If love and hate are two sides of the same impulse, then so was the prospective hope and dread that many fans potentially felt — that I certainly experienced — while waiting for the release of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. The fact is, if you read this article, right now, you will be skittering close to the dark side of The Force Awakens reviews known also as Spoilers. Remember, you can draw back from the abyss and recall the patience and calm that you need to actually watch the film, if you haven’t already. Or you can succumb to the quick and easy path, right now, if random comments on the Internet didn’t cut off your hand and leave you wailing like Luke in despair on Cloud City.
First, let’s start with what really works in this film.
I’m not kidding. Instead of the Prequels, where we got deluged with taxes, politics, and nebulous “heroes on both sides” that didn’t happen in the actual movies, we have the place where Return of the Jedi left off: namely, Luke Skywalker is missing and the Resistance against the First Order is searching desperately for the last Jedi. There. Right there you have an introduction, after the monumental “Long long ago, in a galaxy far far away” and the glory of the Star Wars logo that hooks you. It feeds into the questions that the film’s multimedia campaign has raised in many of us. Where is Luke? What is going on? And where in the nine Corellian hells that may, or may not still be canon, is this going?
Then we see the slow reveal of the First Order and their deployment on the desert world of Jakku. The First Order also wants to find Luke Skywalker: so that they can outright kill him. Three characters are introduced at this stage: Poe Dameron, Finn, and of course Kylo Ren. Poe Dameron is with his now iconic droid BB-8 getting part of a map to find Luke Skywalker, while Kylo Ren and his First Order troops are there to also get that information and kill all witnesses. It seems pretty standard, at first when you consider how events in Star Wars movies often go: but it establishes right off the bat who the heroes and the villains are in this saga. Or so it seems.
This is where J.J. Abrams begins to change the script a little bit, as it were. As Kylo Ren executes the leader of this settlement and orders the deaths of the villagers, and Poe Dameron hides but also tries to defend them, something else happens. Even as stormtroopers and flametroopers are causing death left, right, and centre, we see Poe kill some stormtroopers. Now normally that would be the end of it. Stormtroopers are generally a dime a dozen, but then … one of them falls into the other’s arms. You see blood come from the fallen trooper as his comrade holds him and he dies in his arms. Three streaks of blood mar his comrade’s helmet and you see the latter genuinely shaken.
That is the beginning of Trooper FN-2187: whom we find out later is one soldier out of many who were recruited and indoctrinated into the Storm Trooper Corps and assigned only serial number designations by the First Order as children. Abrams manages in that one scene to do something none of the films really had done. He shows us that the stormtroopers are thinking and feeling beings just like anyone else: and that they can suffer pain and post-traumatic stress like any soldier … and begin to question orders.
We also get a look at some new Force powers and a visual cinematic representation of some old ones as Kylo Ren manages to casually freeze a blaster bolt in midair for several minutes, and use telepathy and mind-probing on a captive Poe Dameron. The first Force application was definitely something I wasn’t expecting and it actually raised my expectations of Kylo Ren just a little bit. And that mind-probe skill comes into play later: for all the reasons that Kylo Ren doesn’t want it.
Of course, our trooper friend finishes questioning orders after a cold encounter with his commanding officer Captain Phasma and actually decides to act against them. He ends up freeing Poe and they escape in a new and modified TIE Fighter that actually has two seats, and may well even possess a hyperdrive. The banter between Finn and Poe is excellent. Poe is a hotshot pilot and soldier for the Resistance, but that is only one part of who he is. While many people call him this film’s Han Solo, he is actually the opposite of the smuggler’s jaded and cynical nature: still managing against capture, torture, and conflict to be idealistic, optimistic, and overwhelmingly positive. He is the one that gives Finn his name and they celebrate their escape with adrenaline-fueled screaming together even before they are shot down and they crash land onto Jakku in order to find Poe’s droid: who has part of the location of Luke Skywalker in his databanks.
And all of this happens even before we are introduced to Rey.
There is some very excellent character development and promise in The Force Awakens to look at. I’ve already talked about Poe’s incorrigible spirit, and Finn’s sense of conscience. But then we have Rey. Rey is a scavenger on Jakku. You have probably heard enough about her at this point: she is self-sufficient, hardened by the desert world of Jakku, canny, and curious. You can also tell that she has a great of experience in self-defense: particularly in wielding her staff. But it’s not until she meets BB-8, who finds her in the middle of the desert, and she has the choice to sell him for a massive amount of food rations — as that is how the scavenging economy on Jakku seems to work — and she decides to keep him that you see her real character: her sense of integrity.
