popular and have stood the test of time, although putting it diplomatically they are good in different ways. Nonetheless director-writer-producer George Lucas grew sick of them, and although they continued to be popular in the years that followed there was never a serious attempt to revive the series until recently. Now George Lucas is gone, but his dream lives on.

Other mythologies have arisen since 1983. Nowadays kids draw pictures of Sonic the Hedgehog instead of Darth Vader. Young adults have sexual fantasies about My Little Pony characters instead of Carrie Fisher in a gold bikini. Imagine that. Imagine Carrie Fisher dressed up as a My Little Pony character, wearing a gold bikini, and you are in a speedboat. And behind you ten naked women are keeping pace with the boat, and they are dolphins - sexy dolphins - and the boat is made out of biscuits and you are that man from the Old Spice commercials. He is sexy too. Everything is sexy. Even though you learned how to set the thermostat, you don't need it because the weather is unseasonably mild. Imagine all of that. I did. Just now.

Olympus Pen F / 40mm f/1.4 / HP5

Is The Force Awakens any good? Yes, it is. It surprised me. The new people are surprisingly charismatic, the general tone is simultaneously modern and old-fashioned, dark and light. Kids will love it, and so will grown-ups. Ignore anyone who pooh-poohs it; they are just trying to be controversial. Nonetheless I have a couple of reservations. The plot is essentially the same as the original Star Wars, down to the details. There is a long sequence in the desert that introduces the characters and then non-stop space action, albeit that the pacing is better this time. There are a couple of good action sequences in the first half of the film, whereas Star Wars had Luke Skywalker moping around for what seemed like eternity before the film really got going. The parallels even extend to the main villainous threat, which is another one of those giant space lasers that can destroy planets. The space laser of Star Wars drove the entire plot, and although the final battle to defeat it was quite short it had meaning because the film had been leading up to it. In contrast the space laser of The Force Awakens appears without forewarning about half-way through. Its live fire trial wipes out a planetary system, but the death of billions is treated as a minor upset. The eventual plan to destroy the weapon is literally made up on the spot. I realise that we're supposed to call Star Wars something else nowadays, but I'm old enough to remember when it was just Star Wars, and that's what it's called. It says Star Wars on the front of the soundtrack LP.

The final battle is another one of those multi-stranded things where there are space fighters flying around and people fighting on the ground, and in typical Hollywood style The Force Awakens takes place in a universe where a two-minute countdown actually takes ten minutes, and exploding fire does not hurt. But this is nit-picking. The parallels with Star Wars feel deliberate, as if director J J Abrams and team were trying to ease people into the Star Wars vibe; The Force Awakens isn't a reboot, but after thirty years so much has changed in the world that a straightforward Return of the Jedi sequel would seem odd. The Force Awakens acknowledges that we now have black people, for example, and also Scottish people. Not just heroic Californian Anglos and sneering white British people.

There are a lot of British people in the cast. Watching the film in London's Science Museum as a British person surrounded by mostly British people, I was tempted to raise a Toby jug of Marmite-smeared warm beer every time a British person appeared. The Peter Cushing role is played by David Mitchell of television's Mitchell and Webb, except that he seems to have lost a lot of weight. I think he was David Mitchell. I could be wrong. Chief baddie Kylo Ren is played by Adam Driver, who was born in San Diego but could pass for an Englishman. He snivels and sneers like an Englishman and he probably has kinky sex. The new Luke is played by John Boyega, who is really good in the role. He starts off cowardly and inept but gradually grows a backbone, just in time for...

Backbone, hahaha. It'll grow back, I'm sure. No, I don't want to spoil anything. I've never even heard of John Boyega before, but he's genuinely charismatic in a role that could have been the kiss of death. It's hard to pretend to be a coward without coming across as a complete weed, but Boyega manages it, and his eventual heroism is impressive. Albeit that it results in one of the film's slightly unsatisfying moments - he has a duel with a chainsaw-wielding stormtrooper that he wins out of sheer luck, which felt wrong. The stormtrooper deserved a better demise. Yes, there is a chainsaw-wielding stormtrooper. It's not really a chainsaw, of course - it's a space chainsaw - but it's close enough. The Force Awakens has a number of things that impressed me. The space chainsaw was one of them. There is something about watching a man with a glowing sword fight an armoured stormtrooper wielding a space chainsaw that appeals to the dessicated corpse of the young boy slowly decaying inside my soul.

