First be warned this is a spoiler heavy musing of the new Star Wars movie. For a spoiler free review from me please check out my link here. Also a much more succinct discussion of spoiler topics can be found here from a much wiser man than me.
Quite possibly the most heavily hyped film of all time Star Wars: The Force Awakens has hit cinemas. After being burned by the prequels, long term fans just want to know one thing-is it any good? And the quick answer is yes! With expectations being raised so much by the marketing riffing on nostalgia for the original trilogy we perhaps overlooked that the new movie The Force Awakens would buy an awful lot of goodwill just by being better than the prequels. Yet it didn’t beat the North American Box Office box office records in 16 days by just failing to be bad. The Force Awakens is good but more importantly it is fun.
Picking up the story 30 years after The Return of the Jedi, different forces throughout the galaxy are in search of the long absent Luke Skywalker. Poe Dameron a pilot with The Rebellion-sorry Resistance is dispatched to pick up plans-sorry a map which may lead to Skywalker’s location but is unfortunately captured by the Empire-sorry the First Order led by Kylo Ren. The map remains with his trusty droid the seriously cute R2-sorry BB-8 who makes his way marooned on the desert planet Tatooi-sorry Jakku where he comes across the farm-sorry scavenger Rey. Meanwhile a Stormtrooper Finn having witnessed his first battle in the capture of Poe sees the Resistance pilot as a way for them to both escape the First Order. I may be mocking the repetition of plot elements from Star Wars but the first scene lands with a bang. It features smart dialogue, quickly establishes villains as people to fear and hate and despite being studio based feels very much like a real tactile world. Such a clear and concise set up makes you want to see this movie again before it has even really begun.
We are introduced to Rey in a fantastic sequence of economic storytelling which tells us what an average day of scavenging is like for her. She has to be tough to protect herself from others and she lives in small humble quarters where she is tallying how long she has been waiting for her family to return to her on Jakku and building toy dolls of Rebellion pilots reflecting her own dreams for a different future. Then she rescues BB-8 and we see how inherently good she is. It is a masterful sequence, quiet with minimal fuss and dialogue but wonderfully effective. We are with her from that moment on. The character Rey has come under criticism in some circles for being good at everything. Not a complaint without merit, when I think of impossibly capable heroes from earlier blockbusters I note they usually had some frailty even if it was emotional rather than physical. Rey is physically tough, morally strong and emotionally well balanced considering her backstory but Daisy Ridley gives shadings to explore later on. She is visibly in awe of the larger world that the Resistance and Han Solo represent and she loses her composure clearly during an encounter with her past. I enjoyed her defeating Kylo Ren’s attempts to mind interrogate her using the Force and that being the catalyst for her discovering her own powers. Her winning their duel at the end did despite his wounds and her natural ability with the Force and physical prowess with the staff I thought was a poor choice narratively. This has been debated on the internet a lot so I don’t know if I have anything definitive to add. You could argue it gives us a cathartic victory to see someone put Kylo Ren on his ass at the end of the movie and if somebody was going to do that it should be Rey but I feel that Kylo Ren should become more terrifying after killing Han Solo and that people should have him to fear being on the side of The First Order after the threat of the Starkiller Base has been removed. I can’t quite get over Kylo Ren having enough training to stop a blaster bolt but not enough to take down someone who has discovered they are strong in the Force in the past 24 hours. Suggestions that he hasn’t had to sword fight much with a lack of Jedi don’t fly with me. You have a lightsaber you should know how to use it. For that matter I don’t like Stormtroopers having weapons that can clash with lightsabers either. Oh okay. I’ll shut up now.
I will say this though, when Rey summoned that lightsaber and the score kicked in I smiled for every little girl out there who has ever wondered why a girl doesn’t get to fight with a lightsaber. When I was growing up Princess Leia was so cool and in charge that I never really questioned that she wasn’t really at the centre of the story and became mostly a love interest in the sequels.
Rey and Finn are undeniably cute in this movie and I do hope they get more than a hug by the end of the trilogy but Rey is going to be the central hero of this story and Finn ain’t going to be far behind. The biggest movie of all time has these two as their leads. That’s a good thing in my book. Finn at first may appear to be used an awful lot for comic relief but he at various times reveals a worldliness to his character due to the knowledge he has of the First Order and he has the best arc in the film. The last thing he says to Rey is we need to get as far away from The First Order as we can and he goes to the heart of their organisation to rescue her. When Maz Kanata sees right into his soul instead of acting guilty about his deception he fixes his own gaze and warns them all about the First Order. He’s more than comic relief and these are fantastic layers there to explore further in the sequels. We have here a male lead that in some ways is not as capable as the female lead but becomes devoted to her and as a result they both draw great strength from each other. It’s a good point when Rey points out to Finn that she doesn’t need him holding her hand to help her run but shortly after he drags her out of a tent before it blows up. In a later scene after he pushes her away he is taken by a monster and she rescues him with some quick thinking. I love these two; it’s just so cute how their faces light up around the other one.
