Happy New Years Eve, everybody!
I’m so grateful to have some of the greatest readers of any blog anywhere. XUfan2012 sent me a real Christmas miracle: tickets to a good Star Wars movie. Yes, a good movie that redeems the Star Wars franchise and turns it back into the fun loving adventure that made the original trilogy so magical.
(On a serious note, I want to thank XUfan2012 for his generosity. I told him I hadn’t seen the new Star Wars due to my father being in the hospital and he sent me a great gift in response. I’m lucky to have so many dedicated and generous readers.)
This is Star Wars as it should be: fun, packed with amazing action scenes, and featuring memorable characters. In some ways it falls short of the original trilogy, especially when compared to The Empire Strikes Back, but in other ways it actually exceeds its predecessors. And compared to the prequels… it doesn’t even compare. In fact, this movie is so good that I’ve almost forgotten that the prequels exist.
For the first time since Episode I came out, I’m actually excited about Star Wars. Everything that I liked about the trailer holds absolutely true in the full movie. So that’s my spoiler free review. It’s everything you could want from a Star Wars movie. Unlike the Prequels, The Force Awakens knows its supposed to be fun, and you’ll have a ton of fun watching it.
Major spoilers to follow. Turn back now if you haven’t seen the movie.
Seriously, don’t scroll past this point.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
A Storytelling Review
I think one of the reasons I was so wary of this new entry into the Star Wars canon, was the title. The Force Awakens? What, did it fall asleep? That seemed unlikely, but it turns out I was reading it wrong. It’s not the Force waking up, its the Force awakening the characters in the story. It awakens Rey to her abilities, Finn to new possibilities, and most importantly, it awakens us to what Star Wars is all about: the adventure.
The movie begins, as Star Wars always does, with a title crawl. It quickly tells us that a new enemy has arisen from the ashes of the Empire, the First Order. Opposing them is a plucky band of resistance fighters, secretly backed by the Republic which has been reborn after the fall of the Empire. One of the resistance’s greatest fighter pilots is going to meet an old ally, who has information as to the whereabouts of Luke Skywalker who has been missing for years. This brings up my only big complaint about the movie: this is a lot of information to convey in only three paragraphs.
Why is it the Resistance fighting the First Order and not the Republic itself? How long has the First Order been around? How powerful are they? Can they match the Republic’s fleet and resources? Or are they a relatively small band of extremists? In A New Hope everything you needed to know about the Empire and the Rebellion was conveyed brilliantly by the size and technology disparity between the tiny Blockade Runner and the immense Star Destroyer. Meanwhile in this movie I never really had a firm grasp of how large or powerful the First Order was.
But while this bothers me to an extent, I also understand why these facts about this new universe are left nebulous. First of all this is the flagship movie of a new colossal film franchise and it’s entirely possible that even the writers and creative types at Disney haven’t quite nailed down the details yet. Secondly, given the metric ton of plot clues and foreshadowing in this movie, I can all but guarantee that the rise of the First Order will eventually be turned into its own movie.
But thirdly, and most importantly, by sparing us the expositional dialogue that would have been required to convey 30 years of Star Wars history, the movie maintains a consistent pace. When you see squads of Stormtroopers and resistance fighters start blasting each other in the opening moments of the film, your brain will register the only two facts you really need to know:
First Order Bad; Resistance Good.
It’s important to remember this is Star Wars, not Game of Thrones, there are no shades of grey here. And considering it was the focus on the political elements of Star Wars that gave the prequels their dull, plodding pace we should all be grateful this information was left on the cutting room floor.
It’s in these opening moments, after the resistance has been soundly beaten, that we meet two of the important players in this movie. The first is Kylo Ren. At first his appearance might put you off, because unlike the hulking cyborg that was Darth Vader, Kylo Ren is a slender man. Yet he makes an effective entrance as he stops a blaster bolt in mid-flight and holds it there while he savagely cuts the head off of poor old Max von Sydow. I think we all went into this movie expecting Kylo Ren to be the new Darth Vader, but instead The Force Awakens went in a different direction.
