I imagine everyone who calls themselves a fan has seen The Force Awakens by now, so I feel safe to join (or start) the conversation.
What makes Star Wars “Star Wars” is that the movie is viewed through the lens of our childhood — that feeling in our spines the first time we watched a Star Wars film in the theatre. To that feeling, all future movies will be measured and compared.
For many seasoned movie-goers — and for probably a large chunk of the editorial team writing the internet today — that first Star Wars film was Episode IV, V, or VI. My dad told me stories about how Episode IV encapsulated galactic dreams back in 1977, and he remembered visiting the theatre four or five times to watch the original film. He always concludes that story with “But then Empire came out and was that much better.”
Me? I was eight years old when The Phantom Menace hit theatres. I loved Episode I dearly, mostly because I was a child and Jar Jar’s insulting bits of stupidity fit right into my childish world. Episode II and Episode III hit theatres and I loved each one more.1
I loved those films, but that doesn’t mean they were any good. I can’t bare to watch Phantom Menace anymore. Instead, I opt for Machete Order if I feel like watching the series again. Trade disputes and Gun Gun tomfoolery cause me to yawn these days, as do Christenson’s horrendous acting and Portman’s evident “get-me-out-of-here” attitude in Revenge. And poor Jake Lloyd. Yowtch.
The prequel trilogy as a whole, and Phantom Menace in particular, became my yard stick.
My dad’s first impression was different: a movie in space with no wires, tantalizing Jedi mind tricks, and swords made of light. To my dad, A New Hope is the Star Wars benchmark.
Lucas and his crew took the Force from a simple Jedi mind trick and gutsy instincts in Episode IV to object levitation, intense sword fighting, and conversing with ghosts of past Jedi in Episode V. Add in the surprise factor of Darth Vader as Luke’s father and you’ve got an unbelievable story. This is what caught the attention of movie-goers in the early 1980s, and this is the group of people who largely write the reviews today.
In this light, it makes sense Empire is considered the greatest Star Wars movie of all time. It took a dream-catching story and made it an all-encompassing universe. A geekdom, if you will.
The Force Awakens is my Empire. It’s the first Star Wars film to truly blow away the benchmark, no matter how low that benchmark was set. It takes the captivating Star Wars story, strips it clean of political jargon, adds in new, modern sound effects, and adds in a good helping of strong acting. I finally have my Empire.
My Two Cents on the Most Important Characters
Star Wars fans have been begging for relatable characters ever since Empire, so it’s fitting Abrams made The Force Awakens characters absolutely central this time around.
Daisy Ridley is unstoppable in Episode VII and has come out of nowhere to become the face of the new franchise. She brings an independent, yet apprehensive and quirky style to Rey’s character, and she’ll undoubtedly be dug into deeply in Episode VIII.
A female protagonist has brought the attention everyone expected it would, and I was sorely afraid Rey would take this reality too far. I’m a staunch opponent of films breaking reality for the sake of having a successful female protagonist.
Take Shailene Woodley’s Tris in Divergent as an example. There are no true superpowers at play in the Divergent series, yet the movie shows Tris as a physically unstoppable character. She utterly dominates equally well-trained male characters in countless on-screen fights, all of who appear to be far larger and more physically strong. And she does this without any special training or any significant special powers. There are Ronda Rouseys in the world who would manhandle any man they come up against. It’s probably more likely than I would know. But it does scratch away at the reality of the film.
Fortunately for Star Wars, the Force is a trump card. It’s the Ace of Spades. It allows Star Wars to not need to adhere to the earthly rules of physical strength. When we see Rey dominate Ren at the end of The Force Awakens, the Force makes this truly believable. The Force makes the entire story a more equal playing field. Without the Force, Rey beating Kylo Ren seems impossible. But with the Force, even her untrained skill set can fit into a logical conclusion. Rey’s character works extremely well in this context.
