Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015): J.J. Abrams 

You waited 30 years for this. You suffered through Episodes I-III. You endured tinkering, re-releases, and Jar Jar.

The guy from LOST and Alias and Star Trek wrested the mantle from George Lucas after the Creator sold his rights to Disney. You were excited and nervous and happy and now you’ve seen it.

It took all of 18 days for Episode VII to earn more money at the US box office than any movie in American history. You liked it.

I have only seen the mainline Star Wars films. I haven’t read the books, watched the cartoons, or memorized Wookiepedia, so when I write things like “We don’t know…” or “No one has seen…”, bear in mind that you might know, because you know everything about the Star Wars galaxy, but I’m only talking about Episodes I-VII.

ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: With Luke Skywalker missing, Han Solo and some new friends reluctantly help Leia Organa and other Resistance fighters raze a spherical planet-destroying weapon wielded by the First Order, and if that sounds like a movie you’ve seen before, it’s not, OK?

Hero (6/10)

Brown-rag-clad Rey scours the surface of the desert planet Jakku. A lot of Empire junk crashed on her planet, and most of the people living in her village appear to be in the business of salvaging metal, buying metal, selling metal. Junk dealers, that’s what they are.

Rey is one tough cookie. She won’t let anyone fight her battles, and fighting one of her battles garners the attentions of Finn. Finn tries to hold her hand while running, but she refuses the help because she can fight as well as he can, dagnabbit.

Keira Knightly plays Rey. Scratch that, Daisy Ridley plays her, and all the intensity and desperation made during a life alone on a desert planet show on her face. Note the grim expression she wears while unloading a clip at Kylo Ren. This girl is pissed.

But about what? Might it be her past? Rey knows much more than she thinks she knows. When first boarding the Falcon, she starts it and directs Finn through it as if it’s her own car. But she didn’t know what ship it was, calling it “garbage.” Yet she knew exactly how to start it and fly it and even fix it, as she and Han speak the same words multiple times when they escape Han’s freighter.

Rey was abandoned on Jakku as a school-age child. Instead of learning fractions and memorizing the 50 planets of the Federation, Rey toiled in the sandy wastes. She seems to have no idea what she’s doing there, but fighting and flying skills come to her as if innate. I dig the mystery.

Who are Rey’s antecedents? All signs point to her being the progeny of Luke Skywalker. She envisions key moments in the lives of Skywalkers. It seems pretty obvious, so obvious that I don’t feel like speculating much about something we’ll learn in two years anyway, four at most, like who will win the 100m dash or the basketball Olympic gold medal.

Villain (4/10)

The Knights of Ren are a mysterious shadow group either using or working with the First Order for its own ends, specifically the elimination of the Jedi. Kylo Ren is the first member of this order we see, and Episode VII’s primary villain.

Adam Driver dons a Vader-light helmet and dark, tightly wound robes when working alongside the First Order. We first see Kylo in his angriest and most powerful state, as he arrives on Jakku.

Kylo walks out of his batwing black shuttle onto the sandy surface. Oscar Isaac‘s Poe runs behind and fires a blaster shot, Kylo snaps to the side and Force-stops the laser bolt. Whoa. That’s power we have not yet seen in the Star Wars galaxy. Throughout the rest of the scene the bolt hovers angrily, despite Kylo not keeping his hand in place.

Kylo then orders the murder of every captured villager on Jakku. He wants the map to the missing Luke Skywalker, and even though he knows it’s gone, he has them killed anyway.

But the protege of Snoke (neither Snake nor Smoke, but Snoke), or at least of Snoke’s enormous hologram, feels a pull to the Light Side. In one scene Kylo sits in a small chamber speaking with Darth Vader’s charred helmet. He could be speaking with Vader’s ghost, but that seems unlikely. Kylo mentions that his father still draws him to the Light Side. Leia should be the one drawing him; she has the Force. But the movie tries so hard to mirror Episodes IV-VI that they made Han the magnetic personality.

