I have mixed feelings about J.J. Abrams as a filmmaker. He’s an undoubtedly talented technical director whom you can count on to create visually stunning worlds that you want to see more of, but his over-reliance on the mystery box trope, along with his unproven track record with movies that aren’t sequels or reboots, gives me pause. So while I had high hopes for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I was also prepared to be disappointed as I took my seat in a crowded movie house on December 17th. The lights dimmed, the Lucasfilm fanfare began, and when the credits rolled some two-plus hours later, I could only manage to say one thing:
“He did it.”
J.J. Abrams revived the magic, whimsy, and joy that defined the original Star Wars films back, while also setting the stage for a new generation of stories to be told. We’re introduced to new characters, we encounter new aliens, and we explore new worlds, but it all manages to look, sound, and feel distinctly like Star Wars. From the film’s opening shot I was hooked, and by the time I was walking out of the cinema I felt like I had gone through the full gamut of emotions. In a matter of two hours I felt joy, sorry, laughter and tears. When the lights were raised, I felt excited about what the next chapter in this epic saga may hold. It wasn’t without its faults, of course, but it was everything that I could have hoped for and then some.
“But James,” you’re surely saying through your voice-filtered Captain Phasma helmets. “If the movie has faults, how could it be everything that you hoped for?” The short answer is that I wanted a film that felt like Star Wars and took me back to a galaxy far, far away. In that respect, The Force Awakens succeeds in spades. However there are elements of the movie that stuck out to me, both good and bad, that I’ll talk about in more detail momentarily. If you care about my thoughts on the dearth of awesome characters, or how two particular scenes in the film sit as blemishes on an otherwise excellent experience, keep on reading. But if you haven’t seen the film and don’t want it spoiled, or (more likely) couldn’t give a single poodoo about my critiques and commendations for the film, know that I loved it. I loved it from start to almost-finish. I loved seeing the new characters mingle with the old, and I loved knowing that the characters that I grew up with were still out there making a difference in the galaxy.
Alright, time to jump in to my praises and grievances. Oh, and SPOILER ALERT FOR THE LOVE OF GOD I TALK ABOUT MAJOR PLOT POINTS SO BE WARNED.
As I watched Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I found myself thinking about the impressive Star Wars demo reel that J.J. had put together in 2009. Like Star Trek, The Force Awakens is a fun, light-hearted space adventure with a large cast of likeable characters and beautifully shot attention-grabbing set pieces. Unlike that film or its sequel, which were both co-written by Alex Kurtzman and a crazy person, The Force Awakens was co-written by Lawrence Kasdan, the legendary screenwriter responsible for The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi*. While the script isn’t perfect, with Kasdan and Abrams apparently failing to go back and edit after making sweeping character changes, the pair are able to keep the ship on course without running into any crippling icebergs like “death-curing blood” or “space 9/11 was an inside job.”
Despite its parallels and heavy use of allusions, callbacks, and references to the original films, Episode VII still manages to tell a solid story that shakes things up just enough for all of those all-too-familiar elements to feel fresh again. It’s undeniable that the larger concepts of the film borrow heavily from A New Hope, whether it be a droid carrying top-secret military information crashing on a desert planet only to be discovered by an orphan who then embarks on a heroic journey, or a giant planet-obliterating super weapon that can only be destroyed by a crack-shot pilot traversing a heavily fortified trench in order to strike at its weakest point. But to dismiss The Force Awakens as a simple “remake” of A New Hope is to ignore the many elements of the film which help it to stand on its own.
Would I have liked to have seen some new, wildly original concepts? Of course! But I also recognize that I’m in a micro-minority of fans who are a literal encyclopedia of Star Wars lore and knowledge. What Abrams has produced is nothing less than a love letter to the Star Wars that he grew up with, inviting us to join him as he steps back into a galaxy that we haven’t seen in 32 years. That’s all that the movie had to be, frankly. It didn’t have to be a well-directed, well-written film with likable and relatable characters in order to be a box office success.
