Yesterday, I travelled to London to meet up with a bunch of old friends and watch a movie.
Way back in 2000, I found myself on TheOneRing.net as I searched the internet for news on the upcoming Lord of the Rings movies. I found myself on a friendly, welcoming message board for Tolkien fans of all ages and nationalities, and made myself at home there. I chose the board name of Ufthak, an unseen character mentioned once, who is in fact an orc trapped and (presumably) later eaten by Shelob, the giant spider-demon of Cirith Ungol. I met up with fellow ‘Ringers’ to see all three Lord of the Rings movies and then, a decade later, to see the three Hobbit movies too (which was considerably less enjoyable, but due to the quality of the movies rather than the company).
After we’d seen The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies we were sitting in a pub just outside Chinatown and talking, and someone mentioned that, of course, this would be an end to our now-annual Christmas tradition of meeting up to watch a Tolkien movie. It would never happen again.
And then Joanne said “Well, Star Wars is out next year.” So this year, we went to see Star Wars Episode VII.
Star Wars isn’t a fandom that I’ve ever got into as much as I did with Tolkien. It’s not as deep, for starters, or at least not originally. There’s plenty of Extended Universe stuff out there (all now wiped clean by the new Disney canon, of course), but most of that didn’t come from George Lucas. Besides, Lucas only wrote the script for A New Hope, handing over the actual scripts for Empire and Jedi to others. Everything in the Tolkien universe came from JRR Tolkien himself, albeit in more recent years released, compiled and edited by Christopher Tolkien. Also, a lot of the Star Wars EU stuff didn’t really speak to me: I really liked Timothy Zahn’s trilogy of novels, but the bits and pieces I read elsewhere didn’t seem to have the same spark.
As a result, my movie-going experience yesterday was actually in many ways more enjoyable than going to see the movies based on Tolkien’s work, because they were completely fresh and new. Don’t get me wrong, I’d have loved to see Grand Admiral Thrawn onscreen, but there was nothing in The Force Awakens where I could go “but that’s not how it is in the books!” or even “but that’s not how I imagined it!”. The movie wasn’t flawless, of course – far from it. Some bits were silly (and not in a comedy moment way, although it had those too), some bits were too vague, and some bits didn’t entirely make sense. However, it was great fun and it *felt* right. I also liked the use of characters – old ones seeded to provide continuity, the new ones fresh and vigorous and interesting, and I want to see where they go and what they do.
It was also nice to see added diversity. Star Wars was always a bit of a case of “thousands of alien races, plus white people. And Billy Dee Williams”. It’s great to see an ethnically diverse cast, but also the greater prominence of women. Gwendoline Christie’s Captain Phasma was criminally underused – I was hoping for much more of her than we got – but while Rey succeeds in being a great character that isn’t just Princess Leia Mk II there were also more incidental touches such as female X-wing pilots or Resistance ground crews.
The one main thing I didn’t like about the movie, although I shouldn’t really have expected anything else, was the continued sharp distinction between Good and Evil. I suppose you were never going to get anything else given the history of the series and the focus on the Dark Side and the Light Side of the Force, and it makes it harder to cheer killing the Bad Guys if you’re not so sure that they’re Bad, but I always feel that some humanisation makes for a more engaging story. But, perhaps, not one you can make a Christmas blockbuster sci-fi action movie out of.