I have a cautiously optimistic feeling about this.
Suffice it to say my reasons for seeing a Star Wars movie today are different than they were when I was five. “Fun” is pretty easy to come by without spending twelve-something on a theater ticket, and “entertainment” is something I can achieve by watching nuthatches devour birdseed outside my living-room window, so that’s not the reason. Is there nostalgia involved? Yeah, sure. But I’ve voiced my views on those things during plenty a review of the pop-culture brainjunk that I get off on chewing into so many celluloid pieces, so I want to look at The Force Awakens objectively.
Fair warning: story and character details (read: “spoilers” for the entire movie, including the ending) follow.
J.J. Abrams (in danger of being called “Jar Jar Abrams” until the end of time if he’d screwed this up) directs the film, under the watchful eye of Kathleen Kennedy and with help from Lawrence Kasdan (the screenwriter who did edits on Leigh Brackett’s original Empire Strikes Back script). Set thirty-something years after Return of the Jedi, the story follows Rey (Daisy Ridley), a desert scavenger who reminds one of a young Luke Skywalker, both in environment and fashion sense. Sadly, Rey is homeless, abandoned by her parents on the desert world of Jakku at age five. She lives in the shell of an Imperial AT-AT walker in Jakku’s pseudo-badlands, where she is (mostly) left alone but always aware of the fact that while she awaits the return of her family (who never actually promised to return), she risks spending her entire life spit-shining pieces of salvage for an uncaring dealer (Simon Pegg) who trades portions of food for refurbished parts. An early scene that simultaneously warms and breaks the heart involves Rey eating dinner (a sort of instant-biscuit powder) while wearing an old discarded rebel pilot helmet and grinning at a starship leaving the planet. No dialogue necessary.
The fact that Luke was hidden on a similar desert world, Tatooine, in order to conceal his identity, is lost on zero percent of the audience, not to mention that Rey’s surname is withheld. More on that in Rian Johnson’s sequel, we can assume, but the backdrop here is that the First Order, a splinter group formed when the Empire collapsed, has now taken a Germany-invades-France approach to reclaiming the galaxy. Meanwhile, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill, of course) has vanished after his attempt to restart the Jedi Order was sabotaged.
The new “power trio” is filled out by Finn (John Boyega), apparently the only individual in the legioned stormtrooper army who thinks rallyin’ ’round a family with a pocket full of shells isn’t something to do casually, much less every day for the rest of your life; and Poe Dameron (the incomparable Oscar Isaac), a character mentioned in Shattered Empire and Leia-centric spinoff material. Poe, working for Leia’s Resistance (the current incarnation of the Rebellion, no longer working to overthrow a corrupt and tyrannical governing body, but now pushing back against an illegal terrorist occupying force), meets Finn in the first of many endearing scenes between the new protagonists.
While George Lucas’s prequels (which now feel more like a recurring childhood nightmare – toxic but blurry enough that you can discuss it when the mood is just right) attempted to develop characters by having them shout expository dialogue in one another’s faces, not to mention giving each character so few layers that even a pre-Strindberg playwright would have cringed, the characters of The Force Awakens have real layers, both implied and directly explored, and the most wonderful thing is that the writing, directing, and acting allow for characters to often say a lot without speaking (something severely undervalued and sorely needed in the Star Wars universe, and used to achieve a remarkable degree of genuine emotion here). Gone are the days of “I will be the most powerful Jedi ever!” and “Careful, Greedo, or you’ll come to a bad end!” and “I don’t care what galaxy you’re from – that’s gotta hurt!” and the vending-machine version of the original trilogy’s most winsome humor. Anyone can claim to have a story about watching a protagonist grow from nobody to hero, but here, the most important facet of that formula is intact: we actually know the people doing the growing. When Rey, a scavenger who has never had a friend, smiles or gets excited, it means something. When Finn, a trained killer who may as well be the TK assassin droid from Knights of the Old Republic, drops a hilarious one-liner, there’s something beneath the laughter he induces, something that the Jar-Jars and Van-Wilder-era Threepio and Artoo of the prequels could only dream about. I’m only talking minutiae here, but that’s what makes a story with archetypal roles and formula narratives worth telling at all. Here’s the aphoristic version of what I mean: archetypes and characters cannot occupy the same space.