But I’m glad that it is.
The Power of Giving a Shit, Part 1
It’s always bothered me when major motion picture studios hand the reins of a beloved franchise over to people who have no knowledge, experience, or passion for the property. When a person truly loves or respects something, it is impossible to ignore the care and attention to detail that they exhibit in their work. It can elevate mediocre storytelling, and it can turn good films into great ones. The inverse is also true: when somebody does not respect or understand the universe that they’ve been hired to curate, that lack of care is evident. It’s seen on every frame of the picture, and it can poison that property’s well for a long time.
J.J. Abrams represents both sides of this coin.
Abrams made zero attempt to hide the fact that he was not a fan of Star Trek, and that fact was painfully apparent in the two films he directed. While both of the Star Trek
reboot “relaunch” films are visually impressive outings with a lot of very good action, Star Trek (2009) treats the source material with unbridled resentment, only acknowledging it in the moments where it must to remind Trekkies that they’re watching a Star Trek film. Star Trek Into Darkness, a cynical remake of the franchise’s best feature film, fails to capture the tension that was so palpable in the first film, or even bother to try to understand why the film it shamelessly takes from is widely considered to be an all-time classic.
Cut to a few years later, where we see the self-professed Star Wars super fan applying himself to his film in a way that only someone with a love and respect of the source material could afford. J.J.’s love of Star Wars can be seen in every single frame of The Force Awakens. The worlds all look, sound, and feel like they belong in Star Wars. The characters speak like they belong in Star Wars. The sweeping orchestral score, the well-rationed use of scene wipes, the humor and action and romance and sense of adventure… they’re all true to Star Wars. Yes, Lawrence Kasdan wrote a great script, but if J.J. hadn’t cared about the source material with the amount of passion that he does, it wouldn’t have mattered.
That is why it is so important for studios to hire people who have passion for the source material. When they care, you get The Force Awakens. When they don’t, you get Star Trek Into Darkness.
The Power of Giving a Shit, Part 2
Speaking of people caring about their work, let’s talk about Harrison Ford. He’s widely considered to be one of the great actors to ever grace the silver screen, and it’s generally acknowledged that he hasn’t given a shit since 1998. So when it was announced that he would be returning as Han Solo, a lot of people (myself included) were worried that he’d come back as grumbly old man Harrison Ford.
Boy, were we wrong.
This is not Harrison Ford dressed as Han Solo. From the instant he steps foot onto the Millennium Falcon, through his being reunited with Leia after their many years apart, up until his final moments shared with his son, Harrison Ford is Han Solo. The wit is there. The charm is there. The swagger is there. We see an older and wiser version of the Han that we had come to know in the original trilogy, with a heart weighed by loss and remorse, but he is still unmistakably Han Solo.
This is the most energetic and nuanced performance that Harrison Ford has given in the 21st century, and he reminds us why he’s considered to be a living legend. If he had grumbled his way through the movie the way he has with so many of his outings over the past sixteen years, it would have torpedoed the movie. Harrison Ford had to be on-point for The Force Awakens to work on the level that it had, and he responded by giving a performance that we may be talking about around Academy Award season.
Even if we don’t, we can rest knowing that he made sure Han Solo had the true swan song that he deserved.
Han Solo’s Death
In case it isn’t apparent by now, Han Solo dies. It also happens to be my favorite scene in the entire movie.