Right here, we have our hero. Anakin Skywalker was an idealistic slave child with his mother on Tatooine who flew in deadly podraces. Luke Skywalker was a moisture farmer on that same world who was raised by his aunt and uncle while whining and dreaming of greatness. Rey seems to have been raised by no one after being abandoned on Jakku when she was five. Her dream is the hope that one day her family will come back for her: whoever they are. In the meantime she grows up a free and solitary woman on a harsh world where just survives … until a little droid comes into her life and changes everything.
It’s hard to talk about one character without looking at how they interact with others. This is another strength of The Force Awakens: interpersonal development. Finn is stranded on Jakku after his stolen ship is destroyed and Poe Dameron seems to have died: his newest friend and fellow liberator since the death of his stormtrooper comrade. He has no idea what to do now and is constantly afraid of being hunted for his betrayal. When he encounters Rey and BB-8, he is wearing Poe’s jacket and they think he is a thief. Then he pretends to be part of the Resistance, which encourages Rey to help him as she wants to get BB-8 back to the Resistance: realizing that there is more to her life than just waiting for the family that seemingly abandoned her. She makes that active choice because, again, it is the right thing to do.
In fact, aside from the absent and presumed dead Poe Dameron, Rey is the only one who sets out from her familiar life to do exactly that: the right thing. Finn runs because he is afraid and also wants a sense of belonging. Even Han Solo and Chewbacca, who they meet after finding the Millennium Falcon appropriately in a junkyard, are just on their next job on the fringes: having become alienated from Leia Organa and the Republic years ago. She is the unifying point to remind them of what is important: and she doesn’t stop there.
In contrast to Rey is Kylo Ren. Unlike Rey, he knows exactly where he comes from. But right now, he is following what he thinks is a legacy. In fact Ren is actually the product of a few legacies. Being born to a founder of the New Republic, a legendary smuggler and General, and the nephew of the last Jedi are just a few of the expectations he has discarded. You can imagine the amount of pressure to conform to those expectations too and perhaps the role they’ve played in Ren’s decision: especially when you consider the one legacy everyone involved wanted him to avoid.
But Kylo Ken is not Darth Vader. On first glance he seems like a shadow of the Sith Lord. He displays perfect control and ruthlessness when dealing with a situation well in hand. When he’s told by a subordinate that they lost BB-8, you think he is going to pull a Vader: that he’s going to Force-choke the man and levitate him off the ground and let him die in midair for his failure. Instead, after a pause, he draws out his lightsaber and proceeds to slash the computers and technology around him in a purely psychotic rage. It’s that moment that makes you realize that there is a major difference between Darth Vader and his successor: that when Vader caused damage, it was purely calculated to punish incompetence and cause fear, whereas Ren lacks focus and control. He is a young man who is perpetually angry and follows Supreme Leader Snoke and the legacy of Darth Vader in an attempt to actually deal with the insecurity and instability inside of himself: and for most of The Force Awakens it isn’t working when he needs it to be.
What we have with Kylo Ren, at least through most of the film, is a young man who hasn’t proved himself yet. It’s like seeing Padawan Anakin Skywalker alternatively whining and raging, or Luke Skywalker whining and fumbling to find his own heritage: except that while the first two sought to grow in the light side of the Force, Kylo Ren chooses the darkness for reasons that haven’t been yet revealed: which are hopefully more than just impatience and for the sake of rebellion. We are looking at the growth of a darksider and his own self-perceived hero’s journey into realizing what he is, and the prices he will pay for getting there.
I won’t go further into a recap of the film, except to say that there are a few scenes that were utterly striking. The first and foremost was Rey gaining a hint of what her destiny truly is: with the vision she gained as Luke’s old lightsaber — which we could sense from its treasure chest with all the sounds of screaming and agony — summoned her to it.
There was also the apex of Kylo Ren’s own character arc where he kills Han Solo — his own father — as his personal sacrifice to the dark side in order to drive the light away from him forever: and to earn the undying enmity of fans everywhere. It was … hard, watching the Solo Luck finally run out in the worst possible way.
But watching Chewbacca shoot Ren with his bowcaster is utterly satisfying. The only thing more satisfying, would have been if Han had already known his son was irredeemable from the start and as Ren thanks him, a dying Han touches his face and says, “Don’t thank me”: pressing a trigger to the series of thermal detonators he was wearing under his vest: trying to take his murdering son down with him.
But what actually happens next is epic.
We have Finn actually facing his fear, after running for so long, and fighting and losing against Ren: only to have Rey step up and take her destiny.
The Force Awakens is primarily about Rey’s own awakening. After Kylo Ren captures her and tries to tear the information on Luke’s whereabouts from her mind, he inadvertently activates her latent Force potential: which she uses to mind-trick and rescue herself. She sees into his mind: and sees his fear. She makes him confront it.