Andy Serkis is back as a CGI puppet, a role he plays so well. Lupita Nyong'o and Gwendoline Christie are also heard but not seen, which is sad. Lupita plays a wise old barkeeper lady and Gwendoline Christie is Captain Phasma, a butch stormtrooper with a fantastic name. Lupita's voice-CGI character could have been insufferable, but she works. Christie on the other hand is basically wasted. We never see her face and she just disappears from the plot without a satisfying goodbye. What's the point of hiring two actors with such interesting faces and then never using them? Lupita is the most conventionally beautiful person on the planet at this point in time and Gwendoline has one of those eccentrically odd faces, like Maggie Gyllenhaal, that no artist would ever dream of but is fascinating all the same. The New Han Solo is played by Oscar Isaac, who is of Latin extraction and has one of those "what a guy" demeanours possessed of the Old Han Solo. He walks like a hero.

"Could have been insufferable". The Force Awakens is one of the most well-executed films I have seen in recent years. The plot is driven by coincidences, and whenever a character is knocked to the ground another character swoops to the rescue, but that's par for the course with Star Wars. It's expected. As with the original films, The Force Awakens didn't really happen; we're watching the legends of another time, and just like the Bible or Lord of the Rings a certain amount of dramatic licence is acceptable. So many things could have gone wrong. There's a cute little robot, and dated camp stereotype C3-PO returns. There are Force duels where the actors have to thrust their hands about and pretend to be reading minds, which could have been silly. Yet it all works. Cute little BB-8's peeps and whistles are endearing, and he moves in a way that's cute without being slapstick. C3-PO is used sparingly and has a genuinely funny introduction. Anthony Daniels is back in the role, although he doesn't have as much to do as Peter Mayhew, who returns as Chewbacca. When Peter Mayhew was born with a genetic condition that caused his hair to grow at a furious pace it must have seemed that his life was ruined, but luckily, as if God planned it, he has managed to turn this problem into a successful albeit intermittent career as a giant walking carpet.

I've missed out one of the cast. Daisy Ridley. She's the new Princess Leia and also the new Luke. In fact she's the real star of the film. She won me over. Initially her English accent is jarring - I can accept English people in a giant metallic war machine, but in the desert? - but it wears off after a minute or so. She's spunky without being irritating; she can fight with a stick and fly a space freighter, but she doesn't come across as an unsympathetic know-it-all; she is vulnerable without being wet and tough without being a bully. There is a lengthy subplot involving Luke Skywalker's lightsaber, which is initially given to John Boyega's Finn, but he's no good with it and it seems wrong. I spent the rest of the film waiting for Daisy Ridley's Rey to get hold of it, and when she did I let out an internal mental cheer. Towards the end of the film she opens a can of whoop-ass on a particularly slimy villain and I suspect the rest of the theatre was cheering her as well, although they weren't literally cheering her because this was the Science Museum in London. We are British. There was polite applause at the beginning and end.

The Science Museum screened a 70mm IMAX film print. Only one sequence was shot in full-size IMAX, so the rest of the film was blown up from the original 35mm to fit the screen. Despite this it looked great. The film has been run through a computer and so it's really just as digital as any other film. If I squint my mind's eye, some of the fast-paced action sequences had a kind of judder that comes with a native 24fps workflow. Not necessarily a bad thing. The IMAX projector was bright and the screen was so large that I could see every little wrinkle and mole on Mark Hamill's face. I have waited thirty years of my life to see a gigantic close-up of Mark Hamill's face. Sadly I missed Slipstream when it was on at the cinema. If I'm being honest with myself, he looks like a tramp that smells of wee, but what did I expect? He is sixty-four years old. That's old! For the sake of posterity the Science Museum showed no trailers. No, tell a lie, there was a trailer for a Clash of Clans spin-off that featured the actor who played Blofeld in Spectre(!). He delivered his lines with gusto and I felt a bit sorry for him.

The screening had a "please turn off your phone" animation with a crude animated graphic of Darth Vader, and an introduction done in the same style, with Chewbacca, that explained the 70mm print and also that the theatre exit doors were at the back. The animation was basically a graphic of Chewbacca's face with a crudely-done mouth and eyes. It was crap, in an endearingly crap way. It's the kind of thing that will be lost with time so I thought I'd mention it. In another world J J Abrams would have filmed a short introduction, explaining why he used film and why he used IMAX, but we do not live in that world. I guess the Science Museum's staff were told to come up with something as quickly and cheaply as possible, anything.

