Let’s Talk About Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Have you seen The Force Awakens? If so, great, stick around so we can discuss it. If not, stop reading this article. This piece is going to do a bit of a deep dive and there's going to be spoilers aplenty. I'll give you a minute to bail.
Are they gone? Good. Let's take a look.
The Big Picture
The script was penned by J.J. Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan (The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi) and Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine, Toy Story 3, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire). Arndt was on board from the jump and provided a first pass. The finished film, however, clearly bears Kasdan's imprint. The film is quippier than any Star Wars to date, approaching the wit of Raiders of the Lost Ark, a Kasdan classic. Kasdan also came in with his considerable institutional knowledge of the Star Wars universe, providing Abrams, who's already a pop culture savant, with an even more pleasingly referential script. The call backs to the original trilogy are well handled (we'll get to the overall script design, and it's similarities to the original Star Wars, in a bit), with all sorts of in-jokes involving Chewie's updated crossbow, trash compactors, and Han's inability to pay people back. But what Abrams has said Kasdan really helped him hone in on was how to make The Force Awakens "delightful." As the director told Wired, delighting fans was his operating principle for the most pressurized franchise relaunch in film history: "That was really the only requirement Larry and I imposed on each other: The movie needed to be delightful. It was not about explaining everything away, not about introducing a certain number of toys for a corporation, not about trying to appease anyone. This has only ever been about what gets us excited."
It's safe to say Abrams', Kasdan and the entire TFA team succeeded. If the film was anything, it was delightful. It was delightful on steroids. And the most delightful thing about the film, even more so than the invention of the new droid BB-8 (BB-8 is everything that Jar Jar Binks was not, which is a universally adored addition to the Star Wars universe that's not in any way offensive) and the film's stellar pacing, was the casting of its' three heroes and new major villain. It was pre-ordained by the colossal marketing budget and huge, global fan base that TFA was going to be a monster success. What was far from certain, however, was that the four major new players, Daisy Ridley as Rey, your hero, John Boyega as the former Stormtrooper Finn, Oscar Isaac as resistance fighter pilot Poe Dameron, and Adam Driver as Darth Vader acolyte Kylo Ren would be able to hold their own on screen with the likes of Harrison Ford's Han Solo, Carrie Fisher's General Organa, and Mark Hamill's Luke Skywalker. That they would fare better than Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman did in the prequels was not the bar that Abrams was setting, he was putting them in a film with the major players from the original. The bar was; could the new actors possibly warrant the monstrous hype this film generated and hold the screen with legendary characters from the original trilogy? That they could, that they so clearly did, is the biggest coup Abrams managed. And it can't be understated how monumental it is that Abrams cast a young woman as the hero, a young black man as her resilient side kick (and potential love interest), and a young Latino to round out the Star Wars universe's mandated triumvirate. No decision was met more admirably, and more effectively, then the decision to bring on these fantastic young stars.
John Boyega and Daisy Ridley nailed it. Courtesy Walt Disney Studios/Lucasfilm
The Opening Crawl
There's just no way to talk about The Force Awakens without talking about the very first Star Wars, as the plots are very similar. The iconic backwards, titled opening crawl of The Force Awakens informs us that Luke Skywalker's missing, and in his absence the First Order, the bastard child of the Empire (and impressively huge and galaxy spanning in just 30 years, somehow), is on a mission to kill Skywalker, the last Jedi. Fighting the First Order is the Resistance, on behalf of the Republic (which we never really see or have any sense of what is has become since it was saved from the Empire at the end of Return of the Jedi), led by General Leia Organa. Leia sends her best pilot, Poe Dameron, to the barren wasteland that is Jakku, where an old ally has information on where Luke is. It's a tidy little story. It's also, again, remarkably similar to the original Star Wars. We'll discuss. But first, let's look at the great opening scene.
Before we quibble over the plot, I'd like to tip my cap at the estimable pacing of TFA. At a brisk 136 minutes, The Force Awakens clocks in under the last two installments of the prequels and is a minute or two longer than the longest of the original trilogy, The Return of the Jedi. There is hardly any fat on the film. It opens swiftly, introducing four major characters (BB-8, Kylo Ren, a skittish Stormtrooper who will turn out to be Finn, and Poe Dameron) during a nighttime raid in which the stakes are immediately set.
