Star Wars: The Force Awakens by J. J. Abrams (Review)
Yes, yes, yes… it cribs a lot from the original Star Wars trilogy, especially in the final act which is essentially a redux of Return of the Jedi (with a New Hope-style trench run thrown in for good measure). Yes, it trades heavily in nostalgia, from familiar faces to familiar environments and settings. Yes, some of the character’s motivations, as well as the film’s socio-political backdrop, are threadbare at times. Yes, the villains’ doomsday device — because of course, there has to be a doomsday device — is absurd. And yes, it probably relies a bit too much on the assumption that audiences have brushed up on everything that happened in the Star Wars universe after Return of the Jedi.
But ever since I finished Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I can’t shake the film. Indeed, at the risk of sounding melodramatic (and punny), I think the film awakened something in me. While I’ve always been a Star Wars fan, I was always a Trekkie, first and foremost. The Star Trek universe’s emphasis on science, exploration, and discovery appealed to me in ways that Star Wars’ mythologized sci-fi never quite did. However, nothing in the Star Trek franchise has given me the same sense of wonder and awe — the same yearning or sehnsucht — that I’ve experienced after seeing The Force Awakens. What’s more, I don’t think any Star Wars film gave me that sense, either… until now.
Part of that is undoubtedly due to J.J. Abrams’ knack for great visuals. The film’s scope is immense and immediately draws you in, from the desert planet of Jakku and the Star Destroyer ruins littering its landscape, to simply the way that Abrams frames the capital ships of the villainous First Order (the new trilogy’s Empire). When main baddie Kylo Ren’s (Adam Driver) bat-like ship descends from the sky, or TIE fighters emerge from the desert sunset, the visuals alone are enough to inspire dread, and I daresay there’s no visual in the film quite as chilling — or awesome — as when Ren freezes a laser blast in mid-air with the Force. Also, the much-ballyhooed return to using practical sets and effects turned out to be more than just marketing speak. Yes, there’s CGI a-plenty, but the film’s rundown, lived in futuristic aesthetic lends a layer of grit and reality to the fantastical vistas (not unlike the effect Weta Workshop’s incredible production design achieved in the Lord of the Rings trilogy).
But the more I think about it, the more I realize that sense is largely due to the new characters that Abrams introduces, and especially Rey (Daisy Ridley). Plucky, resourceful, and spirited, yet filled with loneliness and uncertainty, she’s the new trilogy’s Luke Skywalker analog. Abandoned on Jakku as a young child and forced to eke out a meager existence as a scavenger picking apart those aforementioned ruins, Rey seems destined for a hard-knock life in a rundown corner of the galaxy. That all changes when she meets Finn (John Boyega), a First Order stormtrooper who, in a moral crisis, abandons his post and ends up AWOL on Jakku. Yes, it’s yet another one of the film’s many contrivances (though far from its most egregious), but I went along with it for one simple reason: I really like these characters and I care about what happens to them.
As under-developed as some of their actions might be — Abrams hasn’t quite lost his affection for teasing secrets within secrets — I never stopped caring for them, and Rey especially. Maybe it’s just the earnestness of her character, or the way that Ridley so expertly communicates both Rey’s doubts and her burgeoning inner strength (and Force sensitivity), but I found myself wanting to know more about her character, and by extension, the world and galaxy that she inhabits. And that haunted me long after leaving the movie theatre.
Of course, it remains to be seen whether or not the subsequent films build on this, and to what extent. J.J. Abrams has always traded in nostalgia, such that his films often feel more like homages than anything else. The Force Awakens, though, is that rare opportunity where such trading makes sense. With The Force Awakens, Abrams et al. needed to prove that they understood Star Wars and how its universe works — that they got it. From that perspective, the callbacks and references make more sense, and by and large, pay off. But now the dues have been paid and the boxes have been checked, and the way has been paved for Episode VIII — which is being written and directed by Rian Johnson — to take Star Wars in new directions and show us things we’ve never seen before.
Other Random Thoughts
Harrison Ford played the older, more grizzled Han Solo to perfection. Ford could’ve phoned in the role for a paycheck but he played Han as cantankerous and scoundrel-y as you could’ve hoped for, but with a certain sadness underlining it all — which, no spoilers, makes more sense as the movie progresses. Also, his scenes with Rey, as they bonded over the Millennium Falcon, were some of my favorites. (They were far better, unfortunately, than his scenes with Leia, which should’ve resonated a whole lot more given what’s transpired between the two of them.)
Speaking of the Millennium Falcon, I think my favorite single action set-piece occurs when Rey and Finn — minor spoiler! — use it to escape Jakku and get pulled into a battle with some TIE fighters. Yes, it paralleled a similar skirmish in A New Hope, but The Force Awakens nicely riffed on the original scene while introducing some original beats of its own, all while acknowledging that nothing — not even the greatest starship in the galaxy — is immune to the ravages of time.
Again, no spoilers, but one should never walk out onto a thin bridge that spans some bottomless crevice in the middle of the villains’ ultimate weapon. If you walk out there, you should know you’re never coming back.
Kylo Ren’s interrogation of Rey begins on a very disturbing note, but Abrams ultimately played out the shifting dynamic between the two very well. It was interesting and refreshing to see a battle between two Force users that didn’t involve whirling lightsabers or senseless acrobatics. (The scene, however, wouldn’t have been nearly as successful if it weren’t for the sound design. Props to those folks.)
Kylo Ren was so emo, right? Seriously, what was up with those temper tantrums? And yet, that sort of petulant behavior makes sense as you find out more about his past and his relationship to some of the other characters. The film never shies away from the fact that he’s a lame Darth Vader wannabe and yet, he’s also clearly very powerful and very dangerous. (His aforementioned freezing of the laser blast in mid-air is the film’s best “Holy crap!” moment.)
I want to know more about Rey’s story, and already plenty of theories are circulating. And I know we’ll learn more about Kylo Ren. But what about Finn? His character arc seems the most problematic, story-wise. I actually hope he doesn’t turn out to be some powerful Force user, but rather, remains a regular guy who just wanted to stand up and do what was right. (And please, don’t let him turn out to be Lando’s son. I’m all for bringing back the original trilogy’s cast, but this would be a really lame way to bring back Calrissian.)
Twitch’s Matt Brown wrote a nice analysis of Rey’s character and what makes her so special: “But Star Wars, and now The Force Awakens, are the only two movies in the canon where the lead character is plucked from obscurity by coincidence and circumstance, and goes on to win the day by an equal combination of their talents, willingness to learn, and a keen interest in finding out who they are… Rey and Finn are what make this movie fun, and what they say to the young people who will follow in their swashbuckling footsteps is what makes this movie great.”
Dear Star Wars villains: I’ll admit I don’t know much about galactic domination, but it seems like building moon and planet-sized weapons of mass destruction isn’t the best strategy. Sure, such weapons can deal out some major damage — blowing up planets ain’t nothing to sneeze at — but you’re really putting your eggs in one basket, aren’t you? You certainly haven’t had the best track record with them; they have a pretty nasty habit of getting blown up due to glaring structural weaknesses. All of the resources used to make Starkiller Base could have instead been used to make a couple of kick-ass fleets — or train your legions of “elite” stormtroopers how to aim and hit their targets.
If you’re going to write articles listing all of the plot holes in a Star Wars movie, then 1) make sure you actually pay attention during the movie, and 2) make sure you know what actually constitutes a plot hole and what doesn’t. (Then again, how else can you hope to bring in all of the angry fanboy clicks?)
One more time, the laser blast-frozen-in-mid-air was the coolest.