The Force Awakens is like the Jurassic World of Star Wars. So if you’ve just begun watching movies in the year 2015, that’ll be a convenient analogue. But I think it’s a workable one on a broader level – both share a similar DNA, and for another unnecessary analogy, both are a more successful version of Terminator Salvation. The fourth Terminator film, a complex thing as a story sequel but a tonal reboot, attempted to push into the future, while paying homage to the past. Those in the anime-know know this as fan service. For Star Wars, there’s a lot of fan service, though its version of the T-Rex reveal is considerably less satisfying – but maybe just as effective.
The Force Awakens seems driven by a checklist of every element beloved of the Original Trilogy, those also missing from the Prequel Trilogy (this new one being the Reclaimer Trilogy), and so you’re witness to vintage favorites like trench runs, old sages, cantinas, the Hero’s Journey, the Millennium Falcon, military strategy over holograms, Empire architecture, and even Jedi mind melds. And a badass-looking villain who gets chumped in anti-climax (Captain Phasma, though she’s set to return somehow), though that’s more of a holdover from the Prequels (Jango and Grievous we hardly knew ye).
Not to mention that the three planets featured in Episode VII are facsimiles of Tatooine, ice planet Hoth, and the Forest Moon of Endor (the setting of Return of the Jedi is not in fact Endor, but its forest moon, the Forest Moon of Endor). So this checklist plays on nostalgia pretty hard – even I was a touch misty at some of the reunions. But it checks and checks, and it stops just before the final tenet in the Star Wars rubric: imagination.
It’s funny, because the first Star Wars movie built a rad, awesome playground for imagination to run wild, more so than entries in the considerable Extended Universe (since retconned, which is like a thousand voices extinguished). I think the problem with those, and with prequels/sequels is that additional baggage must be reconciled. At that point, Star Wars has lore, and is a commercial franchise, where starting out, it was… Episode V.
Episode V? What does that even mean? Well, George Lucas was modeling Star Wars off of the old scifi serials from the 30s, the episodic shorts that would screen in front of movies. You’d never be there for the first episode, so you’re thrown right into the story. Flash Gordon is frequently cited here, and that’s one where they put sparklers on the spaceships, and they filmed aquariums to double as undersea environments. In this instance it’s not about the ‘creativity from low budget,’ principle, but the spirit of invention that was echoed in each Star Wars movie until probably Attack of the Clones.
In the original trilogy, you had the Death Star, the AT-ATs, the Sarlacc pit, and the landspeeder chase, and each of these represented set pieces that stuck in your mind. Even in The Phantom Menace, you have the pod racing, which is exhaustingly lame, but an invention nonetheless. From there, you have some tweaks on what exists, like kung-fu Yoda, but the invention is gone because again, the identity of Star Wars was beginning to set in. Drying in concrete like Lucas’s handprints on the Walk of Fame. The AT-ATs came out of nowhere, and you can do that in the beginning. If you want to create something radical now, you have to consult between three to six live-action features to see if it fits. Better to just have bigger wars. (So you’d better damn do that!)
It’s a stupid way to look at it, but I can’t help myself – I just wonder how The Force Awakens will be replicated and parodied, how its scenes and moments will be immortalized by way of diffusion through pop culture. When Robot Chicken or Family Guy do their animated recreations, will there be something notable to lampoon? Or will it just look like the original stuff?
But I imagine you’ve read other reviews of this movie, and so the recurring criticism you’ve endured, which alternates positive and negative, regards the derivative nature. While it may not strike the same balance of fan service and futuring as Jurassic World, which was a textbook for this ultra-new-school of blockbuster filmmaking, of rebooting a franchise, the futuring it does certainly deserves mention.
From where I sit, it’s two things: the new characters, and the element of Luke Skywalker. These are new, and notably so. Beyond the technical details, like the unique feel of the movie, the very modern sensibilities, and the cast, which is predictably outstanding. The new characters introduced exist at various levels of intrigue, and it seems that Kylo Ren will be the character we hoped he’d be… in the next installment. But damn, if his mask isn’t cool.
So that leaves Finn, Dameron, and especially Rey. Dameron was a surprise favorite, although Oscar Isaac’s charm is undeniable, and possibly known months or years prior (with Ex Machina, not really, but Show Me a Hero, yes). Although it’s tempting to sync up the new cast with the old, it seems unimaginative to say that Dameron is the new Han Solo, though they both crack wise in the face of villains and are subsequently tortured by them. No Boba Fett equivalent so far, but I assume the coming bounty hunter will be a woman, given the trends (thumbs up, thumbs up, thumbs up, omg please).
Dameron is the brave pilot, and his self-confidence is such that he trusts Finn and believes that a stormtrooper could turn out to be a nice guy. Although he’s absent for a significant chunk of the runtime, his return is one of the film’s best moments. If only the rest of his X-wing buddies were notable, but they killed the alien one right away. He was too expensive to survive.
Finn is at once familiar but fresh – like a heart of gold smuggler or a farmboy with big dreams, he’s a soldier with a conscience, and gets swept along in a big adventure for it. He’s somehow the comic relief, a charmingly anxious proxy for the boys and men and menboys in the audience, who sees a woman in peril and understands instinctively that she’ll need help in perpetuity.