And then there’s Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the face (well, mask, at least) of the movie, expected to fill the shoes of Darth Vader for the new trilogy. But here’s the thing: Ren himself knows that’s what he’s supposed to do. He’s got Not-Emperor Snoke (Andy Serkis), the dopily-named mentor who turned him from light to dark, expecting great things, yet the very thing that turned him against his own family was his own insecurity. When a mook delivers bad news, Ren destroys a computer terminal and then employs the infamous force choke. When an opponent expresses the least bit of resistance, he becomes afraid. Even with Han Solo (Harrison Ford, obvi) and General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher, duh doy) as parents, and Luke as a master, he couldn’t settle into himself. His crossguard lightsaber represents his own personality: warped and unstable, and even the parts meant to guard the user can be used as weapons. He wears a breather mask that distorts his voice, but he doesn’t need it. He’s a perfectly beautiful human being underneath it (and impervious to helmet hair, no less). Everything about Kylo Ren, including his assumed name, is an attempt to create an identity as opposed to inheriting one. And he’s a great character because he’s not an oven-ready villain; he’s a person with serious mental health problems experiencing a forced transition. All that stuff he tells Han about being torn apart isn’t a line of bullshit, even given how the conversation ends.
In fact, plenty of the film’s characters subvert their antecedents. Kylo Ren aspires to be the new Vader, which is a secret to no one, but Vader was more measured and secure with himself (despite having very few of his own body parts and the inability to breathe without wearing a suit of metal and circuitry) and didn’t mind taking orders. Rey seems to be destined for greatness, but she’s not a bratty Aryan extrovert like Luke; in fact, she has demons we have not yet earned the right to see (just look at Maz Kanata’s face when she examines Rey’s eyes). Finn thinks he’s supposed to be a combo platter of Luke and Han, but everyone who looks at him sees something more like C-3P0. General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), the most effective evil character in the film, plays the same role Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing) did in A New Hope, but he’s more ruthless and twice as smart. Both are aboard their own version of the Death Star when it crumbles, but Hux isn’t foolish enough to think it’s invincible, and he lives on to hold another Nuremberg Rally in the next episode rather than becoming an easily forgotten Disc One Final Boss (hashtag: NoDisrespectToGrandMoffTarkin).
The original power trio also appears, made meaningful by the fact that they’ve grown quite a bit in the last thirty years. Han, once jaded and self-centered, is now gentler, perhaps too gentle to continue on with the lone smuggler life he once led, especially now that he’s swindling opponents who are younger, faster, and more tech-savvy. He tried to settle down and start a family with Leia, but the Kylo Ren incident caused another rift, and each of them went back to the thing that always distracted them from confronting their emotions. For Han, that was gallivanting around the galaxy with Chewie (Peter Mayhew), and for Leia, it was concentrating on her military career and putting the screws to the First Order. It’s difficult to watch them try to reconcile, mostly vocalizing things the other (and the audience) already knows, sharing what always threatens to be their final embrace because Han keeps pointlessly wandering off. Even R2-D2 has become despondent, choosing to stay in “low power mode” ever since Luke disappeared. The only ones who haven’t changed much are Chewie and Threepio, the latter of whom still seems to exist only to obnoxiously interrupt poignant moments between Han and Leia.
Happily, the film’s only objective issues have to do with quality control and things that could have been fixed with a single line. For example, how the hell did Poe’s jacket get where it was? Why does Finn automatically assume Poe is dead, creating a synthetic element of surprise for the audience in place of actual suspense? Does the Resistance really need to keep a protocol droid around when galactic technology has been more or less streamlined in the last thirty years? Why does R2-D2 have free will? Stay with me here. I love Artoo, in all his snarky adorableness, as much as the next nerd, but let’s face it: in-universe, he’s a piece of equipment. How does he simply choose to shut down with no possibility of any tech expert in the Resistance able to revive him? Did everyone just forget about him because he became obsolete when BB units were introduced? I like to think that Luke programmed him to behave this way and to reactivate when Rey arrived, which would make her more than an everywoman who fell into this adventure (Han and Leia’s other child? More on that if you talk to me in person).
Speaking of the map pieces, that scenario is taken from Knights of the Old Republic, as is the basic design for Kylo Ren’s armor. And speaking of Kylo Ren, the whole “Han and Leia’s son becomes a dark Jedi” story is straight outta the EU. While I think it’s worthwhile to acknowledge these things, the film actually takes much of the best stuff from the EU (including stuff that’s still canon, like KOTOR) and utilizes it in an original and passable way. At least they didn’t rip off anything from Mass Effect (which is more than I can say for any other space opera of the last five years). There are enough other plot-related nitpicks to satisfy the parameters of any drinking game. I guess the studio would not have been as fine with a 3-hour Star Wars as virtually everyone else would have.
There’s also a scene mid-film that goes on so long that it evokes (albeit in a coded way) sexual assault, and if the characters involved are potentially related (or, by the same token, we take into account the horrors that Rey may have endured after being abandoned as a five year-old and dragged into a world of skeevy men, few women, and no law enforcement), the implications are more than a little uncomfortable, and maybe not intentional.