In it, Han confronts his son, Kylo Ren/Ben Solo, on a bridge which extends over a massive chasm. A hole in the ceiling allows light from the sun, which is being absorbed into Starkiller Base, to spill into the chasm and illuminate the bridge. As the scene progresses, we see Han at his most vulnerable as he tries to appeal to the shred of Ben Solo still alive inside of Kylo Ren. We also see Kylo Ren, tormented by the internal conflict between the disciple of Snoke he seems himself to be, and the son of Solo that he fears he still is. In a moment of perceived weakness, Ben hangs his head and offers his lightsaber to his father, saying to him “I know what I must do, but I don’t know if I have the strength to do it.” He looks up at his father. “Will you help me?” Han places his hands on Kylo’s lightsaber and says. “Yes. Anything.” As Starkiller Base saps the last bit of energy from the sun, the skies go dark. The light fades from inside the chasm, with the interior running lights washing a red hue over Kylo’s face. His grip tightens on his lightsaber, and in a flash the crackling red blade pierces Han’s chest. We see the shock in both of their faces. In that moment, as we see Kylo Ren succumb to his distress at the realization of what he has done, we see Han bring a trembling hand to his son’s cheek before stumbling back and falling from the bridge.
In that moment, we learn so much simply from how Han and Kylo react. In slaying his father, Kylo Ren was hoping to strike down whatever remnants of Ben Solo remain within him. Yet, in Han’s final moments we see him trying to comfort his confused and frightened child. In his final moments, Han Solo forgives his son.
It’s a beautifully shot, brilliantly acted scene between Harrison Ford and Adam Driver, and it establishes Kylo Ren as a tragic and irredeemable antagonist. It also tells us that Han Solo is dead as shit.
It’s no secret that Harrison Ford has had a contentious relationship with his iconic character over the years, and when it was announced that he was coming back the general consensus among Star Wars fans was “ah, they must be killing him off this time.” We were all kinda expecting it, and the way that Lawrence Kasdan and J.J. Abrams executed it left zero doubt as to Han Solo’s fate. After all, the man is stabbed through the chest with a lightsaber and plummets down a seemingly bottomless mineshaft into the center of an exploding planet which turns into a star.
For as long as that star burns brightly in the night sky, Han Solo’s memory will live on. But Han Solo himself is really, really dead.
Old Friends and Familiar Faces
Harrison Ford is fantastic, yes, but Carrie Fisher is equally wonderful reprising her role as
Princess General Leia Organa. I’m disappointed that we only see her for a handful of scenes, and in that brief period she isn’t given a whole lot to do, but I’m hopeful that we see a lot more of her presence on screen in Episode VIII and Episode IX.
A few other characters from the original trilogy return. C-3PO shows up for what is little more than a cameo (an admittedly funny one), and R2-D2 appears throughout the movie but he spends most of it in what I refer to as “MacGuffin Mode,” where he’s in a shut down state before conveniently coming back online at the end of the movie to provide the missing information our heroes need to locate Luke Skywalker in a scene that makes practically zero sense but you don’t care because Han Solo just died and dammit you need an emotional lift.
Also, Nien Nunb makes an appearance as a Resistance Pilot, because you can always use more Nien Nunb in your life.
“But what about Luke Skywalker,” you ask? Well, I’ll get to him soon enough.
A Bright Future
Joining the iconic cast are a new generation of young actors who all bring something new and fresh to their roles. Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, and Oscar Isaac are all delightful to watch together, and their on-screen chemistry helps to sell how their vastly different characters have come to form a shared bond. On the flipside, Adam Driver is an absolute revelation as Kylo Ren, and Domhnall Gleeson furthers his already insanely good year as the bone-chilling General Hux.
Andy Serkis and Lupita Nyong’o are both wonderful in their smaller roles as Supreme Leader Snoke and Maz Kanata, respectively, while Gwendoline Christie isn’t given nearly enough to do apart from looking like a badass. The noticeable lack of Captain Phasma is most egregious during Finn’s now legendary fight against “Unidentified Riot Control Stormtrooper,” unofficially known to the Internet as “TR-8R.” It’s a great fight sequence but I can’t stop thinking that it should have been used to further firm up the rivalry between Finn and his former commanding officer, especially if that’s going to be one of the plot threads that carry throughout this new trilogy.
