I deliberately waited some time before attempting to write a review of Star Wars: Episode VII, as when it concerns something like Star Wars one really needs time to process their reaction before committing to a viewpoint.
Moreover, something as complex and subjective as a Star Wars movie also needs time to age, especially if – like me – you’re a deep Star Wars fan. I am reviewing this movie as someone who’s been an entrenched Star Wars fan for virtually my entire life and someone who generally isn’t otherwise into much modern, blockbuster cinema in the generic sense.
The people tripping over themselves to uphold this film as some kind of masterpiece are being excessive in their praise, while those eager to knock it down as something terrible are missing the reality of the matter too.
I’d like to react to the The Force Awakens in as fair and open-minded a manner as possible.
That often proves difficult.
My approach to any Star Wars film is always more personalised than it is with other franchises. And being a permanent defender of both Lucas and the prequels, even before I saw this film I was already beginning to resent hearing so many people say things to the effect of ‘finally, a proper Star Wars film’ or ‘thank god Lucas is gone’, etc, and all of this bad-spirited chatter made me almost want to resist the new movie even more.
But that’s not in my nature; my nature is to look for the good in something first (and there were too many people I could tell were just waiting eagerly to see this movie just so they could rack up You Tube hits by proclaiming how much they hated it – that’s the age we live in).
Thankfully The Force Awakens has plenty of good in it to justify its existence. At times, it’s even joyous.
I have criticisms of this movie too. In some ways, it would be a lot easier to assess my feelings and write a coherent review if I either outright hated or outright loved this film.
As it is, I fall into neither camp fully and therefore will have to argue out my points carefully and feel my way through to a conclusion.
As I said, I thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyed most of the movie.
It was like a homecoming, it felt great, it was tremendous fun, and I felt my lingering resistance to the new franchise quickly being cast aside. I was loving Daisy Ridley’s Rey to bits, falling in love with little BB8, enjoying Finn and the new character dynamics, being drawn in by Kylo Ren, and when Han Solo and our beloved Wookie companion arrived on-screen my inner seven-year-old was virtually leaping for joy and everything was mostly peachy.
This film does so much right.
My very first, initial position concerning new Star Wars movies back when the Disney acquisition was announced was a guarded, defensive one. I said then that new films were essentially unnecessary to the mythology and that there was a real danger in taking the narrative beyond its intended end-point of Return of the Jedi/Revenge of the Sith.
Then, as the months progressed and trailers emerged and hype gained momentum, the eternal Jedi/fan-boy in me became inevitably drawn along and I became more and more excited about seeing a new film, about seeing the story continued, and about seeing our old heroes, Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia and co again.
Now that I’ve seen the movie – even with all the good that’s in it – my immediate reaction is still to wonder if I was actually correct the first time: that extending the Star Wars saga beyond Return of the Jedi actually threatens to do more harm to the Star Wars saga than good (meaning in storytelling terms and not commercial terms, obviously).
It is difficult to say for certain; because I actually really, really enjoyed most of The Force Awakens. So I’m pretty split down the middle here.
If continuing the ‘saga’ is a mistake, it’s a mistake most people won’t realise until much later on down the line; because most people are caught up in the hype and the excitement and the nostalgia.
But I’m not in charge; and the ball is already rolling on this new trilogy. So there’s no point resisting it now – I’d much rather get in on the fun and live to enjoy Star Wars again.
And TFA – if nothing else – gives us a lot to enjoy.
So let’s deal with the actual film on its own merit.
There ARE negatives: quite big ones. But I don’t want to launch this review with negatives. I would rather start with the positives: and, boy, are there positives!
For whatever weaknesses this film does have, there are three elements of the story structure that were superb decisions and really elevate the experience: (1) the decision to have Luke Skywalker not appear in the film at all, but to be a mystery around which the story can revolve, (2) the decision to have Anakin’s/Luke’s lightsaber be a major story element that literally serves to bridge the three different trilogies when it comes into Rey’s hands, and (3) the decision to have this be one last Han Solo adventure, while having Luke and (mostly) Leia being kept back for the next two films.
None of those are necessarily obvious choices: by all three of them were brilliant writing decisions that really allow this movie to thrive on its own, while also drawing on the past and setting up the future.
I’ll circle back to each of three points in due course.
There are also three main scenes or sequences that really elevate The Force Awakens and immediately burn themselves into the consciousness potently: (1) the Rey/Kylo lightsaber duel in the forest, which is sublime, (2) the Han Solo and Kylo Ren encounter and its fateful outcome, and (3) the introductory scenes for each of the main new characters – Rey, Finn and Kylo.
All three of those were stunningly rendered sequences in their own right. And I’ll touch on all of them.
For starters, Rey (Skywalker?) is an utter joy to watch and Daisy Ridley is a revelation. I sensed already from the trailers and from various images that she would be a character that would feel very in-tune with the existing Star Wars mythology. Not only does Daisy Ridley make for a great presence, but the character is written and introduced in a really endearing, engaging way.
In fact, probably my favourite parts of the film are the scenes of Rey going about her isolated, self-sufficient existence on Jakku. Those scenes and that milieu have such a sense of Anakin and Luke in them that I couldn’t help but smile and feel like I was watching the continuation of a family saga; I mean, I almost mentally input the ghosts of Shmi and Anakin Skywalker into the background.
But the most important thing is that she genuinely feels like a Star Wars character and already even felt iconic in places.
Moreover, within just a few scenes it was clear that Daisy Ridley is, in acting terms, a perfect central protagonist for a new trilogy.
Given her remarkable lack of acting experience, Ridley really deserves a lot of credit; but Kasdan, Abrams and co deserve credit for setting up a genuinely good character right off-the-bat. And that isn’t necessarily an easy thing to do; to create such a likeable and potent new hero in a franchise that is already brimming with classic, beloved or memorable characters. John Boyega‘s Finn is also a thoroughly enjoyable character, and he and Ridley play off each other really well, clearly meant to form the central character dynamic of this new trilogy.
It is clear that the filmmakers were wholly aware that one of the key winning ingredients of the Original Trilogy was the core dynamics of the Luje/Han/Leia relationship, and that they were conscious of establishing something in that same mold from point one. The kind of interplay we get with Rey and Finn is largely what was missing from the Prequel Trilogy and from The Phantom Menace in particular.
Even being someone who knows all of these films like the back of my hand, I re-watched the prequels over Christmas and, although I love those films for lots of reasons, it’s always evident that the films are sorely lacking the fun and wit of the original character dynamics.
Within half an hour of The Force Awakens, you can see what a difference it makes to have these characters interacting in a way that feels much more natural and less staged.
Lawrence Kasdan’s writing has a lot to do with it, no doubt (and Lucas actually wanted Kasdan to write the script for The Phantom Menace, but Kasdan declined). Abrams also probably handles actors much better than Lucas did, with Lucas’s genius resting in other areas of the filmmaking process. There is more a sense of the actors having fun here and enjoying their experience, probably aided too somewhat by the lack of excessive green/blue screen to stifle their performances.
You really feel like Rey and Finn have properly bonded by the end of it, just as you did with Han, Luke and Leia back in the old days.
