WARNING: This essay includes an open discussion of spoilers. If you haven’t seen the movie and don’t want to be spoiled, don’t read this.
I have now seen The Force Awakens twice. I am relieved to say that this isn’t rebooted, dark and gritty Star Wars. This is Star Wars at its best. It’s the same feeling I get when watching the original trilogy AND the prequels. It’s fun, it’s fast, it’s exciting. There’s humor and warmth as well as stirring emotional scenes and deep moral lessons to contemplate. The action sequences are high-flying and thrilling. It flows with the rest of the saga like a river…but that’s still partly pending resolution of how we got from the happily-ever-after in Return of the Jedi to something-is-very-wrong-and-needs-to-be-set-right on Jakku.
How Much is Too Much?
Overall I liked The Force Awakens when I saw it on opening night. It was definitely worth the hype and the excitement, I got to cheer with the rest of the audience when the familiar characters came on screen (my favorite part was Han and Leia’s reunion). But as a fan who cares about this franchise and who went into the movie theater with a lot of expectations, there were small disappointments I had to deal with. The plot holes, for instance. If Captain Phasma, Maz Kanata, and Kylo Ren are supposed to be back for Episode VIII, then how did they escape? Those weren’t resolved. C-3P0s lines were tacky, R2-D2 suddenly waking up at the end was out of place, and the board room meeting just seemed too poorly cut (and where the heck did Admiral Ackbar come from? We don’t need him!).
From a critical standpoint there is no escaping the fact that The Force Awakens is partly a fan film, toeing the line of ripping off A New Hope and occasionally crossing it. But on the other hand, the tropes are twisted enough to make them interesting. The droid BB-8 is carrying a piece of a map to Luke Skywalker. Was that in A New Hope? Thought I’d check. The Death Star wasn’t a planet covered with snowy forests and the heroes didn’t stage a massive break-in to rescue their friend and destroy the base from the inside at the end of the film. But Starkiller Base is both a sinister fortress and a perfect setting for a dramatic lightsaber battle.
After a second viewing it all flowed together. The throwbacks to the original trilogy didn’t bother me quite so much. The one part I still have problems with is the scene with Rey and Finn unleashing the monsters in Han and Chewie’s smuggling ship. That part seemed a little forced, the CGI monster plotline was tacky and the money collectors a little too Star Trek-ish. But that isn’t enough to stop me from saying I want to see this movie at least ten more times before it leaves the theaters.
The World of The Force Awakens
What draws me back to Star Wars, over and over again, is the world that it creates both visually and through storytelling. The Force Awakens, while pandering to the style of the original trilogy, adds tremendously to the Star Wars universe. The First Order isn’t much different from the Empire on the surface, but visually and ideologically they are a lot slicker and colder and, I’ll be honest, scarier. I’m not sure at this point whether I’m more afraid of Palpatine or Supreme Leader Snoke at this point, but Snoke definitely creeps me out. Maz Kanata’s 1000-year house party is a little weird even compared to Jabba’s palace, the Mos Eisley Cantina, and the Nightclub in Attack of the Clones. But Maz herself is amazing, a mystic without being too impersonal and without personal boundaries. Jakku may be a desert planet but it lacks Tatooine’s rugged mountains and thriving spaceports—Tatooine is cosmopolitan in comparison with Jakku’s lonely outposts. Poe’s fighter squadron reflects both human and alien diversity which is a relief from the all-human squadrons of the previous films.
The new characters Rey, Finn, and Poe are receiving most of the positive feedback about this film and rightly so. This story works because the characters build on each other. Let’s start with Poe Dameron, the charismatic x-wing pilot who stole our hearts when he took zero crap from Kylo Ren. Even considering the precedents set by the relationships of Anakin and Luke Skywalker with R2-D2, none of them called him “buddy” the way Poe Dameron refers to BB-8. (and if the camera hadn’t cut to Finn at their reunion I think we would have seen Poe hugging the little droid). And then he gives a name to a stormtrooper who’s spent his whole life going by a serial number.
As a stormtrooper of the First Order, Finn’s only purpose in life is to fight and kill—he doesn’t get to spend time with other people. In return for helping him get a new start in life, Finn takes Poe’s droid BB-8 under his care, and seeing as Rey is helping the droid as well, he also starts to care about her to the point that he would go on a hopeless rescue mission with Han Solo to save her.
Rey is a loner. She survives by taking care of herself. But Finn and BB-8 were the first other people to really care about her in her life. And she responds to that.
