The Force Awakens To An Exciting New GalaxyPosted: December 20, 2015
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away… life went on. The Rebellion defeated the Empire, Han and Leia got together, Luke became a Jedi, and the galaxy kept on spinning. And now, we finally know what really happened next. In Star Wars: The Force Awakens we return to that mythological galaxy to discover that, much like our own world, things don’t end happily ever after and even the greatest victories are precursors to more struggle and heartache… but also more hope. And after watching The Force Awakens I couldn’t have more hope for the future of Star Wars, and it’s a wonderful feeling to have.
Like the best Star Wars films (and many of my favorite films in general), The Force Awakens is built on character and emotion more than anything else. Sure there’s the galactic political backdrop to consider — in this case it’s the proxy war the new Republic is waging against the First Order via Leia’s Resistance movement — but the true focus and stakes of the story are wholly tied to the characters. In fact, while the final battle is in large part about destroying another oversized superweapon, the main focus of the plot is about finding Luke Skywalker. Even the characters are more concerned with each other than with the larger galactic context, and the film is better for it. Whether they are old favorites given new life or fresh young faces making their own mark on this epic saga, they are very well-drawn by JJ Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan and their performers, and it’s that attention to characters that makes The Force Awakens such a successful addition to the Star Wars universe.
While the big-picture narrative is largely defined by the goals and baggage of the previous generation, it is the new class of heroes that drive the action throughout much of the film. Abrams and Kasdan very confidently put a lot of focus on our younger heroes and allow them to set the tone and the energy of the story. In Rey, Finn and Poe, we have a fantastic new lead trio that can easily stand alongside their predecessors; while they are each roughly analogous to the previous generation (Rey = Luke, Finn = Han, Poe = Leia) they rarely feel like retreads of an archetype, instead having distinct and engaging personalities all their own that make an immediate impression. As happy as I was to see Han and Chewie back in action again, I was completely taken with our new protagonists and can’t wait to see where they go from here. They are all incredibly likable and fun and I can’t wait to see them grow and change as Luke, Han and Leia did in their trilogy.
Of the three leads, Rey (Daisy Ridley) is the primary protagonist. It is her arc and growth that defines the film more than any other, and the ending makes it clear that this new trilogy will be her story just as the Original Trilogy was Luke’s. Rey is introduced to us as a survivor: she’s been abandoned on this backwater junkyard and spends her days scavenging starship parts for food, dreaming of the day her family will come back for her. She’s a capable pilot, a clever mechanic and knows how to handle herself in a fight, and yet it’s clear that Rey still isn’t really ready to go out into the galaxy at large. Once she’s swept up in the journey she almost seems overwhelmed by the idea of leaving Jakku… and her hope of being reunited with her family. Her journey sees her coming to grips not just with her true power but with the necessity of seeking out her future for herself, rather than waiting for her past to come back for her. All of this is brought to life beautifully by Ridley, who combines steely survival instinct with childlike apprehension to wonderful effect. She’s compellingly badass while also being relatably human, a difficult tightrope that she walks with ease.
Then, there’s Finn (John Boyega) who pulls off the impossible task of being a Han Solo analogue without ever at any point feeling like Han Solo. Finn is a stormtrooper that goes AWOL when he cannot handle the ugliness of the First Order, only to get swept up in Rey’s journey. He is terrified of the cause he once served and doesn’t see any other option but to flee as far away from them as he can. Initially, Finn is only concerned with escaping his former masters and only wants to help the others as a means to his own ends; his journey is to embrace his sense of right and wrong and face his fears for the sake of his friends and their cause. In the hands of Boyega, Finn never seems like a complete coward or an asshole. Rather, he always seems like someone who knows the right thing to do, but is greatly intimidated by that choice. Boyega also brings a ton of frantic comedic energy to the character, as he scrambles to hold his own amongst the others and find a new path for himself. As with Rey, Finn is a character who is thrust onto this heroic path despite not really being ready for it, and much of the excitement derives from how they grow into the roles they’ve been forced into.
On the other hand, Poe (Oscar Isaac) is more than ready for his place in this fight. Poe is an ace X-wing pilot for the Resistance, and his mission on behalf of Leia to retrieve information about Luke’s whereabouts is what sets the entire film into motion. Isaac plays Poe with the confident swagger that you would probably expect from a starfighter jock, with an underlying determination that makes it clear that he is fully committed to his cause. In particular, Poe also has a great camaraderie with Finn; there’s an endearingly bro-like interplay between the two of them that is infectiously fun and drives home the idea that, while Poe might be a serious warrior, he also takes great joy in his purpose in life. Oh, and let’s not forget Poe’s droid, BB-8, who has more personality as a prop than many other films’ human protagonists do. From the design to the voice to the way it is controlled and the way the actors play off him, BB-8 is a wonderfully-realized character that brings a ton of energy and life to a film that is already full of it.
