JJ Abrams has somehow pulled off what George Lucas himself fell flat on his face attempting: a perfect harmony of what was right in the original trilogy and fresh ideas to push the series to new heights. The love that fans developed for characters and plots over three phenomenal movies was not used to sell more toys or pontificate on the vices of sand, but to tell (or at least start to tell) a new and exciting story. That is something worth celebrating and, honestly, should earn Abrams an Oscar nomination.
Let me start by nerding out for a second and telling you that seeing “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” appear on the screen, followed by John Williams’ imax-enhanced score sounding the arrival of the Star Wars logo fading into space, was an emotional experience that I was not ready for. I had goose-bumps everywhere, my eyes got misty, and I think I got a bit lightheaded. It was awesome, and I will cherish the moment forever.
But I didn’t have long to bask in my nostalgic-fueled glow because the intro crawl started and wow did Abrams nail it! Thirty years of Star Wars history perfectly explained, not to mention getting the audience primed and ready for an all-new thrill ride. And it all starts with one sentence: “Luke Skywalker has vanished.” There it is! In four short words we are given a reason to watch this movie: did Luke ever get those power converters at Tashie Station?! No, wait, I mean, where is Luke and why did he vanish? Not only that, but we can safely assume that if Luke is gone, the dark side is not defeated. And our plot is ready to go: we have a problem (no Luke), and we have our villain (the reason Luke is the aforementioned “no Luke”). I have now forgotten my goosebumps of yester-seconds and am on the edge of my seat waiting for answers. I remember being angry the first time I saw it that it took so long for the first scene to start. I realized the second time that from the crawl to the camera pan is about 2 seconds. Brilliant and inspired.
Within 10 minutes the identity of our villain, and perhaps my favorite part of the movie, is revealed. In his big-screen debut, Kylo Ren is everything a good villain should be: mysterious, powerful, and vicious. His power is immediately shown with a never-before-seen stopping of a blaster shot midair, followed by an almost flippant mass murder.
Yet as the movie progresses, it is clear that Ren, played excellently by Adam Driver, is not a typical villain. He isn’t evil incarnate like Darth Vader or the Emperor; he’s conflicted evil (chaotic evil for the RPG fans at home). I remember thinking how immature Ren appeared cutting up a computer after hearing the heroes had escaped. And then the big reveal: that’s because he is immature! He’s a baby-faced punk kid who hasn’t even completed his training. Then a greater reveal: he is actually Ben Solo, child of Han (R.I.P.) and Leia. And with this legacy comes a constant call to the light. Again, brilliant and inspired. This is something we’ve never seen in a Star Wars film: a conflicted villain. We’ve seen two trilogies about heroes struggling with the call of the dark side, now the formula reversed--a villain being, in Ren’s own words, seduced by the light side of the force.
I know, I know, you want to start talking about Darth Vader, but Darth Vader only struggles in two scenes, both very late in Return of the Jedi: during his talk to Luke before leaving Endor (“It’s too late for me, son.”) and the lightning scene where Vader destroys the Emperor. But that’s it. The rest of the time Darth is choking and cutting-off-hands and carbonite freezing to his heart’s content. And by the way, those two scenes are the best scenes in ROTJ, and now we’ll hopefully have three movies of Ren’s struggle. And don’t worry, Ren isn’t the big baddie of the whole trilogy, because while Snoke is a minor side-note in The Force Awakens (though still gets more time than the Emporer in New Hope, who is mentioned one time), he is certain to loom large in the next two movies.
But while Ren is fantastic, he can’t outshine the brilliance of the actual heroes. Jon Boyega and Daisy Ridley, as well as Abrams’ screenplay, hit an utter home run with their portrayals of Finn and Rey. Finn is a lovable renegade with perfect comedic timing whom you can’t help but cheer for. Rey is a perfect heroine. While we only see her in a handful of scenes before she is thrust into the action, Abrams makes each of them count. We see resourcefulness and competency in her scavenger lifestyle, goodness and selflessness in her saving of BB-8, and a likable naiveté ("I didn't know there was this much green in the entire galaxy.") that reminded me of a certain (other?) Skywalker asking old Ben Kenobi about the Clone Wars. Finn and Rey also have an unmistakable chemistry that has me hoping they end up together in the following movies. Here’s to hoping they aren’t brother and sister.
I can’t talk about heroes and not mention Harrison Ford’s perfect portrayal as Han Solo. We weren’t seeing an Old Harrison Ford playing Han Solo, what we saw was Han Solo. And not just the old Han Solo, but one bearing the weight of a fallen son and broken marriage. He was brilliant. Period. And as long as I’m handing out Oscar nominations, give Ford one for supporting actor.
And truly, all of the heroes were great. Oscar Isaacs as Poe Damerin is sure to be a fan favorite. C-3P0 has perhaps the best line in the whole move: “You probably didn’t recognize me because of the red arm.” BB-8 is comic relief that both has a point in the plot and doesn’t detract from the flow of the story (antonym: see Binks, Jar-Jar). Princess Leia (and Carrie Fisher) is back in a very emotional performance. Even Chewy is executed to perfection.