I also fell in love with BB8, and particularly with the Rey/BB8 dynamic, which is just incredibly cute and also, again, totally in keeping with Star Wars. Those scenes of BB8 wandering about the desert were very reminiscent of Artoo Deetoo in A New Hope, while those early scenes of Rey and BB8 on Jakku again felt 100% Star Wars and genuinely iconic. Some might gripe that BB8 was essentially Disney trying to market to children and sell toys, but it doesn’t bother me either way, as the character makes sense in Star Wars terms.
It’s in an element like this that you can see there are people involved in this creative process who do get what lies at the heart of Star Wars. And the BB8/Rey relationship is a perfect echo of (or homage to) some of the most endearing dynamics of the old films, such as Luke/Artoo or Han/Chewie.
But getting back to Rey, who really is the central, major strength of this film. From the very get-go, Rey epitomises that ineffable Star Wars aura. Everything about her evokes Tatooine, the Skywalkers and the heart of Lucas’s mythology. Some of this is established in the story points, some of it in her performance, but a lot of it is primarily established in simple, wordless visuals, just as it was with Luke and Anakin.
George Lucas had often said that the most powerful Star Wars moments were like silent movies and this is borne out in what we see of Rey, especially early in the film.
The fact that Rey is a scavenger and lives in a place surrounded by junk, works in a junk store, wears rustic, desert garb – it’s all perfect. It’s all saying ‘this is Star Wars and I am a Skywalker’. Like A New Hope and The Phantom Menace and Luke and Anakin and Tatooine, it’s all very old-world, very Biblical too. I love the way we’re shown Rey’s life in a way that’s very visually, tonally and aesthetically demonstrative rather than explained; every little detail, from the way she bakes this small amount of bread for her measly dinner, the way she has to go about her daily life eking a meagre living, right down to the old X-Wing blast helmet, etc.
And the fact that she’s literally living inside an old, fallen Imperial AT-AT is just a touch of utter genius.
What’s also terrific is the way we’re given space to really get a sense of Rey’s life and a sense of Jakku, which is essentially a junk planet. I’d love to know exactly what the Battle of Jakku was, but in any case what we get to see visually really paints a great picture. The desert is a graveyard of a long-gone era, reminiscent of real-world places like Leptis Magna in Libya or Palmyra in Syria where you might find ancient ruins and temples sitting in the middle of the desert wilderness. A long-fallen Star Destroyer, half buried in the sand, speaks to us of the galaxy that once was, and speaks to Rey of old worlds and conflicts and adventures (that shot of the hazy, buried Star Destroyer is a brilliant visual, by the way; a perfect way to demonstrate in a single image how long ago the events of the Original Trilogy were and far gone and almost mythical those events are now meant to seem).
It’s very ANH Luke, but even more pronounced than that. Unlike Luke, Rey is entirely a solitary figure, who has been utterly abandoned; she doesn’t even have an Aunt Beru or Uncle Owen or a Biggs Darklighter.
If the sense of Luke on Tatooine is one of the most iconic things in Star Wars, The Force Awakens effectively recaptures that aura and makes it new again through Rey and her life.
Tonally, it is quite clearly intended to identify Rey to us straight away as a Skywalker. Rey also has a great gift for mechanics and for fixing things, just like Anakin did. I was sitting in the cinema, watching these scenes and it felt like a homecoming; the tone and the imagery was so resonant and familiar, yet new and different at the same time.
And that’s exciting. It’s like hearing an old, familiar tune but with a new instrument in the mix.
And then when BB8 shows up and befriends her, it takes a pretty hard-hearted soul to not start falling for these characters.
For all the whiney Internet chatter about Disney pushing a ‘feminist’ agenda with a female protagonist, had *I* been writing this third trilogy I would’ve wanted a female protagonist without doubt, as we’ve already had two trilogies with male protagonists. At no point do I feel like Rey is a token creation or a political or social statement.
Rey is simply a great hero in the making, regardless of gender considerations. She is as good, as endearing, as enjoyable and as bad-ass a character as could’ve possibly been created for this new trilogy.
Some people I’ve noticed are pointing out what they perceive to be overtly ‘feminist’ elements, such as Rey objecting to Finn holding her hand, etc. But if there are vaguely ‘feminist’ subtexts to these things, it doesn’t feel overtly intended, but more organically flowing out of the story and the natural characterisation. I like the idea that Rey, having been solitary most of her life, doesn’t really have a sense of gender politics or gender roles. She is baffled at Finn taking her hand, resents Finn trying to rescue her during their first encounter on Jakku, etc.
But it makes sense; Rey is totally self-sufficient because she has had to be her whole life. In some sense, she is almost androgynous.
And when she does eventually develop a bond with Rey, it’s clear that what she is reacting to is the simple reality of friendship; of having someone who looks out for her. She has quite possibly never had a friend before and this is all new territory for her.
If I had been writing a female central protagonist for a film like this, I too would’ve been inclined to make her strong and self-sufficient and not for the sake of any political or social statement, but simply out of respect for the character. The things I would absolutely *not* do would be to have her need to be rescued by her male friends and, more importantly, to have her fall in love with one of the male characters. Which is why I found myself satisfied with how Rey is portrayed and developed across the movie. The fact that when Finn, Han and co do come to rescue her late in the movie, she has already freed herself and basically doesn’t need to be rescued is a great touch, all the more so because she is nevertheless utterly delighted to see them and is genuinely grateful for their presence.
This then becomes a story about friendship and the development of a platonic love.
The best dynamics in Star Wars have always been about platonic love, and actually the sci-fi, fantasy, comic-book genres are generally populated by great stories about platonic love. The best example is Kirk, Spock and McCoy in Star Trek. Again, if I were writing this new trilogy, I would absolutely avoid Rey and Finn becoming romantically involved and I would be more invested in the notion of friendship, which is already endearingly and pointedly established in this movie.
And really, all the people objecting to Rey as a ‘feminist’ character need to get a life.
And even if Rey was some kind of feminist statement; why would that even be objectionable?
Getting back to this first part of the film, the key was to establish the new characters quickly and effectively. And The Force Awakens does that exceptionally well, primarily with Rey, BB8 and Finn, but also with Kylo Ren. Kylo is a genuinely interesting and menacing villain; and Boyega’s Finn is a genuinely likeable, enjoyable character from the get-go.
A trilogy with Rey and Finn as the central protagonists and Kylo Ren as the principal villain has strong potential, especially on the strength of their introductions here.
And that’s without even factoring in whatever role Luke Skywalker is going to play in this unfolding narrative. The possibilities are strong – and the strength of the possibilities was really a key thing Abrams and co had to establish in this first film.
The opening crawl, which I was incredibly curious to see, is terrific. Just that opening line alone – “Luke Skywalker has vanished” – drew me in like a moth to a flame and was brimming with fascination and nostalgia in equal measure. We already knew, of course, that Luke was going to be a mystery here, but seeing it written right off-the-bat in the opening text was a terrific way to bring us back to Star Wars.
That opening sequence on Jakku with Kylo Ren and his troops rampaging across a village and committing ruthless murder is terrific; a solid way to start the film.