Kylo Ren frightened me until he mind-dueled with Rey and removed his helmet. Out flowed brown locks that screamed Emo. The fear was dead. Without his mask, Kylo looks like a petulant teenager rebelling against his parents. “No WAY am I gonna cut my hair or join your rebellion, dad.”

Driver resembles too much the badass member of a boy band to convince me he’s one of the three most powerful warriors in the galaxy. I understand that Kylo’s character is exactly like a teenager living under the thumb of an all-star father, I’m just stating that, mask free, he didn’t scare me.

Driver’s got the voice, though, and the mask’s modulation works. Vader was one of cinema’s most terrifying villains, and his outfit and machine-aided voice contributed much to that. Abrams and co. were wise to mimic at least that aspect of Vader’s persona in Kylo.

In a movie full of “been there/done that” moments, Kylo generated the most powerful moment in the film, and perhaps the entire series (depending on your feelings about “I am your father.”).

Kylo draws Han onto a railing-free bridge crossing an abyssal space. Han gives his best effort to draw him to the Light Side, addressing him as Ben and putting on his most convincing Harrison Ford Sorry Face. Kylo offers his lightsaber to Han. They grasp it together. Kylo wears an unreadable expression, until he ignites the sword and its twitchy orange glow penetrates Han’s chest. Han falls into abyss. Han Solo, American Film Institute’s #14 Hero, dies.

No moment in any Star Wars flick resonated more than that one. I thought they would be insane to kill one of the most popular characters in the history of cinema, that Kylo would join Han as Luke joined his father in Jedi, in both cases the Light Side victorious. I really did think that, because, c’mon, it’s HAN SOLO. Then Han dies, and so does a slight part of me. I still grieve.

Did Abrams make Episode VII just like Episode IV solely to set up this dichotomy? If so, he delivered a master stroke that we’ll remember for generations.

Action/Effects (7/10)

Force Awakens was whiz-bang from the start, much like New Hope. Exactly like New Hope. Many, perhaps too many, scenes were active, but two really stood out and I’ll detail them here.

Rey and Finn first board the Millennium Falcon, which is just parked outside a junk dealer on a backsand planet. Rey can fly it. She knows exactly how to start it up, and she knows just where Finn needs to go to shoot at the TIE fighters bombarding Jakku.

Finn works the blasters while Rey pilots the ship and enables the shields. She somehow evades the two fighters along the open sand. TIE pilots never do much damage to the Falcon, despite its enormous (comparative) size.

Finn finally learns how to shoot the guns. He blasts one bogey from the sky, which halves the enemies trailing them, but soon enough his aiming ability is compromised. He can only shoot in the direction the gun is pointed.

I always thought the Falcon’s size hindered its maneuverability. If TIE fighters can turn like a motorcycle, the Falcon turns like a tank. But Rey knows how to use the ship. When they reach the Star Destroyer wreckage, Rey pilots the ship inside them. She makes one incredible turn on a dime to escape through a hole in the huge wreck’s side. The Falcon practically stalls and turns 80 or 90 degrees to hit the gap.

The enemy still trails our heroes. Rey saves her best move for last. She jams the engine and literally stalls the ship while turning it upside-something, just so Finn can get his gun pointed at the fighter. He doesn’t miss. The Falcon has flown many times in the Star Wars movies, but never at Rey’s level of dogfighting. String me up if you must, but I don’t think Han Solo could do that. (I’ll redact after the Han Solo movie in 2018.)

The best battle scene takes place outside Maz’s (it’s not a) cantina on Takodana. The Resistance and First Order both learn of BB-8’s presence on the planet, and they collide quickly.

Kylo and some troops first land on the planet. TIE fighters blast the 1,000-year-old stone building as stormtroopers invade the shoreline. Finn has Luke’s lightsaber, but he uses it as well as I use a hammer, which is to say, not well. Han and Chewy shoot a lot of guys with their standard aw-shucks attitude while the bad guys miss every time.