Poe Dameron does not get a lot to do here as much as Finn and Rey but Oscar Isaac does not need much to make an impact. When Finn appears sad about Poe’s passing to BB-8 you believe it is genuine. At that point Boyega and Isaac had shared a sum total of five minutes of screen time to sell that. Kylo Ren as a design works fantastic in the movies way more than he did in the trailers. The voice under the mask sounds great and the sparks of his lightsaber reflect his unstable personality although his footsteps sound like he’s wearing solid metal platform shoes. The first real reveal about Kylo’s character comes at least 40 minutes into the film so I actually felt for once that J.J.’s typical coyness was justified in this movie. It was fun to discover the answer to these questions for myself albeit in retrospect it all seems so obvious. A villain close to the hearts of our legacy characters would be the only way to explain how Luke went into hiding and everything kind of went bad. We’re introduced to Kylo Ren long after his birth and fall to the dark side years earlier. He comes presented to us as a villain rather than a tragic figure and we see him do bad things quite early. Yet there is some inner turmoil there and we come to care about his fate a little even if that is all due to our history and feelings for his parents rather than him. Rey’s defeat of him also brings into sharper focus his inabilities. Seeing him stop the blaster makes it comical when he loses his temper and trashes things. Rey’s defeat makes you realise that beyond that all we’ve really seen him do is kill two old men, torture a tied up prisoner and get his ass handed him to by a girl. Suddenly the inability to control his temper is just another symptom of a big baby who can’t do much when really challenged. I didn’t want that for Kylo Ren but he’s still a fascinating character and his desire to measure up to Darth Vader appropriate for a new Star Wars film looking to hit with a new generation. Rey and Finn share similar sentiments when they first hop into the Millennium Falcon or discuss intently stories about the Rebellion. Can Kylo Ren be redeemed? Does the audience want that after he killed Han Solo and will it feel too much like a repeat of Anakin’s arc? “All of this has happened before and will happen again.” Other franchises have intoned. I would actually like to avoid that kind of cyclical doomed to repeat storytelling in this franchise but it was inevitable that the happy ending of 1983 would have to be ruined somewhat to create conflict in this several years later sequel.
Out of all the returning ‘legacy’ characters Han Solo and Chewbacca are given the most screen time. Chewbacca has never been used better, he gets the best lines out of the whole film and we don’t even understand what he is saying and when that already famous death scene comes Chewie justifiably lights up on the First Order. Han Solo to me is still roguish in this one but with age and a son has come vulnerability and real stakes for the smuggler. I’ve seen the film four times and every time Leia says “Luke is a Jedi…you’re his father.” I tear up. There has been a lot of talk about how Han Solo should have died in an epic way taking on many bad guys or sacrificing himself to save someone’s life. That’s the thing though he does die in an epic way to save someone’s life…to save Ben…to save his son’s. They’re about to blow up the base and Han sacrifices himself to save his son. When he walks out on that bridge he knows the odds but he does it for the woman he loves and the child they had together. His last act is one of kindness to let his son know that the light always wins, that he still loves him. I had a range of emotions the first time I saw The Force Awakens. Killing an older character has been done before with Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan and there were certainly a lot of rumours going into this movie. When Obi-Wan died in Star Wars it was sad because we’d spent an hour with him and his character was likeable. Most fans have a lifetime of memories with Han Solo going back to their childhood predominantly and by association with Harrison Ford in general. There were a lot of us worried when we heard about the plane crash earlier in 2015 because this was our hero Han Solo, Indiana Jones, Richard Kimble, Jack Ryan, the coolest President ever and we didn’t want somebody so important to our developing years to be hurt or worse. I kept hoping they were going to find Han at the bottom of that shaft and take him home but no they don’t cheat out of this and I’ve come to feel that is only right. It seems popular to say that Harrison seems to be more engaged with his performance here but I always believe Mr Ford shows up to work. I will say though that he is as enjoyable as he has ever been and seems to be revelling in the emotional aspects of the role in this film.