This opening sequence does work well on multiple levels; a perfect synthesis of the familiar and the new. We’ve never seen Stormtroopers bursting into this kind of setting before. We’ve never seen a Stormtrooper take off their helmet and become humanised before. And even Kylo Ren displays a Force power here we’ve never seen before.
All of this is in just the opening sequence – thus demonstrating that there are still new things to be explored or shown in Star Wars.
Boyega’s character, Finn, generally gets a great intro here too and I like how it’s built up in measured steps, even while the main focus is on Kylo Ren.
The scripting does sparkle in numerous places. There’s enough humour and wit scattered about this film to satisfy those of us who were unsatisfied the dry dialogue patches of the prequels. Some of Finn’s dialogue and delivery is really good in places, but actually Han Solo and Harrison Ford steal the show as you’d expect (“THAT’s not how the Force works!”). There are lovely moments of humour with Chewbacca, Threepio, and even BB8 (there’s even some Stormtrooper humour later on too).
The fact that we have fun, witty characters isn’t enough on its own to compensate for the things that are lacklustre or wrongheaded; but it does incline you towards *wanting* to like it more and basically serves to earn your goodwill very quickly.
There are also a number of genuinely moving or touching moments or themes and it isn’t just via the nostalgia and the so-called ‘Legacy Players’, but includes the new characters too. Rey’s declaration of friendship to an unconscious Finn at the end. Han’s tenderness towards his murderous son, even with his last breath.
The reveal of the Millennium Falcon – literally with another homage line about it being a piece of junk before the camera moves around to reveal it – is a lot of fun. That whole sequence on the Falcon is a lot of fun, even if it’s utterly a nostalgia-fest. We were always going to have such nostalgia-fests and, in fairness, we all wanted it too.
And having never had a big Falcon sequence be not in space before, this was a great way to show us something new mixed in with something old: it feels like a very Abrams idea, but showing the Falcon operate within a planetary environment (along with pursuing Tie Fighters) is an entirely new spectacle for the franchise and is a perfect example of taking the old and making it new – which is, arguably, what this whole film should be trying to do.
The appearance of Han and Chewie also comes at precisely the right time in the film; by now we’ve had enough time to get to know Rey, Finn and BB8 (and we’ve established Kylo Ren), and it’s the right moment to bring in our old heroes. If the dynamics with Rey, Finn and BB8 are terrific and really well established, the dynamics between the new characters and Han and Chewie are almost just as good, just as effortless.
Han and Finn in particular have a good dynamic, perhaps aided in part by Han recognising an element of his past self in Finn’s position. The fact that all of this transpires aboard the Millennium Falcon helps to both visually and emotionally connect this new trilogy and these new characters with the old trilogy and old characters.
But that moment we’ve all been waiting a lifetime for – seeing Han Solo and Chewbacca take their places in the Millennium Falcon – was worth the price of a cinema ticket on its own.
And a word about Harrison Ford, who received an insane amount of money to appear in this film. He totally nails this performance. This is Han Solo, no mistake. The mannerisms, the style, the tone – Harrison gets it right on the money. It’s as if he’s just stepped out of Return of the Jedi and just dyed his hair grey.
Which isn’t necessarily easy, coming back to reprise a character after decades – as anyone who saw Indiana Jones & the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull will have witnessed. But Harrison is magic here.
Evidently, the idea was that if Solo was to be killed off, then he should have this film as a last hurrah, which would be why he gets lots of screen time and Leia and Luke are kept mostly out of the way. And he really gives us a perfect final dose of Han Solo before bowing out forever. In terms of the throwbacks, I personally would’ve gone a step further and had at least one sequence of Han piloting the Falcon in a dogfight or escape run; but that’s my inner fan-boy talking.
On first viewing I found a little odd that Han Solo, a hero of the Rebellion, would have reverted back to being a smuggler and a scoundrel. Having been so crucial in the defeating of the Empire, and having married (we assume) so crucial a political figure as Leia Organa, would he really end up being a smuggler again? It felt wrong to me at first.
However, on second viewing, I started to get what the point of it was. Essentially, once you accept that his relationship with Leia failed and that the New Republic itself apparently failed, it starts to make more sense that Han reverts back to his old self or would perhaps seek meaning again in the former life he knew.
Perhaps watching his son go rotten, watching Luke disappear into the wilderness, watching everything the rebellion had fought for disappear, was enough to send Han back to a simpler life. In a way, however, this also plays into my biggest problem with this film: specifically that it starts to render the Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi almost null and void. In terms of Han Solo, he’s now the same character he was right at the beginning of A New Hope.
And yet, on the other hand, what other fitting path is there for Han Solo?
He was never cut out to be a politician or a leading figure of a New Republic like Leia was and he was never the mythic, central hero like Luke either. Perhaps this was the only suitable path available to him.
The clash between Resistance forces and the First Order on Takodana is reasonably good stuff. Really, the best thing here is seeing Han and Chewie back in their old element, bow-caster and all.
People complaining about Finn being able to use a lightsaber here? Not really a problem for me; he doesn’t use it well.
The initial Kylo/Rey clash in the forest here is also pretty compelling.
There’s one shot in particular – that shot of Kylo igniting his lightsaber an inch from Rey’s face – that is really bad-ass (Rey’s expression is priceless). There is genuine menace and tension here – it’s great.
Kylo’s interrogation of Rey is interesting. The tension is good. And the fact that Rey can resist him is her first sign that she may be strong in the Force, as well as Kylo’s realisation that he is dealing with a Force-sensitive person. Kylo’s frustration is great to watch, as is Rey’s inner strength; the Light Side of the Force versus the Dark, one calm and possessing inner strength with the other being volatile and emotional and disordered.
It isn’t clear here whether Kylo recognises Rey as his cousin or relative or not or whether, like Vader in the Original Trilogy, he is going to piece together the mystery of Rey’s identity as the story develops.
Daisy Ridley does a great job on Rey’s facial acting here, really nailing this scene (but actually she pretty much nails every scene). But this is also the first real sign we get of the weaknesses in Kylo – and the fact that it’s Rey who brings that out obviously enrages him and sets the tone for their later clash.
This scene, as well as the later showdown at the end, really seems to explore the theme that Rey and Kylo are opposite sides of the same coin – the “awakening” that Supreme Commander Snoke refers to; “the Dark Side and the Light”. There is potential for great storytelling here, particularly if they are both grandchildren of Anakin Skywalker, who himself was both “Dark Side” and “Light”.
I really want to see this theme further explored; the Dark and the Light being expressed in the Skywalker bloodline as an echo of Anakin Skywalker himself, in whom the Force was so strong (highest midi-chlorian count on record) that it is still playing itself out even decades after his death and via his blood descendants.
We come then to the end of Han Solo.
For all my emotional objection to this development and the bitter taste it leaves in my mouth, I do get the thematic point of this: specifically that Kylo is struggling with his good side and his Dark Side and he recognises that by killing his defenseless father he is taking a decisive plunge into the Dark Side of the Force.
