Film review – Alien: Covenant (Ridley Scott, 2017)

I have to lay out some home truths before we start. After five years, it appears the dust has settled and most of us have decided Prometheus was a pile of rubbish.

The Alien prequel was a return to the helm for Ridley Scott after a 33-year hiatus. Despite the anticipation, the disappointment amongst the hard-core fans stemmed from some convenient plot points that seemed to allow progression of the story despite not really making sense (“Why did she run in a straight line?”, “Why did the navigator guy get lost?”, “She’s just had a caesarean… how is she running?”).

I saw the film as a midnight screening and I remember coming out of the cinema buzzing with excitement. The film was, in my opinion, a return to form for the franchise after the overwhelmingly disappointing Alien v Predator films (which worked better as a toy line than as a film). It wasn’t a patch on the first two – Alien and its sequel Aliens – but probably stood alongside or better than any of the other instalments.

Yes, that’s right. I am a fan of Prometheus.

I went into an early screening of Covenant with the same kind of excitement and anticipation as I had five years ago. The advertising campaign has been nothing if not relentless, so finally getting to see the film on the big screen felt as much a trip to the cinema as it was a way to quench my carefully manipulated thirst for a next instalment.

The film is set in 2104, ten years after the main events of Prometheus and around twenty years before the events of Alien. The opening sequence, which features a reprisal cameo from Guy Pearce as Peter Weyland, explores the themes of humanity’s desire to meet its creator. It could easily have been a part of the first instalment, but bridges the gap and reminds viewers of the unhinged nature of David, one of two robots played by Michael Fassbender.

The main body of the film focuses on a colonisation mission from Earth to to a remote planet Origae-6, aboard the titular spaceship Covenant. The main crew includes Captain Branson (James Franco) and third in command Daniels (Katherine Waterston), a terraforming expert and wife to Branson. Christopher Oram (Billy Crudup) is a man of faith who is unexpectedly promoted to captain shortly into the mission. Michael Fassbender’s second character in the film is a synthetic android named Walter, a more advanced version of David. The crew also includes Chief Pilot Tennessee (Danny McBride), Sergeant Lope (Demián Bichir) and Karine Oram (Carmen Ejogo). Aboard their ship is around 2,000 human embryos, with the purpose of populating their destination planet upon arrival.

After a neutrino shockwave hits the ship, the main crew are woken up to deal with the repairs on the ship. They are seven years away from their destination planet but a matter of weeks away from an alternative planet that appears to offer the same prospects as Origae-6. New captain Oram makes the decision to land on the newly-found planet, which turns out to be the one Dr Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and David set sail for at the end of Prometheus. Needless to say, the story goes downhill from here for our crew, with disastrous consequences.

Given the popular misgivings about Prometheus, I couldn’t help but pick fault with a couple of major issues with the decision making of the crew of the Covenant. Most glaringly, none of them seem keen to wear masks when they leave the spaceship, even though there’s no obvious investigations into how viable to atmosphere is to breathe. It just seemed odd that they were so confident only minutes after being so worried. Surely that’s rule number one for space travel?

All the people on the ship have a partner on there, meaning everyone is at risk of losing a loved one at every turn. This falls down, however, when you throw a couple of red coats onto the first expedition. Where were the devastated husbands and wives grieving their loved ones? Do they not get to show emotion because their rank is too low? I’m looking at Ledward here. Surely he has a wife or girlfriend on board?

Aside from picking nits, the film is genuinely a great effort, probably a lot better than Prometheus. There are a number of great nods to previous films – the face-hugger makes its comeback – and it feels like Scott has set out to make a crowdpleaser. That’s definitely not a bad thing.

The partner element is an intelligent way to add depth to all of the characters. Shortly into the main plot, James Franco’s Captain Branson dies, immediately answering the question of why he wasn’t featured more prominently in the advertising campaign (a missed trick in my opinion). This plunges Katherine Waterston’s Daniels into immediate emotional turmoil, though she quickly rises out of it and continues with her mission objectives.

