Back in the late 1990’s, when it was first announced there would be new Star Wars films, it was a major cultural event. The original films had been re-released in 20th anniversary special editions to much acclaim, and the public seemed primed to return to the story. It’s actually the first time I can remember a movie trailer being a major news story after its release. And for many of the fans of Star Wars, even though there was some dissatisfaction with dancing Ewoks after Return of the Jedi, the feeling was how could they possibly screw this up? And then The Phantom Menace came out, bad reviews followed, and the fandom began questioning whether George Lucas actually understood his own creation, or if he was just trying to sell action figures, and four editions of the same movie?
The biggest problem with the prequel films is they seem more interested in spectacle than story, and in doing so became technically innovative visual effects “messes” that are emotionally empty. One gets the feeling Lucas and all involved worried more about whether every frame had a CGI character crawling in the background, instead of the awful dialogue and the lack of tension and stakes in the story. And the reason there’s no tension is because the decision to make all of the main characters‘ futures ones which we know with certainty robs all of the elaborate sequences of any hint of danger.
After Disney acquired Lucasfilm for $4 billion in 2012, they in very short order announced plans for another trilogy and spin-off standalone films, with Lucas largely frozen out creatively. Instead, the reins were handed over to J.J. Abrams.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens is set approximately 30 years after the events of Return of the Jedi. After the death of Emperor Palpatine and the fall of the Empire, elements of the Empire established the First Order in the areas of the galaxy they could still hold. The First Order has been described by Abrams as what would have happened if the Nazis had relocated to Argentina after their defeat in World War II and attempted to rebuild the Third Reich. The First Order is opposed by the Resistance, which is supported by the new Republic and old elements of the Rebel Alliance.
Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has disappeared after trying to re-establish the Jedi and being betrayed by one of his students, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), just as Anakin did with Obi-Wan. At least some in the galaxy treat Luke, the Jedi, the Sith, and the Force itself as myths and legends that may or may not exist. But both the Resistance and First Order are searching for Luke, while the First Order readies a new weapon that will change the balance of power in the galaxy. A map to Luke’s position is found on the desert planet of Jakku by Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac). But before he can return it to General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), he’s attacked and captured by Kylo Ren and Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie), leaving it to his droid, BB-8, to keep the information safe. BB-8’s search for help and sanctuary leads to companions in Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger barely surviving in the harsh conditions, and Finn (John Boyega), a former First Order stormtrooper who turns against his masters after witnessing a massacre. Together they bump into some old familiar faces, discover who they really are, and realize their destiny.
Abrams, like he did in his iterations of Star Trek, brings a kinetic pace that never really pauses or cares whether things are making sense just as long as the roller coaster keeps moving. But Lawrence Kasdan, who co-wrote the screenplay for The Empire Strikes Back and shares writing credit with Abrams and Michael Arndt on The Force Awakens, gives the characters some much needed depth, as well as fun and humor, which has been missing from the franchise. The audience connects with and cares about the journey of these characters in ways Lucas never really could make work for Anakin (Hayden Christensen) or Padme (Natalie Portman) in the prequel trilogy. When tears stream down Rey’s face during pivotal moments of the movie, it’s earned and moving. And Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren is both the most menacing and tragic villain since Darth Vader. The choice by Abrams to go more toward practical effects in real environments when possible instead of CGI gives the movie a tangible quality instead of seeming like a bunch of actors reacting to tennis balls in front of a green screen.
The biggest knock against this film that can be made is that its story is basically Episode IV: A New Hope redone and rehashed, and there are more than a few moments in the plot that are just too convenient. The déjà vu of the past is meant to be a familiar and nostalgic echo, with all of the elements being rejiggered around a little bit. Just as Abrams borrowed heavily from Wrath of Khan to infuse Star Trek Into Darkness with “OMG!” moments, The Force Awakens still has a desert planet where a droid carrying a secret message is found, an evil government plotting to use a super-weapon with a single weak point, and there’s a search for an old Jedi who may be their “only hope.” In this sense, the movie at points devolves into fan service, and one can map out the twists and turns before the story gets there.
But if Star Wars is a myth, an example of the hero’s journey that’s taken root in modern imagination returning to the basic aspects of that myth seems necessary to create a new beginning and reconnect fans to it. For example, Creed uses a lot of the beats of the Rocky story in the same way. Hopefully, the next installments will go into unexplored territory, but this film was a good, but not great, return to what people love about Star Wars.
From this point forward I’m going to get a little spoiler-y. So if you haven’t seen the movie yet, and don’t want to know important plot details, avoid the bullet points below.