Darth Vader was powerful and imposing, he used his powers with cold and brutal efficiency. Kylo Ren is more like Anakin Skywalker as he should have been portrayed: powerful, ambitious, but emotionally unstable. Kylo is constantly struggling to control himself, but that control shatters with every setback he suffers. He wants so badly to be Darth Vader that he goes so far as to wear a mask that alters his voice just to emulate his idol, but he also knows that deep down he’ll never be Darth Vader. It’s this inner conflict, his inability to measure up to an impossible legacy, that leads Kylo to being constantly plagued by his insecurities. No he’s not Darth Vader 2.0, but if you set aside that expectation, you’ll find he’s a fitting villain for this new story.
In many ways this is a very meta, self-aware story point because it mirrors what the new Star Wars team must have gone through making this movie. How do you make a new Star Wars villain that can possibly match the gravitas of Darth Vader? You can’t, and you’d be foolish to try. So it’s a rather brilliant move on the part of the writers to not only acknowledge this fact, but then also use that idea to create a flawed and fascinating new villain.
In fact, the struggle with identity and self reliance is a major theme throughout the movie. Take Finn for example, a stormtrooper we meet after the initial battle is over and Kylo Ren orders the execution of the prisoners. Finn watches in horror, unable to follow the order to fire his weapon, as the civilians and captured resistance fighters are slaughtered. Taken as a child, he was raised to fight and kill as a stormtrooper. He was meant to follow orders. But when Finn defects and helps Poe Dameron escape, the only existence he’s ever known is lost. In fact Finn isn’t even his name, it was given to him by Poe.
That’s why, when he meets Rey, a young scavenger who has befriended BB-8, he latches onto the identity of a resistance fighter. Meanwhile Rey thinks he’s a resistance fighter because of her own personal history. Living in near total isolation and scavenging parts from the crashed ships in the desert, Rey has been waiting for her mysterious family to return. Her own sense of identity is totally wrapped up in the idea that her family will return for her one day, despite the fact that it’s probably been close to twenty years since they left her. Despite living in dystopia-level poverty on a barren planet, she wants to return almost immediately in case her family comes back.
Both forced outside of the world they knew, Finn and Rey becoming incredibly endearing when they’re forced to flee ahead of the First Order. In the Millenium Falcon.
As they’re preparing to take off, Rey in the cockpit and Finn in the gunner’s seat, both say to themselves “I can do this. I can do this.”
It’s a great moment in the film that really endears them to us, because we see just how unsure of themselves they are. Who’s really ready for an adventure when it comes calling? Not a god damn soul, that’s who, and I’d be verbally reassuring myself if I were suddenly thrown into a crazy situation (and/or crying continously.) Obviously because this is Star Wars, both Finn and Rey pull off amazing feats of gunnery and piloting on their first time out. Their celebration after destroying the Tie Fighters was just so damn genuine that I couldn’t help but celebrate with them. The movie does an exceptional job making you feel like you’re experiencing the adventure right alongside Finn and Rey.
Which makes it twice as magical when the Millenium Falcon is recaptured… by Han Solo and Chewbacca. Hearing Han say “Chewie… we’re home” was the moment we all thought “my god… Star Wars is really back!” It was like watching a dead friend suddenly coming back from to life. I think after the prequels we were all afraid Star Wars was gone forever… but it’s back.
And here’s one of the ways in which the new movies exceed the originals: the characters feel more human. Chewbacca in particular. In the original films he was just comic relief, he never once contributed anything other than a couple laughs, and he never even used his crossbow blaster. In the Force Awakens, Chewie feels like a fully realized character here. He still has some funny moments of course, but just as often his interactions with Rey reveal the wise and kind soul hidden under that mammoth mountain of fur.
It’s at this point that Han explains Luke Skywalker’s disappearance. Turns out Kylo Ren is actually the son of Han and Leia, and Luke tried to train him in the ways of the force. Of course as teenagers are wont to do, Kylo has a bit of an emotional crisis and goes all emo on him. Again this highlights the running theme of identity in the story. Luke, after ending the Empire by acknowledging his own dark side, probably assumed he was destined to create a new Jedi order. One based on a new philosophy that didn’t repeat the mistakes of the Jedi. And then Luke fails on his very first attempt, creating the very evil he defeated forty years earlier. No longer having a clear path in front of him, Luke does what most of us do in that situation, we look for a new path.