Waterston has some big Sigourney Weaver sized shoes to fill in terms of taking the female lead role. I’m sure she has felt the pressures of her predecessor, though it doesn’t show on screen. She does a fantastic job and at times carries the film, acting as the sensible decision maker, the natural leader and the only one with the will to fight back when everything goes pear shaped. Sure, the strong and intelligent female protagonist is becoming a bit of a broken record in modern cinema, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that Signourney Weaver in Alien is probably the best early example of it being done so well, certainly in terms of Blockbuster films in genres usually associated with male audiences.

The final act is wholly worth of the Alien canon, rescuing a film that at times had threatened to go off the rails. It’s here that Scott ramps up the tension and action, paying off the setup over the previous 90-ish minutes.

If the final 30 minutes is great, then the final ten seconds is utter genius.

If you have any misgivings about the Alien franchise, Covenant is the film that will bring you back on track.

Film review – Ghost in the Shell (Rupert Sanders, 2017)

When the live-action remake of Ghost in the Shell was announced, the online rhetoric centred around the fact that the remake was in itself completely unnecessary, whilst also questioning why lead Japanese character Major Kusanagi was being portrayed by Scarlett Johansson. The studios’ responses at the time were that they wanted a bankable star and that was the main reason she was cast, but that word was out there. Whitewashing. Once it’s there, it’s hard to shake.

A similar issue befell the 2011 film Under The Skin, also starring Scarlett Johansson. True, there was no need accusations of racism, but Johansson was cast for similar reasons. It later emerged in an interview with Gemma Arterton that the British actress had been first choice by the director Jonathan Glazer. However, Johansson was eventually cast in order to secure the funding to complete the film to the director’s vision.

In both cases, it is a sad reflection on the current state of cinema and its attitudes towards so-called non-bankable stars. Clearly the studios involved were nervous about a film being able to sell based on a high quality script, good direction and a solid marketing campaign. Instead they brought in Johansson, and presumably part of their reasoning was that they didn’t have faith in the audience to see past the lead character. Perhaps this is correct.

However, in neither case was the film damaged as a result of the casting. Both plots lend themselves to having an otherworldly-essence to the lead female. 

Crucially, Johansson isn’t just a bankable star. She’s a truly phenomenal actress at the top of her game.

In Under The Skin, the fact that Scarlett Johansson was driving around the streets of Glasgow and getting real reactions from the general public whilst speaking in an emotionless English accent played into her role. She was, ambiguously, an alien preying on men, so her not being British gave a mysterious element to her performance that justified her casting.

Equally in Ghost in the Shell, the fact she isn’t of Asian origin doesn’t necessarily play against the script. She is a cybernetic being, with the brain of a human inside a robotic body. This is a future where cybernetic modifications are a part of normal life. The brain inside her body is that of a Japanese girl, but her body is Scarlett Johansson. 

I don’t agree with the feeling that her casting is whitewashing of the original story. The studio saw a way to make the plot more appealing to American audiences in a way that didn’t compromise the story – the wider lead cast covers a wide variety of races, primarily either American or Asian. They would have been foolish not to go down that route.

Clearly, the Japanese market doesn’t seem overly bothered by her casting. Nor do the South Korean and Chinese markets. In China, for example, they currently have a total box office taking of $23.39m (as of 09/04/2017), approximately a quarter of the global takings. This is a total which pushed a disappointing US box office performance into a profitable outcome.

Ironically, one of the primary reasons offered by the studio for its domestic failure was that Scarlett Johansson doesn’t have an online presence. 

The humour of this entire situation shouldn’t be lost and I can’t help but feel that the backlash against this is looking for an argument where there isn’t one. At the very worst, the filmmakers can be accused of bringing in a superstar to sell the film and this deviates it from the original vision from 1996. The faithfulness to the original story is so strong though that this change shouldn’t be held against it. Certainly no complaints can be levelled at Johansson, who puts in a stellar performance in her starring role.


The environment the characters inhabit is rich and believable, with a mix of CGI and real shots used to create a new universe. It is visually stunning, a full 3D remodelling of the vision created in 2D by Mamoru Oshii and the original animation team from 1995. 

