Friday 27 December 2019

Heroic Star Wars fan remembered as a Jedi

A Star Wars superfan, who gave his life saving fellow college students from a gunman, has been immortalised as a Jedi by Lucasfilm.

Riley Howell was a 21-year-old ROTC cadet and student at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He died in April while tackling a gunman on campus.

A tribute to Riley Howell appears in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker - The Visual Dictionary. The entry in the book credits Jedi master and historian “Ri-Lee Howell” with collecting “many of the earliest accounts of exploration and codifications of The Force”.

“Riley’s courage and selflessness brings out the Jedi in all of us,” wrote fan relations team member Lucas Seastrom. “We hope that you may rejoice in his memory, and we join you in honoring his life and example.

“As a small tribute, our Story Group has incorporated a reimagining of Riley’s name as a character in the Star Wars galaxy.”

“You’re either going to run, hide and shield, or you’re going to take the fight to the assailant,” Charlotte-Mecklenburg police department Chief Kerr Putney said. “Having no place to run and hide, he did the last.”

Riley Howell’s mother, Natalie Henry-Howell, told the Charlotte Observer that her son would have loved the idea.

“I like the way they actually left his last name,” Henry-Howell said. “I think he would really be appreciative of that. Because, you know, they could have just said Ri-Lee – Jedi Ri-Lee – and we’d be guessing the whole time about whether or not that was really [him], but they put his last name in there just to really honor him ... and that really made me cry when I heard about it.”

Lauren Westmoreland, Howell’s girlfriend, wrote in an email that Star Wars was incredibly close to his heart.

“Though he wasn’t an artist, he loved to draw the clone trooper helmets all the time, sometimes even on my birthday cards,” Westmoreland said.

Lauren’s father, Kevin Westmoreland, said Howell was a Star Wars scholar for most of his life.

“He had a very strong sense of good and evil, and how to live life as someone who looked out for others,” Westmoreland said. “Seeing him listed as both a Jedi and a historian in Star Wars lore is a perfect way to connect him to this story and the characters he loved.”

Friday 20 December 2019

Star Wars at the speed of light

Director JJ Abrams (Star Trek) had the unenviable task of rebooting the Star Wars franchise with The Force Awakens in 2015. Fast forward to 2019, Abrams has the Herculean task of wrapping up the 9-part Skywalker saga in the shadow of the fandom menace.

Rian Johnson's The Last Jedi (2017) remains divisive among fans. However, I still stand by my review, but am delighted to say The Rise of Skywalker eclipses Johnson's subversive instalment with interstellar zest and ends George Lucas' space opera with an emotional flourish.

At the speed of light, The Rise of Skywalker is a deliriously brilliant conclusion to a saga that is closest to my heart than any other! It features inevitable lightsaber duels between Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), that pack an emotional punch equalling those from the original trilogy, as echoes of the past reverberate around them.

Johnson laid the groundwork for 'Reylo' in The Last Jedi and this is taken to its bittersweet conclusion in standout performances from both Ridley and Driver. Their battle of wills is the beating heart of Disney's sequel trilogy underscored by composer John Williams' rich repertoire spanning the entire Skywalker story.

The maestro John Williams is on hand to finish what he started in 1977. His ninth soundtrack for the Skywalker saga is a joyous journey through light and dark, tinged with sadness in the knowledge this will be Williams’ Star Wars swan song. For 42 years, his music has been the soundtrack to many fans (myself included) lives. More than once, familiar leitmotifs evoked memories of loved ones long since passed away and I was unable to hold back tears. Rey’s theme becomes the centrepiece as her story reaches its conclusion with an ending that witnesses one of Williams’ most beautiful orchestrations with nods to Harry Potter, Indiana Jones and Schindler’s List in a galaxy-spanning symphonic celebration.

The gang's back together. It's an unalloyed joy to be in the company of Rey, Finn (John Boyega), Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels). This plays to Abrams' greatest strength. His innate ability to create compelling character relationships that began with Felicity and continued in Lost.

Where would Star Wars be without droids? C-3PO gets to shine, not just literally, in the final episode alongside best friend R2-D2, BB-8 and newcomer D-O, a delightful droid with PTSD. C-3PO and R2-D2's humorous exchanges were sorely missing from the prequel and sequel trilogies up to this point. It would be churlish not to mention Zorii Bliss' (Keri Russell) droidsmith Babu Frik.