He reacts to everything the way we would in the same situation, but with considerably less grit – a lot of boo-yahs and shrieks at explosions that detonate too close. It’s awesome, and sometimes frightening, but it always rounds back to awesome, such that becoming a hero (and overcoming a dark past) is fun, but tense. We understand the consequences of failure, because the people around him are human.
That of course was the biggest mistake of the prequels – all of these characters were Jedi, and as such nearly impossible to empathize with or understand. And then you add terrible writing on top of it…
So Finn is our most immediate proxy, which might strike you as anti-PC generation (yeah, right), because he’s a guy. But it’s fine if the audience is meant to identify more so with Finn, because Rey plays another role. She too is easy to identify with, but her journey takes her further, and she discovers things about herself that are imbued, not gained necessarily.
Finn overcomes his past, claims an identity, and makes friends – these are things we’re familiar with. Rey becomes a Jedi, and that’s a bit more alien (despite its familiarity in global pop culture). She too is strong, not only from the beginning where she’s good with a bowstaff, but because she walks down the path, once it makes itself visible.
It’s in her character, I suspect, based on the general theme of the series. Where Kylo Ren was consumed by the Dark Ring, or the Force, side of the Force, Rey fights for her friends. Being powerful is something anyone in the Star Wars universe can seemingly do at any time – it’s what you do with it that makes you a hero. And so that’s how Rey becomes a powerful character and a great one.
She’s a joy to behold on screen, because her naiveté gives her instant chemistry with Finn, and her unflagging goodness is the anchor for the movie. But the added dimension of badassness is what’s novel, and so appreciated. I saw a couple interviews way ahead of the film’s release – too early to sink hopes on – where Daisy Ridley talked about being a ‘strong female character,’ a term whose utility is far overshadowed by its misuse, so I don’t think she said that specifically.
But she referenced Katniss Everdeen for the modern standard of what a powerful woman protagonist is like, and I remember thinking, “log this away. It’ll come in handy for when Rey makes her debut and she gets kidnapped or defeated in battle or turns out to not be a Jedi.” (I didn’t actually think that last part).
Immediately though, I thought back to Olivia Wilde’s comments regarding Quorra from TRON: Legacy. Both actresses talked about playing characters to inspire a new generation of young girls. But Quorra turned out to be pretty forgettable – despite a slick hairdo, she was functionally identical to the kinds of badass women before her, who were only badass up to a point. Rey on the other hand really feels like a revision of Princess Leia, updated for 2015 sensibilities.
Which on one hand is sad, because despite all the work she put into the movie, and the performance she turned in, Carrie Fisher has been fielding a decent amount of shit. As an actress, but also her character. However, it is true that Leia was an impressive character for her time. From what I understand, it was more about the attitude, that women in the late 70s were never depicted in this way – talking back, making the orders.
But she wasn’t a soldier, or a smuggler, or a bounty hunter. And she wasn’t a Jedi. Now, Rey gets to be a few of these things, and we’re seeing something physical. For reference, if you’re a dude screenwriter who just has to write a scene of the woman character being kidnapped – you have to couch it in at least this amount of the same character being a badass. Because while I didn’t like seeing Rey captured, it wasn’t nearly as bad as every other instance of the same thing, nor Captain Phasma getting sucker punched.
So the second part here considers one of the old characters. Now, the simplicity of The Force Awakens’ text crawl feels pointed, given the prequels’ veering into talk of trade federations and space taxes? This one amounts to no more than ‘the First Order is looking for Luke Skywalker. Are you a bad enough dude to save her?’ He’s become an even deeper part of the myth, and so while the storyline is clear and simple, as a result it’s licensed to go interesting places.
The mythologizing of Luke Skywalker is a point of brilliance, and although I spent the final scene being confused about Han Solo, that meeting on the mountain is epic. It’s the most Kurosawa a moment Star Wars has ever done (from what I understand, people who describe the series as Hidden Fortress with lasers have not actually seen Hidden Fortress), and gives the Jedi a mystique that the prequels worked very hard to obliterate.
It harkens back to an older mythology, not of the Original Trilogy, but almost of samurai film, or possibly martial arts cinema – there’s a lone warrior on an island, in self-imposed exile for a sin so great he stands by even as the galaxy burns, and he represents a leg of the race on the Journey, a critical turning point.
The Final Trailer for The Force Awakens was a masterpiece of editing, and made me excited for a film I wouldn’t otherwise care about, but I think that this moment does it one better. Star Wars may not be in the game of invention anymore, but the lore it has created – if navigated correctly – could actually prove compelling. I just hope that the second one doesn’t become the ‘dark second chapter.’ Because that’s never worked. Not even Mass Effect 2. It’s something we say about a thing like twenty years after the fact. Not during marketing.
Maybe not to the level of The Phantom Menace, but I do expect a backlash to The Force Awakens. When I close my eyes and think about it, I see a lot of generic stuff. But also Rey, and Rey is cool. There’s a momentum building, but if Episode VIII turns out poorly, we’ll look back on this one and retro-hate it. Ball’s in your court, Hamill.
On a lesser note, I feel like the only jerk in the universe who knows that there are actually eight Star Wars feature films. Or was Star Wars: The Clone Wars so bad that we just forgot about it? It would have to have been really bad.