I expect Rey’s heritage to be the “I am your father” moment of this sequel trilogy and I hope it’s a little better than Ren’s cousin or sister. I’d actually prefer Rey to be a random person with no lineage of significance to the Star Wars universe. It seems farfetched to have Luke break the Jedi rule of having children, and it makes Han and Leia’s conversations about their children to be intentionally hidden for the sake of the plot. My fingers are crossed that Rey’s background will rival Vader’s lineage in Empire, but not at the expense of keeping it in the family.
Lastly, my favourite part of the entire film is the moment where the Skywalker Sabre flies out of the snow, past Ren, and into the hands of a stunned Rey. The cinematography at play in that scene, the lighting, the timing, and most of all, the musical theme played, rival the best moments in any Star Wars film. I love John Williams’ work in this scene — it’s far and away the most powerful Star Wars moment of any film, hands down.
I don’t like John Boyega’s character in The Force Awakens. Forgive me. This may be because of my original Star Wars yard stick being a serious, politically-savvy backdrop, or because I’ve come to relate comedic Star Wars characters with the laughably awful Jar Jar. But to me, Finn is too funny to garner so much screen time.
Which isn’t to say Boyega does a poor job in playing the role. In fact, I think Boyega is perfect for the role Abrams hoped it would be. Boyega’s work in The Force Awakens is commendable in and of itself. He brings relief at the best of times, and a sense of courage and bravery at the worst of times. Boyega’s work — aside from Adam Driver’s — could be the best in any Star Wars film, ever.
It’s the writing of Finn’s character that has me questioning the point of Boyega’s role. For The Force Awakens, Finn brings helpful knowledge of Starkiller Base and serves as the character who breaks Poe Dameron out of First Order custody. In The Force Awakens, we need the Finn character.
Herein lies the rub. What purpose does Finn serve going forward? Rey’s abilities clearly put her at a cut above the rest. Poe’s X-Wing leadership will pay dividends throughout Episode VIII and Episode IX. Will Finn play the endless comedic relief with a pinch of bravery and courage to boot? Will Finn’s seemingly romantic connection with Rey grow over the next episodes? Or is there something more to Finn’s abilities?
This is why I say I don’t like Finn in The Force Awakens — he could be the perfect reveal in Episode VIII and become the most important character of all.
I believe The Force Awakens scrapes the surface of Finn more so than any other new Star Wars character (including Poe), and, if I was a betting man, I’d put my money on Finn being a major source of spotlight in Episode VIII.
Oscar Isaac takes the Harrison Ford torch as the newest Star Wars flyboy. Isaac is skilled, charismatic, fearless, and dreamy in his work on-screen, and I’m surprised this is the first we’ve really heard of him.
Like Finn, more will come of Poe in future films. We know he’s a born and bred Resistance fighter, and we know he’s mighty skilled with an X-Wing. Aside from this, there’s not much more revealed in The Force Awakens. Poe Dameron is an intriguing character played effortlessly and nigh-perfectly by Isaac, and I hope Rian Johnson gives him the screen time he deserves in Episode VIII.
My dad walked out of the theatre saying he loved The Force Awakens, except that he didn’t truly hate the bad guy. In his mind, the only way to overcome the brilliance of Empire was for Kylo Ren to be so incredibly evil and hatable that we would love to see him defeated.
Instead, Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren proves the opposite — the audience may actually feel for the story’s villain and hope his battle with his good side will eventually result in his redemption. To this end, Driver’s performance is absolutely brilliant.
Ren’s childish temper tantrums and raw Force abilities fill his character with catastrophic anticipation — like the breath before the biggest, baddest bomb is about to go off. Driver’s ability to hone this potential is executed masterfully. I left the theatre thinking Driver was born to be a Sith.