The city is modelled on Hong Kong, but it feels like it lives in the same universe as Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, with spawling cityscapes and futuristic advertisement boards threatening to submerge the life within it.

Indeed, the musical cues that Clint Mansell and Lorne Balfe provide are clearly influenced by Vangelis. This I see as an indication of how much of an influence Vangelis has had on futuristic science fiction cinema, rather than a lazy bit of theft from the musical pairing. Mansell is very much carrying the Vangelis baton as evidenced by his excellent scores for the likes of High-Rise, Black Swan and Stoker.

If the action sequences seem a little dated, it is because Sanders has been put in a near-impossible situation by the Wachowskis. There are rumours that the only reason The Matrix was made was because they wanted to make a live-action Ghost in the Shell but couldn’t get the rights. Whilst there are similar themes in both films, it is the action sequences that were so iconic that The Matrix is remembered for. These were lifted straight from Oshii’s masterpiece. So, heaping this remake with too much of them would make casual audiences feel like they were utilising a technique that debuted two decades ago and has been parodied ever since. If anything, Sanders has probably underused it, but it is nonetheless a visual spectacle.

Taking on a film that is seen as a defining point of the genre is always going to be tough. The original really wasn’t a box office success in its original release, making just $2.28m globally. It did eventually become a cult classic. This 2017 remake has already made its money back ($130m and counting), but will doubtless also be considered a box office flop by its detractors. 

This is not a masterpiece of a film, but it is extremely impressive and engrossing. Arguably, the plot is much clearer than the original too. It’s a shame that it looks unlikely to be given a chance by most a large portion of the potential market.

Note: the version watched was 3D IMAX.

Film review – Ghostbusters (Paul Feig, 2016)

Coming off the back of the unprecidented success of Bridesmaids, Feig looked to have carved a path as the director of female-led lighthearted comedies, following as he did with The Heat and Spy (both of which were well-received by both audiences and critics).  The safe move would have been to deliver more of the same until either the audiences or the actresses got bored, cashing the cheques as they exited stage right.

Rebooting the Ghostbusters franchise with women taking the lead roles, therefore, seemed like an unnecessarily bold move. Taking on the beloved franchise of an entire generation of cult film cinephiles has fallen flat many, many times recently. Total Recall. Robocop. the Terminator sequels. Vacation. The Karate Kid. A Nightmare on Elm Street. Conan the Barbarian. Oldboy. Please stop ruining our childhoods!

Fortunately, this time there’s enough talent involved to ensure that Ghostbusters is a success. It isn’t a remake so much as a reboot. There are some knowing nods back to the originals, but this is a film that stands on its own two feet and comes out with its head held high.

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Busting makes ’em feel good!

Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy are both on fine form as the childhood friends turned ghost-hunters Dr. Erin Gilbert and Dr. Abby Yates, but it is Kate McKinnon as scientist and pyrotechnics enthusiast Dr. Jillian Holtzmann that is the real success story here. This should serve as a starting point for her career to truly take off. Another SNL-favourite, Leslie Jones, completes the cast as Patty Tolan, a New York subway clerk who knows her way around the city.

Sadly, it doesn’t sail through without disappointing from time to time. The ham-fisted cameos of the original actors were completely unnecessary and would have meant nothing to newcomers to the story. They just weren’t worked well and I can imagine younger audience members wondering why so much attention was given to the taxi driver as the pace of the film took a minor detour.

The casting of Leslie Jones attracted criticism in the run up to the release of the film from some who suggested that the portrayal of a street-smart African-American amongst three white scientists bordered on racism. This wasn’t something I particularly picked up on during the film – she was well cast in a role that suited her and had good chemistry with her SNL cohorts.

Fortunately, the ones most disappointed with this film will be the ones who had written it off before it had even started. The trailer was one of the most disliked in YouTube history, which serves only to underline how collectively vindictive some sections of the Internet can be. The only shame is that they probably won’t give this film a chance and as a result they will be missing one of the funniest summer blockbusters of the year.