Up until this point, you have to figure: Kylo Ren has only dealt with non-Force sensitives. He has encountered other Force-sensitives through his seemingly untrained mother, his fellow Knights of Ren, and his former fellow Jedi trainees that he slaughtered. The only people that he perceives to be more powerful than him, with his Skywalker bloodline, is his uncle Luke and his Master Snoke. At Starkiller Base, Kylo Ren is wounded but he draws on his physical pain, pounding his ribs where Chewbacca shot him, and uses it to augment his power in the dark side. He has been trained, he has defeated the obstacle of killing the man he loved — his own father — and it is still raw and untempered. And he thinks he is the only one, perhaps even the Chosen One, that can do what must be done.
In an inadvertent way, Rey also helped him. She revealed his fear: that he would never be as powerful as Darth Vader. But he did something that not even his grandfather could do: he killed someone he loved in order to embrace what he thinks is his destiny. Rey has also helped him to awaken in a warped and twisted way. But he severely underestimates her. At her age, Luke was still getting his ass handed to him by training remotes. And even Anakin was still a Padawan with questionable judgment. Also remember that Rey grew up on a desert world with no luxuries, and where battle is not training and is ultimately a matter of life or death. She has incredible Force potential, she’s already already learned not to shoot blaster bolts at Ren, and she is fighting to save her new found friends. I know I rooted for her when she brutally and efficiently beat Ren down.
And it could have ended right there. It could have ended with the destruction of Starkiller Base and Rey returning to a grieving Resistance General Leia Organa — a development that I thought was excellent given Leia’s background in guerrilla warfare and rebellion compared to her previous political fate in the now Legends continuity — and promising to see an unconscious Finn again before riding off on the Falcon — the ship she basically inherited from Han — to find Luke Skywalker.
But the film doesn’t stop there. Instead, it stops at that point in time where she finds him. She actually finds Luke Skywalker: and presents to him his old lightsaber. The look of grief and heartbreak on Luke’s face after the destruction of his Order before it even began by his own nephew, his possible farsight of what occurred in his absence, the sudden appearance of a blade that had a mixed place in his own past, and the look of hope and desperation on Rey’s face says it all. It all comes full circle and you can see — right there — that the legacy is going to continue.
Of course, there are the other aspects of the film to consider as well. I have to admit that seeing Poe Dameron just appear out of nowhere after he supposedly died did seem kind of anticlimactic: though it was also good to know he is going to stay around.
But I think my main quibble with The Force Awakens is Starkiller Base and the New Republic. The Republic really dropped the ball on this one: underestimating the First Order as an Imperial remnant with all of these resources clearly on hand. It also strikes me as hilarious that Snoke seems to order the use of the Base’s star system destroying lasers as something of an afterthought. And it is never clear in the film if it was just the Republic’s capital world and Starfleet destroyed by the lasers: or if it was all of it. If the First Order just destroyed all of the New Republic in one shot, it just seems to be a little bit of a cop-out to me: not the least of which being the fact that this film didn’t really need another “Superweapon of the Month” my Death Star is bigger than yours element.
Also, Supreme Leader Snoke’s CGI Voldemort meets Gollum appearance was a little off-putting in a movie that used less computer-generated special effects. And there are many things that have happened, gaps in the thirty years between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens that have yet to be explained.
But these are minor quibbles really.
Many fans and writers have already covered one other aspect of Star Wars The Force Awakens. They say that it is highly derivative. But perhaps it is more apt to state that it parallels elements from the other films. And even if it is derivative, with its hearkening to deserts, ice planets, forest worlds, Force visions, the wise old mentor dying, rebellions, the destruction of life, heroes journeys, and light and darkness vying against each other in self-referential ways, or with acute self-awareness of their tropes, so what? Mythology itself is derivative. Storytelling is derivative. Stories come from somewhere: from a convention of ideas, events, and feelings.
Star Wars is a mythology that draws on the archetypes of interactions with certain environments and situations and certain characters. Of course its latest movie is derivative. But I think there is another consideration to take in when thinking about mythology. Even though stories are derived from other stories, the best ones are those that tend to add something new to the mythos. The question you have to ask yourself is this: does Star Wars: The Force Awakens add anything new to the Star Wars cinematic universe?
Personally, I think that if it already hasn’t with the way it is has subverted some of the tropes, I think it will. After all, Kylo Ren had clearly been suffering from a lack of focus or certainty in embracing his power: and he is not going to stay that way. He will awaken too and hopefully realize that he should do more than live up to Vader. He has to surpass him.
And as for Rey, it is pretty clear she is going to learn the ways of the Force, continue to kick some ass and struggle with what is important. She might even learn about what she came from and integrate it into where she is going. And I look forward to seeing what J.J. Abrams, LucasFilm, and Disney will build from this impressive beginning.