Star Wars has always served as an anti-fascist allegory and none more so than here with the repeated stance of the First Order, about to become the Final Order under the auspices of Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) and Allegiant General Pryde (Richard E Grant), making the Resistance think they're alone, which is, to invoke Marxist cultural criticism, false consciousness. Suffice to say, with Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) back at the helm of the Millennium Falcon, the good guys will never give up, never surrender (borrowed from Galaxy Quest).

The Rise of Skywalker meshes Lucas' sci-fi opus with the explosive exuberance of Marvel Star Wars Weekly, school playground adventures with friends long gone and is a love letter from a superfan to fans that still believe in hope over despair. I geeked out with fellow fans, strangers brought together by the Force, as it should be.

Wednesday 18 December 2019

Jimmy Kimmel Live After Darth: A Star Wars Special

Jimmy Kimmel Live has played genial host to the Star Wars franchise starting with The Force Awakens in 2015. The Rise of Skywalker, in theatres worldwide this week, is no exception and the cast (sans Adam Driver) and director appeared with Kimmel last Monday ahead of the lavish LA premiere.

"J.J. Abrams, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Billy Dee Williams, Anthony Daniels, Kelly Marie Tran, Naomi Ackie & Keri Russell talk about the premiere of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, gifts that J.J. gave them, what they stole from set, and they surprise the audience with IMAX movie tickets."

"We are coming to you from a galaxy not so far away for our special Jimmy Kimmel Live After Darth: A Star Wars Special. It's easy to forget sometimes that Star Wars was made for kids, so we decided to give children a chance to ask questions of Director J.J. Abrams and stars Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Billy Dee Williams, Anthony Daniels, Kelly Marie Tran, Naomi Ackie, Keri Russell & Joonas Suotamo."

"J.J. Abrams, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Billy Dee Williams, Anthony Daniels, Kelly Marie Tran, Naomi Ackie, Keri Russell & Chewbacca from the cast of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker play Force Family Feud!"

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is released December 19th in the UK.

Monday 16 December 2019

Star Wars and The Rise of Accelerator Science

Science often follows art, and with Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker soon to hit the big screen, Professor Carsten P Welsch, Head of Communication for The Cockcroft Institute and Head of Physics at the University of Liverpool, explores how some of the scientific fantasies in Star Wars are no longer so ‘out of this world’.

Photo: Professor Welsch with Kylo Ren, R2-D2, Rey, Darth Vader and Stormtrooper

Light Side vs Dark Side: Probing the most fundamental laws of nature
“A Jedi's strength flows from the Force. But beware anger, fear, aggression – the dark side are they.” 
Matter and antimatter are a mystery of the real world that is close to fantasy. To some extent they are very similar to the light side and the dark side in Star Wars. In our research, we use particle accelerators to produce antimatter in a laboratory environment and this allows us to probe the most fundamental laws of nature. Today there are almost 50,000 particle accelerators in operation worldwide, in a wide range of industrial and medical applications. Our research helps optimize these machines to the benefit of science and society.

From Death Star Destruction to Tumour Reduction 
“Use the Force, Luke.” 
In the original Star Wars, Luke Skywalker uses proton torpedoes to destroy the Death Star at a very specific weak point. 40 years on, we are now using ‘proton torpedoes’ in cancer therapy. Science fact has caught up with science fiction and we are using proton beams to target something hidden deep inside the body, which is very difficult to destroy.

Within our Optimisation of Medical Accelerators (OMA) project, we have been exploring ways to better control high energy proton beams to improve cancer treatment. This is an advanced treatment technology available in the UK at the Christie Hospital since 2018, ensuring destruction of a tumour hidden deep inside the body.

Our research targets the development of monitors that can sense the beam used for cancer treatment without touching it – not by using the Force, but by measuring precisely the beam halo surrounding the beam and correlating this information to the dose delivered to the patient.

Frozen in Time and Space
“They've encased him in carbonite. He should be quite well protected – if he survived the freezing process, that is.” 
When Han is frozen in carbonite at the end of The Empire Strikes Back, there is concern that he will not survive the extreme cold of the process - although he does, of course, get thawed out at the start of Return of the Jedi.

In the real world, very cold temperatures, close to absolute zero, are needed to create a vacuum pressure in a particle accelerator that is better than outer space. This ensures that the beam accelerated and stored in the Large Hadron Collider at CERN or other particle accelerators does not hit any residual gas particles. Researchers from the Cockcroft Institute take advantage of such an excellent vacuum to measure the profile of the Large Hadron Collider beam without any background noise.