The Resistance arrives quickly, ships streaking across the water like jet skis. X-wings attack the TIEs and muck up the First Order invasion. A great tracking shot follows Finn’s perspective as he watches the dogfighting around him in 360 degrees.

Rey is deep in the jungle, fleeing her legacy. She has a blaster, Han’s gift, because she can handle herself. When the First Order arrives she pops off a few shots at the invaders. Or she tries, but the safety’s on. Then she hits a guy standing on his own in the forest.

Kylo Ren shows up, eager to capture the (not R2-D2) droid everyone’s after. He pursues Rey and BB-8 into the forest. Rey pops off several shots at Kylo, but we know full well that won’t work. He can Force-stop laser blasts or deflect them with his lightsaber. Fielder’s choice.

BB-8 escapes for the second time, but Kylo is satisfied with unconscious Rey because she’s seen the map, and he believes he can get it from her. Their fight was interesting. Rey doesn’t know she has Force powers, and neither does Kylo. He toys with her, and fear and determination are fully present on Rey’s face.

Star Wars has long led the league in special effects. Industrial Light and Magic, perhaps the world leader in visual effects, is another Lucas baby. I just want to know how they made BB-8 work.

Combining real sets and animatronic work with special effects boosted the realism more than the prequel trilogy. Lasers and lightsabers are rough-edged, new to the series. Andy Serkis was in it, and I couldn’t even tell who he is. (He was Snoke.)

Sidekicks (6/8)

No AI/animal in the Star Wars galaxy tugs at the cute strings like BB-8. This little ball has a tiny head that magnetically (I assume) floats above its spherical body. BB is unique, in that the characters in the movie believe it. If they saw the millions of BB-8 smart toys, they might change their tune.

BB purrs like a cat and whimpers like a dog, and though it squeaks like R2, the cadence ranges more than the old blue and white trash can. BB-8 acts more nervously than R2, and when combined with its smaller size, makes you squeal when it’s on screen. Bill Hader and Ben Schwartz sort of voiced the droid.

John Boyega as Finn is as new and important to the Star Wars galaxy as Rey, but the new trilogy will be her story. Finn is a force of his own. He begins the movie as a masked stormtrooper invading Jakku, but when he first sees blood he says “nuts to this” and quits the First Order.

Finn takes little time deciding to flee his ship. His plan is to rescue top pilot Poe to fly a TIE fighter away from the other stormtroopers. Their escape echoes the end of Independence Day, when the world’s best pilot takes an enemy fighter from the mother ship as the enemy pursues.

The TIE crashes on Jakku, and Finn starts his journey. He never hesitates in life, except the moment when he chooses not to kill the Jakku villagers. Finn accepts Luke’s lightsaber after Rey does not, and he uses it in the first chance he gets. He uses it again to fight Kylo, despite suspecting he might be the galaxy’s best lightsaber fighter.

Oscar Isaac plays Poe Dameron, the Resistance’s best pilot. Poe, captured on Jakku, resists conventional interrogation but can’t match Kylo’s Force powers. He gives up that the droid has the Skywalker map on Jakku, but no more.

Poe helps Finn escape the First Order’s clutches, but when they crash land on Jakku he disappears for about an hour, only to show up and just say, “Hey, I escaped and now I’m here.” Poe is the best pilot in the Resistance, but he doesn’t show his skills off. He leads X-wing squadrons on Takodana and the Starkiller base, but he does little more than that.

OK, fine, he’s the one who finishes the job of destroying the thermal oscillator on the Starkiller base. I think Rey flies better than he does, but that’s what the Force does for you.

Henchmen (2/8)

Kylo Ren labors to find the map to Luke Skywalker. He has help in the First Order, although I think he works in spite of their efforts.