One of the biggest moneymakers of all-time is also one of the most diverse: In recent years, there has been some debate as to whether people will watch movies, especially action movies, starring people of color and women. This film has already made half a billion dollars worldwide. Its three main actors are not white guys, and its lead is a strong female character.
George Lucas’ reaction: While Lucas is listed as a creative consultant for The Force Awakens, his story ideas were discarded by Disney. In interviews, Lucas has described the situation as a “divorce” and the movie as akin to attending an awkward wedding where he has “to take a very deep breath and be a good person and sit through it and just enjoy the moment, because it is what it is.” Some have also ascribed passive aggressive feelings towards the fans who didn’t embrace the prequel films in Lucas’ comments when asked for his review of The Force Awakens, since he never says he “loves” it or even likes it.
George Lucas: I think the fans are going to love it. It’s very much the kind of movie they’ve been looking for.
Who is Supreme Leader Snoke?: The First Order is led by Supreme Leader Snoke (voiced and performed through motion capture by Andy Serkis). Snoke is responsible for turning Ben Solo against Luke Skywalker, and leading to the Dark Side and becoming Kylo Ren. There are already fan theories which speculate he might be Darth Plagueis, the master of Darth Sidious (a.k.a. Emperor Palpatine). According to Palpatine in Revenge of the Sith, it was rumored Plagueis had uncovered the power over life and death, and it’s implied he might be responsible for Anakin Skywalker’s conception. The appearance of Snoke in The Force Awakens is intended to be a dark version of the Lincoln Memorial, if Lincoln was “7-foot-something tall” and looked like Gollum. The design of Snoke is somewhat similar to Ralph McQuarrie’s early design for Emperor Palpatine.
Kylo Ren is not a Sith: The name “Kylo” seems to be an amalgamation of the SKYwalker and SoLO family names. Thus far, it seems as if Ben Solo was basically seduced by the idea of completing the work of his grandfather, who he sees as Darth Vader, not Anakin Skywalker. Is following in Darth Vader’s steps a search for the power to restore and control life? The restoration of the Empire? While the film implies Kylo Ren leads his own order of knights that are followers of the Dark Side, and Ren displays powers that even Darth Vader didn’t have (e.g., Vader couldn’t pull thoughts out of someone’s mind), he is not a Dark Lord of the Sith. The movie ends with Snoke telling General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) to bring Kylo Ren to him in order to complete his training, implying Snoke is his master and has abilities that supersede Kylo Ren’s capabilities. Also, the name “Ben” is a reference to the Star Wars expanded universe, which Disney and Abrams threw it out as non-canon when the decision was made to go ahead with a new trilogy. In the expanded universe, Luke Skywalker had a son named Ben Skywalker.
Adam Driver: Kylo Ren idolizes Darth Vader, not Anakin Skywalker. He idolizes what Vader represents and what Vader was trying to do. And the idea that Vader didn’t succeed, if you look at it from Ren’s point of view, he was seduced by the enemy and failed because of that seduction. So the idea is that Ren wants to complete the thing that Vader started.
Who are Rey’s parents?: While the movie never explicitly states it, the clear implication is that she’s Luke’s daughter, making the clash of the Force a battle between Skywalkers and Solos. The lightsaber that calls to her at Maz Kanata’s (Lupita Nyong'o) outpost is supposed to be Anakin Skywalker’s lightsaber, which Luke lost during The Empire Strikes Back. The clear implication from the Force vision is that she has a connection to it and presumably Luke. And in the vision, she seems to have been trained as a Padawan before being taken to Jakku and abandoned/hidden. However, if she is Luke's daughter, neither Han or Leia give any indication in that direction. Another theory is that she is somehow related to Obi-Wan Kenobi, since he is heard calling out to her in the Force vision.
Why did Luke go into hiding?: While neither Leia or Han provide any info on why, the significance of the first Jedi temple, or why Rey seems to have been abandoned on Jakku in a similar way to how Luke was left on Tatooine, one could guess Luke might want to stop what he sees as a repeating cycle.
The answers to all these questions will likely be answered at the start of Rian Johnson’s Episode VIII as Mark Hamill supposedly already shot a scene for that film on the island. I’m assuming that Luke feels responsible. Look at how much damage his family has brought to this galaxy. Maybe he believes the best thing he can do is to isolate himself from this world to not make things worse. If I were a betting man, I would say Luke is reluctant to accept his old lightsaber back from Rey and will probably push back at the idea of training her.
