Now that I’ve seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens twice, I feel prepared to write up my thoughts. After my first screening, I was still caught up in a haze of love and sorrow and ‘Oh Thank God it’s better than the prequels’ to really think about what I liked and what I didn’t. I’ve also read articles ranging from ‘These 100 Plot Holes Ruined the New Star Wars’ to ‘Is Rey a Mary Sue?’ to ‘What’s up with all of these people that aren’t white or aren’t dudes?’ I now feel prepared to rebut at least some of these morons. Excuse me, logically impaired neckbeards. This is not so much of a review of the movie, as it is my thoughts of how it fits in the greater Star Wars universe, and what it says about earlier films.
Needless to say, spoilers abound below.
First, my overall impressions. I was pleasantly surprised with how much I enjoyed the film. Yes, is incredibly reminiscent of Episode IV. Yes there is a reason. And no, that reason isn’t ‘JJ Abrams doesn’t have an original thought in his head.’ But more on that later.
I know that many people were unhappy with Abrams’ treatment of the Star Trek series. He has been quite upfront in saying that he was always more of a Star Wars fan, and it is evident in the way he framed this film. You can tell that he has taken what he loved from the original trilogy and neatly ignored quite a bit of the prequels. I imagine that we’ll revisit them in the later episodes as we unravel Rey’s past, but I feel fairly safe in saying that these new movies will take what were the seeds of some very interesting ideas that were muddled up in the prequels.
Case in point is Kylo Ren. I know that some people had problems with his characterization, feeling that he was more whiny brat than badass villain. For me, the way he is written and Adam Driver’s portrayal finally give me the potential of what Anakin could have been. Hayden Christiansen, bless his little heart, tried. Unfortunately, Lucas could make even great actors look wooden, so neither Christiansen nor the oft-maligned Jake Lloyd had a hope in hell of showing a convincing transition from small-planet wunderkind to Darth Badass. It came across as annoying and whiny, with little actual menace. Kylo Ren, however, shows just enough madness to make his seduction to the Dark Side and further mental breakdown heartbreaking and truly menacing.
Here we have a young man who is trying to live up to the power associated with his family name. I imagine at some point he looked at Luke and wondered why his uncle had so much power and yet refused to use it to reshape the galaxy. From what he knew of Vader, he was a man who very much saw power as a means to reshape his reality, and thus is born Kylo’s Vader-worship. I very much look forward to Luke’s perspective on what went wrong, and how he thinks he failed his nephew. And let’s be clear, I do think he failed him in some way, not because I am a Kylo apologist, but because we have to remember that Luke did what he did after what amounts to a single session of Jedi summer camp on Dagobah. Yes he trained under Yoda, but Yoda was trying to give him the tools to not get himself killed, not how to raise up a whole new generation of holy warriors. I think some of the lessons might have slipped through the cracks.
I do think they did Kylo a slight disservice by playing his second snap for laughs, with the two stormtroopers turning around. What you have is someone with so slight of a hold on his anger that he cannot see past it to further his supposed ends. As it is, he is more of a wild card than anything else, a rabid dog on an ever-fraying leash. Who knows who he will end up damaging the most? I don’t know if his final phase of training with Snoke will help him with that, or if it is too ingrained. We shall see.
Moving on to Finn. Finn is, to an extent, our gateway into the world. He is our everyman, caught up in circumstances beyond his ken. We meet him on his first mission, where he is so caught up in the horror of murdering an entire village that he manages to break his First Order controls and subsequently plan an escape from his comrades with a fugitive resistance fighter to boot. In case you try to shrug that off as an ordinary occurrence, note that both his commanding officer Kylo both notice it and remark upon it. Kylo even remembers the man’s designation and later punishes Finn as a traitor.
We watch Finn struggle through making his first friend (Poe) and then losing him. We watch him try to stand up for Rey, even if she doesn’t need it. Yes, he is a little ham-fisted in how he approaches Rey. Remember, though, that he has never seen any sort of healthy, functional relationship. Ever. All he has seen are people getting their way through intimidation and violence. If anyone is a prodigy here, the fact that he learns loyalty and friendship so quickly makes him a strong candidate. And he’s pretty handy to have around. Yes, I wish they played him for less comic relief, but he shows that he is a capable fighter and a pretty good shot.
I maintain that his shooting skills are what make him unfit to be a Stormtrooper.
Next is Poe Dameron. He’s like the Han Solo of this film. Cocky, a good pilot, handsome. Unlike Han he prides himself on his loyalty to the cause, and doesn’t have an aversion to droids. The mutual adoration between Poe and BB-8 is adorable, as is his bromance with Finn. I know lots of folks sailing on the Poe/Finn ship, but I am happy to see a male friendship that doesn’t devolve into the worst bro-isms. They are supportive of one another without question, and Poe is the first to affirm Finn’s personhood, refusing to use his designation, and instead giving him his name and his identity. Also, his letterman jacket.