This is also designed to echo Obi-Wan Kenobi’s death in A New Hope and echo the father figure being removed. It also thematically echoes Luke and Vader in ESB and ROTJ, although it actually inverses the scenario; so where Luke was the son trying to redeem his father, Han is the father trying to redeem his son, and where Vader was the father who turned back to the Light by saving his son, Kylo is the son who goes decisively into the Dark by killing his father.
I get all that; it kind of works and it plays into Lucas’s well-established repeating poem motif that underpins all the Star Wars films.
Even the dialogue in the Han/Kylo confrontation is written as a direct echo of Vader/Luke in ESB, and also to some extent an inverse of the final Anakin/Padme scene in ROTS. I have no problem with any of that, as it is very much grounded in how Star Wars always works.
And it makes certain that we are no longer are able to sympathise with Kylo or ‘Ben’. It also gives more weight to that climatic lightsaber duel between Kylo and Rey, where we can fully root for Rey and fully despise Kylo.
That whole sequence – the way its lit, the way its framed and staged – is mesmerising. In terms of directing, it’s the standout scene of the film. Adam Driver is superb in this scene; and the moment itself, as predictable as it is, is powerful in its shock factor.
Again, I hesitate to lose Harrison/Han this early: but I acknowledge that this is more about setting the stage for Kylo Ren’s journey; and that Harrison Ford wanted out of the franchise.
And I guess, with Luke and Mark Hamill being set up for the next film, this was really about giving Han Solo one last adventure: and to let him be a hero again. We get that – and it’s wonderful.
I think, on the balance, it works. But, ultimately, it remains to be seen how Han’s death is used in the future films: in other words, future films will determine how meaningful or impactful this death was.
Now before I get into the rest of the final act and the climax, it’s time to talk about Kylo Ren.
I liked Kylo Ren for most of the film. I like that our perception of him evolves over the course of the movie, which is interesting and is a testament to good writing. For the first half of it, he is menacing and pretty bad-ass, very deliberately reminiscent of Vader in ESB. But then our view of him starts to evolve as we see more and more that he is highly charged, emotionally unstable and essentially a spoilt brat. He smashes up consoles in anger and, unlike Vader, draws his lightsaber to do so.
The key turning point is when Rey goads him into removing his mask. Then we see he is a young man; unstable and conflicted, even weak.
What I like about Kylo Ren is that he is written to be somewhat pathetic. He isn’t a tortured sadist like Vader, nor a total bad-ass like Maul, nor an evil genius like Palpatine. Instead, he’s essentially a confused, idiotic little kid with a major complex. He is emotionally volatile and utterly immature. The mask and the bad-ass demeanour/visage is an act, a case of projecting. We still don’t know enough about his backstory, but I like watching him rip into consoles and bulkheads with his lightsaber in fits of rage and impotence.
We also are shown fairly early on that he isn’t the one in command or the chief villain of the scenario; rather, he is under the guidance of the mysterious Supreme Commander Snoke (who at this point is a pretty lame character) and is also vying for power with the more straight-fascist General Hux. This is reminiscent of Darth Vader in the first movie, where he is essentially just a henchman and is secondary in authority to Governor Tarkin. It is also clear that Kylo’s training isn’t complete, as stated by Snoke.
I also like very much that his weapon is essentially a faulty, amateur-made lightsaber that doesn’t quite function properly and seems extremely volatile and dangerous – just like Kylo himself. That works brilliantly, as the weapon being a flawed extension of its flawed owner.
‘Amateur’ is, for that matter, a good description of Kylo Ren. He is basically an amateur, wannabe Sith, with a Darth Vader obsession. He is a Vader fan-boy, wanting to make himself as powerful and as feared as his famous grandfather. Whether he turned Dark first and then adopted this Vader obsession or whether it was his fascination with Vader that drew him towards the Dark Side is unclear; but I would guess the latter, as he seems like his obsession with Vader is his underlying motivation.
This is borne out by the implication that – prior to his reunion with his father, Han Solo – Kylo is very conflicted and isn’t entirely ‘on the Dark Side’ yet. He seems to have said as much to Supreme Leader Snoke, begging to be strengthened in the Dark Side of the Force in order to continue.
The backstory of why exactly he rebelled against Luke is yet to be told and it’ll be interesting to learn exactly what happened. We are told that Kylo led a number of Luke’s former students in a slaughter of the other students; a scene we are briefly shown during Rey’s vision sequence. But again, what isn’t clear is why “Ben Solo” would reject the living Luke in favour of the deceased Vader.
It’s a story we’re going to need.
But what is also fascinating about Kylo Ren is that his inner struggle is an inversion of the classic Star Wars Jedi/Sith motif. Where Anakin was good and was turned to evil, and where Luke was good and was able to withstand seduction to the Dark Side, Kylo Ren is Bad and is trying desperately to *stay” Bad – which is a fascinating take on the whole pattern. We are shown that there is still some residual good in him and a great deal of conflict, and he is trying to kill that lingering conflict off and be fully immersed in the Dark Side.
This is very interesting writing and characterization, it has to be said, and was something I wasn’t expecting. I was genuinely surprised by how layered and interesting Kylo is.
And in this respect too, Kylo’s murder of his father does make some dramatic and thematic sense – by killing Han, he is firmly taking that final step into the Dark Side; he is literally taking a step from which there is no turning back. And he knows it.
Han is literally there, appealing to the good in him that we – as an audience – sense has been there throughout what we’ve seen of the film; and at that crossroads moment, Kylo realises that he can either go with his Dad and find redemption or he can take the ultimate step to the Dark Side of the Force.
In doing the latter, he is now utterly Dark Side. It is basically equivalent to Anakin murdering the Younglings in the Jedi Temple.
What’s also interesting about this is that, although Kylo is obsessed with Darth Vader and being the new Vader, he clearly doesn’t understand the real story of Anakin Skywalker or Vader. Anakin, although at the end he did make a choice to do dark things and be a Sith, was generally not someone who actively *sought* the Dark Side. He was essentially tricked into turning against the Jedi and the people he loved, and then he suffered the price forever.
But Kylo is wilfully, knowingly seeking the Dark Side and actively seeking to emulate the fallen Vader. And unlike Anakin, Kylo didn’t have a life of tragedy as any excuse.
His understanding therefore of the very figure he worships is highly deficient, and Kylo in general is a pathetic figure. He is almost like a moody Emo kid rebelling against his parents and his uncle because they don’t understand his piercings or his taste in music. He throws tantrums. Now, on paper that sounds like a lame-ass character. But in actual fact, it works surprisingly well.
Because, as I wrote ages ago, Star Wars has already done its job too well; you can never write a villain as layered and complex as Darth Vader now, nor a villain as ultimate and as definitive as Palpatine, nor even a villain as bad-ass as Darth Maul. Therefore you have to do something new in a fictional universe where there aren’t that many options. And Kylo Ren is it. I know a lot of people are dismissing Kylo Ren as a lame villain, but the best thing about Kylo Ren is that he isn’t anything like as brilliant as Vader, but is in fact just a second-rate, Vader wannabe.
That one fact justifies everything else; it justifies why he wears a mask, for one thing, and pretty much underscores all of his motivations and actions.