Lament for Han Solo: When it was announced Harrison Ford would return as Han Solo for The Force Awakens, I assumed it would mean the death of the character. In the past, Ford has talked about how he wanted Solo to be killed in Return of the Jedi in order to give the character a proper end, and fought with George Lucas about it. And as soon as Han walked out on that walkway with no guardrails (both the Empire and First Order have no regard for workplace safety) to confront Kylo Ren, the audience kinda knows the end is near for the character. Another interesting thing about the scene is it mirrors the end of Return of the Jedi, where Luke refuses to kill Darth Vader and confirms his identity as a Jedi, Kylo Ren kills Han and moves even further into the Dark Side.
Mark Hamill, Ford's co-star, recalled how Ford conceptualized Han and rewrote the dialogue into something that felt organically in step for his character. "He'd written things in the margins, saying the same thing, basically, but his way. He had an amazing way of keeping the meaning but doing it in a really unique way for his character," Hamill said. One of these instances is when he says to Leia, "I know," instead of uttering the "I love you" that was scripted … Maybe it wasn't love, but Ford cared about Han Solo. He wanted what Han said and did to be in line with the character's logic. And it's this care that explains why he was so turned off by Return of The Jedi — a movie whose storyline Ford has said he disagreed with. The character, in Ford's eyes, was not being treated with the same care he had received in the previous movies.
Twenty-eight years after Ford's annoyance with the Star Wars trilogy first surfaced, he came clean. In a 2010 interview with ABC News, Ford stated that Han should have been killed off by the end of Return of the Jedi … "As a character he was — he was not so interesting to me," Ford said. "I thought he should have died in the last one to give it some bottom." Ford went on to suggest that keeping Han alive was purely a marketing ploy.
"George didn't think there was any future in Dead Han toys," Ford said, offering up a scathing critique of the movie and of George Lucas.
A character that was supposed to die, but didn’t: If Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron seems underdeveloped in the film, there’s a reason for that. In the original incarnation of the story, the character actually died and stayed dead, instead of disappearing for the middle section of the movie to reappear towards the end. The Dameron character would have been used as a bit of misdirection, building him up as the big hero fighter pilot, whom the audience would be led to believe is the next hero of the trilogy, before killing him off and moving on to Rey and Finn. And arguably, to a certain extent, he is still used in a similar way within the finished film, since the movie subverts the idea that Rey needs to be saved more than once.
Why did R2-D2 wake up?: When I mentioned plot convenience above, R2’s “coma” and sudden reawakening are perfect examples of where the story cheats a little. It doesn’t ruin the movie, but it’s one of those things where one just has to go with it and not question it too much. Why has R2 been sitting in a corner for decades covered by a tarp? Because the plot dictates it. Why does he come out of it to give the final piece of the map to Luke? Because the plot dictates it. I’ve read some theories which say maybe R2 sensed Rey’s presence and reactivated, or Luke sensed a disturbance in the Force and somehow sent word to R2 to wake up. According to Abrams’ own reading of the movie, BB-8 telling R2 that he’s found the lost piece of the map brings him out of it.
Ewan McGregor, Alec Guiness, and Frank Oz are all in the movie: Both McGregor (young Obi-Wan Kenobi) and Oz (Yoda) recorded new material which was used during Rey’s Force vision. Also, using editing and manipulation, McGregor’s voice is mixed with recordings of Guiness to create a mixture which says “Rey.” Also, the stormtrooper Rey uses the Jedi mind trick on to facilitate her escape was played by 007 himself, Daniel Craig.
All of the characters will return for Episode VIII?: According to what seemed to be a blanket statement by Star Wars producer Kathleen Kennedy, every main member of the movie’s cast would reprise their roles in Episode VIII, including Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill ... and Harrison Ford? It could be Kennedy was protecting the reveal of Han Solo’s death, or maybe Han might appear in flashback or vision in the upcoming movie. Also, screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan claims there are more secrets to be revealed.
Everyone who has seen these movies thinks about ‘I am your father …’ and ‘There is another …’ But neither of those things were in [1977’s original] Star Wars. Star Wars didn’t say Luke was the son of Vader. Star Wars didn’t say Leia was the sister of Luke. You didn’t understand what these references were: the Empire, dark times, Clone Wars. There were these things that were discussed that don’t get explained. George [Lucas] dropped you into a story and respected you to infer everything necessary to understand what you need to know… Can this movie actually also hold, ‘And Rey is this … And Finn is that … And this is where Poe is from …’ This is the first of a series. There is a story to be told. And it will be.
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