Mind over Antimatter
“Size matters not. Look at me. Judge me by my size, do you?”
Throughout the Star Wars series, the Jedi and Sith use the Force in a manner similar to telekinesis to hold and move things with their minds – most memorably when Yoda is attempting to teach Luke the ways of the Force in The Empire Strikes Back.

Electromagnetic fields are used in discovery science to trap particles so they can be studied. At CERN, antimatter experiments such as GBAR use ion traps to capture and store anti-hydrogen for fundamental studies and the Liverpool Group is strongly involved in the optimization of such experiments through the project AVA. The fields confine the antimatter particles within an ultrahigh vacuum chamber so that the antiparticles do not come into contact with normal matter – if they were to do so, they would annihilate instantly in a small burst of pure energy.

The Precision of Lightsabres
“This is the weapon of a Jedi Knight. Not as clumsy or random as a blaster; an elegant weapon for a more civilized age.”
One of the defining and memorable things in Star Wars is the lightsabre, and although they wouldn’t be possible according to the laws of physics in the real world, there are already many exciting applications that are real, such as laser knives for high precision surgery controlled by robot arms and adaptive manufacturing using lasers for creating complex structures in metals.

We also use lasers in the EuPRAXIA project to realise extremely high electric fields and build particle accelerators that are up to 1,000 times smaller than current technology. This has huge potential to enable entirely new fundamental research and applications that benefit society.

Prof Carsten P Welsch is Head of Physics at Liverpool University and Head of Communication at the Cockcroft Institute. His research covers the development of novel beam instrumentation, as well as the design and optimization of particle accelerators.

The Cockcroft Institute is an international centre of excellence for accelerator science and technology in the UK, based on the campus of Daresbury Laboratory. To find out more about its work go to

Friday 13 December 2019

Use the Porsche, Luke!

Stuggart-based premium car manufacturer Porsche has unveiled the Tri-Wing S-91x Pegasus Starfighter designed in collaboration with Lucasfilm. Whilst it takes design cues from the 911 and Taycan, the Pegasus Starfighter evokes conceptual artist Ralph McQuarrie's unused starship design that was reused for Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.

The Tri-Wing S-91x Pegasus Starfighter will appear in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.

Thursday 12 December 2019

Go Figure: A Star Wars Toy Story 2

With only a week to go until Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is released in the UK. Our resident US correspondent, Nick Smith, shares his toy stories from a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...

Guest post by Nick Smith

For one brief moment in February, 2019 was the new 1977 at the New York Toy Fair! Hasbro revealed a line of retro Star Wars toys featuring an Escape from the Death Star board game. Replications of six of Kenner’s original action figures were displayed: Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa, Darth Vader, a Stormtrooper [always rarer than Hen's teeth around these parts - Ed], Han Solo and Chewbacca – enough toys to recreate classic scenes from the original movie. Forget going to the gym – this was the must-have six-pack for nostalgic fans.

The black cardboard packaging harkened back to the originals too, with photographs of the characters and loud ‘retro collection’ branding, both a selling point and a warning that the articulation of these toys is charmingly primitive. Intergalactic heroes don’t need elbows and Stormtroopers don’t really need necks.

These little guys have vinyl sheets for cloaks and lightsabres stuck in their arms. The faux-battered packaging is reminiscent of the popular, beaten-up boxes and covers of Stranger Things merchandise. To me, retro means overpriced cleaned-up junk in a thrift boutique, like lava lamps and peacock chairs all smelling of the ‘60s. These toys smell better (new plastic!), but they’re still quaint.

This rerelease is a bold move in a year focusing on a new film – Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. But aside from keeping merchandising on store shelves until December, it’s fitting for Hasbro to look back to where the Star Wars toy story started.

It’s hard to believe in this world full of merchandise, with billions of dollars made from the toys, but in 1978 British kids were content with a Luke, Leia, Han, Chewie, Darth and some random cantina aliens. Over in the US, where Star Wars (later rechristened A New Hope) was a blockbuster in the summer of ‘77, demand was so strong for toys that an ‘early bird’ deal was offered. American kids could get an empty box for Christmas – the perfect present for a cat, not so much for a human. But the venture worked since the box would be filled with four figures once they were produced. In the UK, a winter release eased the supply-and-demand problem.