That the audience feels for Kylo Ren after his killing of the series’ most beloved character is a testament to Driver’s abilities. Kylo Ren feels oddly complete, as though we as an audience shouldn’t know so much about the bad guy. After all, Darth Vader’s true story was only revealed throughout the prequels — his Light Side struggle only came by way of Luke’s torture at the end of Jedi. Ren’s constant Light Side struggle will surely explain my dad’s Empire preference.
In general, Kylo Ren’s more-rounded story is emblematic of The Force Awakens as a whole. We get to see the personal story of a stormtrooper, more complete interactions with non-characters such as in the Maz Kanata scene or in interactions between stormtroopers throughout the movie, and we view the fight within the evil villain himself. As it is, Kylo Ren is as deep a Star Wars character as we’ve ever seen, and Driver’s ability to harness that depth should be worthy of an Academy Award.
Harrison Ford is 73 years old already. When I read that after the film, I understood why he looked so tired.
This is alright, really. Han Solo should be tired at this point in the Star Wars story. He’s been around the bend and back, both in heroic victories and in heartbreaking defeats, as well as in his belief in the Force.
From the onset, Solo was a non-believer:
Kid, I’ve flown from one side of this galaxy to the other. I’ve seen a lot of strange stuff, but I’ve never seen anything to make me believe there’s one all-powerful Force controlling everything. There’s no mystical energy field that controls my destiny. Anyway, it’s all a lot of simple tricks and nonsense.
After 32 years — heck, maybe 40 to 45 years — Solo came full circle, as revealed in the trailers:
It’s true. All of it. The Dark Side, the Jedi. They’re real.
This is the legacy of Han Solo. Not his failed fatherhood, nor his bumpy princess romance, nor his being a redeemable scoundrel. No. Solo’s redemption comes in his belief in the Force and in his selfless death at the hands of his son.
All the signs pointed to Han Solo dying in The Force Awakens — just see my tweet storm here, here, and here.2 And, without a doubt, Ford wanted nothing to do with the Han Solo character any longer. Han Solo’s death just makes sense for the story going forward.
Ford’s tired attitude towards the Han Solo character was evident in more ways than one, yet still fit into the sunsetting of the Han Solo character. With this in mind, Ford did a marvellous job at sailing Han Solo into the west. The passing of the torch to the next generation was very evident throughout the film and, to me, was most explicit in Harrison Ford’s work on-screen.
Carrie Fisher’s role as a grandmother of the Rebellion/Resistance is well executed. Her voice has changed slightly from the original trilogy, but her eyes and mannerisms have Princess Leia written all over them. In her limited role, Carrie Fisher did an exceptional job.
Of all the original characters, my guess is Leia Organa stays on until Episode IX. If Kylo Ren is indeed redeemable, Leia Organa will play the ultimate role — or perhaps, will pay the ultimate price — in his redemption. After all is said and done, we know the original characters can’t make it to the end of the sequel trilogy. But Leia Organa will surely play a significant role in the character development of Kylo Ren.
Of all the original characters, Chewbacca has always gone the most unnoticed. Peter Mayhew’s role has always just “been there”. He flies the same ship as Han Solo, shoots at the same bad guys as Han Solo, and gets captured by the same guys as Han Solo. Aside from minor visual changes and an actor switch,The Force Awakens has little in the way of a new role for Chewbacca.
Chewbacca looks slightly different in The Force Awakens — I think his shoulders are slightly broader. Either Chewie bulked up with age or there’s a new actor underneath the costume.5 Plus, his fur looks thicker, fuller, and with more volume than ever before, making him stand out more.
But Chewbacca’s role changes the moment Ren’s lightsaber goes through the heart of Solo. At that point, Chewbacca becomes a new, full-fledged character. Obviously, he goes on a rampage shortly thereafter. But the look and nod he gives Rey as she steps into the Falcon’s pilot seat before their trip to find Luke is very parental in nature. Chewbacca, always the co-pilot, appears to be Rey’s sidekick, Rey’s watchdog, Rey’s bigger brother by the end of the film. To me, this seems to be the perfect role for the big walking carpet, and it leaves me wondering if we’ll ever see the end of Chewbacca. Perhaps he’ll be the sole original character to make it from start to finish in the Star Wars universe.