The Force Awakens respects its audience enough to let themes, motifs, and vaguely related moments speak for themselves. Rey has a trigger involving being pulled by the hand, something that she would understandably be annoyed at anyway (especially when it’s some dude she just met who thinks he needs to rescue her), but then, later, when she touches Anakin Skywalker’s lightsaber, the Force shows her a vision that partially involves reliving the day her family abandoned her. We see her being pulled by the hand as she cries at the sight of her parents’ starship leaving Jakku’s atmosphere. Layers! And the film doesn’t ruin it by having Rey explain to Finn why she doesn’t like having her hand held while they’re running for their lives. Similarly, during the above-mentioned-mid-film scene, when Kylo Ren claims that he can “see the island” in Rey’s mind, there’s no need to explain what it is or what it means, because even if we don’t know why her brain conjured that image, both of the characters in the scene do. In the last moments of the film, Rey ends up on an island. Is it the same one? Did she invent the island in her mind as a place to escape to when it became difficult to deal with the harsh desert landscape day after day? Or did the Force decide it was Rey who needed to fly to Ireland and give Luke his saber back? These are good questions to have at the end of a story like this: not questions of clarity, but questions that open up dialogue about people we’ve just gotten to know. A question of clarity would be how exactly Finn has no trouble interacting normally with other people when he’s just been sprung out of an organization that raised him to be a mindless war machine.
Abrams’s Star Wars is the most well-characterized of the series, and we can only hope Rian Johnson and Colin Trevorrow (the one I’m most worried about after the boring, CG-slathered, bizarrely sexist fiasco that was Jurassic World) can maintain the quality. The original characters have aged realistically, and the fatigue shows on them all, especially Luke, in what might be Mark Hamill’s best piece of onscreen acting ever. Han, for all his solo-ness, just wants to be useful, and truly cares about Rey (look at his face when she mentions not knowing there was “this much green in the whole galaxy”), not to mention approves of her as a successor to the Falcon. Would the old Han have admitted being impressed by anyone else? Leia continues to be a competent leader that everyone respects, and has even grown to be able to tolerate Threepio (though the ranking system in the Resistance is a little murky – the crawl claims that General Leia runs the entire thing, but Ken Leung plays a guy with “Admiral” as a title). Poe is every bit the guy you’d want running your ace X-wing squadron: able to both destroy a planet-sized genocide machine and handle diplomacy with secret contacts, but also treats his underlings like family (he’s even got Jessika Pava from Shattered Empire as a wingwoman, played by Jessica Henwick). Finn is not only charming and hilarious, and not only serves as an example of how the stormtroopers can be just as victimized as anyone else, but also provides an interesting look into gender roles: when he’s drinking the gross water on Jakku and runs over to help Rey (who doesn’t need it), what is he doing? Does he think she needs help because she’s a girl, or is he trying to begin his atonement by helping anyone he sees? If it’s the latter, it’s worth noting that although Finn has no knowledge of the natural development of things outside the First Order, he’s still falling into the gender trappings of what boys his age generally think they should be doing: “protecting” girls (who, again, don’t need it).
Finally, there’s Rey, the film’s hero, and the new Golden Child of Star Wars. Where Luke whined his way to destiny and had his path set before him by twenty years’ worth of planning by Yoda and Obi-Wan, Rey is a hardened, involuntary loner from a bitter environment. Despite this, she hasn’t lost the ability to experience joy, to recognize irony, or to take advice, even when it criticizes her own tendency to pine. She’s athletic and powerful, but not physically infallible. She’s driven, but knows how to laugh. She appreciates little things. Every decision she makes and every lie she believes makes sense, and they all serve to deepen her rather than weaken her. She can channel the force, but has very real reasons not to. She’s independent, but has plenty of room to grow and mature – specifically in areas of interdependence, something she might understandably have difficulties with going forward. The most important thing is that she’s been given the space to grow in just about any direction, and if Johnson’s script can avoid making her a flouncy shell of what she was in this movie (can’t you just see the filmmakers chalking it up to her recent “socialization”?) or giving her the sudden urge to have sex with the nearest action dude (as Johnson’s women characters tend to), this might truly be the beginning of a saga that should be passed forward. To call Rey “wish fulfillment” or a Mary Sue is an insult to those of us who have had to put up with an eternal assembly line of indestructible male mannequins with the same stupid stubble, dubious morals, unpunished womanizing, and identically stiff delivery of meaningless bromides. Rey is not just an answer to that crap; she transcends it. And the story ends with exactly what she needs as she comes upon a world-weary Luke Skywalker, and what we need as we ponder her future: a profound moment of quiet.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015); written by Lawrence Kasdan and J.J. Abrams; directed by J.J. Abrams; starring Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Adam Driver, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher.
*Special thanks to A Certain Poet for her help and insights with this one.