Unlike larger toys like Action Man and Stretch Armstrong, the Star Wars figures fit perfectly in my young hand and were priced just right for my pint-sized piggy bank. This was a time when the coolest boy at school was the one with the die-cast Millennium Falcon (the coolest girl was the one who wanted to be Han Solo). I soon amassed a colourful collection of figures including Snaggletooth, Greedo and a ‘Sand People’ person. While we had the best ads (including a fine Brian Bolland illustration), the US Marvel comics hawked the best toys, such as the Kenner droid factory. I really wanted a Jawa Sandcrawler, never seen in my local Argos, grinding through my giddy imagination instead. I made my version of the Mos Eisley cantina out of a grocery box, complete with cardboard tables and chairs. I turned shoeboxes into freighters and the backyard became an array of alien planets. Scaling plants and dangling from fences, the little figures dealt with a vast landscape just as I navigated my way around the giant real world, so overwhelming to a kid.

My parents indulged my obsession, buying me a Falcon, an Imperial Troop Transport [hours of fun scaring the cat with electronic sound effects from the movie - Ed], an AT-AT, Darth Vader’s Star Destroyer [try flying that around a bedroom without the figures falling out - Ed], Yoda’s boggy hovel… I was spoiled and I will always be grateful. Still, I wanted more [didn't we all in the Thatcherite eighties - Ed]. The Star Wars range taught me to covet for the first time. Pity a kid bombarded by commercials for the latest, coolest playset.

While the toys gave me a sense of control over my irrepressible environment, they also helped me become familiar with the movie’s cast long before there was an easy way to rewatch the film. They also gave the opportunity to create new adventures for these characters, filling the three-year gap between episodes.

Some of those escapades were out of my hands, such as The Adventures of Luke Skywalker lost in a pub garden. Or The Empire Strives to Rescue Stormtrooper melting on the Radiator. I did manage to salvage the trooper; with one of his legs melted, I airbrushed him a random red and called him Redlighter. A poor imperial officer’s head fell off; I nailed it back on. Toy Story’s Sid would have been proud.

I went one further, breaking my stories into seasons and jotting down episode guides. Understanding that the best Star Wars stories feature an outgunned band of heroes facing a huge, evil space weapon, I called one epic ‘The Death Star 2,’ jotted down in my C-3PO exercise book. That story could never happen on the big screen, of course. A second Death Star was an impossibility (this was years before Return of the Jedi).

As an adult, I despair at the death of my childhood heroes in the sequel trilogy. But in my toy stories, I was also guilty of killing off several main characters, only to bring them back thanks to the power of the Force to start their war all over again in a tale I called ‘Full Circle.’ My personal adventures circled around as well, in a way, as my son Sam played with my vintage toys and his own prequel ones. He went one better than me, filming his scenarios, culminating in the epic ‘The Last Jedi’ (Lucasfilm owes us big time).

Now Sam is grown and our toys gather dust in his basement. Nevertheless, our interest in Star Wars has been maintained by the TV shows, most recently The Mandalorian – and that Disney+ show’s merchandise has sparked a toy story of its own because it is not ready in time for this Christmas. The fans, too impatient are they.

In the meantime, we have the retro range to play with, a fun concept and a crimson-tinted moneymaker, with six humble characters from a simpler, more graceful time, available again so that a whole new generation of kids can create their own epics in a galaxy far, far away, in their own backyards...

Wednesday 11 December 2019

Bose celebrates Star Wars

Bose has teamed up with Lucasfilm to celebrate the release of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.

The prestige audio brand has released a 360-degree augmented reality experience for compatible Bose products and limited edition Star Wars-themed Bose QC35 headphones II available in the US direct from the company.

“We’re working with authentic sound from the original film recordings, drawing from scenes that date all the way back to the initial 1977 movie release,” says Bose’s developer relations lead, Chuck Freedman. “We have been fortunate to collaborate with artists and engineers at Skywalker Sound, who advised us on sound placement and optimization for ideal spatialization and positioning. In addition to character dialogue and prominent sound effects like lightsaber movement, we also prioritized more subtle sounds, like wind and other environmental sounds, as well as the detailed effects created by the original Foley artists for the films.”

The official Star Wars app (for Android and iOS devices) works with Bose Headphones 700 (affiliate link), Bose QC35 headphones II (affiliate link) and Bose Frames.

