What may be the most highly anticipated film of all time is here, continuing the most popular film series of them all. So after all the hype, what are we left with? Impressive restraint. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is something I would have hardly expected: a movie whose ambition largely doesn’t exceed its reach. It’s a high wire act, where the small-scale interpersonal drama (with unprecedented levels of character development for this franchise) is just as important as the large-scale space opera. Star Wars is back, with all its old trademarks of pulpy dialogue, a lived-in world, humor, and screen wipes, all energized by an exciting new cast of characters.
It’s thirty years after the Empire was sent scurrying to the Outer Rim after the Battle of Endor; a New Republic governs, but remnants of the Empire have come together as the First Order, countered by a paramilitary Resistance led by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher). On the desert planet Jakku, Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) recovers a key piece of intelligence, before he’s beleaguered by Kylo Ren’s (Adam Driver) force of stormtroopers (including John Boyega’s reluctant trooper Finn). Poe hides the information in his droid BB-8, and as the little BB unit comes across a scavenger named Rey (Daisy Ridley), the hunt is on for the droid. Because both the First Order and the Resistance covet what’s hidden inside it…
The Force Awakens’ greatest strength lies in its new characters (which in and of itself is a kind of best-case scenario for this franchise reintroduction). In Ridley and Boyega’s Rey and Finn, Star Wars has hit upon a pair with exceptional chemistry together, and charisma apart. She is technically minded and self-sufficient, with abandonment issues. He is stubborn in his desire to do the right thing in all cases, with a tendency to get in over his head. Together, they’re a fun pair to follow into the future of these films, especially given that they feel like real and relatable people in a universe where that’s not necessarily the norm.
But in my mind the film’s breakout character is its villain, Kylo Ren. He is as ragged as the untamed blade of his red lightsaber, always playing at being more than he is, more implacable, more dominant, more evil. He has spectacular Force-assisted temper tantrums. And when the mask comes off, Driver reads his lines with this beautiful mixture of menace and ineffectuality. Because The Force Awakens gives nearly equal time to developing its villain as it does its heroes, Kylo Ren is given space to shine as a fascinating character, and while he may idolize and model himself after Darth Vader, Kylo is a different beast altogether.
Kylo Ren puts on the mask because he wants to be larger-than-life. But in good guy Poe Dameron and bad guy General Hux, we have characters here that legitimately are. Poe is a semi-flamboyant, ultra-charismatic top gun X-wing pilot, given little room for particular depth but lighting up the screen because of his mere “coolness”. On the flip side, Domhnall Gleeson’s Hux is a tyrannical yet jealous, conniving yet pretentious, General in the First Order (or should I say in my best all-caps staccato English accent, “the FEHST AWERDEHR”). There’s a total Triumph of the Will scene involving legions of stormtroopers and Hux’… particular rhetorical style, bringing the First Order in line with the Third Reich as much as possible in a galaxy far, far away. Hitler at Nuremburg, much? The movie pushes the Nazi thing far, but Gleeson’s work as Hux makes it work, and he’s a character I’m particularly interested to see progress in future installments.
It must be said that stormtrooper Captain Phasma is a waste of Game of Thrones’ Gwendoline Christie’s talents at this point, but again, the future should hold good things for this chrome trooper. If Phasma is developed well, Star Wars will have a very symmetrical balance of a trio of great heroes (Rey, Finn, Poe) opposing a trio of great villains (Kylo, Hux, Phasma). For now, in Rey and Kylo Ren, we have a hero and villain both still learning, still rough around the edges, and that’s exciting.
If there is a worry in The Force Awakens, it’s that this is a movie that doesn’t really cut loose its imagination. There are no big space battles. In Jakku we have a desert planet like Tatooine. In Takodana we have a forest planet complete with old temple like Yavin 4. In Starkiller Base’s surface we have an icy landscape like Hoth. The locations are not the most imaginative, but their groundedness also gives them cinematographic beauty – their relatability is a strength, but being earthbound could also could give the impression of a fan film. I think these choices mostly work for The Force Awakens, though, because it’s bringing an interesting hybrid of zaniness and realism to the Star Wars universe.