Of course, our new protagonists aren’t the only heroes in this film; indeed, the Heroes of Yavin make their return here, and while it might not be as triumphant a return as we would like it feels exactly right. When we reunite with Han (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) we discover that they have fallen right back into their old smugglers’ ways and left the good fight behind. Meanwhile, Leia (Carrie Fisher) is right back on the front lines of the battle against oppression and evil, while Luke (Mark Hamill) has disappeared altogether. While we see very little of Old Luke, we spend a lot of time with Han and some time with Leia, and Ford and Fisher both perfectly capture the weariness and heartache of these old war horses that have had the best parts of themselves stripped away. It becomes clear that our veteran heroes were torn apart by something awful in their past. A terrible tragedy befell their family and they all pulled away from each other in trying to cope with it. It’s heartbreaking to see how they’ve all abandoned each other in the years since their cathartic celebration on Endor, even before you know the reason why.
LAST CHANCE FOR SPOILER-AVOIDANCE
That reason, as it happens, is our primary antagonist, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver)… otherwise called Ben Solo. It turns out that Han and Leia’s son, and Luke’s apprentice, was lured to the dark side and aligned with the First Order against his family. It’s a heartbreaking revelation, but also a fascinating one. Ren seems fascinated with the power and legacy of his grandfather, Darth Vader, and is attempting to emulate Vader as much as he can and reject the example of his Uncle Luke. I’m endlessly curious about what drove young Ben Solo down this path: was it a fear of Vader’s legacy that became a perverse fascination? Or a frustration with the more benign attitudes of his parents and uncle? The answers haven’t been provided yet, but I cannot wait to find out what led Ben down the path to becoming Kylo Ren. What is clear about Kylo Ren here is that, for all his power and attempts at Vader-ness, he is still an unstable, impetuous young man. I can imagine the good kid he might have been, and it makes the villain he is all the more upsetting and interesting as a result. Ultimately, Ren is as much Prequel-era Anakin Skywalker as he is OT-era Darth Vader, but a ton of credit should be given to Driver and the script for making him endlessly more compelling than his whiny, pouty grandfather.
What binds all of these characters together, aside from engaging performances and general coolness, is the uniform sense of being weighed down by the past and frightened by the future. Rey is bound to Jakku by the false hope of a family reunion, Finn is driven to run from the First Order rather than fight it because of his experiences as a stormtrooper, Han is haunted by his son’s fall and Kylo Ren himself is driven by a desire to live up to his grandfather. All of the characters have to let go of their pasts and embrace the uncertainty of their futures. They all grow to accept what they have to do in order to move forward, rather than be ruled by whatever tragedies and missteps they have suffered through. While it’s easy to see this as a metatextual reflection on the nature of The Force Awakens itself, it also reflects how these characters are drawn together and bound together. This emotional journey is one they have to go on together, even if the future they face leads to tragedy or heartbreak (and boy does it ever).
While the characters — and the themes they represent — are uniformly awesome, the story structure that supports them isn’t exactly perfect. The script does recycle a lot of familiar beats from the original Star Wars, and there are certain beats (mostly during the second act) that are a little uneven and messy in terms of pacing and craft. But to be honest, while such sequences did feel a little off in the moment, they made such a minor impression that I can’t even articulate what was wrong with them. Whatever issues there might be on a structural level, they aren’t enough to undermine the terrific character work being done, and that makes a huge difference to me. While I do tend to place a premium on script structure and craftsmanship in judging a movie, that perspective is largely based on wanting to properly explore characters and themes. Often poor script structure and poor character development go hand-in-hand, but in the case of The Force Awakens, the characters and themes are handled so well in spite of the structural missteps that it isn’t nearly as much of a concern to me. Ultimately this script accomplishes exactly what it’s meant to: establish these new characters and give them a launching pad for their own era of stories, and based off this first installment there are so many opportunities for great storytelling to explore.
Phew, okay, that’s a lot of rambling. And the thing is, I don’t even think I’m out of things to say about The Force Awakens yet. But I do feel like this is a sufficient summary of what I loved about this movie so much. The film itself isn’t perfect, but goddamn if the characters aren’t some of the most exciting and compelling I’ve seen in a mainstream film in recent memory. If nothing else, JJ Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan and this terrific cast have laid the groundwork for some tremendous new pop culture icons, and I certainly can’t complain about that. As of this Saturday it will be exactly 16 months until Rian Johnson delivers Star Wars: Episode VIII, and The Force Awakens has only made that wait more interminable. The Force is with us once again, and with characters like these I’m glad it’ll be sticking around for awhile this time.