It’s cool to see what 32 years does to droid technology in the galaxy. BB-8 is significantly smaller than R2-D2, but his movement mechanisms make him far more adaptable to new kinds of terrain. Like in the jungle. Or the sand. Or concrete. Or stairs.
In the end, BB-8 is just a droid. Pivotal to the story in true Star Wars fashion. But just a droid.
Also, I’m grateful they cut away from the moment where BB-8 and Poe reunite. Poe bends over to greet BB-8 under his X-Wing and the camera quickly cuts to Finn looking in their direction. I can’t imagine how awkward the greeting between man and droid would have been had they not cut away for that split-second.
Some Other General Observations
The helicopter shot (1): After watching The Force Awakens a third time, I continue to find the final shot of Rey and Luke to be the most visually jarring, the most visually wrong shot in the entire film. With the ocean in the background and the green foliage surrounding the characters, you can’t help but think you’re watching a Lord of the Rings film at that very instant.
The helicopter shot (2): What’s with Luke’s muddied Jedi robes? No robes have ever been that dirty or that light coloured in Jedi history. Has Luke been sunbathing for the past 32 years?
The helicopter shot (3): Luke’s actual tunic is very bright beige, much like Obi-Wan’s from Revenge. I’m thinking this scraps the whole “Luke is the villain” theory.
The helicopter shot (4): This entire scene, as a whole, is easily the worst part of the film. I understand they need to keep the old character reveals limited to The Force Awakens, but R2-D2 randomly turning on right after the battle,6 followed by the rushed sequence to find Luke, followed by the horrible helicopter shot, all makes for the worst part of the movie.
Once they secure the map, the logical conclusion is they find Luke in his hidden location shortly thereafter. Further, it’s even more logical it’ll be Rey finding Luke, as she is the evident apprentice-to-be. All of this can be assumed by an audience or can be glossed over in Episode VIII’s opening crawl.
But for nostalgic reasons, Mark Hamill had to be on the cast list for this film and couldn’t be revealed in the next episode.
This, to me, is the only major miscue in the entire film.
Understanding droid language: I found it interesting to see Rey, Poe and other characters understand BB-8’s beeps and bops, but not Finn. R2-D2 is only understood by C-390 in the original trilogy, and his language is never picked up on in the prequel trilogy either. It makes sense that Rey may have learnt a BB language while on Jakku, but it’s surprising a trained First Order stormtrooper would not understand BB-8’s language.
The movie’s sound effects and improved laser blasts: The 21st Century version of Star Wars is far more sinister and more lethal than Stars Wars of decades past. The Force Awakens brings a new level of blaster damage and lightsaber sounds, both of which help the cause of the film feeling more real. Each stormtrooper blaster shot sizzles and leaves large areas of damage at contact, while lightsabers sizzle and crackle as they slice trees and clothes. It makes the whole movie feel more sinister, like more is on the line with each stormtrooper or Tie Fighter blast. If battle droids taught us one thing, it’s that Lucas added in as many blaster shots as possible because they “looked cool” or “sounded cool”. Not so in the The Force Awakens.
Why Leia Organa?: Why does Leia still go by Organa? Is this merely a writer’s decision? Or is it an underlying plot point? Why hide her Skywalker identity?
Kylo Ren’s relative infancy: This was most evident after a third viewing, but Kylo Ren as a Sith is in his infancy. He is not an all powerful Sith capable of ruling the galaxy. Instead, he largely appears to be an apprentice, and a young one at that. His lightsaber ripples and appears to be incomplete or improperly made. His tantrums are undisciplined, even for a Sith. And his fighting style is very aggressive and powerful, leaving large opportunities for opponents to strike. Not that old PC-games are canon any longer, but the three fighting styles Kyle Katarn learnt in those post-Jedi games always included a “strong stance” which left the enemy many opportunities to trim your health. Kylo Ren has lots to learn, that much is clear.