And Oscar Isaac can get it. What ‘it’, you ask? ANYTHING HE WANTS. MY BODY IS READY!
BB-8 is like a kitten. I was always amazed at how much personality they were able to give R2D2 with only a series of unintelligible beeps, but BB-8 leaves him in the dust. It’s the head tilt. I swear that droid sends me into sugar shock.
That brings us to the last of our new characters, Rey. She is, unquestionably, the main protagonist. While the other characters will have their own journeys, hers has the potential to shape the lives of the entire galaxy, if this movie is to be believed. Does that make her a Mary Sue? Well, did it make Luke one? Or Anakin? Anakin was 9 years old in The Phantom Menace. NINE. And yet he was able to not only fly a pod racer, but to win against much more experienced pilots. He managed to take out a major space vessel through a combination of luck and a plucky can-do attitude. More on her ties to them later.
When we meet Rey, she is a competent survivor. She manages to eke out a living on a desert planet, scavenging parts out of the carcasses left behind after a major space battle. One of the reasons I’ve seen used for labeling her a Mary Sue is her quick ability to fix and fly the Millennium Falcon. My response is that she has taken apart enough ships to understand how things are put together. Most engineers I have met learned a lot of what they did by taking apart the toaster, VCR, etc. I also doubt that she drops her speeder into the shop when it’s acting up. Lady has skills, and they are earned. She has paid attention in her life, and has learned what she has to in order to survive, up to and including piloting and fighting. Even the force skills that she acquires throughout the film are more learned from observation and experience than anything else. She learns the mind trick because it is used on her multiple times. She was already an adept fighter before taking on Kylo Ren, she just needed to adjust to the weapon. What good is the Force if it can’t give you a leg up on learning things?
But what I love most about Rey is that although she is tough, she hasn’t lost her sense of wonder. Witness her trying on the Rebel helmet with a geeky grin. And the rebel pilot doll in her living space. She has grown up on stories about the Rebellion and its heroes, and the joy on her face at meeting one of them is fangirl-like in its mania. Come on now, wouldn’t we all have the same reaction to finding out we’d been flying the Millennium Falcon? She learns from her mistakes and moves on, unlike most of the characters we come across. That, more than anything, makes me believe that maybe this time they’ll get it right.
It is somewhat ironic that a series that focuses so much on the concept of hope and light really does seem to hammer home that people don’t learn from their mistakes, and they don’t learn from the mistakes of others. It’s almost Ron Moore era Battlestar Galactica-esque in the whole ‘this has all happened before and it will all happen again’ sort of way. Lucas himself is a fan of Joseph Campbell and his idea of the hero’s journey, so it doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to say that each hero will have some similarities, both in personality and tribulations. The beginning of each trilogy finds its young hero/heroine stuck on a backwater desert planet. Perhaps this symbolizes the concept of hope most strongly–from a great wasteland comes a potential savior. I mean, Lucas did all he could to make the assorted Skywalker lads into Space Jesus, after all.
If you take the episodes in numerical order, the heroes have progressively weaker ties to any sort of family. Anakin still has his mother, and until he can free her from slavery, he has no reason or means to leave the planet. Eventually, his pain at losing his mother leads him to make some pretty dark choices, leading to his downfall. Luke, a seeming orphan in his aunt and uncle’s care, still has family ties, but he also has plans to go someplace a hell of a lot farther away than Toshi station. Poor Owen and Beru were fridged seemingly to let him leave without any ties. We never see him really agonize about it after that. Rey is different. She was left in the hands of an unscrupulous junk dealer, with no family and no one to protect her. She had to learn to protect herself and to find a way to survive. For her, family is a half-remembered thing, tempered by intense abandonment issues. When she finds people who are willing to risk themselves for no other reason than to make sure she is ok, she latches on. The look on her face when Finn asks if she is ok tells you right then and there that she has no memory of ANYONE ever asking her that before. It is heartbreaking, and becomes even more so when Chewie tells her that it was Finn’s idea to come and find her on the Starkiller base. I hope to see these two continue their friendship in the coming films. I think they are a good balance, and they both need to build a family.
Back to the cyclical nature of these movies, and how it speaks to me. We started off with Anakin, born from will and midichlorians alone. Theoretically, I would think that would make him probably the strongest, as his ties to the Force are primal in nature. He literally IS the Force in action. However, maybe due to the un-diluted nature of his abilities, he is volatile and prey to fear. And it all ends in tears. Or actually, in ‘NOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!’
