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Star Wars saga revisited: Episode VII - The Force Awakens


In anticipation of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker's release this December, we're counting down all the Star Wars movies in chronological order of release.

This week, it's the first instalment of the current trilogy: Episode VII – The Force Awakens.

What's the story of Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens?

In the years following Return of the Jedi, the galaxy has again fallen into conflict and civil war. Following the collapse of the galactic Empire, embodied by the deceased Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine, a new threat has emerged.

The First Order is a tyrannical force of evil led by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and his mysterious Sith mentor Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis). Ren is in search of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), the wise Jedi master whose mysterious disappearance has contributed to the sense of disharmony in the galaxy.

The map pointing to Skywalker's location inadvertently falls into the hands of droid BB-8, who crosses paths with Jakku scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley). She pines for her lost parents, and is soon drawn into an epic conflict that also involves renegade former stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), plus veterans Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher).

Rey soon realises she is strong with the Force, and is inexorably drawn into a battle with the deadly Kylo Ren...

How did The Force Awakens get made?

In the 10 years between Revenge of the Sith and The Force Awakens, a great deal had changed in the movie landscape. Fantasy series The Lord of the Rings, released in the midst of George Lucas' much-derided Star Wars prequel trilogy, rewrote the rulebook on mythological epics set in fantastical landscapes.

And, of course, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) had, beginning with 2008's Iron Man, popularised the notion of serialised big screen storytelling. Each new MCU instalment primed audiences for the next entry, which when combined with vibrant characters and (for the most part) sharp storytelling, set new standards for popcorn entertainment.

In short, there was far more aggressive competition for an audience's attention. And there had been important shifts within the Star Wars universe itself. In 2012, George Lucas sold his Lucasfilm rights to Disney, essentially absolving himself of the need to ever make another Star Wars movie, and passing his baby into the hands of somebody else.

Lucas' relationship with his own brainchild had always been somewhat muddy. He so famously hated making 1977's A New Hope that he stepped away from the camera on The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, instead sculpting the Star Wars merchandising empire, not to mention the structure of the eventual prequel series, from behind the scenes.

When he did return to helm the prequels, after friends Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard turned it down, Lucas was met with vociferous booing from audiences and critics, who disliked his wooden dialogue, stiff staging and over-reliance on CGI. By cutting the apron strings and giving up Star Wars, this was the time for fresh blood to be injected into the franchise.

That said, in the early stages of The Force Awakens' development, Lucas remained on board as story consultant, working alongside new Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy. Ultimately, however, his ideas were discarded and Lucas stepped into the background. In an interview with The Guardian, Lucas' son Jett said his father was "very torn" about giving up Star Wars, adding that "he wants to let it go and become its new generation".

In January 2013, JJ Abrams was selected as the director of the project that became known as The Force Awakens. Many celebrated helmers were suggested for the gig, including Guillermo del Toro and David Fincher, but Spielberg's suggestion that it be Abrams swayed producer Kathleen Kennedy.

Abrams was a child of the Lucas/Spielberg landscape of the 1970s and 1980s, assimilating their populist style via the likes of TV series Lost, Mission: Impossible III and critically acclaimed Spielberg pastiche fantasy Super 8. He therefore appeared to be an excellent choice to do justice to the broad canvas of Star Wars, which is designed to engender wide-eyed wonder and unabashed emotion in audiences.

Although Jett Lucas said his father George kept in "constant contact" with Abrams during the early stages of production, it's apparent that very few of the traditional Lucas blueprints remain in the finished product (to the relief of many fans). There's greater use of location filming a la the original trilogy, CGI mixes with practical creature effects and costumes, stimulating more naturalistic responses from the actors, and in short there's a wonderful sense of tactility sorely lacking from the prequels.

Initially set for a summer 2015 release, The Force Awakens was moved to December 2015 after delays with Michael Arndt's screenplay. The Oscar-winning screenwriter of Little Miss Sunshine (he was also nominated for Toy Story 3) was struggling to manoeuvre the pivotal figure of Luke Skywalker into the storyline, reasoning that if he appeared midway through, it would take the attention away from the next characters.

