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Star Wars Into Darkness? Or A New Hope?

05/01/2016 14:16 GMT | Updated 04/01/2017 10:12 GMT

Unless you have been living under a rock on Tattooine, you'll have noticed that the first Star Wars film in a decade (and the first Star Wars film since Disney purchased Lucasfilm in 2012) has finally hit cinema screens and started to bullseye box office records, much in the same way that Luke Skywalker did to womp-rats with his T-16. For devoted fans of the franchise, this is most definitely a period of heightened anxiety and anticipation due to the prequel trilogy that was infamously denounced by first generation Star Wars fans as nothing but a blight on the saga. Could The Force Awakens resurrect and repair the franchise? Or would the director responsible for successfully rebooting Star Trek be forever known as Jar Jar Abrams? After all, the most recent Star Trek instalment, Into Darkness, was voted by ardent Trekkers to be the worst film in the franchise, a fact made all the more embarrassing by parody film, Galaxy Quest, scoring higher in the poll. http://www.theguardian.com/film/2013/aug/14/star-trek-into-darkness-voted-worst

Commercially, The Force Awakens (TFA) continues to break box-office records, but we should take this with a pinch of salt when mathematically readjusting for inflation. All too often, box office statistics are a red herring. Gone with the Wind remains the highest grossing film of all-time with the first Star Wars film, Episode IV: A New Hope (ANH), coming in second. TFA may be officially marked as economically triumphant, but actually only stands at 43rd in real statistics.

Conversely, TFA has successfully proved that Star Wars can indeed be Star Wars again. In the build up to the release of the film, we were told via numerous sources, such as the comic-con reel, that the ethos of the original trilogy was the benchmark for TFA. To address one of the primary complaints about the prequels - that is, a bombardment of CGI - Abrams returned to traditional filmmaking techniques: model-building, real sets, and real locations. Much was made of the fact that the Millennium Falcon was being built from scratch at Pinewood Studios in London, with celebrity-fan, Kevin Smith, waxing lyrical in various media outlets following an emotional visit to the set. Such news operated as a canny marketing tool to assuage anxieties about TFA and build an optimistic buzz. (Not for nothing did Abrams publically state that he would lay Jar Jar Binks' skeletal remains in the desert of Jakku. Even a throwaway joke such as this served to promote TFA as a faithful appendage to the Star Wars mythos). Since the release of TFA, there has been a rift in cyberspace. On the one hand, an enormous quantity of reviews expressed delight with the film, with meta-critic statistics scoring an average of 94%, a significant landslide in terms of popularity. On the other hand, however, there has been an online backlash from numerous sources with many critics complaining that the film is nothing more than a 'beat-for-beat' remake of ANH. To be sure, there are elements that have been recycled. I do not want to repeat those arguments here. But if we can view Star Wars as the contemporary equivalent of myth, one that is cyclical rather than cynical, then the strategy makes more sense. There are as many differences between TFA and ANH than similarities, far too many to go into here. Sure, there are problems (the emergence of a new super-weapon felt unnecessary to me). But one of the major differences - and the film's crowning achievement -- is the introduction of Daisy Ridley as scavenger, Rey.

Ridley is simply remarkable. More than this, however, Rey is the most progressive female character in the Star Wars film series, and the new role model for aspiring girls and women across the galaxy. Like the first time we meet Luke Skywalker in ANH, Rey is a wayward inhabitant of a desert planet. But the fact that Rey is this trilogy's Luke represents a major shift in both the Star Wars mythos and the entertainment industry at large. Ridley is playing a female protagonist in what has historically been viewed as a 'boy's club' (and remains so, in many ways). In one scene when Rey and Finn are running from attacking Tie Fighters, the latter keeps grabbing her hand as if the former requires masculine assistance to survive. 'Stop grabbing my hand,' exclaims Rey indignantly. She is strong, resilient and kicks ass. She is emphatically not a damsel-in-distress.

Rey may be the sequel trilogy's Luke Skywalker, a character who escapes a humdrum life in the desert to learn the ways of the force and become a Jedi; but the fact that the protagonist of TFA is female is a significant shift in the right direction. Given that female-led franchises are rather thin on the ground, TFA is a welcome breath of fresh air. Daisy Ridley is a Rey of Light that has rescued the Star Wars film series from darkness. This is the film that fans have been looking for.