He is an echo of Vader because he is *literally trying* to be an echo of Vader.
He can be bad-ass; but ultimately we already know he is pathetic.
Part of the reason this also works is because, at the other end of the equation, we have Rey (probably his cousin). These are both grandchildren (probably) of Anakin/Vader, but one has grown up being somewhat privileged (raised by Leia and Han, loved, and trained by the galaxy’s last Jedi), while the other was abandoned and left to live on her own on some god-forsaken planet. Yet the former has rebelled and sought darkness, while the latter has emerged a self-sufficient, grounded, centered person and will probably be the hero of the trilogy.
His pathetic, confused nature actually imparts to him a real, palpable sense of danger and unpredictability.
It isn’t serene, focused Dark Side like Darth Maul or clear-headed motivation like Palpatine; Kylo is a complete loose cannon who might do *anything*. And that’s interesting. And I give full credit here, because one of the things I immediately doubted about there being new Star Wars films was the issue of how you come up with a new villain; and the answer is that you don’t try to create a better villain than the old ones (because you can’t), but a villain with a new twist, a new layer, to him.
So kudos on Kylo Ren.
‘Supreme Leader Snoke’, on the other hand, is another matter entirely: seriously, that’s a lame-ass character. And it doesn’t help that we have no real sense of who or what he is – maybe the next film will make Snoke something more interesting.
I like too that we’re getting different uses of the Force that we’ve never seen before; stopping the blaster bolt is the best example, but his invasive use of mind power to literally pull information from people’s minds is interesting and genuinely menacing, and that scene where he renders Rey utterly immobile using the Force is great.
Some will argue that this takes us into a problematic area where a spoilt, poorly trained brat like Kylo appears to be capable of Force powers that even great masters like Sidious, Vader, Dooku, Yoda or Windu never seemed to be capable of.
However, there’s a couple of counter-arguments to that. Firstly, we can just assume that other Jedi/Sith had these kinds of powers but that we just never saw them used on-screen. But more than that, it’s reasonable to assume that the Force and the use of the Force is a fairly evolving and diverse thing, which changes among different Force-users at different periods of time. We can also bear in mind that Kylo exists in a period of time where there are no Jedi and Sith, certainly not in the organised sense that there was in the past. Regardless of what went down at Luke’s short-lived Jedi Academy, there is no Jedi Order as such anymore and there are no great, wise teachers like Yoda or the others; which means, in essence, that there is no dogma or prevailing framework for Jedi training.
That in turn means that someone like Kylo is self-teaching himself the Force; this is evident in the amateur-job he’s done on his lightsaber. That being so, it stands to reason that his use of the Force would be different and unorthodox. Because there *is* no orthodoxy anymore; there are probably no manuals and no archives.
Therefore someone like Kylo isn’t learning ‘the rules’; and consequently makes up his own rules and ends up using the Force in whole new ways. I like that and don’t have a problem with it.
I’m aware that some people are making similar complaints about Rey’s powers and, in particular, her very sudden/quick development of Force abilities in this film.
In terms of Rey’s powers, I’ve seen lots of people complaining at her ability to use the Force, at how sudden her transformation is and how unrealistic it is that she would be able to develop that quickly without training. I, however, mostly don’t have a problem with this. At least not yet. If you think about it, Luke’s development in A New Hope was pretty quick too. As far as we were shown, he didn’t have much training before he was flying an X-Wing and using the Force to fire the crucial shot into the Death Star. Moreover, in Episode I, little Anakin did more or less the same thing, flying a Naboo Fighter into the heart of the Battle Control Ship and destroying it.
In both cases, Anakin’s especially, the idea was that they were being guided by the Force itself; in Anakin’s case it was entirely unconscious and this demonstrated the extent to which his Force-connection was operating without him even knowing it. So for Rey – directly descended from both Luke and Anakin (probably) – to inherit the same powers isn’t that much of a problem. However, this also does demonstrate why Disney/Lucasfilm was a little arrogant and unwise to try to suggest a dismissal of what Lucas did in the prequels: because one thing that would perfectly explain Rey’s speed of development and abilities here in this film would’ve been to cite the midi-chlorians.
In essence, Lucas has provided the explanation already: Rey obviously has a very high midi-chlorian count just as Anakin did (and presumably Luke did too), and therefore the Force operates in her at an unconscious level.
Some are saying it’s unrealistic that Rey could’ve held her own against Kylo in that fight. But that’s the nature of the Force. If you watch this sequence properly, she doesn’t convincingly beat Kylo, she just about manages to survive the encounter. She doesn’t use the lightsaber with any kind of expertise, but is clumsy and handles the weapon in an inexperienced, awkward way. It’s a bumbling, amateur lightsaber fight, nothing at all like the accomplished, brilliant lightsaber duels of the prequels. And of course, Kylo has been shot by Chewbacca and is injured, and he is also emotionally compromised from having just killed his father. I don’t have a problem with this at all.
And again, the idea of giving over to the Force and letting it guide you is a key factor in Star Wars and always has been. There’s nothing here that isn’t perfectly in-keeping with existing Star Wars.
But, again, I would respect it a lot if, in the next film, they do mention the midi-chlorians. Because it would explain Rey and her powers perfectly; and it’s all there, all in place from Lucas and the prequels. If, in an arrogant wish to dismiss the prequels and dismiss the ideas of the very founder of the Star Wars mythology, they decide to veto the midi-chlorians, then they’ll actually be shooting themselves in the foot and this whole business of Rey using the Force in this movie will make a lot less sense.
I like this lightsaber duel a lot.
Having it set in a forest gives it a brand new aesthetic and tone we’ve had before, and in terms of the lighting and the general feeling, this is a stunning, stunning sequence. The colour scheme of the glowing blue and red sabers contrasted to the white snow and the shapes of the trees is mesmerising. And Rey’s desperation, as well as the emotional undercurrent established by Han Solo’s demise, make this a compelling, absorbing sequence on every level.
This duel is, both conceptually and visually, the highlight of the whole film. It is sublime.
And again, I like that this is basically an amateurish, fumbling duel between two Force-users who would get absolutely torn to shreds if you put them in the prequel era. This one’s not about choreography; but raw emotion and… well, the Force.
That moment where the lightsaber is on the ground and it is visibly being agitated by the Force, I honestly thought that we were about to see Luke Skywalker suddenly appear and call his old weapon to his hand and come to Rey’s rescue. That might’ve been an awesome ‘return of the Jedi’ moment that would’ve sent us all into cinematic ecstasy.
Instead we get Rey using telekinesis to draw the weapon to her hands and fight Kylo, but this is genuinely a powerful moment in its own right, as is her Luke-style moment of going deep within herself to call upon the Force.
The look on Rey’s face as that sacred weapon comes to her hand, and the way the music swells, marks it out as the most quintessential Star Wars moment of the entire film. The use of – or call-back to – the original ‘burning homestead’ score from the 1977 film really works and resonates powerfully here too.
This is great, great stuff.
Abrams knew he couldn’t try to top the duels that we saw in the prequels: so he doesn’t try to. Instead, he goes for something different; something more based on a mixture of aesthetics and emotion. At times, it looks like a fairytale setting: at times like a sequence of paintings. The color palette is extraordinary.
