Warning! Danger! Clicking below the fold will result in the new Star Wars being spoiled for you! Oh no! Avert your eyes! Whatever you do, don’t click!
But before we begin I have a couple of nitpicks to get out of my way. You see, in the original trilogy, whenever their ships traveled all super fast with the trippy stargate tunnel effects and everything, they described it as jumping to hyperspace. In The Force Awakens, however, they refer to it as jumping to light speed.
While this is more respectful of the universe’s speed limit, it’s a lot more silly than just handwaving Einsteinian physics away. Even at light speed you’re probably going to find a trip to another star system a bit on the lengthy side.
The other thing is that Ben Burtt’s lightsaber whooshing noise has been changed slightly to emphasize the bass. No doubt it will provide an opportunity for you to show off your new subwoofers, but tinkering with such an iconic sound effect just doesn’t seem right.
Anyway, I’ve oscillated a bit on the whole idea of a new Star Wars for the past couple of years. When J.J. Abrams was announced I figured it would be a fun but ultimately uninspired flick ala his Trek movies – and the notion that Disney was going to just keep cranking out these things indefinitely kinda confirmed it. Then when the official trailer came out a month or so ago, I actually felt something like a genuine surge of excitement for the thing.
But as the weeks went on, Disney’s oppressively ubiquitous marketing campaign entered into a war of attrition with me, a war that continued all the way into the theater where I was forced to endure a wave of Star Wars themed ads before the trailers ran.
So how did it all end? My verdict is that The Force Awakens is the best Star Wars film since The Empire Strikes Back. I take back all my reservations about J.J. Abrams being the right man for the job. While it lacks the tightness and inevitability of the original, and the stateliness of Empire, it is as good of a return to form as we have any right to expect.
The first thing to point out is that The Force Awakens is a rehash of the original film. To recap, General Leia (Carrie Fisher) of the Resistance sends ace fighter Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) on a mission to the desert planet Jakku to recover a map potentially leading to her MIA jedi brother, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). The First Order, being the surviving remnant of the Galactic Empire, ambushes and takes Poe hostage, but not before he is able to hide the map in his droid BB-8 (who, against all odds, is actually works as an acceptable substitute for R2-D2 somehow). It’s important to note here that the Resistance is not quite the same thing as the New Republic established at the end of Return of the Jedi – they’re a separate organization which is only unofficially supported by the Republic in a proxy war against the First Order. I was initially puzzled by why the hair-splitting distinction was even shoved in there, but a later scene (which I will get to shortly) revealed its purpose as a kind of reset button.
Among the ambushing First Order stormtroopers is Finn (John Boyega) who has second thoughts about his life and helps arrange for the escape of Poe from the clutches of Vader-wannabe Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Finn is quickly stranded on Jakku, and Poe just kinda disappears from the narrative for an hour or so.
It turns out that BB-8 has been found by a scavenger called Rey (Daisy Ridley), who helps Finn make a daring escape from the planet. They cross paths with Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) who are once again in trouble with some gang leaders. There’s also a planet-sized doomsday device called the Starkiller getting ready to blow some things up.
Now a lot of people could (and probably will) complain about how closely the scenario hews to the original. But I didn’t mind because
1) Star Wars, as a descendant of old pulps and serials, is cinematic comfort food. It shouldn’t try to mess with what works.
2) Star Wars, in being all archetypal and mythic and whatnot, invites the kind of repetition that other franchises (like, say, Star Trek) do not.
3) Most importantly, The Force Awakens is also committed to formally reduplicating the original film’s episodic structure and pacing, where the plot unfolds as a series of exciting set-pieces rather than a three act structure. It shows an understanding of the logic of why something worked in the original, rather than just shoving it in there haphazardly because it seemed to work the first time.
The only time this lapses is the X-Wing dogfight that plays out during the climax. Everything dramatically important is happening elsewhere, and the whole thing just seems to be there because the original ended with a dogfight. And I suppose throwing a cantina sequence in there is just a bit too on the nose, especially since the only character introduced there exists solely as a plot device to get Luke’s lightsaber into the hands of the heroes.
But The Force Awakens wants to bake its cake and eat it too; at times it wants to have the gravitas of The Empire Strikes Back in addition to the frenetic roller-coaster of the original, and the result is that some of the more character-driven drama feels like it doesn’t have enough room to breathe. There’s nothing as bad as the tonal schizophrenia of The Return of the Jedi and The Phantom Menace‘s climaxes, but there are some moments where the film feels a tad undisciplined.