As good as it is to see Han and Chewie and their wistful reminiscing on the glory days of yore, there is a small hitch in the story here. And I’m not referring to the speed with which Han finds the Millenium Falcon, sure that’s awfully convenient but again it also maintains the pacing. Which is why the next section which features a bunch of bounty hunters and a monster chase so odd, because you could cut this entire section and not lose a thing to the story. It felt like and a weird little tangent that didn’t go anywhere.
Fortunately the story doesn’t take long to get back on track, and we meet Maz. This tiny yellow female Yoda forces this group of adventurers to make hard choices, and this is where our main heroes Refuse the Call to adventure. Finn is convinced the First Order can’t be stopped, and he doesn’t want to be a soldier, he doesn’t want to fight. Rey finds Luke’s lightsaber (though why it’s blue and not green I have no idea) and has a flashback to some disturbing images (and I’ll conjecture about these in a later post.) Maz describes the force to Rey, and because she never once mentions the word midichlorians, it’s a great callback the mysticism of the Force and why this franchise is such a magical experience.
Unfortunately the First Order strikes while they’re all separated. Han and Chewie kick complete ass, while Finn goes Mano A Mano with a stormtrooper wielding some kind of huge stun baton. This seems like a missed opportunity to use Phasma. I was excited that Gwendoline Christie was in this new movie and was looking forward to seeing her kick ass as an elite stormtrooper. Unfortunately she only has like 5 lines and literally does nothing in this movie, and I get the nagging feeling she was only including to market action figures of her character. It seems Finn could have been fighting her just as easily, giving her something to do and showcasing her badass abilities.
But regardless, the best sequence is undoubtedly watching the resistance X-Wings skimming over the water. The sight of those gorgeously rendered ships combined with their excited pilots and the swelling of epic Star Wars music was easily the most memorable shot in the entire movie. Unfortunately Rey is also captured at this point and taken to Starkiller Base, leaving Finn, Han and Chewie to save her.
Except she rescues herself well before they get there. Watching Rey stare down Kylo Ren and then turning his mind probing abilities back on him is one of the defining moments for both characters. Rey embraces her burgeoning powers and Kylo Ren is confronted by his greatest fear: that his power is weak and his control of the force is rudimentary at best. Kylo sees in her everything he wants to be, a naturally talented force user, and I think he sees something else as well but I’ll leave that to my later conjecture post.
As Rey makes good her escape by mind tricking a Stormtrooper, the movie begins building towards its climax. A plucky band of of X-Wings begin making their run on the one vulnerable point on the giant Deathball while Han, Chewie and Finn run into Rey. Now I understand a lot of the criticisms here, the attack on the Deathball really does do a bit too much the same as A New Hope, but I enjoyed it. It was a big, fun action scene that was clear and fun to watch unlike the unwatchable mess every prequel battle turned into.
And the aerial battle is really just a sideshow as the real climax takes place inside the giant vulnerability machine. Han and Chewie begin placing explosives along the inside of the vulnerability generator when Han sees his son. I felt a chill when Han called out Kylo’s real name.
They named him after Ben Kenobi! I thought that was a great callback to the great old man whose performance helped give The Force, and Star Wars as a whole, its magic. In many ways I wish the rest of the scene had as much emotional impact as that one word did. Unfortunately I felt like this scene telegraphed its intention a bit too loudly.
I understand the visual metaphor of Kylo standing on the edge of a literal precipice, caught between a dark infinite chasm and the lighted section Han steps out from, but it proves a bit heavy handed. I mean we already knew this confrontation was coming, we didn’t quite need such an ominous stage for it. That said I really enjoyed watching Harrison Ford’s performance here. When the inevitable happens and Kylo Ren impales him on his lightsaber, Han looks confused for a moment. Then he just reaches out and touches Kylo’s face, and smiles. It was a much needed touch of subtlety to the scene that gave it an appropriate emotional punch. Then Han plummets into the darkness. I suspect that’s why the filmmakers chose this location, so the camera wouldn’t have to show Han’s lifeless body on the floor to the kids in the audience.