Another actor that the film doesn’t really know what to do with is Oscar Isaac. There’s no denying that Poe Dameron is one of the most charismatic and enjoyable characters in the movie, but he’s kinda just there. He opens the movie with Max Von Sydow, delivers some of the most quotable lines in the film, and then just fucks off for half the movie before showing back up again near the third act. When you consider that Poe was originally supposed to die, this sudden and jarring sequence of events makes a lot more sense. I don’t mind, ultimately, since it was the right choice to keep him in the movie. I just wish they could’ve done something more than just hand-wave his prolonged absence with a single line of dialogue.
But What About Rey?
Yes, let’s have a little bit of a chat about Rey. For starters, she’s an absolute delight to watch because Daisy Ridley makes that character her own. Secondly, there’s been a whole lot of discussion going on about whether or not Rey is a “Mary Sue.” I’ve gone back and forth on this for a while because, contrary to what the reactionaries on social media would like you to believe, there is a discussion to be had. After all, on the surface Rey is a crack pilot, skilled mechanic, and competent combatant who is never in a situation where she can’t either fight or talk her own way out of trouble.
She’s not particularly great at a good chunk of any of that, however. She very nearly crashes the Millennium Falcon multiple times before finally getting a feel for how the ship handles. She almost gets Han, Chewie, and (especially) Finn killed when, in a moment where she thinks she’s being a clever, accidentally releases a bunch of flesh-hungry Rathtars. She flat-out runs away after discovering Anakin Skywalker’s lightsaber and experiencing visions of death, pain and loss. She’s absolute bollocks with a blaster, and her first showdown with Kylo Ren – when he hadn’t been bulls-eyed with a bowcaster – is decidedly one-sided.
In fact, the only thing I can think of that approaches a “Mary Sue” moment is her sudden, inexplicable knowledge of the Jedi Mind Trick, which she uses to free herself from Kylo Ren’s interrogation chamber. I’ve seen it argued at various places that Rey’s innate sensitivity to the Force gave her the clairvoyance to know how to manipulate the weak-minded stormtrooper guarding her.
I’m sorry but to quote Han Solo, “that’s not how the Force works!”
Anyone who is sensitive to the Force must have at least minimal training before they can even comprehend the power that they have, let alone wield it with any kind of pointed intent. This is why Luke’s scene with the training droid in A New Hope is such a vital moment in the film. Not only is Luke Skywalker taking his first steps down the path to becoming a Jedi, but we, as the audience, are being informed that Luke has begun to dabble in his mastery of the Force, and it informs us of his ability to guide two torpedoes into a three-meter hole on a moon-sized battle station. Rey does not have this moment, and that is why this sequence does not work.
Does this mean that Rey should have succumbed to the “damsel in distress” trope and have been rescued by Finn and Han? God, no. You can have Rey freeing herself by relying on her already established skill set. We already know that she’s a resourceful scavenger and mechanic, so you could very easily have framed the scene with the stormtrooper being stationed outside of the door instead of inside the room. You then have Rey notice that one of her hand restraints is slightly loose. We then cut between her trying to wiggle her hand free and Kylo Ren stomping down the hall towards the interrogation room. Her hand pops free, she smiles a reassured smile, and when Kylo enters the room the chair has been disassembled and Rey is nowhere to be found. You then have Kylo throwing his temper tantrum and the movie proceeds as normal.
Another justification for that sequence is that Rey learned about the Jedi Mind Trick when Kylo Ren probed her mind for knowledge about the map. I consider that to be a cheap and lazy justification that isn’t properly supported by the visual storytelling of that scene.
Apart from that sequence, I have no problem with Rey as a character. I like that she’s an independent soul who can fend for herself. I like that she’s able to stand on her own alongside Finn and Poe, the way Leia stood alongside (and occasionally in front of) Luke and Han. I like that she has a history and mystery and baggage that will almost certainly be explored in greater detail in Episode VIII and Episode IX.
Star Wars has always been a three-act play, and we’ve only seen the first act of her story. I want to wait until I have the full picture before I make any sweeping judgments.