A few paragraphs up the page I describe The Force Awakens as well-executed. It reminds me of the computer game Half-Life 2, in the sense that it's recognisably a continuation of a long-distant prequel but feels slicker and fundamentally more modern, without changing very much. Stormtroopers are still gunned down willy-nilly, but the film tries to make the corpse-strewn battlefields look like a bad place to be, rather than a bloodless child's playground. In the original films Tatooine felt like a television western, whereas the new desert word of Jakku has at least a nod towards verisimilitude. The camerawork is in the modern toned-down jerkycam style - every shot bobs a little as if filmed with a handheld camera - although early on there is an old-fashioned pan across a desert that was perhaps supposed to evoke Lawrence of Arabia. In the background a giant cliff is revealed to be a buried Star Destroyer, and in one clever shot we find out that Rey's home is a destroyed AT-AT. As per every film made in the last twenty years the colours have been tweaked so that everything is either yellow or blue, but to its credit The Force Awakens adds some more colours as well (red and a very muted green), and of course the original films were like that anyway, particularly Empire. In those days they did it with coloured lights and chemicals. The Force Awakens has received a lot of positive press for its emphasis on practical effects. It's not exactly Andrei Tarkovsky, but overall the film deploys its flashy visuals sparingly rather than making every shot look like the neon meate dream of a octafish.

Boxout: The Dark Shadow of George Lucas' Shadow
There are a number of events that loom large in the memory of my generation. The loss of the Shuttle Enterprise; the assassination of Ronald Reagan; the 1991 collapse of the Warsaw Radio Mast, which at a height of just over 2,100 feet was the tallest structure on Earth at the time. We all remember that. It has become a symbol of a hubristic age. If God had intended mankind to broadcast radio waves from a metal mast over 2,100 feet tall, he wouldn't have smote the Warsaw Radio Mast.

I remember where I was when I heard about George Lucas. It was like learning about a distant relative that you hadn't heard from in years. He didn't so much invent the Star Wars universe as patch it together from existing material, but the first Star Wars film exhibited an intriguing personal vision that was progressively diluted in the two sequels. In the case of Empire the decision to bring in Lawrence Kasdan as co-writer worked; Lucas knew his limitations and Kasdan was obviously enthused with the material. The pair reunited for Return of the Jedi, but the pressure to wrap up the story while also selling lots of toys resulted in a film that was derivative and disappointingly straightforward. It concluded the trilogy in the most efficient, least adventurous way possible without feeling like a rip-off. Lucas failed to follow up the Star Wars films with anything of note. The odd thing is that The Force Awakens is even more derivative than Jedi and yet it feels smart, whereas the part-finished Death Star of that film was a cop-out.

We will never know how George Lucas might have directed the new films, assuming he chose to direct them. He showed all the signs of going soft with age, but on the other hand George Miller is of the same generation and Mad Max: Fury Road was a ferocious action triumph. Ridley Scott is even older and still occasionally demonstrates that he has it, while close contemporary Steven Spielberg puts out good films and bad films alike at a rate of roughly one a year. Whatever problems might have faced George Lucas, age was not necessarily one of them. One day Star Wars will come to an end, but George Lucas will not be there to see it, so from a certain point of view perhaps it is better this way.

The original trilogy was visually stunning without having a particular visual style. Star Wars had little nods to the geometric, cod-Kubrick compositions of THX 1138, but they were fleeting. The lightsaber duel between Luke and Darth in Empire was striking but resembled a Gary Numan concert, and Return at times looked like a television movie. The Force Awakens has many more arty-shots-for-their-own-sake, with big dark shadows that will look awesome on a big television. At the same time it has a modern, toned-down visual language that's hard to describe. Back in the early 2000s it was fashionable to fill every frame with CGI details, so that films started to look like cartoons, but The Force Awakens has a neo-realistic look that puts me in mind of the 2012 Judge Dredd film. It manages to be very plain at times without being ugly, notably in a sequence where Rey searches for Luke Skywalker in what appears to be Cornwall*. Cornwall is famous for its ice cream, meat pasties, and fudge, which might be why Luke Skywalker has decided to hide there. Elsewhere the CGI is indistinguishable from genuine battered metal lit by the actual sun, and on the whole The Force Awakens feels more real than its predecessors. The locations breathe.

* But is in fact Skellig Michael, Ireland. As with all of the writing on this blog, this article is a glimpse into the subjective reality of my mind, rather than a description of the objective reality of the real world. A creative artist that simply describes reality isn't an artist at all, he is a security camera. Luke had to build his own light saber before he could become a Jedi; I have to build an entirely new universe.

The aerial action sequences are a little bit choppy - and surprisingly brief - but they are visually coherent. There is one particularly wizard extended shot in which a hell of a pilot shoots down half a dozen TIE fighters and then blows up some stormtroopers on the ground for good measure, dancing round the sky as if his X-Wing had proper aerodynamic wings, which it doesn't. Let's assume that the engines keep it up, not the wings.

It is an unusually mild winter - I went to the screening with my special trousers - but nonetheless the ice rink still works.