Arndt exited the project in October 2013, after working on it for eight months. Abrams and The Empire Strikes Back veteran Lawrence Kasdan then took over the screenplay, which they completed by January 2014, ahead of a summer 2014 shooting schedule. Given his longstanding association with the series, Kasdan was also retained as a general creative consultant on the movie.

Abrams stated that he desired to return to the emotional texture of the original trilogy – however, the framework of the new trilogy wasn't entirely worked out upon completion of the script. For that reason, many elements were to remain mysterious, including Rey's origins, which was (controversially) addressed in the next movie, The Last Jedi.

However, at the same time, Abrams was collaborating with eventual director of The Last Jedi, Rian Johnson, plus Colin Trevorrow, initially proposed for The Rise of Skywalker, to hash out the new trilogy structure. (Trevorrow would ultimately be removed from the project in 2018, ceding control to Abrams.)

In August 2013, the search for the new Star Wars cast began in earnest. Daisy Ridley was cast as aspiring Jedi Rey in February 2014, becoming the first woman to lead a Star Wars movie. (It's arguable that Carrie Fisher plays second fiddle to Mark Hamill in the original trilogy.) In fact, Ridley had to be removed from comedy sequel The Inbetweeners 2, after she was unavailable for reshoots in summer 2014 when filming on The Force Awakens began.

A relatively inexperienced performer when she was cast in Star Wars, Ridley was later candid about how she struggled in the early stages of the filming. In fact, she was outright critical of her performance – remarkable when one considers that the very sense of vulnerability and trepidation is what makes Rey so engaging as a character. This is someone finding her place in the universe, grappling with the destiny that has been thrust upon her – in hindsight, there was probably more in common with actor and character than it first appeared.

A further sign of Star Wars' increased progressiveness came in the casting of John Boyega as Finn. (The actor dropped out of a planned Jesse Owens biopic to take on the role.) He became the first black person to take on a lead Star Wars role (again, Billy Dee Williams' Lando Calrissian was something of a background player), and brought enormous likeability to the conflicted former Stormtrooper. (One of the best images in the film comes with Finn's reversal, his helmet stained with the blood of a fallen colleague during the opening slaughter on Jakku, which turns him against the First Order.)

One of the strongest aspects of The Force Awakens is Adam Driver as the warring yet tormented Kylo Ren. Tall of stature and gangly of gait, the actor is imposing when donning the helmet and when seen for what he is. Driver was, at the time of his casting, a cult presence from Lena Dunham's HBO hit Girls, and his unusual, aquiline features are an excellent fit for the monstrous yet youthful Ren.

In April 2014, it was announced that Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford would all be returning. As far as Ford was concerned, this was a cathartic experience: he'd pushed to have Han Solo killed way back in The Empire Strikes Back, but George Lucas vetoed the idea. This, therefore, was Ford's chance to go out in a blaze of glory, and indeed he does, during a highly emotional scene that reinforces the family themes at the heart of Star Wars.

In this case, the wisecracking Solo, who by this stage has poignantly learned to embrace the notion of the Force, is killed by his son Kylo – aka Ben Solo. The film's explicit mirroring of the father-son conflict from the original Star Wars trilogy shows how characters are destined to make the same mistakes and live with the same regrets, as the galaxy falls into cyclical patterns of chaos and despair. (Such deliberate repetition was later used as a basis of criticism against the movie, with many claiming it was little more than a soft reboot of A New Hope.)

Additional cast members included Oscar Isaac as hotshot pilot Poe Dameron, Gwendoline Christie as First Order operative Captain Phasma (a role that, regretfully, didn't come to much), Lupita Nyong'o in a motion capture role as wise alien Maz Kanata and Domhnall Gleeson as the First Order's General Hux. Andy Serkis was also confirmed as the malevolent Snoke.

In March 2014, Pinewood Studios in the UK was officially selected as the primary location for filming. London had always been the spiritual home of Star Wars – both the original and prequel trilogies had been shot at Elstree and Leavesden Studios, so immediately there was a nostalgic connection for the cast and crew. This was further heightened by the presence of two more original trilogy members: Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca (in what turned out to be his final Star Wars appearance), and Anthony Daniels as C-3PO.