Then we have Luke. His strength is diluted due to his mother being normal, or whatever they use for ‘muggle’ in Star Wars. This, I think, tempers him and allows him to rein in his tendencies. He is pretty calm about things by the time we get to Return of the Jedi. Luke’s downfall, as I imagine it, comes from thinking that just because he got Vader to renounce the Emperor, that his instincts are right. He is still so very young at the end of Jedi, and has so little real experience. ‘Saving’ his father must have given him such a boost of confidence, when really, Vader was always going to betray the Emperor. He even tells Luke so when he’s making his initial Dark Side sales pitch. This is a man who only turned to the Dark Side in order to save his family. He was always going to choose Luke, whether Luke realized it or not.
Now we have Rey. I will go on record with my opinion that she is a Skywalker. Luke’s daughter, probably. Many folks have spoken up and given their opinions as to why she shouldn’t be or isn’t, but to me, at the core of things, this has always been about the Skywalkers. To bring in someone else at this point just seems like shoddy storytelling. Why in the hell would we spend six films building them up to be the end-all be-all of finding balance in the force to bring in someone else?
That being said, I have two possible theories that explain her story, given that I think she is Luke’s daughter. The first theory is that whoever her mother is, she didn’t tell Luke about her, and hid her away on Jakku. This is my less favorite theory, but it does quell my issues with Luke being a deadbeat dad who left his daughter to fend for herself.
The second theory is the one I find more intriguing. We didn’t get a great timeline on just when Ben went murderous on Luke and the fledgling Jedi resurgence, but one theory I have seen is that when killing the other younglings, Kylo Ren stopped short of killing his own cousin and parked her on Jakku, keeping her well away from any subsequent action. Note that although he starts having a tantrum when he realizes that the traitorous Finn is in possession of BB-8, he hits another level when they mention ‘the girl’. He Force-drags the poor officer over to him in order to find out just which ‘girl’ they are talking about. I think he knows which girl it is, and it’s going to cause him no end of problems.
Also notice that later, when he has Rey captured, he seems very set on her becoming his apprentice. Both in the torture chamber and later, when they are fighting, you get the sense that he really doesn’t want to hurt her, much like you got the sense that Vader didn’t want to kill Luke once he realized just who he was. People have been rolling their eyes at Rey’s ability to defend herself against Kylo in the saber battle at the end, but I posit that it was a combination of Kylo being injured and the fact that he wasn’t trying to kill her, he was trying to contain her so that he could later turn her. Even after what he did to his father, I think there is that tiny bit of Kylo that wants a connection. Harken back to Vader, who wanted Luke to help him overthrow the Emperor and take control. Either way, I think Kylo still has plans for Rey. It will be interesting to see how it plays out, especially once he realizes just how strong she potentially is, and if they play up how she is more of an heir to Anakin’s potential as a Force-strong Savior.
Finally, at the long end of this ramble, I want to talk about some of the things I really loved about the visual storytelling that Abrams used. Starting with the opening scenes with the shadow of the First Order Star Destroyer eclipsing the planet. Contrast that to how mind-blowing it was to audiences when Lucas managed to use models to give a realistic visual of space. This wasn’t the overtly technical wonder that Lucas created; instead, Abrams managed to give the impression of a dark and growing menace, which sets the stage for the First Order. Throughout the film he uses light and darkness to pretty good effect, with nary a lens-flare in sight. The two best uses come towards the end of the film, on Starkiller Base.
The first one I’ll mention is after the big saber battle. Rey is hanging on to a nearly-dead Finn. There is only darkness and death. And then suddenly, she is bathed in light and you see the Millennium Falcon. There is light. There is hope. They’ll live to see another day and another battle.
As for the best use, it’s time to talk about that scene. You know the one. Get your tissues out, because we’re going to talk about the Death of Han Solo.
Jokes about lack of safety rails aside, the scene where Han confronts his son is done beautifully. There are obvious parallels to Vader vs Obi Wan in Episode IV, but this one has much more depth to it. Harrison Ford has made no secret of the fact that he thought Han should have died in the earlier movies, but I from a storytelling perspective, this works so much better. He brought all of his acting chops to this, and it was worth every tear.
When Han makes his way out to meet Ben, you see the dying sun in the background, its energy being siphoned off by the base (specious science be damned). In those moments when Han is begging his son to come home, there is a light on Kylo’s face that shows his vulnerability. He asks his father to help him do what he feels he must. However, as the sun finally goes dark and the base is fully charged, Ben’s face falls into shadow, and we realize that he needs his father’s help to fully accept the Dark Side. As the sun does, so does the son. There is no more Ben Solo, only Kylo Ren.
Driver and Ford sell the hell out of this scene.
So there are most of my thoughts. There may be some follow-up focusing on Rey and Leia, and that hug, and the irony that one of the most well-known voice actors in show business had no lines in this one. All in all, this movie has managed to reignite my love for Star Wars, after the dreadful disappointment of the prequels. I can’t wait to see what they have in store for us next time.
May the Force Be With You.