Do you remember the old X-Wing computer games? You flew space battles in a variety of spaceships, and there was a sequel where you could fly a TIE fighter and do evil things. They were fun but unsatisfying because you were just wheeling around in space. There was nothing to fly between - space is empty - so you ended up pulling tight turns over and over again in the empty darkness of dark empty space. The Force Awakens solves this problem by moving all of the battles down to the surface. There's one great moment where the Rebel cavalry arrives, swooping in over a lake, and later on our heroes have to fly around mountains in order to blow up the superlaser's inevitable weak point. Surprisingly, the film suggests that the great victory over the Empire in Jedi was inconsequential. You'd think the Empire would have trimmed their budget, but they seem to be just as powerful as ever.

The political aspects of the Star Wars galaxy are very muddled, and raise the question of what happens when the Empire is weaker than the New Republic; will the New Republic become the bad guys? What if some star systems prefer to be ruled by the Empire? In its twisted way the Empire appears to be competent, and I've always assumed that the desert scavengers living on Tatooine and Jakku had been in desperate straits long before the Empire came along. The film implies that the Empire once ruled Jakku, but has been vanquished, in which case what good did the Republic do? Rey is still doomed to a miserable life of barely surviving. The Empire in the first three films had a mad grandeur because it was huge and powerful, but for The Force Awakens it would have been interesting to see the Empire pushed into a corner, like the Nazis in the later stages of the Second World War. Early-war Nazis were bad enough, but late-war Nazis were evil beyond belief because they had nothing to lose and nowhere to run, and they were starting to fight amongst themselves. The Force Awakens simply revives the Empire (it's now "The First Order") without changing it much.

The final sequence is a mish-mash of elements from the first three films. There is a trench run that turns into the attack on the second Death Star's reactor. There is an ice planet and a desert planet. A character has to creep around the Imperial base, tinkering with things. Another character takes a tumble from a dangerous catwalk, because in this universe there are no handrails. There is a tense duel between two important characters that causes everybody else - heroes and stormtroopers alike - to stop what they are doing and watch. The end is a mixture of Star Wars (the villain is vanquished but not killed, the planet-killing weapon is put out of action) and Empire (one major character is left badly injured). I suspect J J Abrams was trying to reassure fans of the original series that this is the same Star Wars, and perhaps there are only so many ways to stage epic action, but I hope that if there are sequels they have a bit more variety.

The music is a disappointment. John Williams is back! But the music is just the old Star Wars score with a few cues played in a minor key. The old character themes reappear as homages, but they are used so many times that they overwhelm the few new themes John Williams came up with. I was disappointed, because some of the new music early in the film ("The Scavenger" on the soundtrack album) had promise that Williams and Abrams were going to come up with a new musical language for the series, but no, the rest of the score is warmed-over Star Wars. There's nothing wrong with the music, it's just that I barely noticed it - ordinarily a good thing, but not in a Star Wars film.

The Theory of Ruin Value
The Star Wars films have aged gracefully. In the 1930s top Nazi architect Albert Speer developed Die Ruinenwerttheorie, an approach to architecture which attempted to create buildings that would look impressive even in the distant future, by which time they would be ruins. Speer reasoned that ancient Greek and Roman ruins had outlasted most architecture of the middle ages and still looked grand in the 1930s because the designs were simple and they were constructed of immortal stone. This appealed to Nazi leader Adolf Hitler.

Hitler wanted people of the far future to look on the ruins of his thousand-year-reich and despair at his greatness, and I like to think that George Lucas was of a similar mind. Star Wars is full of pre-aged touches. The props were famously built to look used and worn, the actors were told to use the blaster guns and mobile communicators as if they had been around forever, and in general the series deliberately avoided any explanation of how the technology of the Star Wars universe was supposed to work. It is enough that there is a talking robot and a spaceship that can travel from planet to planet within a few hours, the audience doesn't really care how it all works. When Han Solo's Millennium Falcon breaks down it sounds like a broken car; when he fixes it, he tinkers with the engine as if it was a Volkswagen Beetle. In The Force Awakens Rey mends the Falcon by ripping out a small PCB covered with wires. In general the technology we see has a 1940s look that was supposed to evoke World War 2 fighter planes. I don't own a spaceship myself, but I reckon that in real life a hyperdrive unit would be a non-user-serviceable plastic lump.

The Ruinenwerttheorie extends beyond the sets and technology. The Star Wars films are not supposed to be real-real. They are supposed to be myths, passed down via oral tradition and countless different translations of ancient source material. Perhaps there was a real Luke Skywalker, but he was just a desert freedom fighter who died in a nameless battle. In real life the Death Star was destroyed by a team of Rebel pilots, but in order to make the legend more exciting ancient historians attributed it to Luke, and Luke alone. In real life Darth Vader lived two hundred years after Luke, and they never met. Darth's black costume is based on a single surviving holoimage that may not even be him. I'm digressing here. Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford return as space lady Princess Leia and smuggler rogue Han Solo respectively; on a physical level they are like craggy old Roman ruins. Age has given them gravitas, and they both play types rather than characters. Fisher comes off best. Leia has spent her life sending people out to die for an ideal, and there is a sorrowfulness to her characterisation.