The New Face of Evil…
The other breakout character from The Force Awakens is Kylo Ren, played by Adam Driver. Kylo Ren is unlike anything we’ve seen in a Star Wars antagonist. He isn’t the mustache-twirling brand of evil that Dooku was, nor is he a silent and stoic killer like pre-Clone Wars Maul. He is not a mechanical husk of a man, like Darth Vader of General Grievous, and he hasn’t been twisted into a ghoulish abomination like Emperor Palpatine.
No, Kylo Ren is merely a man. He is a young man, his mind clouded by anger, hatred, and fear, torn between doing what Ben Solo “feels” is right and what Kylo Ren “knows” is right. He is, in this respect, unremarkable. He is familiar. This is hammered home all the more when he removes his helmet and we see him for what he is: a young, scared, tortured man.
This is what makes him terrifying.
As I referenced earlier, we see Kylo Ren essentially murder whatever was left of Ben Solo. Unlike his father, whose death we saw occur in the blink of an eye, we’re introduced to Ben in the final agonizing moments of a long and drawn out war that he was destined to lose. Throughout the movie we see Kylo Ren converse with Snoke, as well as with the mask of Darth Vader, trying to summon the strength to snuff out what small part of his old self still held on. In the end, it was his father who gave him that strength.
I’m excited to see where the films take Kylo Ren. As the story continues forward, I believe Kylo will discover that killing Han Solo hasn’t given him the resolution he seeks. I think that he will become even more fractured, more tortured than before.
And that will make him even more dangerous.
The Final Shot…
At last, I get to talk about Luke Skywalker! At the end of the movie we see Rey climbing up a cliff on an unidentified planet. When she reaches the top of the cliff we see Luke Skywalker, shrouded in gray and white robes, looking out at the ocean. He turns, removing his cloak to reveal that he is indeed an older, wiser, bearded Luke. The camera cuts back to Rey as she offers Anakin’s lightsaber to Luke. Luke is visibly wrought with emotion at the sight of this once-lost relic. The camera cuts back to Rey, still holding the lightsaber, her face uncertain of what will happen next.
We cut back to Luke.
Then back to Rey, still holding the lightsaber.
Then back to Luke.
Then back to Rey, still holding the lightsaber.
Camera holds on Rey.
Then the camera cuts to a helicopter circle shot of the two of them standing alone at the top of this bluff, with Rey still holding the damn lightsaber.
What I’m trying to say is that the scene goes on too damn long and actually becomes somewhat painful and a little bit funny seeing Rey holding the lightsaber hilt for a solid fifteen seconds before the credits roll. It’s like somebody involved with the production said “we rented this helicopter and goddammit we’re going to use it!”
I’m not terribly fond of edits to films between their theatrical run and the eventual home release, but you have to shave this thing down. It goes on for about six seconds and three shots too long. You don’t need the helicopter. You don’t need the ping-pong back-and-forth between shots of Rey and Luke. All you need is Rey approaching Luke, Luke revealing himself, Rey offering Luke his father’s lightsaber, and Luke’s reaction. If you want to be fancy, you have the final shot of the film be a slow close in on the lightsaber, since that is the central artifact tying all of the main characters together.
But if nothing else, please get rid of the helicopter shot. I think you can afford to burn a few hundred bucks on a wasted afternoon rental.
When Star Wars is done right and done well, there is nothing else like it. It’s modern mythology, painting a harmonious mural that connects with people spanning generations. It transports us back to our childhood and being told stories of noble heroes and dastardly villains. Star Wars fills us with hope and joy, and instills in us the knowledge that no matter how dire things become, good will ultimately triumph over evil.
For the one-hundred thirty-five minutes that I spent planted in front of that cinema screen, I was nine years old again.
*Lawrence Kasdan also wrote or co-wrote Raiders of the Lost Ark, Body Heat, The Big Chill, The Body Guard, and Silverado… hey, I liked Silverado.