Granted, when I say that the new flick is like the original, I don’t mean that it is shot like the original. Things are a lot more dynamic and modern, for better and worse. Aside from a couple of shots, Abrams doesn’t have Lucas’ picturesque eye. But he does a better job of figuring out what to do with the actors who are in front of the camera (even if a few moments feel a bit, “look! look! characters emoting in a Star Wars movie again!”).
The new cast is handled quite well, and most of the film’s departures or inversions of the original trilogy are the right decisions. Here it is important to note that almost four decades have passed since Star Wars hit theaters. For four decades we have been living under the Hollywood regime that Star Wars itself created. And so, regardless of the quality of any new Star Wars films there is just no way that any of them will ever have the same cultural impact that the original trilogy did.
The Force Awakens is aware of this, and nowhere is this more evident than in its handling of Kylo Ren. Any attempt at making the villain a Vader 2.0 would have been misguided, so the film makes the brilliant decision of portraying him as a Vader fanboy. He doesn’t want the audience to think he’s as cool and evil as Vader – he wants the other characters to think so. The result is that he comes across as an almost pathetic character in his attention seeking and general mopiness. Where Vader would just choke someone in cold blood and be done with it, Kylo Ren throws a hissy fit. Although I suppose some people could find him obnoxious, it made him way more of an effective and interesting villain for me than he had any right to be. He also has a boss with a silly name, but the dude isn’t around enough for me to form an opinion about him.
The revelation that Kylo Ren is the son of Han Solo and Leia is dropped in the middle of the movie with little fanfare, and again, this is the right decision. There is no way that the film could successfully ape Empire’s bombshell twist, and so doesn’t try. And I appreciate that, for once, we have a father-son dynamic where the son is the problematic factor.
The twist also sets up the actual big twist of the movie, which is that Kylo Ren kills Han Solo in a scene that both references Obi-Wan’s death in the original, and inverts the climax of Return of the Jedi. And, this is, frankly, another good decision. One of my big worries about The Force Awakens was that the original cast would overshadow the new characters in all their iconicness. Han Solo in particular threatens to do this for much of the middle of the room. Short of reducing the original characters to cameos, killing off arguably the most beloved Star Wars character is the best way to shift the center of gravity towards the new ones while raising the stakes.
Of note is how much of the film keeps us in suspense over whether Rey or Finn will turn out to to be the one the Force Is Strong With. Poe is even thrown in as a decoy protagonist early on. I was slightly disappointed at first that Rey turned out to be our wannabe jedi, if only because she hews pretty closely to Luke and Anakin’s backstories while Finn’s dynamic is a little bit more unique: there are a lot of jedi who go bad in Star Wars, but not vice versa, and I was hoping to see
Final Fantasy IV: The Movie I’ll shut up now.
But the one aspect which disappointed me the most was the score. This is probably John Williams’ weakest offering to date, with none of the new material being memorable in any fashion. There’s nothing on par with the Duel of the Fates, or Across the Stars here. This troubles me the most, as so much of Star Wars’ identity and power is bound up with Williams’ music. Does he have any more Star Wars left in him? And, after he’s gone, will Disney be able to find someone who can do a good facsimile?
I mentioned something about a reset button. This is that the First Order uses its Starkiller thingy to blow up the Republic. So now we’re politically back in the same situation as the original movie. In and of itself, this is fine by me, but the whole sequence falls a bit flat because the movie has kept the Republic as a kinda nebulous concept up until this point, so it’s difficult to feel much for its passing. Also, the planet we see destroyed looks suspiciously like Coruscant (although it is never identified as such) which makes the sequence into a ritual exorcism of the prequel trilogy more than anything else.
This leads me to consider how Star Wars, right from day one, has been fraught with legacy, whether internally in terms of the legacy of Luke’s father, the jedi, etc. or externally as a summation of older forms of entertainment. The prequel trilogy was, if nothing else, George Lucas’ own personal interpretation of the legacy he created. And The Force Awakens, as hinted at, is an interpretation of that legacy from the perspective of my generation. Kylo Ren, Finn and Rey are all stand-ins for the millennials who have grown up under the shadow of what the original trilogy has wrought. There’s a layer of this film which acts as a kind of commentary on the phenomenon of Star Wars, and I’d like to see where future installments go with this (without being too cutesy and meta about it, I hope).
Whether Disney can keep the quality up ad infinitum seems an unlikely prospect to me. But Star Wars emerged from the old serials, so there is a poetic neatness in its coming full circle and becoming an indefinitely serialized piece of sci-fi pulp itself.