Rey’s lightsaber fight with Kylo Ren: Everyone points to untrained Rey as an impossible victor in a fight with Kylo Ren and that Abrams allows her to win the fight solely because she is a female protagonist. Again, after a third viewing, this point of view couldn’t be more wrong.
First, Ren is shot by Chewie’s bolt blaster, which as we see throughout the movie, packs a significant punch. Chewie’s bolt blaster throws stormtroopers upwards of 10 feet in other scenes, and Kylo Ren takes one of those shots right to the gut. Without a doubt, Ren would be in significant pain during the lightsaber fight with Finn and Rey.
Second, Ren takes a hard shot from Finn during the first half of the lightsaber fight. This also makes sense, considering the context. Ren’s lightsaber fighting style is aggressive and strong, meaning he leaves himself open for fast attacks. Finn takes advantage of the opening and hits Ren in the shoulder with a slash. This seems plausible, even considering Finn is untrained and not able to use the Force.
Third, Ren truly takes it to Rey in the first two-thirds of their fight. Rey is constantly dodging and moving around. Again, that aggressive fighting style means Ren constantly winds up for big, broad swings, giving Rey enough time to duck and dodge to safety. The rest of her parries are merely defensive and she doesn’t go on the offensive until after her Force realization.
And lastly, where does Rey learn to yield a lightsaber to the point of defending herself against a Sith apprentice? On Jakku, of course. We see her kick the snot out of two thieves in the Jakku market with her stick. It seems entirely logical for those skills to carry over to a lightsaber, especially with the Force and adrenaline pumping through her veins.
Rey’s lightsaber of choice in Episode VIII: There’s no way Luke will let Rey use his father’s old lightsaber in Episode VIII. Instead, I’m thinking Rey will return to comfort and create a double-bladed lightsaber, akin to Darth Maul’s from Phantom Menace. This seems logical, considering her Jakku background, but it would also show the writers branching out and creating more of a universe for third parties to work with.
Also, want to bet her lightsaber colour won’t be blue or green? She’s a new generation of Jedi, fighting in front of a new generation of viewers. Enough of the nostalgia — let’s see a yellow or orange double-bladed lightsaber like in Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy.
The Force Awakens’ box office success: I watched the film a third time on December 27 — a full 10 days after the film’s debut — and the (albeit small) theatre was just about sold out yet again. I’ve never seen any film come through the theatre and consistently cram that many people into that many showings over that long a time period. The smashing of box office records right and left makes a lot of sense if the film is finding this kind of success everywhere else.
And I don’t believe the film has been released in China yet, either.
The only time I ever received that shiver down my spine — that actual moment of awe — was when Yoda pulled aside his Jedi robes and revealed his lightsaber. I went back to the theatre to watch Attack of the Clones twice because of that moment. ↩
Exactly. That’s it. There wasn’t a Luke Skywalker except for an odd helicopter shot at the end which felt rushed and out of place. More on that later. ↩
Can you imagine the look on Mark Hamill’s face after the first script reading of The Force Awakens? ↩
There is, in fact, a new actor underneath Chewbacca’s costume. Peter Mayhew’s knees have begun to grow old on him, so a new actor was put in place for many of Chewbacca’s most active scenes. I imagine a few of the less physically demanding scenes are Peter Mayhew, and I’m sure those are the scenes where Chewie’s mannerisms are best executed. ↩
That last battle, based on the timing given to charge the Starkiller weapon, is little more than 15 minutes. It takes longer to show in the film, but the timeframe is far shorter than people are giving it credit for. This may explain why R2-D2 randomly comes out of low power mode right after the battle, as we haven’t actually had that much time elapse between C-3PO explaining R2-D2’s situation and R2-D2 turning back on. ↩