Saturday, 9 July 2016

Film Review - 'Heart of an Empire'

Even as a life-long fan of science fiction and fantasy, I have to admit that we can be an oddly obsessive bunch, at times. We can be prone to all sorts of absurd, and essentially meaningless, arguments. We can be insular, and extremely unwelcoming to the average 'outsider'. We can even be critical of the extent to which our fellows qualify as 'true fans'.

Those are examples of the worst elements of your average fandom, at least - and, to be fair, they don't relate only to science fiction and fantasy fans.

Among the general population of fans, though, there always seems to be some small sub-set who seem more than willing to take their love a little further - that most devout breed of fan who take their devotion so seriously that the rest of us may feel inclined to raise an eyebrow in question - and, it is just such a group that we meet in the documentary film, Heart of an Empire.

The Fighting 501st Legion are a seemingly ever growing community of extremely enthusiastic Star Wars fans - a group who makes my own life-long love of that particular franchise look like a disposable hobby, by comparison. What is it that this group does that makes them so unique, though? Well, its cosplay, essentially - but, cosplay of an especially impressive variety, with each member of the 501st Legion taking the time to create some truly impressive, and highly detailed, outfits for themselves.

It all began with Albin Johnson, back in 1997. A loving father of two, who also happened to be a life-long Star Wars fan, Albin discovered that he was fair from alone in that particular passion. As he encountered an increasing number of fellow fans, one thing led to another and, soon enough, he found himself at the centre of a loosely organised group of fans - fans who soon came to label themselves as the Fighting 501st, and which eventually reached a number of around 4000 members. Originally meeting mainly at conventions, the group soon began to spread outward - involving themselves in public appearances and charity work. Most important, though, was the time and effort that this group began to devote toward entertaining sick children - with hospital appearances soon becoming a regular part of their activity.

Heart of an Empire is a film which is broken into two, very distinct, parts. For the first half of the film, what we see is basically everything we might expect, based on the film's basic premise. It follows a handful of these somewhat eccentric, though endearingly enthusiastic and ultimately well-meaning, fans through their experiences as part of the 501st Legion - outlining the trials and tribulations involved in this level of devotion. Everything from the difficulties involved in constructed each of those highly detailed outfits, to the discomfit involved in actually wearing them, and to the criticism and mockery that is occasionally directed their way for being willing to do so in public, is covered in detail - as are the various disagreements, and signs of occasional infighting, that crop up within the group, itself.

While your own mileage may, naturally, vary quite a bit on this point, I do have to admit that I found all of this to be interesting enough - and, it certainly painted an impressively detailed picture of the level of commitment and enthusiasm it takes to be so invested in something as wonderfully outlandish as the Fighting 501st Legion. The true joy of the film, though, comes with its coverage of the various public events that the 501st have been able to participate in - either as an organised group, or under their own initiative. Highlights, here, include footage of members of the 501st being invited to oversee the coin toss at a major sporting event, and the story of a long storm-trooper who took it upon himself to run a marathon, in full armour, in order to raise money for charity.

With both the public and private sides of the Fighting 501st Legion covered throughout this first half, Heart of an Empire manages to be genuinely entertaining, and often very funny - with everyone involved giving a very genuine impression that, regardless of whatever issues may crop up, they are all thrilled to be a part of it all. Things do take a very pronounced emotional turn as we move into the second half of the film - where the focus from the group's more light-hearted misadventures, and to the work that the 501st does with sick children.

Some of these scenes are, admittedly, incredibly heart-warming - with the sheer joy that these sick children experience during on of these visits being very obvious. But, the film does also take a much more depressing turn when we meet a young boy named Christian - and, again, when we learn about Albin's own young daughter. Neither of these stories has a happy ending - with the result that these later sections of the film can be somewhat difficult to watch. Though, the love and support that we see directed to both the children, and their families, does take some of the sting away.

Overall, Heart of an Empire offers a fascinating look at a unique group of individuals. It is often very funny, and occasionally genuinely sad - and, most importantly, it shows how even something as unlikely as a group of fan's love for a science fiction franchise can be turned into a force for 'good'. At the very least, you may end up with a greater understanding of the peculiar passion that can inspire grown adults to dress up in silly costumes. If you happen to be a Star Wars fan, yourself, you may even find yourself tempted to join them.

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