I could really watch this duel over and over again.
So, coming to that ending and the return of Luke Skywalker.
This was the main thing I’d been waiting for: seeing Luke Skywalker again. And I knew, or I sensed, that we would only see him right at the end. As an idea, I really like that this whole film was centered on the search of Luke and the mystery of his whereabouts.
And in that context, I like the idea very much of ending on Luke being found.
And, as a concept, I like the idea of Rey just holding up the lightsaber and Luke being revealed but not speaking. There’s a lot communicated in that silence. Mark Hamill, like Carrie Fisher, manages to work a lot of unspoken emotion into that silence. There’s a palpable sense of his despair, his prolonged isolation, and even possibly his awareness of the things that have just transpired (Han’s death, Kylo’s utter evil, the destruction of the New Republic, etc).
There’s so much there in Hamill’s face. The silence is also rich with additional possibilities.
Is Rey Luke’s daughter? Is he recognising that fact as he looks at her? Does she recognise that fact?
Did Luke know she was coming? Did he guide her through the Force?
There are so many questions and so many possibilities here that we’ll have to wait a couple of years to have answered; but this might be the single greatest cliff-hanger ending in cinematic history. I don’t mind at all that this is all we see of Luke at this stage.
And again, the silence is pregnant with rich possibilities and unanswered questions.
We will have to wait two years for those answers; but that’s fine, as it may take two years to properly digest this film (and hell, we’ve waited thirty years just to see Luke again).
That’s most of the broad strokes of the film covered.
I want to just come back to two other things in particular that I really, genuinely liked about this story, as mentioned earlier. And these aren’t necessarily big or obvious things; but both as a writer and as a Star Wars die-hard since the age of six, these are two things I really appreciated.
The first is the use of Anakin’s and Luke’s lightsaber as a central feature. Just this simple object being made a relevant part of the story helps to keep things connecting and resonating, linking up the various films. Immediately when I see Rey discovering this weapon, I think of Anakin and I think of Obi-Wan picking it up as he watches Anakin burning on the lava field. And I think of the elderly Obi-Wan handing that same lightsaber to young Luke and explaining about the Force. And I think of Luke fighting Vader on Bespin, getting his arm chopped off and falling helplessly away. All of those classic, deeply embedded things flash across my mind and then I’m watching this new character, Rey, pondering this same mystical, laden object; and it serves to tie everything together for a powerful moment.
It imparts special weight to the film for me, so that when I’m watching Rey take her first steps as a Jedi by using that same lightsaber to fight Kylo, I’m partly watching Rey and I’m partly watching the lightsaber and thinking how rich in dramatic resonance this is.
It’s a great underlying story element that is imbued with the greater Star Wars mythology.
The other thing is, as mentioned earlier, the idea of having Luke Skywalker be completely absent from the film: and yet for he and his legend to cast such a large shadow over the entire story. It was a genius story-framing decision – this film is almost a film ABOUT Luke Skywalker, without Luke Skywalker even being in it.
They know we’re all desperate to see Luke: and so are the other characters. From Kylo Ren and Lor San Tekka to Rey and Leia, everyone is looking for Luke Skywalker – just as we are. So Abrams and co hide him from us – making him an elusive, mysterious figure and building up our anticipation all the while, as we ask ourselves ‘Where’s Luke? What happened to him? What went wrong?’
And to tease us finally with that ending on the clifftop – making us wait two years to hear him speak – is both cruel and genius.
Framing the whole film around the mystery of Luke’s disappearance was a masterstroke: it builds him up as the most important presence in the equation, an almost mythical figure. While, at the same time, in not showing him to us, it allows all the other characters to be established (Rey, Finn, Kylo, Snoke, etc) or re-established (Han, Leia, Artoo, etc), with Luke himself as the McGuffin of this movie.
It was a brilliant set-up for the story: and a superb entry-point formula for this trilogy.
Carrie Fisher, though she had far less screen time than Harrison Ford, was effective as an older Leia. Given that her job was mostly just a few shots of reacting to things and showing emotion, she did this remarkably well. The brief scene with Han and Leia reuniting was poignant enough, playing on our emotions. This is something that could’ve been overdone or under-done; in the end, I think it’s somewhere in the middle. I instinctively dislike the fact that Han and Leia didn’t stay together; that their relationship, we’re told, didn’t work out.
But that might be me bringing my own fan-boy baggage to my reaction. I think it’s an unnecessary undoing of one of the feel-good-factor elements of the Original Trilogy‘s conclusion.
It is evident in the script that the reason for their estrangement is their son’s fall to the Dark Side, which does make sense. It is clear that they still love each other – and needless to say, Harrison and Carrie do a great job acting those scenes, which are tinged with bittersweet. I could’ve done with more of these two together. At least one bigger, more pronounced conversation about what happened between them, about Kylo, about Luke.
I’m not sure why such an obviously valuable conversation was skipped over.
This issue of key information being omitted or skipped over is actually a palpable problem with this film and might even be its main weakness. So let’s talk about the shortcomings of this movie.
A glaring problem with the story we get is the absence of explanation for what the political situation is in this era. We’re very briefly told that the First Order is a remnant of the old Galactic Empire and that the ‘Resistance’ is a Rebel Alliance styled group of guerrillas fighting this First Order. The Republic still exists and is secretly backing this Resistance in its fight, suggesting that the fight between the First Order and the Resistance is a very localised conflict and not galaxy-spanning.
General Leia, however, appears to be more involved in the Resistance than in the Republic, and we don’t really get a sense of what the Republic *is* at this point in time. It’s intriguing in places, but very nebulous and ill-defined and I found myself wishing Uncle George was here to write in a few scenes of exposition to explain things better. People with no attention spans could complain all they like about the “boring politics” of The Phantom Menace, but at least Lucas laid out the dynamics of the galaxy and explained things.
From what we do get here, the idea of the Republic secretly backing the Resistance brings to mind modern real-world geo-politics, as seen for example in the way that the United States and other governments support rebels and armed groups in places like Syria or Libya. It’s an interesting idea, but is so poorly explained that you’re left scratching your head. It’s as if the new filmmakers are so focused on distancing themselves from the prequels and making an easily accessible popcorn movie that they hesitated to go anywhere near exposition or explanation.
But exposition and explanation was very much needed. And saying, ‘well, it’s in the novels’ isn’t good enough, as many of us won’t get around to reading the novels.
In order to really give us a sense of what followed on from the events of Return of the Jedi, this film really needed either a flashback sequence or a more considered exposition. These would’ve explained what had gone on with galactic government following the collapse of the Empire, whether a New Republic was formed or not, etc. It also could’ve been used more importantly to tell some of the story of Luke and the Jedi Academy; however, in that regard, I suspect we’ll get much more filling in of the story in Episode VIII when we see more of Luke.
The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced this film really needed that Spock-style moment in Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek reboot where he explains all of the missing backstory to Kirk and the dialogue is accompanied by a montage set in the past. In the Star Trek movie that sequence fills in the gaps and explains everything that needs to be explained.