Location photography began in May 2014 in Abu Dhabi, which stood in for the sand-blasted wastes of Jakku where we first meet Rey. Cinematographer Dan Mindel, with whom Abrams had worked several times before, stressed his desire to shoot on 35MM film for a more lustrous sense of image depth, while also indicating his preference for scale models and costumes as opposed to the hermetically sealed green screen environments of the prequel trilogy.

"The conversation we're having all the time now about Episode VII is how much CGI," Kathleen Kennedy explained. "We're looking at what the early Star Wars films did; they used real locations with special effects. So we're going to find some very cool locations, we're going to end up using every single tool in the toolbox."

Filming at Pinewood was rudely interrupted in June 2014 when Ford's leg was crushed by a hydraulic door. (Abrams injured his back while attempting to help the prone actor.) Ford soon recovered in August 2014 and things proceeded on schedule until the completion of filming in November 2014, all under intense security and drone usage (a clear sign of how production on a Star Wars movie had advanced into the modern age.) 

Storyboard artist Simon Duric said, "The security on the film was a challenge. That script was locked in a safe. Most of the time on a film you can sit at your desk with a copy of the script next to you. On this, you couldn't. That's fine but it was tricky in places. We had people flying drones over Pinewood Studios trying to take photographs. It was nuts. If a prop was being moved we had to have them covered in a big black sheet. We were told in an email to be [wary] of drones."

Additional photography took place at Puzzlewood in the Forest of Dean, and off the coast of Ireland on Skellig St Michael. This wind-swept crag would come into greater focus in The Last Jedi (albeit teased at the end of The Force Awakens), as Ahch-To, the isolated retreat of Luke Skywalker. (Early location photography for The Last Jedi took place at Skellig in September 2015.) The Lake District was also used as the background location for an X-Wing assault sequence.

Upon completion of filming, Abrams supervised the editing from his Bad Robot headquarters in Los Angeles. He was compelled to remove several sections from the movie, including a pivotal one involving Leia and Maz Kanata.

"At one point, Maz used to continue along with the characters back to the Resistance base, but we realised that she really had nothing to do there of value, except to be sitting around," Abrams explained. He later confirmed in August 2015 that the movie's running time spanned 124-125 minutes.


How did John Williams compose the score for The Force Awakens?

Another vital link to Star Wars heritage came in the form of John Williams. The veteran film composer, widely considered as the greatest of all time, began his association with Star Wars back in 1977, winning an Oscar for his triumphant symphonic score for A New Hope. Williams remained with the series throughout the remainder of the original and prequel trilogies, interweaving and criss-crossing an extraordinary plethora of character and location-based themes that deepened our understanding of the universe.

Unsurprisingly, Williams' involvement was confirmed very early on, in July 2013. In December 2014, his newly composed music was heard in the first teaser trailer for The Force Awakens, before recording on the score itself began in June 2015. Unusually, Williams was generously allocated access to five recording sessions spread over several months – usually, the recording of a film score is compressed into a few weeks. Such is the level of respect that Williams commands.

Recording took place at the Sony Pictures Studios' Barbra Streisand Scoring Stage in Culver City. For the first time in Star Wars history, the London Symphony Orchestra wasn't used – instead, responsibility fell to the 90-piece Hollywood Studio Symphony. (This was owing to Williams' advancing years, and meant he wouldn't have to venture far from his Los Angeles home.)

In June 2015, Williams confirmed the presence of the original trilogy themes for Luke, Han and Leia, explaining that their presence "will seem very natural and right in the moments for which we've chosen to do these kinds of quotes. There aren't many of them, but there are a few that I think are important and will seem very much a part of the fabric of the piece in a positive and constructive way".

Williams further elaborated on the philosophy of the score: "It's all a continuation of an initial set of ideas. It's a bit like adding paragraphs to a letter that's been going on for a number of years. Starting with a completely new film, a story that I don't know, characters that I haven't met, my whole approach to writing music is completely different—trying to find an identity, trying to find melodic identifications if that's needed for the characters, and so on."

It's little surprise that Williams' music is one of the strongest elements of The Force Awakens. The aforementioned original trilogy themes are present and correct, interweaving around a host of memorable new ideas. The greatest of these is the gossamer-light flute theme for Rey – it's reportedly the earnestness of her character that secured Williams' interest in the project. ("I don't want anyone else to write music for her," he explained.)