After all, these decisions also give us a dynamic shooting style courtesy of director J.J. Abrams. On Takodana, we have a thrilling oner that goes from a character scrambling on the ground, up to a kinetic dogfight in the sky, back down to the ground; it’s fluid and energetic in the best way. These decisions also give us a visceral and fresh take on lightsaber dueling. No 20-foot Force jumps here. A bruiser, pitted against a defensive combatant using a lightsaber almost like a rapier at times. Breathlessly exciting peaks and valleys in the flow of battle. There are a couple moments in the duel that do for lightsaber dueling what Creed did for boxing, both films shooting its action with hard immediacy and empathy for its characters.
Scaling back to the big picture of plot, The Force Awakens is nothing revolutionary. (I don’t weigh plot so much as character and quality of writing.) There are a few clear similarities to beats from the original trilogy, but I maintain that they’re superficial. The whole tenor of the beats, as well as how characters interact around them, is wildly different in context. The one noticeably weak plot element is Starkiller Base. There’s a bit where its size is compared with the Death Star, and that moment is kind of dumb and rote. But the Base is merely a backdrop, incidental in the face of its own destructive power. The real ballgame is what’s going on with the characters: Rey, Finn, Kylo Ren, and by this point, Han Solo and Chewbacca.
Yes, old characters have moments to shine in The Force Awakens, and it’s a credit to the movie that it took me this long to mention them directly; the film’s fresh blood is so good, I don’t have much to say about their predecessors. Suffice to say that they’re all present and correct, and welcome sights. It’s been 30 years since we’ve seen them, and a lot of history has happened in the meantime. The movie obfuscates a thing or two (the politics and beliefs of the First Order are quite unclear), but on the whole takes the right tack: hinting at things that have happened in that time gap without feeling the need to lengthily exposit on them. In the old days throwaway references were expanded into whole spinoff novels; a similar thing will undoubtedly happen now.
Episode VII: The Force Awakens reintroduces Star Wars through an exciting new cast. Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, and especially Adam Driver inject extraordinary energy into their roles, making the movie a great ensemble piece. The old elements are there, but they’re not the focus, and Star Wars can now look entirely to the future with a new creative regime. Let’s just get more imaginative in Episode VIII. (Stay tuned for the spoiler P.S. for more.) Unlike certain other films in the franchise, The Force Awakens stands as a synergistic work of craftsmanship, with solid cinematography, music, production design, writing, and directing. These elements lay the groundwork, and the characters jump off the page and carry the day. 9/10.
P.S.: May the SPOILERS be with you
In 1983, Harrison Ford wanted to be killed off in Episode VI: Return of the Jedi. I presume he wanted the door closed so he didn’t have to return to the character. But thank the Maker he didn’t get his wish, not only because it freed him to have a last hurrah and interesting death in Episode VII, but also because Episode VI would have been a terrible swan song for him. (As far as I’m concerned, the writing and Ford’s goofy performance in that movie barely qualify as Han Solo.) So Han is dead at the hand of his son Ben. I like the death for Han because it’s such unfamiliar territory for his original character: dealing directly with dark side corruption, and intensely personal as opposed to a blaze of glory. But what I like most about the scene is that Kylo Ren’s plea to Han is entirely genuine. Far from being some kind of cheap fake-out, by looking directly into Ben’s eyes, Han really is giving his son the strength to take decisive action. It just happens that that action is patricide.
That kind of irony appears elsewhere in the film; Kylo Ren unwittingly has a large role in awakening the Force within Rey. And that duel is one for the ages. Firstly the slight misdirection in the marketing about Finn works a charm (the cross guard blade digging into Finn’s shoulder! Ouch!). And then when Kylo Ren tries to summon the lightsaber, and it proceeds to arc to Rey, is a crowning moment of triumph that left me physically shaking. The duel is great, and I think Rey’s moment of calm at the cliff edge is vital, because it’s something that Kylo Ren could never achieve. It’s a beautiful point to all those discussions about whether the Dark or Light side of the Force is stronger (expressed here as aggression vs. inner peace).
So the macguffin of the whole movie is the map to Luke Skywalker, in his hermitage on an island in a vast ocean. I’m totally fine with the relative lack of Luke; that just means a bigger role in the next movie. And how about that look on Luke’s face when the sees his old lightsaber? Like a look of profound sadness? Roll on Episode VIII! I’m rooting for you, Rian Johnson.
And am I the only one who thinks Supreme Leader Snoke resembles the Silence from Doctor Who?