Something like that was needed in this film and would probably have been best placed in the scene where Han is telling Rey and Finn about the Force on the Falcon. Failing that, we should’ve just gotten some exposition to that effect, perhaps with Leia.
The problem is there just isn’t a good enough of sense of what’s going on. How long has the First Order been around? At what point did the remnants of the old Empire re-form into this First Order? What happened to the New Republic?
What form does this Republic currently take? Did this New Republic gain control after the events of ROTJ? Did it start to fall apart? When? And what happened to Coruscant?
And what that the entirety of the Republic being destroyed by the Starkiller weapon? In story terms, it seemed that way: if so, the Republic is very tiny – bafflingly so, given the scale of the Republic in the prequels (which consisted of thousands of star systems).
Again, the lack of explanation for things is one of the biggest problems with this movie.
Maybe it’s symptomatic of Abrams’ love of fast pacing or maybe there’s a general lack of agreement or understanding among the creative forces concerning what exactly the situation is in this movie beyond the search for Luke Skywalker.
The fact that we don’t really have any of that explained means that key scenes, like the Starkiller destruction of several worlds, fall flat and don’t have impact – because we don’t properly understand what’s going on. We’re even lacking a real, clear sense of what Leia’s position is in this equation now or of how her role with the ‘Resistance’ relates to whatever role she has/had in the New Republic.
I would’ve liked to have seen the New Republic properly, even if it had to be a faltering or doomed New Republic. Remember, the Republic that Lucas showed us in The Phantom Menace was essentially a Republic entering into its final days; a Republic mired in corruption and ineffectiveness and close to collapse. The sense I’m getting here is that the New Republic is also about to collapse (or even that we just saw it destroyed in this film), but we’re not shown anything substantial to express that, which is a major failing.
In more general terms, the widespread sense of The Force Awakens being a massive rehash or rewriting of the Original Trilogy is both true and somewhat trivial at the same time.
It does betray a slight lack of imagination and is symptomatic of the absence of Lucas’s visionary qualities; but at the same time, the core strengths of the movie – the characters and the character dynamics – compensate for the lack of originality in large part. At least for now anyway; if the same derivative, by-the-numbers approach characterises the next film, then it’s going to be a much bigger problem. But for right now, in this first new chapter to ‘re-launch’ the Star Wars franchise after ten years, this tendency to fall back on safe and tested tropes is fairly understandable and for the most part inoffensive.
Disney’s motivation in this regard is all the more understandable when you consider how ambitious and different Lucas tried to be with the prequels and how much of a backlash their was from popcorn munchers. Lucas was brave and got punished; Disney is playing it safe to ensure goodwill and maximum profit.
The motivations are different and so the product is going to be different.
That being said, there is no tension or sense of stakes whatsoever in the race to blow up the Starkiller Base. We know they’ll succeed: this is a rehash of A New Hope, after all. That quick, highly deficient throw-away scene where they’re all gathered and discussing what to do about the Starkiller is lacking in drama, explanation or even adequate staging. In the final edit, it just looks like a bunch of people standing around in a B-movie set and re-enacting a scene from the original movies.
The pacing is just very off-the-mark here; and again, it could almost be an amateur fan-made movie we’re watching.
But, again, the criticisms of the movie being a blatant rehash of the originals or little more than a ‘fan film’ remake that just happens to have a massive corporation backing it are easy to understand. Much of this film does play basically as a remake or a homage. You get the impression in some places that Abrams was taking the Original Trilogy and paying his homage to it while in some ways remaking it in his own image.
He did something very similar with Star Trek: Into Darkness, which basically took the classic Wrath of Khan and inverted it in various places. I sometimes feel like Abrams likes taking on projects that are basically remakes or homages of films he/we loved as a child – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
And I consider him a good filmmaker who just happens to have drawn a lot of fire due to him happening to have been handed a major role in two of the most iconic, popular franchises in history.
But I also feel like we’ve gotten to a point in time where there is a lack of originality in big-budget cinema and we’ve arrived at a point where the best we can do is precisely that: pay homage to or remake existing classics from previous generations.
That’s one thing that Lucas was never doing with the prequels; he was still trying to do new things, both technologically and story-wise, and the fact that there was such a backlash and that the same people who basically hated the prequels are now singing the praises of what is essentially a massive rehash of Lucas’s original Star Wars is no doubt an understandable source of frustration to the 71-year-old pioneer. People have been making fun of him or criticising him in recent days because of a few things he’s said, but his position is entirely understandable and even justified.
As much as I enjoyed much of this movie, and as much as this film got right, I left the cinema with a definite feeling that what was missing from this film was Lucas himself.
I realised quickly that the areas where The Force Awakens fails are the exact areas where having Lucas on-board would’ve made a difference; Disney’s decision to make this big statement of ejecting Lucas from the entire process and scrapping his story ideas has actually resulted in a weaker movie than we would’ve had if Lucas been kept around as either a story consultant or someone actively involved in the editing and post-production process – or ideally both. Someone else would’ve still been writing the screenplay and someone else would still be directing, but Lucas, the father of Star Wars, would’ve been around to provide key or final magic touches here and there.
In my view, Disney made a wilful mistake – not commercially, but creatively.
And instead, without him, what we get is, as Lucas himself has said, a very retro homage in key respects. The Force Awakens sometimes feels like an Original Trilogy cover band.
Parts of it do play like a fan-made movie, while other parts feel like just standardised, generic, modern SF/fantasy/big-budget cinema that is fully compliant with contemporary formulas. Disney in general is proficient in those standardised formulas, as evidenced by its handling of the Marvel franchises, and to the extent that they could take something as otherwise obscure-ish as the Guardians of the Galaxy comic and turn it into a mainstream, commercial movie success.
That’s to Disney’s credit in general, but it threatens to start to strip away the unique qualities that make Star Wars special.
The mysterious character of ‘Supreme Commander Snoke’ is a good example of that; a CG character who seems very bland and generic, as if we could be watching any number of other, non Star Wars franchises. He in fact reminded me immediately of the cinematic version of Thanos that crops up in the Marvel films or, worse, like a knock-off from the Harry Potter films; and this was my earliest concern here that the borders between franchises may begin to blur, reducing everything to a more generic nature.
There is a real danger of everything becoming standardised and losing any true visionary or unique spark.
That being said, the fact that The Force Awakens is, as many have noted, basically a rewrite of George Lucas’s original Star Wars and that Disney/Lucasfilm has played it very safe and gone for a mostly formulaic and unoriginal rehash isn’t surprising to me and therefore doesn’t bother me as much as it might bother some others.
In fact, as a strategy, it makes perfect sense: to continue something as mammoth as Star Wars, starting with as simple and familiar an approach as possible is understandable. Anything more complex or convoluted would be daunting to attempt this early – and would risk alienating the average cinema-goer in the same way that The Phantom Menace did in 1999.
A homage/tribute-act formula for the first film is therefore understandable: with the next film, presumably being set up to be something more daring or complex.
That being said, it gets a bit much in places.