Solo doesn't quite work as an aged man of action. I felt that his shooty-shooty-punchy sequences were written just so we could see him shooting and hitting people again. He is introduced like a character in a sitcom; here's Han! He gets some of the best lines in The Force Awakens although I felt that the writers were struggling to give him something to do.

Over the last twenty years it has been fashionable to take film franchises in a darker and edgier direction. That might have worked with Star Wars, but Abrams has instead made his film just slightly darker and a little bit edgier than before. The villain is more obviously unbalanced than Darth Vader. The opening sequence suggests a bleaker tone than the rest of the film, and the desert setting of course calls to mind modern-day Syria and Iraq. I wonder if ISIS and the like imagine themselves as the chosen ones, fighting an epic battle of great import for the soul of the future. In Star Wars the supernatural Force is unambiguously real whereas in real life I don't think anybody seriously believes that priests can make objects fly through the air. Religion is a social construct.

The Force Awakens is a kind of post-post-everything film that does not have an agenda or a particular spin. Arch conspiracists might point out that Jon Boyega's character begins as the kind of stereotypically inept, cowardly black person that was the stuff of pre-war black stereotyping, and of course this is a film directed by the Jewish Jeffrey Jacob Abrams, about a race of chosen elites who have special powers and treat those who are not of their kind as tools or obstacles. And the main hero is a posh white English woman who is naturally better than the scummy desert dwellers because she is a woman and she is posh and white. There comes a point when the agenda you see in others is in fact an agenda inside your own head.

On a fundamental level The Force Awakens is heartening because it is about people whose lives have meaning and purpose, unlike our own; people like to imagine that they are special. That was part of Luke Skywalker's appeal. Kids watching him could imagine themselves in his position, plucked from obscurity to save the galaxy. That will never age, and now a new generation of kids will have the same dreams as me. I like that.

Memories of Star Wars
The review is pretty much over at this point. I'm just old enough to remember the first three films. I was a little kid in 1977, when Star Wars rocked the box office, and I was still little in 1980, when Empire Strikes Back confirmed that George Lucas' family-friendly sci-fi franchise had legs. The films were accompanied with a blizzard of merchandise. I have fond memories of playing with some of the toys in the deep snow of winter 1981. Memories lost in time like tears in the rain. In the snow. Rosebud.

Star Wars and Empire belong to the world that existed before me, the real world. There is something sacred about them. The third film in the series, Return of the Jedi, has always felt small. It belongs to the profane world. The adverts and "making of" features demystified it. In my mind Star Wars and Empire belong to the world of myth and legend whereas Return of the Jedi belongs to a world where it rains on Sunday and cats die and life consists of stupid people hitting each other.

The three films made a fortune at the box-office. A second fortune was generated by sales of toys, novels, soundtrack albums, shampoo bottles, the list is endless. The Force Awakens has been marketed with bottled water, soup, wristwatches, pepperpots, probably electronic massagers and lingerie, I haven't checked. It's easy to mock this marketing blitz, but it must have worked because I did go and see the film. I would never have dreamed of seeing The Force Awakens otherwise. For children of my generation the films were actually the least part of the Star Wars phenomenon, because there was no way for us to see them at home. Star Wars wasn't released on videotape until 1982, and video machines were still very expensive. The film premiered on UK television in October of that year. That must have been the first time I saw it. Two hours of happiness and wonder, a brief respite from the pain and fear.

Boxout: Star Wars, Postmodernism, the New Hollywood, and Cinematic Unrealism

Elsewhere in this article I describe Star Wars as a exercise in postmodernism, which sounds pretentious, but George Lucas was a pretentious young man and Star Wars was just as much a clever experiment in storytelling as it was an actual story. It is sometimes dismissed as a shallow load of nonsense that killed off New Hollywood and opened the floodgates for the blockbusters of the 1980s, but I think that's unfair. If New Hollywood had a style, it was minimalist; the films were differentiated from films of the past by their subject matter and tone, and also nudity and swearing. Star Wars was their inverse, a simple story presented as the mythic history of a distant past, told with the medium of cinematic sampling - Lucas threw in samurai films, westerns, war films, pirate movies, a dash of naval history, even a smidgeon of Vietnam. Conceptually Star Wars was far more adventurous than the classic New Hollywood films. The likes of Nashville and The Man Who Fell to Earth had clever editing but they were still fairly straightforward tales of love and loss, whereas Star Wars was positioned as the middle segment of an ongoing mythology in an entirely different universe.