There is so much weight in this film, and nothing showcases that like the final lightsaber duel between Rey and Ren. Rey has lost both her potential lover (side note: “Potential Lover” is a great name for a song, copyright pending) and potential father-figure in the space of five minutes to the same man, good old baby-face himself. Ren has killed his actual father and is still dealing with the consequences, both emotional and physical (Chewy FTW), not to mention he is embarrassed he has been bested by the rookie Rey two times at this point. They are both full of emotional baggage and direct that baggage at the other person: and boy do they fight like it! Darth Maul dancing this is not. I’m pretty sure I held my breath David Blain style through the entire sequence. It was gritty. It was aggressive. It was mesmerizing. It was, for me, the best part of the movie. Not to mention it started with the tremendous moment where Ren reaches out with the force for the lightsaber, only to have it fly right past him into Rey’s waiting hand while a single trombone hums the Skywalker theme song in the background. I involuntarily whooped.
As a side note, I had an extended debate with a close friend after the movie about how much better this lightsaber duel was than any prequel fight. Yes, I understand that it didn’t have nearly as many flying leaps, but what it did brilliantly is take its power not from choreography, but the story. The prequel duels tried to grab your attention by their "cool” factor, which worked to a certain extent, but also distracted from the story and left the filmmakers without any real way of resolving fights. The fights looked like long training exercises between two superhumans without anyone being in real danger, leading Lucas and friends to invent terrible endings to these long sequences (why did Obi-Wan having the high ground mean anything? Remember Darth Maul looking down at Obi-Wan in Phantom Menace? How did his high ground turn out?).
In contrast, Rey and Ren each want to kill the other, and you feel that danger and suspense build throughout the fight. They are both sweating and struggling; each is injured by the other. And while the fight ending by the two being separated by a divide might seem at first disappointing, the powerful imagery is worth it, along with leaving the audience begging for another conflict. Those who wish for the Darth Maul-like duels, I think, are incorrectly viewing Star Wars as an action franchise. It isn’t, and that is why it is the global sensation that it is. Star Wars is great not because of its lightsaber duels, effects, visuals, or mythology, but because each of those elements meld together to tell a great story. If a lightsaber duel, or the choreography of said duel, doesn’t add to that story, it shouldn’t be in the movie. I’m hoping Episodes VIII-IX execute the same high level of storytelling that Abrams managed, even in lightsaber duels.
Before concluding, I do want to address perhaps the most common critique of this film, that The Force Awakens is too similar to the original Star Wars. Though espoused by many whom I used to call friends, I find this a rather surface-level critique. If you want to paint this picture, it’s easy to do: there is still a young hero on a desert planet who is brought into the action by a droid carrying secret intelligence that eventually leads to a circular planet-destroying weapon getting destroyed. But while these elements are in the movie, a second glance will show that the above sentence doesn’t reflect the plot of this movie. The real driving force of this movie is still the four word sentence I discussed above: “Luke Skywalker has vanished.” The secret intelligence BB-8 carries is not about how to destroy Starkiller Base, but where to find Luke. And the conclusion of the story is not blowing up Starkiller base (followed by a medal ceremony), but with the appearance of a very hairy Mark Hamill.
Despite the fact that he shows up for a total of probably twenty seconds, Luke still stands center stage to the story. The first two acts of the movie are all about finding Luke Skywalker, both for the good guys and the bad. Further, the two characters that are given the most character development, Rey and Ren, are each tied intimately to Luke. Rey is similar to Luke, a young, innocent force user badly in need of guidance. The difference between Rey and A New Hope Luke is that she is missing a teacher. There is no Obi-Wan figure. Why? Because “Luke Skywalker has vanished.” This point is bolstered even more by the possibility that Luke is Rey’s missing father. And Ren is even more closely tied to Uncle Luke. Not only is the family connection there, but blame for Ren’s fall to the dark side has to partly fall at Luke’s feet, and seems to be the reason for his disappearance. The story of The Force Awakens centers on Luke and the consequences of his failure. The picture The Force Awakens paints for us is a galaxy without the light side.
What I’m saying is that while there are some similar elements, the driving plot of the two movies are completely different. A New Hope is a rescue mission at heart, with a fun third act in destroying the death star. The Force Awakens is a much different story: a hero has fallen, and in the movie we watch the outcome of this fall, particularly in two young characters and their own personal struggles. Abrams purposefully made The Force Awakens to be “in harmony” with the previous movies, but to say that the movie “lifts most of its major plot points from A New Hope, sprinkling in some new characters” is simply ridiculous.
Also, as a side note, I know it may be a bit of a bummer to some that there is a third death star in this one. All I can say is that, if you were a Fascist, power-hungry galactic empire that had sole access to planet destroying technology, wouldn’t you keep going to that well?
The Force Awakens was all I hoped it would be and more. In many ways, it made me an even bigger Star Wars fan than I was already. No movie in history has had bigger hype and expectation, and no movie has delivered so excellently on all the fans; hopes. The story, characters, mystery, effects, and feel are all spot-on and reminiscent of the excellence of the original Trilogy, and yet hitting enough new notes to keep fans interested and excited in the future of the franchise. This paragraph has me wondering why I wrote over 2,300 words when I so well encapsulated my thoughts in a single one.