The last shot near the Ewok camp in Return of the Jedi shows young heroes having weathered a war now ready to live the rest of their lives and make something out of it. Find some peace and joy maybe, raise families, restore democracy. I guess it was not to be and now Han is dead but Han died how he lived, hesitant but in the end doing the right thing. Rey now has his ship and co-pilot and is setting off on a new adventure. Maybe the good guys will restore peace to the galaxy eventually. It might be a neat idea in Episode VIII to show how successful the Rebellion was in restoring the Republic and peace to the Galaxy at least for a while. “Not all of it was bad.” as Han noted even if he was mostly talking about his sex life there.
I can’t say enough about how much I liked the new characters in this film. It was a relief not to be sitting around waiting for Han Solo and Chewie to appear. None of the trailers had really revealed if the dialogue was going to be good but there are so many lines that I find endlessly quotable mostly for their humour. I enjoyed the film as it zipped along never paying attention to any plot holes or conveniences-I was having too much fun. Then around about the time it became obvious they were going to blow up the Death Star-sorry the Starkiller Base I became a little tired. I actually thought to myself in a moment where an X-Wing was flying down a trench. Gee this is a good Star Wars movie but it might be a good idea if they don’t make any more after 2019? Han Solo’s death lends some emotional investment and turmoil to the third act. I’ve heard one fellow blogger even comment that it is when The Force Awakens really steps it up a notch. What can I tell you? I could have gone with a different third act threat than the Starkiller Base and I still feel Rey should’ve been desperately fighting a losing battle to hold Ren off before being saved by the planet’s surface splitting apart. Plus there must be some significance in General Leia walking past Chewbacca to Rey (whom she has never met?) to offer comfort after Han has died. As for the ending you have got to wonder why Mark Hamill was at that table read. Actually you don’t, he was at that table read to let you know Luke Skywalker was back. Personally I’ve always had problems with unanswered questions being left as sequel baits for originals that couldn’t tell a good story by themselves. Prometheus (which I liked) left too much hanging for a follow up and the makers of Terminator Genieshit keep saying their film is good because all of the plot inconsistencies are explained in sequels I pray we never get. Here it works. They’ve still told a complete story and while we don’t know everything about Rey or Finn we know that we like them, we know we care about them and we know we want to see them again and not just because it will answer our questions.
John Williams score seems well received but no theme seems to have caught people’s imagination like say Duel of the Fates did in The Phantom Menace. It seems to be growing on me though. The production values are top notch throughout, they’ve taken the time and expense to shoot on real locations and even CGI effects echo the look of the model work from the previous films. The Falcon now freed from the limitations of those models seems to bounce around on the ground and crash too much for my liking but again minor quibbles. As a side note how many shoot-outs has Han and Chewie been in? He’s never noticed before how powerful Chewie’s crossbow is and why does he think he can keep taking it off him. Doesn’t Chewie need it?
J.J. Abrams is a story teller noted for great set-ups of premises and reinvigorating old franchises anew. It felt like he stepped away from Alias and Lost long before they finished and he only produced Mission Impossible IV, Super 8 arguably his best film still feels like the third act is weaker than the rest of the story and he famously jumped from Star Trek to do this. With that in mind he is maybe as a Star Wars fan boy the perfect director to have made this movie and also at the same time it is a good thing he won’t be the only one responsible for tying up loose ends in the sequel. If there is one common point about this film it is that it echoes too heavily certain plot elements from the original trilogy (although let it be known that The Phantom Menace saw the death of a mentor character in the third act, a young poor child without a parent discovered on a desert planet and taken away for a greater destiny and the destruction of a large space station) then as a return to the series after an absence we will forgive this since we have such wildly likeable new characters and good humour. Fans will not be so forgiving next time. If some of the answers to these questions land with a thud in the next film both it and The Force Awakens will suffer as a result. For now though, there was a scene where X-Wings came flying in over a river seen first off in the distance as Stormtroopers radioed each other to get into position. Williams made trumpets blare, Oscar Isaac smiled; some pilot said excitedly “We got your back Poe.” And I wanted to fist pump the air. It was the fourth time I’d seen it. The biggest compliment you can give The Force Awakens is…it makes you excited about seeing Episode VIII next year and it can’t come soon enough. May the Force be with you Rian Johnson. Star Wars is back!!!
P.S. If anybody would like to offer their opinion or thoughts, please feel free to comment below.