ANNOUNCEMENT – EWOK ADVENTURES COMING TO BLU-RAY

UPDATE (07/11/2016): For no reason at all I’ve had a sudden influx of people finding this page after searching for “Ewok Adventure Blu-ray” or similar. Just in case you hadn’t realised… This was an April Fools joke. There is no scheduled HD re-release of these films. You can buy the films on DVD here

There has been an exciting announcement this morning from Walt Disney Pictures. Following the increased interest in Star Wars following the release of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, the first sign that the Walt Disney company are going to mine the Star Wars back catalogue has seen the light of day.

Set for release on 1st August 2016, digitally restored versions of both Ewok Adventure films – Caravan of Courage and Battle for Endor – will be released in a specially-commissioned 4K transfer. What’s more – any fans who are lucky enough to have tickets to the Star Wars Celebration on 15-17 July 2016 will be able to pick up a limited edition numbered steelbook of the release. How limited these will be is yet to be announced, though they are set to be one of the hottest items at the event.

It is thought that the unexpected announcement is a way to test the waters for future 4K transfers of other Star Wars releases. Of course, the dream release for most fans is the cinematic releases of the original trilogy, fully restored with no Lucas interference. Perhaps this will see the light of day at a later date, though we won’t hold our breath. This will be an excellent stop-gap release.

There are several bonus features set for inclusion on a third disc of the set, with more yet to be announced. The features listed are:

  • Brand new 4K transfer of both films;
  • Brand new storybook gatefold packaging;
  • 48-page booklet with on-set photographs, cast interviews and press articles;
  • Brand new commentary from directors John Korty (Caravan of Courage only), Jim and Ken Wheat (Battle For Endor), along with actors Eric Walker, Aubree Miller and Warwick Davis (both films);
  • All deleted scenes restored to both films;
  • Making-of Documentary – for the first time ever the making of created by Warwick Davis and Eric Walker during the filming of Caravan of Courage will be released on home video, with an optional introduction from both actors;
  • Three episodes of the Star Wars: Ewoks cartoon series (The Cries of the Trees, The Haunted Village, Rampage of the Phlogs) – SD only
  • Original TV spots – SD only
  • 1984 and 1986 Primetime Emmy Acceptance Speeches – SD only
  • Languages: English audio description, Spanish, French and Portuguese
  • Subtitles: English for the hard of hearing, Spanish, French, Dutch, Portuguese, Finnish, Swedish, Norwegian and Danish

Pre-orders are not yet live for this release.

The Force Awakens… quite a few questions…

Warning: This article contains spoilers. Reading it will probably ruin the film for you.

The film is out now and the whole world is busy digesting their first viewing, whilst kicking themselves for not buying more tickets earlier now they’ve realised how good it is.

Whilst the film has achieved a lot, it has also left us with a few questions that may not be answered for another 18 months. Here are a selection.

Rey’s History

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Rey has abilities never-before-seen by any untrained Jedi. The ability to use mind control, telekinesis and force pushes are usually only achieved by Jedi masters, yet she was able to perform everything with no training whatsoever.

In this case, it does make us wonder who her mother and father are. One guess would be that she is the daughter of Han and Leia – Leia is after all a carrier of Jedi abilities (though has never been seen to use them on screen).

Perhaps instead her father is Luke Skywalker, though this would require an explanation as to who her mother is. Given the final sequence of The Force Awakens, this could be a more feasible option and gives room to develop Luke’s recent history through flashbacks.

I’m foreseeing the line “Now the circle is a figure of eight.” Or something.

Where did this guy go?

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens Constable Zuvio Ph: Elena Dorfman © 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. & TM. All Right Reserved.

Constable Zuvio has a very sinister look about him. In the pre-release press he was a reasonably prominent character, and was most recently featured in a large Empire Magazine article about the new film. There was also an action figure released when there wasn’t really many characters to get your hands on.

In the article, Empire reported that LucasFilm described him as a “vigilant law officer on a mostly lawless world” and a man who “keeps order in a frontier trading post”.

Well, his story obviously wasn’t important enough to warrant avoiding the cutting-room floor. I fully expect to learn about his whereabouts when the Blu-ray is released as his is inevitably going to be one of the deleted scenes, probably around the same time as the alleged Chewbacca arms-ripped-from-sockets scene that made the novelization but not the film.