George Lucas attended the University of California's super-arty film school in the super-arty 1960s, where he was part of a generation of cinematic hipsters who went on to revolutionise Hollywood in the 1970s. They had hipsters in the 1960s - they were called hipsters. I like to think that film school hipsters get the hipsterism knocked out of them when they finally have to persuade someone to give them money to make a film. Lucas had a lucky break early in his career when good friend Francis Ford Coppola and Warner Brothers agreed to fund and release his disconcerting sci-fi dystopia THX 1138. In 1971 Spielberg was still working in television, Brian De Palma and Martin Scorsese were working with the underground and b-movies respectively, so in theory little George Lucas had beaten them all, but alas for him THX 1138 was a flop. Worse than that, it didn't even win any awards. Instead it just faded into obscurity.

For his next picture, American Graffiti, Lucas set himself the task of creating a film that ordinary people might enjoy, on a budget that would almost ensure at least a modest profit. He pulled it off with aplomb, and in doing so he became the archetypal "modern artist who knows how to paint properly", which might explain why Star Wars worked so well. The massive commercial success of Graffiti made him a multi-millionaire, although it was still a very long and difficult road before his space opera got off the ground.

What is postmodernism? The best definition I have written says that postmodernism is "fannying about after the end of the world". Star Wars is both a film and a mindbending treatise on the nature of myth. If I was writing a university thesis on the topic of reality and the cinema, I would probably choose to write it about Star Wars. The other students would pick Blade Runner or The Matrix, because Star Wars is too obvious, but in my opinion the very obviousness of Star Wars makes it - ironically - un-obvious. Less obvious. Makes it less obvious.

No, tell a lie, the perfect choice would be Monty Python and the Holy Grail, or perhaps Life of Brian. The Monty Python films are ostensibly comedies, but they also work as deconstructions of history. Again, this sounds pretentious, but Terry Jones had a degree in history from St Edmund Hall, Oxford, and the rest of the Pythons were clever people.

Life of Brian deconstructs the past with strong writing, Holy Grail does it by playing around with form. The ancient knights were warmongering sociopaths; a modern-day historian romanticises them, but is offhandledly slain mid-sentence simply for getting in the way; the knights eventually stumble into the modern world, where instead of being fĂȘted as conquering heroes they are arrested like common criminals and bundled into a police van. As with the real-life Crusades, their quest expended a great deal of energy for nothing and ended in ignominy, and Grail ultimately captures the spirit of the crusaders in the guise of a comedy. Grail and Brian are essentially the anti-Star Wars, in that they took giants from the past make them small. The Monty Python team were British university graduates of the early 1960s, and perhaps because of this there is an undercurrent of contempt running through their work. Lucas, on the other hand, was the product of a young nation during an economic boom, and with the exception of THX 1138 his output was fundamentally optimistic.

All films are unreal. Consider a film such as All the President's Men or United 93. They are lightly fictionalised portrayals of real events that happened in our world. The details have been changed but fundamentally a drama-documentary such as President's or United presents a version of true reality for the benefit of the primary audience, e.g. us. Now consider Goldfinger or John Wick or Annie Hall. They are entirely fictional stories that take place in a fictional universe modelled on our own. Within this universe there are people we never see; ordinary Joes who live their lives, for whom Auric Goldfinger really did storm Fort Knox, or John Wick really did kill a lot of people in a nightclub - they would have seen it on the television news - and somewhere in Manhattan a cinema usher sold tickets to a pair of upper-middle-class nobodies who were falling in and out of love. These films take place in a fictional universe, complete with a fictional audience; we are still the primary audience, but there is a secondary audience of people who did not participate in the film's events, but for whom the events and characters were real. The majority of Hollywood films belong to this group. The in-universe audience is usually taken for granted, but it occasionally plays an element in the plot (as in Ghostbusters, for example, or The Truman Show).

With Star Wars, George Lucas took this one step further, because Star Wars has a hidden primary audience that we never see. Early drafts of the script envisaged the films as a set of bedtime stories told to children who belonged to this hidden primary audience; this was written out, but nonetheless the characters of Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader are not real even within the fictional universe of Star Wars. The fictional universe of Star Wars is a fiction within a larger and presumably more mundane fictional universe, in which the Death Star was just a big cannon, the Force was obviously mystic rubbish, the battles were unsatisfying drawn-out affairs and the rebels were no better than the Empire they fought against. So, ultimately, Star Wars isn't a space adventure. It's a highly fictionalised, mythologised adaptation of historical events presented as entertainment for the benefit of an invisible fictional audience, for the benefit of us, the actual real audience.