A nighttime raid on Jakku to find the map that leads to Luke Skywalker. Courtesy Walt Disney Studios/Lucasfilm
Dameron meets with Lor San Tekka (Max Von Sydow, no less), who gives BB-8 a galactic flash drive of sorts that contains a partial map of Luke Skywalker's whereabouts. This is your MacGuffin, and it's a solid one. The First Order, militarily led by the out-of-control Ren, and magesterially led by General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson, who gives a scarily Hitler-esque speech at a Nuremberg-Rally-Meets-the-First-Order rally later on in the film) will stop at nothing to get this map. No more than a few seconds after BB-8's got the map, Jakku is under attack.
Dameron is eventually captured by Ren, but not before sending BB-8 off with instructions to get as far away from Ren and the carnage as possible. In just a few minutes, we're given crucial snapshots of these characters. They are as follows:
- Dameron is not only heroic, but stoic (his quip when he's hauled before Ren, "who talks first, me or you" is particularly welcome—it immediately tells us we're not in the world of wooden dialogue spoken by barely recognizable humans from the prequels).
- BB-8 is, of course, adorable, and like R2D2 before him, now holds the fate of the galaxy on his motherboard (or whatever you'd call it in a droid.)
- The jumpy Stormtrooper, with a bloody handprint on his helmet, is clearly not a mindless killer, but an actual person beneath the white mask, a person who seems to be hyperventilating.
- And Ren, hoo boy, is a ruthless, wild, unpredictable villain.
When Ren faces off with a captured Lor San Tekka, we're given our first little clue into where this is all heading. Tekka tells Ren that he knows who he really is, and that he wasn't born with the name he now uses. This sets up a later reveal (that's really not that surprising, however), but perhaps more crucially, it gives Ren a chance to show what makes him an exciting new villain—he's too passionate, too angry, and barely in control of his powers, let alone his emotions.
What's more, it's the way Adam Driver moves as Ren that is so refreshing for this franchise. Ren is less like the hugely powerful, hulking, stiff Darth Vader and more like the impressively, scarily physical Darth Maul. Yes, a dreaded prequel callback! While Ren's characater is connected and indebted to Vader in a few ways (he actually doesn't need the mask, which Vader did, which is a wonderful bit of characterization for a character who wants to be Vader so bad that he wears a scary black mask he doesn't need, which multiple characters call him out on), it's Driver's physicality that is something to behold. The way Ren moves through space is glorious. Whether he's walking through a driving rain or destroying the interior of his own ship in a fit of pique, the power he has beneath that mask and in his body is palpable. You can see it in how he wields his lightsaber, how he walks with forceful, quick strides, and you can see that he's not even close to having control over it. Driver, a former marine, imbues Ren with a human strength, which is far from Vader's reconstructed, half-droid lumbering gait, and more in line with the explosive, volatile Maul. Just watch the way Ren wields his infamous hilted lightsaber to cut down Lor San Tekka—it's pure ID at work there, pure rage, and it's thrilling.
Kylo Ren, the First Order's out of control ID. Courtesy Walt Disney Studios/Lucasfilm.
Once Ren has Dameron hauled onto his ship as a captive, he orders the mass execution of the rest of the villagers. This leads us to another great moment—when Ren senses the unease of a freaked out Stormtrooper, who's standing by the killing circle but not participating. It's just a few seconds, but it nicely gives you an idea of Ren's considerable power (moments before, he'd stopped Dameron's attempt to shoot him with a blaster with the power of the Force, the crackling laser suspended in mid-air in front of a stunned Dameron) and hints at his ability to not just read people's emotions, as he clearly does Finn's in this brief moment, but perhaps nods at his own internal battle. All of this happens in just a few minutes. It's a thrilling start.
He'll find Luke Skywalker at all costs. Courtesy Walt Disney Studios/Lucasfilms
The Overall Plot
Just how closely does the plot mirror the first Star Wars? An orphan on a desert planet comes into contact with a droid carrying crucial information in which the fate of the galaxy rests. The orphan is actually very powerful, a fact that will be gleaned over time, and, after meeting a key mentor, will play a huge part in taking down a planet-sized weapon harnassed by a evil organization hellbent on conquering the galaxy and bringing it to heel. This is both Star Wars IV: A New Hope, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. In fact, TFA features another Death Star, only this one's much, much bigger and even more powerful. There's even a wacky bar scene with assorted alien rogues! The plots are mirror images of each other, with the key differences being the gender and races of the heroes (actually, you've still got the two men/one woman, only this one's turned on its head, with the Luke character now Rey). There's no way of denying this, and it's up to you whether you find this a clever way to give fans what they want, all over again, or simply a way to take some of the monumental pressure off the filmmakers' shoulders.