What happened to make Leia and Han lose touch?

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One of the most unexpected elements of the film was when Han and Leia were reunited after a seemingly long time. They passed some comments that seemed to suggest there was some history between them. Furthermore, when the final battle had finished and the remaining team returned, Chewbacca and Leia didn’t seem to even acknowledge each other. That seemed a little strange. Clearly something has happened beyond the fallout from the unexpected turnout of their son Ben, and I’m not buying that Han was just wanting to keep “doing what he did best”. I wonder whether this will be explored in future films or left as it is.

How much of Episode VIII has been filmed?

There were clearly some shots in the trailers that weren’t used in the film and whole characters that were taken out. Given the final scene left Luke with Rey on a distant island, it would seem like a bit of a waste to get everyone over there just for 30 seconds of film. This makes me wonder if they’ve also filmed the opening sequences of the next film.

Why was Captain Phasma so underused?

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Captain Phasmastic

This may be the same reason as Constable Zuvio, but Gwendeline Christie seemed criminally underused when she was so featured in the run up to the film and the press. Perhaps it was due to filming conflicts between The Force Awakens and Game of Thrones, but I’m hoping we either learn her backstory through future installments or perhaps a comic book series. It just seemed really unusual when she’s done so much promo for it and was limited to just a handful of appearances.

Why was C-3PO’s arm red?

Maybe it was explained at some point but I don’t recall when. Seemed a little pointless.

The full review of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens is here.

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (J. J. Abrams, 2015)

Warning – this review contains spoilers.

Well, here it is. The new Star Wars film. The first film in the series for a decade. The first good film in the series for three decades. Well, that’s what we’ve all been hoping for anyway. But once the lights go down at the cinema and everyone settles in, there’s nothing the hype train can do about it except sit back with everyone else and hope it lives up to the hype. So does it deliver? For me, the answer to that is a resounding “Yes”.

From the opening crawl, it sets its stalls out on a far more approachable basis than the prequels. It’s quite basic really. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is missing. There are two groups doing everything they can to locate him: the evil First Order, borne out of the remnants of the fallen Empire; and the Resistance, a military operation led by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) and backed by the Republic.

As the action opens on the planet Jakku, we see starfighter pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) on a mission at the behest of Leia, meeting with old ally Lor San Tekka (Max von Sydow). Tekka gives him information about Luke’s whereabouts moments before the First Order arrive and start wiping out everything in sight. It is a brutal opening sequence.

Shortly after storing the information in a small droid called BB-8, Poe himself is captured and taken in for heavy-handed interrogation by the sinister First Order leader Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). BB-8, now stranded on Jakku, is befriended by scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley) and they are subsequently joined by defector stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) and set off on a fate-driven mission to get the plans into the right hands.

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Vast and expansive contribute to a wholly immersive experience.

Whilst The Force Awakens is not a perfect film, in comparison to the prequel trilogy it is a breath of fresh air to the extent that any shortcomings can be overlooked. The things that J. J. Abrams has got right here are enough to ensure its popularity will be maintained for years to come.

The most immediate element of success is one that directly combats one of the biggest criticisms of the prequels: the real-world setting. One of the great shots of the opening third of the film is the first time we see Rey. Having scavenged the inside of a derelict ship, she steps out into the open desert planes of Jakku, then slides down a large sand dune on a creatively-fashioned slide mat towards her Landspeeder. This shot achieves several things. Firstly, it underlines her solitude by showing her to be a small spot in such a vast open space. Secondly, there is an implied playful innocence in the way she slides down such a huge dune. Thirdly, it plants the action very much in a palpable and believable setting. This scene is also the first time the action is truly slowed down after the action of the opening sequence, forcing the viewer to take stock of what we’ve already seen and be immediately awed by the spectacular landscapes.

