There has been a great disturbance in the nerd Universe, coming from a a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away; Star Wars: The Force Awakens has come out and it has shattered all previous records and been met with great acclaim. The run up to the release was one of the most relentless marketing campaigns I have ever experienced: it seemed like Star Wars, now owned by Disney, found a way to insert itself into every conceivable market, from make-up to fast-food to toys. Anecdotally, there hasn’t been such hype around the franchise since the first release in the prequel trilogy, and considering that film was panned by critics and fans alike, the obvious question is, how does the 7th episode fare?
This weekend I had the tremendous pleasure of experiencing the film in IMAX 3D, and I’m happy to report that like his Star Trek adaptation before this film, J.J. Abrams and co. did excellent work with the latest episode. The film is very aware of its history, and sufficiently forward looking. In this compliment is a thinly veiled criticism however: part of the magic of Star Wars originally was that it offered a vision of the future (well, the past, but you know, spaceships) which was unprecendently exciting. It’s no longer 1977, however, and the future of today is very different from the future of yesterday, to put it obscurantly. For instance, we are today conducting automated warfare, and yet a future society which has seemingly sentient robots still places ace pilots physically in space craft to conduct war. Seems unlikely.
But we could likely bracket this concern in the same way that we suspend our disbelief in the Force, the magical power which permeates through all like of the Star Wars universe. And while we’re being as charitable as we can, it’s worth noting that the action and swash-buckling and the snappy comebacks, all cornerstones of the Star Wars tone, are present and stronger than ever. The CGI in The Force Awakens is masterful and tasteful, BB-8 has the personality and presence of Wall-E, the Millenium Falcon has never looked as believable or exciting (even if it struggled to be as nimble after all these years), and I could feel the savage, uncontrolled power of Kylo Ren’s red light saber. The mechanics of what makes a Star Wars film were present in as full a force as ever: the spaceships and lightsabers, the blowing up of spherical super-weapons, and the unlikely tales of supreme heroism against all odds are bigger and better than they’ve ever been.
Yet again in complimenting the film I’ve stumbled across a thinly veiled criticism: if this film didn’t carry the Star Wars moniker, it would be a copy that was better funded than the original, taking what was good about its predecessors and increasing the size 100 times, quite literally in the case of Starkiller Base. Not only that, but its demise of Starkiller is quickly met by the standard old way of sending your ace pilot to shoot it in its soft spot. I emphasize quickly because the terrible destructive nature of Starkiller Base is difficult to take seriously when it’s destroyed in a dozen scenes after it was introduced: it would have been much more imposing and compelling had it been looming in the collective fandom’s psyche for destruction in an upcoming film. Han Solo himself seems to recognize in a moment of prescient self-awareness, asking where Stakiller’s soft spot is and that “they always have one.” And while we’re at it, it seems Jakku is rather like Tattooine, Starkiller rather like Hoth, and Takodana rather like Endor (I recognize that I maybe just be pointing out that it’s desert, snow, and forest biomes but this is an entire Universe we’re talking about).
These are the ways in which the film draws on the previous installments, but the film does have a lot of new ideas that excite me. For instance, Star Wars has always been about the father-son dynamic, being principally about the struggle between Luke and Vader née Anakin. The Force Awakens brings something that no Star Wars film has seen before: a strong female lead, with the brilliantly casted and written Rey. I only presume that Rey is the daughter of Luke, the principal evidence being that Star Wars is the story of the Skywalkers, and I’m excited to learn how Rey will grow to defeat her clear adversary: Kylo Ren née Ben Solo. Similarly, I’m excited to learn what the killing of his father does to Kylo Ren, because while he desperately tries to emulate his grandfather, little does he know of Vader’s struggle with the Light, setting him up to strive for version of the Dark Side which never really existed.
I don’t know why Kylo does what he does: it seems he is a Good Guy who desperately wants to be the Bad Guy, and this uncertainty makes me like his story. With the mask on, he plays the Bad Buy perfectly, executing entire villages, successfully torturing and extracting information, and capturing important rebels. But when his mask is off, so does his evil falter: Rey manages to push back his Force mind-reading, he need’s his father’s help in his father’s execution, and Rey manages to keep him at bay in a lightsaber duel even as a total amateur. I look forward to learning what about Luke’s training caused Kylo to fall to the Dark Side, how Kylo’s failure will be internalized, and why Snoke has such control over the clearly powerful Kylo. In this film, Kylo seems to be a childish poseur, exercising his evil in futile ways like destroying things and relying on physical pain for Dark Side strength. For these reasons, Kylo Ren is my favorite new character, because even though he’s cowardly and undisciplined, he’s also the most complicated and has the most potential for growth, even if it is into the series worst villain.
A reason that I find Kylo more exciting than Rey or Finn could also be that Kylo’s story is more singular, while Rey and Finn tell a disjointed, stop-and-go story. Finn is much more important to the narrative early in the story, delivering Po from the certain continued torture and interrogation of Kylo back to Jakku and safely delivering Rey and BB-8 to the rebel base. When he’s knocked unconscious however, Rey takes the Light Side’s narrative flag, and continues the struggle against Kylo. I hope that in the next film, Rey and Finn get their own distinct stories as opposed to sharing one. The Light Side’s story is made even more confusing by the myriad throwback appearances, which while I throughly enjoyed, I only enjoyed them because of how good previous movies were, not necessarily because of their performance in this film.
Finally, Snoke has really captured my attention. He’s not complex like Ren because we simply do not know enough about him, but I desperately want to know his backstory and what motivates him.
The Force Awakens is an excellent entry into the Star Wars franchise, and it makes the sequel trilogies proud with its tasteful effects and operatic conflict. While it may seem I’m being very harsh on the film, it’s only because I hold the franchise to such a high standard, and J.J. Abrams and co. have done a better job than anyone else could have today.