Now this is where I was expecting to find that Han had kept and armed one of the explosive charges on his person. I thought perhaps that was why he’d carefully waited for Kylo to be in the middle of the bridge when he announced himself. It just seemed like that would so Han Solo, to have a backup plan. If he couldn’t redeem his son, he would make sure Kylo couldn’t hurt anyone else. Then Kylo would have Force Jumped off the bridge as it began to collapse, because we obviously can’t kill him yet.
But regardless, Han Solo is finally dead and the film builds up to the moment we’ve all been waiting for: the lightsaber fight.
I was incredibly happy about how visceral and brutal this scene was. Gone was the ridiculously over-choreographed ballet of the prequels, no excessive back-flipping and pirouettes, no lightly tapping lightsabers together so the actors can rush to keep up the lightning fast pace. No, it’s just Finn and Kylo brutally hacking at each other.
I’ve read the criticisms that say that Finn shouldn’t have been able to hold Kylo off for so long, but I disagree. I think a lot of people are thinking that Kylo is this incredibly badass Dark Jedi, again because I think people were expecting a Vader 2.0. The Force Awakens doesn’t have a badass villain though, and while you can argue whether that’s a good or bad thing, I feel the filmmakers didn’t set out to make Kylo a badass. In fact they spent quite a bit of time establishing that he’s basically an emotionally unstable kid rebelling against his parents.
He couldn’t finish Finn faster because, as Yoda warned Luke against decades earlier, Kylo chose the “quick and easy path.” He’s relying almost entirely on pure emotion, hate, to win his battles. I got the impression that he never finished his training with Luke, and Snoke is obviously holding back, hence why his control over the Force and his saber technique are so raw and unfocused.
Which is why when he finally dispatches Finn, Rey is able to overpower him. Again I’ve read criticisms of people saying Rey is totally untrained and shouldn’t have been able to win, but I think those people forget about Rey’s staff that she uses on Jakku. She uses it to disarm and disable three men trying to steal her droid, and later puts Finn on his ass with it. She knows how to handle herself in a close quarters combat. I’m sure the lightsaber is a totally different animal from a staff, but to say she’s totally untrained is untrue.
They also seem to forget that at first Kylo wins handily, but once he provokes her emotionally, Rey does what Luke did at the end of Return of the Jedi: she taps into her dark side. Armed with that additional strength she’s able to use her anger and grief to slice some important things from Rey’s body (I honestly couldn’t tell what.)
Kylo escapes to live another day as do our heroes. When they return R2-D2 awakes and reveals the location of Luke Skywalker, which doesn’t make a lot of sense but I’m hoping it’ll be explained in the next movie. The fate of Finn is left somewhat up in the air, he seems to be in a coma in the final scenes. And Rey leaves to find Luke.
Which brings me to my final criticism of the movie. Rey making her way up the weird little island thing to find Luke seemed really out of place. Like The Force Awakens was just intentionally killing time at this point, but I have no idea why that would be. Seems like these minutes might have served better at some kind of funeral for Han Solo, but whatever. Then Rey points the lightsaber at Luke and Luke just kind of stares at her like he’s stoned off his ass.
I’m kind of unsure as to what effect JJ Abrams was shooting for here, but it didn’t work. At least not for me.
The Force Awakens has plenty of strange moments, I didn’t even cover them all here. Despite the flaws though, this is still a great Star Wars movie. It’s well written, it tugs on the heartstrings when it needs to, and most importantly, it’s fun to watch. Fun, you remember, it was that thing that was missing from the Prequels? Yeah, it’s finally back.
Maybe it’s because I never really hopped onto the hype train, but I didn’t go into this movie expecting anything other than a fun adventure film. I also didn’t expect it to outshine the originals. All I really wanted it to be was better than the prequels, and it was. And for that, we should all be thankful.
All that said I will be expecting more of the second movie, because while I had a great time at The Force Awakens, I also see the potential for some much more. Here’s hoping that in 2017, we get exactly that.