When Rey saves BB-8, and the adorable rolling droid begins to tail her everywhere, you settle into the story having a good idea of where it's going, yet if you're anything like 99% of the people and critics (yes, critics are also people) who saw the film, you probably found it impossible not to enjoy the ride. The chemistry between Rey and Finn is immediately apparent and, again, is the real key to this film. Let's take a look at some of the big plot points:
- Finn, Rey and BB-8 avoid capture by the First Order by taking off on an old junker of a ship that has been rotting on Jakku for years—and it's the Millennium Falcon! This was a wonderful way to re-introduce the most famous ship in any film, and their escape, with Rey at the controls, Finn at the guns and BB-8 stabilizing him/herself with some handy ropes, was fantastic. The hit-the-breaks-and-let-them-fly-right-by move, straight out of Top Gun, was brilliant.
- The Millenium Falcon's captured by…Han Solo and Chewie! What's not to love? And Harrison Ford, honestly, how great was he in this? How easily did he slip back into Han? How undeniably satisfying was it that Abrams, Kasdan and Arndt conspired to make him much more than a token call back to the original trilogy? How many rhetorical questions can I slip into this bullet point?
- Kylo Ren's temperment: I think this is one of the key masterstrokes in the plot, and I also think it's more interesting in how Driver carries it off than why he's so conflicted and angry. When Ren is told that the droid has escaped with a former Stormtrooper and some girl by a terrified First Order goon, he unleashes his lightsaber and goes rock-star-in-a-hotel-room with it, destroying a huge control panel in a fit of rage. Once he's done, panting, he asks, "Anything else?" in a perfect moment of levity. Seeing how unstable Ren is, again and again, and how deeply personal he's made it to find Luke Skywalker, is fresh and exciting.
- The reveal of Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) as the Oz-like alien pulling all the strings was…weird? He looked a little too like Marvel's head baddie Thanos for my taste. Or, like a giant, noseless galactic Voldermort. It was a surprising choice, given all the bodies they could have put Serkis's Supreme Leader Snoke in with performance-capture technology being what it is. Why take the incredibly agile Serkis and make him stationary the entire film? Snoke just sits on that giant throne like a bizarro, animated Lincoln Monument with an unexplained desire to enslave the galaxy. While I didn't love his look, I did love his voice, and the way he plays General Hux and Ren off each other.
- The BIG reveal—Kylo Ren is Han and Leia's son. Were you surprised? As closely as TFA hewed to the original film, you had to anticipate daddy issues would be at its' core. It was an understandable impulse to make Ren the lovechild of Han and Leia, and it was very clever to make him the reason Luke went AWOL. From what I gleaned, Ren, who was then called Ben (a nod to Ben Kenobi, one imagines) was a Padawan under Luke, but he was too powerful, and had "too much Vader in him," as Han says, and did something horrible during his schooling. My guess is he killed a bunch of other Padawans. So Luke goes into hiding, feeling he's somehow betrayed his sister and pal Han, and Ben turns into Kylo Ren, the First Order's most psychotic warrior.
- The First Order's New Weapon is…a bigger Death Star. It harnesses the power of the sun (or more aptly, a sun) to destroy multiple planets simultaneously. Not the most creative of decisions here. The Resistance fighters, led by General Organa send Han, Chewie, Rey and Finn on a mission to disable its' shields while Dameron leads a bunch of X-wings to destory it. It's an almost identical mission to the original film's mission to destroy their smaller Death Star. The only reason I write "almost" identical is because I'm sure there's differences I didn't grasp? Right? Do you know what they might be?
- The climatic showdown between Kylo Ren and his father, Han Solo: In a word, heartbreaking. And beautifully played by Driver and Ford. Even though you could feel it coming a long way off, nothing could dilute the moment of a crying Ren asking his father to help him do something he's not sure he can do alone, and then driving his lightsaber right through Han's heart, with both of their hands on the hilt. I mean, whoa. And the final gesture of the one and only Han Solo, the galaxy's preeminent rapscallion and a character that has been a part of the cultural lexicon for 30-years, was to lovingly touch his son's face before taking a Vader-like plunge to his death? Yeah, there were some tears brewing beneath my annoyingly dirty 3D glasses. The scene was absoutely gutwrenching. As my friend wrote to me a full 24-hours later; "I'm getting some delayed feels over Han's death." Feels, in his parlance, are emotions, and I knew exactly what he was talking about. I feel like I'm too old to be upset about the death of a fictional character in a movie largely made for people 20-years younger than me, and yet, I keep thinking about good old Han. You had a great run, Han. Damn.