To what end? I like to think that George Lucas was pragmatic enough to give himself an "out" in case he boxed himself into an inescapable corner - the events we see are part of an unreliable narrative, as in The Princess Bride - but ultimately he didn't need to resort to this because he wanted Star Wars to feel real, even if it all happened a long time ago in a galaxy etc. The problem with stories-within-stories is that it's hard to feel tension or jeopardy when the characters aren't even real within the film's fictional reality. We naturally accept that film heroes are not really-real, because we're used to it. It's unsatisfying when the unreality of film heroes is made explicit because we want to believe. For two hours we want to be transported to the dreamtime we cannot have, and it's to George Lucas' credit that such a complex narrative construction appears seamless. With Graffiti, Lucas demonstrated that he could make a perfectly conventional, human film; Star Wars was both a populist juggernaut and a pinnacle of the postmodern movement, and it's a shame he doesn't get more credit for this.

As I kid I remember losing interest in Star Wars. Return of the Jedi brought a new wave of toys, but within a year my generation had turned its attention to Transformers and other, less successful toy lines that followed in its wake. Kids are fickle, and a few years later we were no longer kids; the likes of Robocop and Predator made the Star Wars films look bland. But even as teenagers my generation still respected them. They had class, and they were smart in a way that seemed effortless. The class made them stand apart from Battle Beyond the Stars and Battlestar: Galactica; the smarts separated them from the likes of The Black Hole and Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which aspired to intelligence but were just dumb. George Lucas set out to make a space epic for kids as if it was Lawrence of Arabia, and he kept going until he succeeded. He had numerous shortcomings as a director - he couldn't write dialogue, and he didn't have much rapport with actors - but he was smart enough to work around his limitations rather than ignore them.

It's impossible for modern audiences to appreciate how odd Star Wars must have seemed in 1977. On one level it was an exercise in postmodernism; an affected homage to the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials of the 1930s and 1940s. It had simple characters mouthing comic-book dialogue. Instead of cutting between scenes, Lucas used old-fashioned fades and wipes, and instead of having a hip disco soundtrack or something by Tangerine Dream he commissioned portentous classical-style music from John Williams. In the hands of someone else Star Wars might have come across as a less obviously spoofy variation of the 1960s Batman television series; a big joke that kids could enjoy and adults could laugh at. But George Lucas sincerely loved his source material, or at least sincerely understood the way that kids love comics. Not blindly, but prepared to forgive. As with Quentin Tarantino many years later, he understood that comic books have their own level of quality, a level no less valid than that of supposedly more serious art forms. Grand opera often feels silly; the music of Scott Walker takes a bit of acclimatisation until you can appreciate it; the paintings of Jackson Pollock look like splashes of paint at first, yet some people enjoy all of these things, deeply and sincerely, and at some point in his life Lucas asked himself what was so wrong with that? And even if pulp science fiction was trash, what was so wrong with trash? George Lucas went to film school in the 1960s; he was a product of a postmodern, pop art era that refused to dismiss a medium simply because it was a vehicle for trash. To paraphrase Pauline Kael, what mattered was whether it was great trash, and George Lucas and his generation were not afraid to make fantastic trash. At heart they wanted to make serious works of great significance, but they were not afraid of trash, not like their parents.

All of this seems obvious now. Nowadays works of high art are essentially investments. No-one seriously believes that high art will usher in a new age of humanity. The twentieth century saw huge advances in the field of art; huge advances that did nothing to improve the lot of humanity or stop wars even though it seemed they might. Back in George Lucas' day there was still a sharp divide between trash and high art, but despite the success of Star Wars - and Richard Donner's contemporary, respectful take on Superman - it took several decades for Lucas' approach to become mainstream. The Force Awakens has arrived at a period in Hollywood history when comic book movies about superheroes and living toys and gentleman spies are not only extremely popular, they are also amongst the best-written and best-made films of the day. Lucas was fated never to know it, but he won. His generation of young Hollywood bucks shaped the modern world.

Back in 1988, Empire Strikes Back was ITV's big Christmas film, but Return of the Jedi was shoved out on Boxing Day the next year, almost as an afterthought. I think of the late 1980s as the low water mark for Star Wars. Watching Jedi on Boxing Day, after eating leftover turkey, I saw naff stop motion effects and plainly-visible matte lines, an ending that felt both tortuously drawn-out and rushed. The Star Wars films no longer interested me. By the late 1980s the toy range had ground to a halt and although the original films were classics, their supporting infrastructure had been dismantled. They were museum ships, grand reminders of a bygone fleet, slowly ceasing to have meaning as they journeyed from their past into our future.

There comes a time when a museum exhibit becomes so meaningless to modern audiences that it no longer justifies its place in the display cabinets. I often wonder if museum-keepers periodically dispose of their older pieces. Perhaps they don't destroy them, they instead sell them on; and if the new owners have them tossed into a trash compactor, that's their business. I can't think of an example of a major motion picture that has been allowed to disappear, at least not since the early days of cinema. Erich Von Stroheim's Greed, perhaps, or the original cut of Fritz Lang's Metropolis. Perhaps there are Nazi epics that were systemically hunted down and burned.