As for BB-8, what we saw in the previews is pretty much what we got. He’s not really that remarkable compared to R2-D2 or Chopper from the Rebels series, except for maybe that he has a gentler temperament than R2 and a little less inclined to snark. BB-8 doesn’t really show that much aggression, just a willingness to roll wherever fate takes him. But he also develops a quick bond with Rey, and we actually get to see his loyalty to his owner Poe onscreen. It’s a pity we didn’t see more of him during the dogfight at the end. We didn’t really see the other new droids that we heard about in the promotional material leading up to the film but that’s fine with me.
Snoke and Mirrors
So how about Kylo Ren, a.k.a. Ben Solo the emo son of Han and Leia? Well, this is just judging from his behavior and his spoken dialogue after watching the film twice. Supreme Leader Snoke, whoever he is, gave Ren everything he wanted: knowledge, power, the Dark Side, his grandfather’s legacy, authority over the Knights of Ren, a position of command in the First Order. Kylo Ren is a SPOILED BRAT WHO NEEDS TO BE SPANKED. Is there any chance of redemption for this guy? I’d like to say it would be interesting to see but I’m so mad at him that I don’t want it right now.
Rey’s journey in this film wasn’t a smooth ride. We had no reason before she entered Maz Kanata’s crypt to believe that she was a Force user or special in any way. But the visions and flashbacks she has when she touches that old lightsaber are tied to her personal trauma–she was abandoned by her parents for a reason. However, watching Rey snatch the lightsaber away from Kylo Ren and use it to wipe the floor was satisfying.
Now, the major returning characters: Han Solo is 110% Han Solo, now flavored with crusty old man and he’s delicious. I loved every minute of him. And yet he didn’t go out in a blaze of glory, shooting stormtroopers with Chewie at his side. He went to straight-talk his rebellious son, he knew exactly what he was doing and what was going to happen. The guy who would have walked away from the Rebel Alliance at Yavin died trying to rescue someone he loved. He died a true hero’s death. And that’s saying a lot because I’m not a huge Han Solo fan.
Leia doesn’t really do much as a Resistance leader but her interactions with Han brought on the feels bigtime. I’m not surprised that Leia isn’t a Jedi, but knowing that at least she knows about the Force and that she could feel it enough to sense what’s happening across the galaxy was the best thing that could have happened for her. By leading the Resistance against the First Order instead of working in the Republic she is fighting the Dark Side in the best way she knows how, and I think that’s exactly where Luke would want her to be.
And Leia’s best moment? Rey and Chewie have returned from Starkiller Base with Finn, Poe and Chewie are taking Finn to be treated for his wounds, everyone else is celebrating, but Rey is by herself, she’s not a part of the crowd. But Leia approaches her and hugs her. She knows what Rey is going through. And Rey understands what Leia is feeling, even if she doesn’t know what she witnessed when Kylo Ren butchered Solo. Better than anyone.
After the first viewing I left with a lot more questions than I had answers to. The one question I know that we might not be getting any resolution for is the identity of Rey’s parents who abandoned her on Jakku at the age of five. Kylo Ren knows who she is but he’s not telling. Han or at least Leia would have said something if they knew who Rey was (but maybe Leia knows better than to tell). And then there’s the end scene with Luke. I really wish that the scene had gone longer, that Luke would have said something to Rey, (or at least hugged her if Rey is who I am betting she is), or done anything but just stand there!
After the second time I saw it, I understood: this is where it begins. We have visuals on both of the main villains. Rey is presumably going to start her Jedi training. In parallel, Snoke wants to “complete” Kylo Ren’s Dark Side training. The stakes are higher for the Resistance because the First Order has power over only part of the galaxy and they just destroyed the other competing government. Kylo Ren is a five-year-old disaster, but why? Because he’s got some growing up to do. Captain Phasma gets set up as a major villain and yet gets two total minutes of screentime? She will be back for a much bigger part. Yes there are throwbacks to the original trilogy but they’re happening on a much quicker pace than just three or even six films, and we get them in spades because Lucasfilm needs the trust of its fan base more than anything. All these signs indicate that things are going to escalate in Episode VIII.
But having said that, this is just like A New Hope all over again. We don’t know what we’re getting into. So buckle up. Enjoy the ride. We’re going to lightspeed. This is just the beginning.
Emo Kylo Ren on Twitter hints at the Character’s motivations (also you need to check out Emo Kylo Ren, it’s amazing)