Big, bad Death-Star type super-weapon? Check. Big, final X-Wing attack on said Super-Weapon? Check. Secret data being stored in a little droid? Check. Vader-esque character on an ESB-style Imperial ship? Check. Secret, hidden Dark Lord manipulating from behind the scenes? Check. Protagonist living a boring life on a desert planet? Check. Unlikely allies brought together by circumstances and end up forming a bond and being friends? Check. The quest to locate and bring back a long-lost Jedi? Check.
The list could go on.
The dynamics are basically directly lifted from the old films too. Snoke is now Palpatine, Kylo is Vader and Rey is Luke; this is made all the more obvious when Kylo informs his master that Rey is strong in the Force and Snoke tells him to bring her before him. That’s the Empire Strikes Back. Further, Luke is Kenobi, the older, wise Jedi who also happened to have failed his student just as Kenobi did (although Han also plays a kind of Kenobi-like role in this film too). BB8 is the new Artoo and Finn becomes a new Solo-type character.
Like Obi-Wan being sought out in A New Hope, now it’s Luke. All that was missing was for BB8 to be storing a holo-message of Leia saying “Help us, Luke Skywalker – you’re our only hope”.
And again, I tend to wonder if it’s more homage than plagiarism; a case of the filmmakers, particularly Abrams, wanting to pay respect to the Original Trilogy. But it does get excessive at times, pushing passed the line of homage and into a basic lack of imagination and inventiveness.
All of that aside, this movie still has enough of its own character to probably get away with it, and most importantly it features some effective characterisation and has the likeability factor in key places, which is what mostly saves it from being a hollow one-trick pony.
The ingredients that this film gets right, it gets *very* right, enough so to counter-balance the more problematic stuff in the final reckoning.
It’s a flawed movie, but one with plenty of good stuff in it. I would say the precise same thing about The Phantom Menace, which is also frustrating but is nevertheless magnificent in places.
That more or less brings me towards the end of this (admittedly long) review.
As much as I loved much of it, in some ways The Force Awakens feels like a very sad and disenchanting film, and in explaining why, I go full circle and back to my earliest point in this review: specifically the negative effect that these new films – beginning with The Force Awakens – may have on the existing saga.
The precise problem I anticipated three years ago is the very problem that I encounter with The Force Awakens – specifically that it begins the process of undercutting Return of the Jedi, and probably the Empire Strikes Back too. It begins to render the emotions and the vindications and victories of the original movies hollow. All of the joy and triumph of the Battle of Endor, of defeating the Empire, blowing up the Death Star and overthrowing the Emperor, is suddenly rendered almost meaningless. Thirty years later, there isn’t peace in the galaxy, just more war. A bigger, badder Death-Star type construct. More hardcore, Nazi-inspired Stormtroopers than even before, and more radical Imperial officers and leaders.
Suddenly the joy of the Endor celebrations at the end of the original trilogy loses its poignancy and power.
Where are all the gains of the Rebel Alliance’s victory in ROTJ ?
But not only are there no visible political or galactic gains, but even the personal ones are missing. Luke is nowhere to be found, Han has gone back to being a smuggler, Leia and Han are estranged, Lando Calrissian is nowhere in sight, even Artoo Deetoo – that ultimate plucky hero of the Star Wars universe – is a depressed little astromech. And the trinity of Force Ghosts, so integral a part of that finale, are as-yet nowhere to be seen.
Suddenly the entire arc of tragedy and eventual redemption and triumph from ROTS to ROTJ starts to feel less meaningful; because, guess what, Luke fails, the next Republic fails, and Anakin’s grandson ends up simply repeating the same cycle. And we’re back to the Empire versus the Rebels (or ‘Resistance’).
Now none of this makes The Force Awakens a bad film in itself (and, if you read this review, it’s obvious I don’t think it a bad film); and I may be slightly overstating the case, and a lot of this might also be set right in subsequent films.
But you have to bear in mind that the novelty of Episode VII is going to die very quickly, because Disney is planning to put out Star Wars films every year for the foreseeable future.
Ten years from now there may well have been ten more films; and if just one film has already started to undo power of the older films, I can only imagine what the potential negative impact could be a decade from now.
Which doesn’t mean this film wasn’t good or that the films to come aren’t going to be enjoyable in their own right or establish their own new mythology or fan-base; but what I’m talking about here is specifically the integrity and power of the existing Star Wars movies and mythology, which are quite possibly going to suffer.
And that was always what I was worried about when Disney acquired the rights to Lucas’s creation. Disney doesn’t have the same personal, deep connection to the Star Wars mythology as Lucas does; for Disney this is a cash-cow, a vast corporate enterprise first and foremost.
And The Force Awakens is the first step in this new separation from the existing source and the expansion into a self-perpetuating Star Wars industry that will soon be entirely divorced from its original creator.
All of which is a big reason why I’ve struggled to find my true reaction to this new film and this broader new enterprise. Because I actually do like most of this film and find it genuinely entertaining, even endearing in places; but I’m also looking beyond this film and thinking about Star Wars in a broader sense, past, present and future.
And most of the people, especially mainstream reviewers, heaping unquestioning praise on this film are generally just dealing with it like it’s this year’s big hyped blockbuster and not more importantly a significant part of a much larger equation called Star Wars.
We will have to see how it ages, and moreover how this trilogy develops further. For the moment, I remain frustratingly in the middle of the road, both loving much (or even most) of this movie and disliking key parts of it too, and being both excited and engaged by the continuation of the Star Wars saga and – in true Yoda fashion – cautious and clouded about the future of Star Wars at the same time (and about how that future will impact its past).
At any rate, JJ Abrams and co have made an entertaining movie with a number of good or fun things in it.
It’s flawed and problematic in parts, but certainly not the travesty that some people are saying it is (check You Tube – there are dozens of ‘The Force Awakens Sucks’ videos up already). The biggest plusses for me at this point are Daisy Ridley’s Rey and to a slightly lesser extent Kylo Ren; Harrison Ford’s swan song as Han Solo was also a genuine gift: and I also remain fascinated to see what now happens with the galaxy’s greatest hero, Luke Skywalker.
We’ll have to wait two years for that.
And it’ll be interesting to see between now and then if all the hype and praise for this movie is still there or if there will have been a backlash – modern cinema-goers and fans are a very fickle bunch.
One of my most distinct memories in cinema is seeing The Phantom Menace and quite liking it but not being overly blown away by it, yet talking to people who thought it was amazing. And yet as time went on the same people who thought it was amazing suddenly decided it was terrible, and yet here I was still liking it about as much as I originally had. And I still like The Phantom Menace a fair bit. And I think I’ll still like The Force Awakens a year from now about as much as I like it already.
But I’ll probably still have all the same problems with it too.
But as precious and protective as I am about Star Wars, I don’t set out to hate or dismiss new incarnations or directions and I am not one of those who revels in negativity or in tearing Star Wars apart.
The Force Awakens is a lot of fun, and it has some genuinely wonderful stuff in it. I’m excited to see where all of this goes. Star Wars is alive and thriving. The saga continues. A new generation is coming to the table. Debate will rage on for months or even years.
And meanwhile we’re still all standing on that cliff and waiting for Luke Skywalker to speak…