Star Wars: Should you take your kids?
Warning – this article contains SPOILERS. Don't read it if you want to avoid the plot details! You can find my spoiler-free review here.
If you're a parent to children of a certain age, it's likely that a debate is already taking place within your household. With the hotly-anticipated Star Wars: The Force Awakens having been classified as a 12A in the UK and PG-13 in the US, parents of children below that age are faced with a difficult decision. Do they follow the implied guidance of those classifications, and risk disappointing their children, or do they take a different kind of risk, and hope that the censors erred on the conservative side?
Two of my children are aged eight and 10, and so this is very much a live issue in the Saunders household. My wife and I have made our decision, but before I tell you what it is, let me tell you a bit more about what the film actually contains.
Seriously, there are lots of spoilers now. Don't say I didn't warn you...
There's lots of family-friendly fun in Episode VII. In the already-iconic BB8 droid, the film-makers have managed to demonstrate exactly what a witty, cute, and infinitely-merchandisable kids' character should be (we're looking at you, Jar Jar Binks). And in the fresh-faced lead characters, The Force Awakens has plenty of heroes to which children can relate. In particular, Daisy Ridley's character Rei is a fantastic, strong and courageous role model for girls, who challenges plenty of the gender stereotypes of the Star Wars universe. The action sequences are thrilling rather than scary (in almost all cases), and sex and bad language are non-existent. For the most part, the film is entirely suitable for the kids who'll no doubt be devouring all the hype and merchandise.
That's not the whole story, however. There are some sequences and characters that are actually pretty frightening, and on their own justify the non-universal certificate. One in particular happens around a third of the way through the film, just after the reintroduction of Harrison Ford's Han Solo character. Han has captured several fearsome octopus-like creatures, and when they're accidentally released on board his ship, there's a sequence containing a lot of teeth and quite a few screaming deaths. They could well inspire a few nightmares in younger viewers.
Then there's the sequence right at the beginning of the movie, where new uber-baddie Kylo Ren orders the execution of a village full of unarmed people, and an injured stormtrooper wipes his blood-smeared hand down the helmet of our hero. This sequence is used to demonstrate just how evil Ren is – he's considerably darker than some of the villains of the first two trilogies – and arguably he presents the biggest area of concern for parents. He's considerably nastier than most film bad guys, and his trademark mind control move is usually accompanied by an aptly chilling soundtrack. What's really tricky about him though is his malevolence, and the bubbling anger which occasionally bursts out from within him. He's a worthy heir to the Dark Side, but again, that means children could find him difficult to process.
I can't possibly try to put a minimum age suggestion on The Force Awakens. But I can tell you what we've decided to do, in the light of seeing the film, and hopefully hearing the principles behind that decision will help you in your own deliberations on the subject.
While we feel it's too scary for our eight-year-old, we've decided to let our 10-year-old son see the film. At ten, I know that he's beginning to process more complex and sometimes darker stories, even as part of his education. I will attend with him (this is a hardship I am only prepared to bear because of love), and talk him through all the elements of the film listed above in advance. We'll go over the fact that this is a work of fiction, and that there are some cool special effects processes that have been used to make it all look real. As we watch, I'll make sure I warn him of the two key moments of particular concern (as I've outlined), as they're coming up – and I'll also remind him that it's perfectly fine for him to look away during those moments if he'd prefer. Afterwards, I'll take him for a milkshake (more hardship) and make sure we've talked through everything that might have worried him or not made sense.
We think that this approach mitigates the risk of the film being too frightening, and allows him both to watch a film he's ridiculously excited about, and also think through a really good story about the very real battle between darkness and light; I'm even seeing it as an educational opportunity. It also means that he gets to engage with and talk about a film that contains lots of positive messages around race, gender and standing up for the right thing.
That's our decision – but I have huge respect for anyone who makes a different informed choice. Every child is different, and what terrifies one will be laughed off by another, so each family needs to decide what's best for them. One other related thing to say: don't feel pressured to make the wrong choice because of the peer pressure your child might be experiencing to that effect. You know what's best for your child far better than their friends do, and that's an important thing to remember when your child is protesting that all his friends have seen it.
While as a film fan I loved The Force Awakens, as a parent I recognised immediately that it is likely to leave a number of (particularly younger) children very scared. There's no fixed rule – hence the nature of the rating – but I urge you to be at least a little cautious. And taking my word for all this is infinitely less preferable to actually watching it for yourself first. The things we do for our children, eh?