It is a long time before there is any obvious CGI in the film, particularly the characters inhabiting the screen. In direct response to the negative feedback for Episodes II and III, and the remastered editions of all six films where everything was perceivable ruined by over-zealous use of computer imagery, this is kept to the bare minimum for as long as possible. Indeed, when it is used, it feels like a juxtaposition against all the other good work seen throughout. In particular, the character Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o) is as a real let down. Here we have an Oscar-winning actress in a small but critical role and they’ve needlessly realised her with computers when her diminutive size and colour seemingly have no relevance to what her character is doing. My guess is that they were going for a new Yoda-type character and got lost along the way. Similarly, there was a definite feeling of disappointment when Supreme Emperor Snoke first appeared – it felt like something we’d seen previously in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and lacked the sort of dread we were being showered with by Kylo Ren.

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The Force is strong in this one.

Which brings us nicely on to the next point. If any of the performances needs to be singled out for excellence, it has to be Adam Driver as Kylo Ren. Sinister and powerful from the start, Ren’s emotionally unstable and rage-filled actions are a real highlight, revealing a side to Driver’s acting ability little-seen before. There is almost nothing to like about him, which is perfect for such a pivotal villain. When he showed his emotional frailties towards the end of the film, before making an about turn and doing that thing, it really packed a punch (no matter how much we thought it might happen). It puts the likes of General Grievous to shame.

Another star performer is Daisy Ridley, in her first cinematic role of note. It can’t be easy to step into a universe this large with almost no experience and deliver a performance to the standard she has achieved. She flexes the emotional depths of a character scared by her new surroundings and scarred by guilt for leaving behind her former life to pursue the adventure she has in front of her. At times cocky and mixing in humour, she is something of a blend of Han and Leia and is well placed to combat the future of her character in the next installment.

Completing the trilogy of excellent performances is John Boyega, proving that this film is one for the new guard rather than those from the original trilogy. His portrayal of Finn is quite a departure from his performance as gang leader Moses in 2011’s Attack The Block, bringing in a lot more comedic aspects to the film following an intense opening sequence that gives his predicament gravitas.

In the final battles we get to see both Finn and Rey fighting Kylo individually in a much rawer manner than the polished choreography of the previous six films. It’s a refreshing take and appropriate to the story, but every time a hit is landed on Kylo there was a huge feeling of achievement – an indication of the successful portrayals of all three characters.

Where the film gains in pacing successes it loses its way in lacking clarity and a few presumptuous jumps in character development and inter-character relationships. One example of this is when Poe and Finn reunite towards the end of the film. They had previously successfully escaped from the Starkiller Base, which would undoubtedly have brought them together to some extent. However, when they are reunited later in the film they act like the oldest of friends with a lifetime of shared history. It was one thing that had to be taken at face value.

However, it’s difficult to compare this character development to that of the previous films. Surely once we have seen the next two installments of the main storyline their relationships will grow further and therefore this won’t seem so over-friendly. If the compromise is that we got to see a tightly-packed and intensely entertaining action film, then it’s an agreeable trade-off.

The biggest criticism the film should expect will come from the biggest fans of the original. The way this film deals with the Force is bound to upset a few people. It took Luke a whole film to develop his Jedi powers in The Empire Strikes Back. Anakin took an entire trilogy. Both were at the side of two great Jedi masters. In this film we’re being asked to accept that Rey was able to gain this knowledge and understanding… how, exactly? Just by touching Luke’s lightsaber? It’s bound to be seen as disrespectful to the franchise but to develop properly the film needs to find its own space to breathe. This route was far more convenient to create a fast-paced finale.

These are minor criticisms of a film that will inevitably be over-analysed forever more. They shouldn’t detract from the overwhelming feeling of joy I had when I left the cinema. The film finishes on a cliffhanger,with a hugely rewarding two hours tying itself together to a reasonable position before dangling a thread of things to come for our main hero Rey.

J. J. Abrams has managed to pull off a minor miracle. In just over two hours he has erased most of the memories of the prequel trilogy, reminded us of the best of the original trilogy and set up a new storyline that has the whole world anticipating where the next steps will take us. The prospects for the future of the franchise all of a sudden look extremely rosy.

The Force Awakens is showing at cinemas worldwide for the foreseeable future. 3D IMAX is well worth the additional price to experience the full effects of the Force.