Hundreds of films have been lost accidentally, many more survive in truncated form, but cinema is too young for the wheel of time to have done its work. Lord Time, Field Marshal Indifference, and General Hate. Time chose to kill the stars of music hall before their work could be recorded; indifference allows manuscripts to rot; book-burners consign art to the flames. We hope that brave renegades might save forbidden art, but what if we are all book-burners? If the government decided to erase Bernard Manning from history, who would bother to save his work? No-one. He would be gone, just like the majority of everyone who has ever lived, because everything and everyone is forgotten eventually. As humanity's collective memory is transferred to the cloud, and as our capacity to generate data strips away our capacity to archive it locally, there comes a risk that a meteorite strike on a data server might wipe out a chunk of our past. As if the internet had a stroke. We like to believe that Star Wars will live forever, but people once thought the same of Easy Rider or Timothy Leary, or top eighteenth century horse painter George Stubbs. An afterlife of endless preservation without rediscovered is no different from death.

Star Wars never quite left the mainstream, but in the late 1980s and early 1990s fandom seems to have moved onto the dark new underground medium of the internet, where nerds engaged in passionate debate as to the relative military strengths of Star Trek's Federation and Star Wars' Empire. On the one hand Star Trek had teleporters and beyond-visual-range combat, but on the other hand the Empire had planet-destroying lasers, but on the other, other hand the Federation had the planet-destroying Genesis device - and teleporters, but then again the Empire had The Force. Would The Borg defeat the Empire? Could Superman defeat the Empire? Could Superman defeat the aliens from Alien? Yes, apparently.

I rediscovered the films in the mid-1990s via USENET whilst hacking into NORAD, looking for warez. By this time the kids who enjoyed the films had matured into dynamic, intelligent young men such as myself. My generation grew up loving the Star Wars films, then forgetting them, but in the 1990s we came to our senses and recognised that for all their faults there still hadn't been anything to match them. No-one had seriously tried to make a new, epic space science fiction film franchise since Jedi. In fact the new wave of decent sci-fi was playing out on television, with Babylon Five, The X-Files, and Deep Space Nine. But they didn't have the mindless escapism of Star Wars, the damn-the-subtlety sense of fun.

The cleaned-up, digitally-restored THX video and laserdisc re-releases of 1995 revealed that the films still looked and sounded awesome. The THX remasters were available in letterboxed widescreen, at a time when widescreen televisions were taking off, and they were a great way to show off your expensive new television. My hunch is that positive sales of the THX boxed set piqued the interest of George Lucas and 20th Century Fox. A few years earlier Timothy Zahn's Heir to the Empire novels had been surprising best-sellers, but they were unfilmable (Awakens ignores them totally) and novels are for sad old cat women anyway. In the way of the VHS re-releases there was a new wave of Star Wars video games, notably Dark Forces (1995) and Shadows of the Empire (1996), and suddenly Star Wars was hip enough to be re-released to the cinema. Lucas took the opportunity to run his films through a computer, but he went further than that. The cost of digital editing and computer-generated imagery had fallen throughout the 1980s and 1990s to a point where it was economical to tweak the films to Lucas' satisfaction. The resulting Special Editions were released through the first half of 1997, and to everyone's surprise they became massive box-office hits once again. All three films debuted at number one in the US, and Star Wars went on to be the eighth-highest-grossing film in the United States that year. Empire and Return of the Jedi were less popular but still made one hundred million dollars of pure profit between them.

Star Wars had been funded by 20th Century Fox, but after the massive success of the film Lucas decided to pay for the sequels himself. He took a huge risk in exchange for complete creative control. Empire was thus the most expensive indie film of all time, and if it had been a flop Lucas would have been ruined financially. In interviews he often said that he would use the money he made from Star Wars to create smaller, more personal works, but instead his productions of the 1980s and 1990s were, with the exception of the Raiders films, mostly naff. Either outright failures, as in the case of Howard the Duck and Willow, or half-baked Oscar bait like Mishima or Tucker.

It's fascinating to imagine what George Lucas might have done with new CGI technology. It might have been tempting for Lucas to overuse this new technology, but he was smart enough to recognise his own limitations as a director, so I'm sure he would have been smart enough to recognise the limitations of CGI. The Star Wars films were maximalist, but never excessive. The thought of a newly-enthused Lucas creating a new trilogy - let's say in the late 1990s, early 2000s - with subtle CGI assistance and the best screenwriters money can buy is intriguing, but we will never know. We will never know. v2