There's also a brooding new motif for Kylo Ren and the First Order, carried on harsh horns and trombones to indicate their crushing sense of evil.

Supreme Leader Snoke's theme is possessed of the same darkly choral menace that earmarked Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) in Return of the Jedi. Such were the tonal similarities that many viewers became convinced Snoke was the Darth Sidious alluded to by Palpatine in Revenge of the Sith – although, as we know from The Last Jedi, that was tantamount to nothing.

As one would expect, Williams' integration of the original themes is spectacular. The Star Wars fanfare is treated to a propulsive, driving arrangement, complete with horns and tambourine, during the X-Wing assault on the First Order's Starkiller base.

The emergence of the tender 'Han Solo and the Princess' love theme from The Empire Strikes Back evokes tears of nostalgia as Han and Leia are reunited on screen for the time time in 32 years.

And the ever-present Force theme guides both Rey and our own emotions as she's ultimately drawn to the remote Ahch-To. Upon the climactic reveal of Luke, the piece swells to melodramatic proportions, resounding with a sense of history and connecting us to that vital moment where young Luke gazed out at the binary sunset on Tattooine.

Interestingly, Abrams drew on the skills of Hamilton veteran Lin-Manuel Miranda to write the jazzy source music heard in Maz Kanata's cantina. 

How was The Force Awakens received?

Anticipation for The Force Awakens began a year in advance of the release, with the unveiling of the initial teaser trailer in November 2014, which hit 55 million views in 24 hours. The second trailer premiered in April 2015 and amassed 88 million views in the same period.

A later trailer released in October 2015 racked up an astonishing 112 million online views in 24 hours, according to Combined with the 16 million viewers that tuned in to watch the trailer on Monday Night Football (during which it premiered), the preview amassed a total of 128 million views.

The Hollywood Reporter indicated: "The advance ticket sales, which kicked off after the trailer debuted on Monday, broke numerous records, including the biggest-ever 24 hours for advance sales in numerous countries. In the U.K., more than 200,000 tickets were sold in the first day. Several ticket sales sites crashed under the high demand."

All of this seemed good on the outside – but there were echoes of the ear-splitting hype generated by The Phantom Menace back in 1999, and we all know how that turned out. Fortunately, we needn't have worried. Released in the USA and Canada on the 18th of December 2015, The Force Awakens generated the warmest responses to any Star Wars movie since the original trilogy, and eventually grossed $2.068 billion worldwide.

The film was powered by an extensive marketing campaign, becoming (unadjusted for inflation) the highest-grossing instalment in the Star Wars franchise, the highest-grossing film in North America, the highest-grossing film of 2015 and the fourth-highest-grossing film of all time.

Reviews were largely glowing. On Rotten Tomatoes, the film continues to rank among the highest-grossing Star Wars movies with a 93% aggregate score, described as follows: "Packed with action and populated by both familiar faces and fresh blood, The Force Awakens successfully recalls the series' former glory while injecting it with renewed energy."

Todd McCarthy raved in The Hollywood Reporter: "Star Wars: The Force Awakens pumps new energy and life into a hallowed franchise in a way that both resurrects old pleasures and points in promising new directions." And The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw said the movie "re-awoke" his love of the franchise, "and turned my inner fanboy into my outer fanboy. There are very few films which leave me facially exhausted after grinning for 135 minutes, but this is one".

The film's success continued at the 88th Academy Awards where it was nominated for five and won for Best Visual Effects. The film garnered four nominations at the 69th British Academy Film Awards for Best Original Music, Best Sound, and Best Production Design, including two wins, one for Best Special Visual Effects and a BAFTA Rising Star Award for John Boyega.

It also featured on numerous 'best of the year' lists, including Total Film, Variety and Rolling Stone. It was official: Star Wars was back in a big way.

What was the next movie in the Star Wars saga?

The Last Jedi, released in 2017, was the next Star Wars movie.

When is Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker released in the UK?

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is released in Cineworld on the 19th of December. Tweet us your favourite Star Wars moments @Cineworld.