As a Star Wars fan and owner of Bose products, I'm excited to explore a galaxy of immersive audio adventures this holiday season.

Tuesday 10 December 2019

A Star Wars Toy Story

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is released in UK cinemas on 19th December and is the culmination of an epic 9-part saga that began over forty years ago with the original Star Wars in 1977.

George Lucas' space opera revolutionised theatrical technology and merchandising. My earliest merchandise memory is being gifted an R2-D2 action figure before seeing Star Wars at the Odeon Exeter. That little droid fired my nascent imagination post a life-changing childhood trauma and ignited a lifelong love of gadgets (I most recently added Hasbro's app-enabled D-O during Black Friday).

Palitoy, the defunct Coleville-based toy company, licensed Star Wars action figures and accessories from Kenner (bought by Hasbro) and released unique playsets including the fabled Death Star. The Death Star playset topped many children's Christmas wishlists, including mine, in the late seventies. Alas, I never got to recreate the rescue of Princess Leia or Darth Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi's final duel. Instead, I was gifted Star Bird Command Base, which served as the Imperial HQ where the Death Star plans were stored decades before Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

I became inspired to become a graphic designer due to Palitoy's colourful box art and would write to the company with original ideas for extending Star Wars and Action Force toy lines. These were always politely returned, but with a letter of encouragement and an action figure!

To celebrate the release of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, Toy Empire: The British Force Behind Star Wars will be shown on BBC Four on 16th December.

What are your fondest memories of collecting Star Wars toys? Let me know in the comments below.

Saturday 7 December 2019

Baby Yoda won't be home for Christmas

Baby Yoda is the pop culture phenomenon you’re looking for. The character has proven such a huge hit since appearing in the first live-action Star Wars series, The Mandalorian, demand for official merchandise was inevitable this holiday season.

However, fans (myself included) will have to wait until 2020 for Funko, Hasbro and Mattel collectables. The Child AKA Baby Yoda is available to pre-order (affiliate link). Is this showrunner Jon Favreau's knowing nod to Kenner's Early Bird Gift Certificate for Star Wars action figures in 1977?

The Mandalorian continues every Friday exclusively on Disney+.

Wednesday 4 December 2019

The Rise of Skywalker final battle begins TV Spots

The final trailer may have been released, but that hasn't stopped Disney's daily dose of TV Spots in the run-up to the release of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.

The latest, entitled "Adventure", features Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) dualling in front of Darth Vader's melted mask. The location is reminiscent of Cloud City and Ralph McQuarrie's original concept art for Star Wars.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker opens on 19th December in the UK.

Tuesday 3 December 2019

Daisy Ridley talks to GQ about The Rise of Skywalker

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is in cinemas this month and Daisy Ridley (Rey) talked exclusively to British GQ magazine about the emotional end of an era that began with director JJ Abrams' The Force Awakens in 2015.

You can read the full candid interview with Ridley here.

Sunday 1 December 2019

E.T. home for the holidays

Christmas 1982, director Steven Spielberg (Jaws) broke the collective hearts of millions of UK cinemagoers (myself included) with his story of an abandoned alien befriending a fatherless child.

The movie was, of course, E.T the Extra-Terrestrial: a life-affirming tale of friendship in the darkest of times, yet hope prevails in Hollywood composer, and longtime Spielberg collaborator, John Williams' supernatural soundtrack.

Spielberg's most autobiographical movie resonated deeply with my ten-year-old self - still coming to terms with a life-changing trauma and struggling to make sense of where I fitted into the fabric of the cosmos - a crippled child who looked to the night sky for escape but had to deal with the day-to-day reality of rehabilitation on terra firma. So much so, when a kindly friend of my late mum, who worked at the ABC Exeter, offered to let us watch the movie a second time (for free), I was too upset...

Fast forward to Christmas 2019, E.T. and Elliott (Henry Thomas) are reunited for the holiday season in a commercial for Xfinity. Peak nostalgia for children of the eighties in the wake of Stranger Things.

Speaking about the commercial, Thomas said:

"The audience is going to get everything they want out of a sequel without the messy bits that could destroy the beauty of the original and the special place it has in people’s minds and hearts. It’s really a win-win. ... Looking at the storyboards, I could see exactly why Steven (Spielberg) was really behind it, because the integrity of the story isn’t lost in this retelling."

Does this make you yearn for a full sequel to E.T the Extra-Terrestrial? Let me know in the comments below.