- The even more climatic showdown between Ren, Finn & Rey in the snowy woods on the Starkiller base was beautifully staged, shot, and performed. Once again Rey has to come to Finn's rescue, and her harnessing of the Force (at a pretty convenient time, no less) was pretty cathartic. I especially loved the way Ren and Rey were inadvertently chopping down trees with their lightsaber as they dueled. Beautiful stuff. Daisy Ridley is great. Adam Driver is great. John Boyega is great. The franchise, pegged to these three, to say nothing of the always great Oscar Isaac, has a great new cast. Have I used the word 'great' enough? These folks are great.
- The final shot of Rey handing Luke his old lightsaber atop a huge monolith overlooking the sea (shot on Ireland's Skellig Michael) was both a fine way to point towards the next installment and a stunner.
Quibbles, Asides, Playful Jabs
- Someone at the very top of the food chain (Rian Johnson, the director of Episode VIII, or Kathleen Kennedy, president of Lucasfilm?) needs to decide how powerful a laser is. The potency of a laser blaster is just all over the map. One minute, they're destroying the engine of Poe Dameron's X-Wing, the next, they're barely able to slow down Chewie or Kylo Ren when they're shot directly by one. Lasers! You just never know what your'e going to get with a technology that was invented in 1960.
- How come your planet-sized weapon can be made completely vulnerable by a single Stormtrooper pressing a single button? Honestly, between the Empire and the First Order, is there a group of villains in more dire need of the most basic instruction on security measures? I protect my Amazon Prime password better than these chumps protect their planet obliterating weapons. All it took to render the Starkiller base vulnerable was for Finn, Han and Chewie to strongarm Captain Phasma into pressing a few buttons to take down the shields? Really? Also, nice Captain'ing, Captain Phasma—you're supposedly an elite Stormtrooper with a cool chrome get up, and yet you buckle at the first blaster pointed in your face? Gwendoline Christie's Brienne of Tarth would have Seppuku'd herself before compromising her mission, yet Gwendoline Christie's Captain Phasma completely folds, upending a years-in-the-making plot for galatic domination at the first sign of trouble. Get a grip.
- Lupita Nyong'o's Maz Kanata is a fine Yoda 2.0. She's old, adorable, wise, and wears goggles. She also runs a bar. What's not to love?
- Major, major kudos to the entire TFA team for all the practical effects. This film created a world that felt lived in and real. BB-8 is the prime example, but so is the Millenium Falcon, the many real sets and practical stunts, and the non-CGI aliens you glimpse here and there throughout the film.
- Okay, so it took Luke all this time on Yoda's swamp planet, Dagobah, to train under Yoda and even begin to harness the Force, but Rey, without any training, is already Jedi mind-tricking Stormtroopers and moving things with her mind by the film's end? It's not a stretch that she's so capable with the lightsaber considering how good she was with her staff, but being able to use the Force that quickly, to say nothing of pulling off a Jedi mind trick on the Stormtrooper watching over her, is questionable. Does this mean she's way more powerful than Luke was? Or, as a millennial, is she just way quicker at catching onto stuff?
- The Stormtroopers, in general, were way more bad ass and interesting in this film. Also funny, especially the way they tip toed around the moody, unstable Kylo Ren. The best moment for the Stormtroopers was the one who called Finn a traitor, dropped his blaster, and weilded that counter lightsaber weapon to fight Finn mano-y-mano. But, being a Stormtrooper, the galaxy's Keystone Cops, he was destined to lose.
- A potentially rich narrative vein will be Finn's backstory. He was taken from his family and pressed into service as a Stormtrooper from childhood—this puts Stormtroopers in a completely different light (more like child soldiers than army of mindless clones), and raises the dark spector of slavery, to boot. Maybe Rian Johnson will tease this out more. It's potent.
- Who are Rey's parents? Seriously, I'm asking here.
In sum—The Force Awakens was delightful, it succeeded on many levels, and if it wasn't the most original thing you've ever seen, if it didn't quite reach The Empire Strikes Back's high bar, it was a satisfying and impressive way to kickstart a new generation of Star Wars films.