General Hux commands the First Order army. He and Kylo appear in two scenes with the Snoke hologram, and they bicker like two teens talking to Dad. Hux shows no fear of Kylo, unlike the way all Empire figures were terrified of Darth Vader. Kylo wants BB-8 so he can go kill Luke Skywalker, but Hux, flag grunt to the max, doesn’t care about that. He just wants to show off his shiny toy. Snoke needs both to finish the Jedi, but he won’t tell either one that Kylo’s work is more important.

When the Starkiller finishes charging, the camera cuts to Hux, who you just know is going to say “Prepare to fire.” With a smirk he says, “Prepare to fire.” That was the biggest “duh” moment of the movie, so you get the idea of who Hux is.

Captain Phasma menaces behind a silver stormtrooper suit, which is so far the most frightening of stormtrooper colors. I’ve seen them in black, but this silver lady was scarier. She oversaw Finn before he fled the Order, and she’ll play a stronger role in the next installments. In VII, she oozes all the charm of a sea slug, and though you can’t see her face at all, you can hear the rage seething beneath her regimented Brit-speak.

Speaking of Brits, they were all over the star destroyers and Starkiller base. As a professed Anglophobe, I understand the sentiment, but why did J.J. Abrams go along with it? Rey was the only Brit on the good side (although Boyega is British, he Yankeed his accent for the galaxy far, far away).

Stunts (3/6)

Only in a fantasy world would swordplay survive alongside laser guns and light speed travel. Kylo Ren unveils the first lightsaber with a cross-guard, and it works to his advantage. Kylo’s lightsaber is the dirtiest such weapon in the entire series. Its edges flicker like actual flame, making it seem unfinished (perhaps like its wielder?). Luke’s classic light blue saber is the only other sword used in the film, by both Finn and Rey.

The only fight occurs on the crumbling Starkiller base. Finn is the first to try the weapon on Kylo. Perhaps he’s had some training in hand-to-hand as a stormtrooper, but he can’t match with a Knight of Ren. Kylo toys with him in the snowy forest, knocking back back back, until he drives that cross-guard into Finn’s shoulder. The nice thing about being stabbed with a laser: the wound would instantly cauterize, preventing much bleeding and infection.

But it hurts like hell, and Finn screams loudly enough to awaken Rey, who earlier was Force-thrown into a tree. She and Kylo engage in a Force-off for the cast-away lightsaber. She wins, and they duel.

The subsequent fight is brief, considering it’s the climactic battle. That statement belies the trouble with guaranteed sequels: we know two more movies will follow these characters, so the best fight has to come, not at the movie’s end, but at the trilogy’s end.

Climax (2/6)

Yeesh. The attack on the Starkiller base is a mess.

You know what’s easy? Flying a ship faster than light speed and coming out of it in time to safely crash land on a snowbank. No problem. Han, Chewy, and Finn do just that on the Starkiller base. Finn came back only to save Rey, which they sort of do, but first they make a pit stop. “Hey, Captain Phasma, could you lower the shields to the entire base, please?” “I’d rather not.” “But could you?” “Yeah, I’ll do it for you, Finn.”

The shields drop so Poe and his ace X-wingers can enter and start shooting up the place. The thermal oscillator, the target, is the weak point that will destroy the entire planet, because that’s how engineers build things in the Star Wars galaxy.

Rey was well on her way out of there when she reunites with the Wookie and humans. They realize that the aerial attack isn’t doing enough damage, so they decide to set some charges on every other support beam, hoping that will do the trick. Han engages in classic smuggler improvisation, the behavior that endeared him to the viewing audience. Chewy goes “Aaarrrggghh.”

They see Kylo standing on a bridge. Han decides this is his last chance to save his son. Han walks out to him. He doesn’t give Kylo the “If you strike me down…” speech Obi-Wan delivers in Episode IV. Han isn’t a Jedi. He appeals to the heart.

Kylo tells him that Han must help him surpass the only obstacle between him and his destiny. He offers the lightsaber. Han touches it. Kylo ignites the sword through Han’s chest.

Chewy shoots Kylo, but he stumbles into the forest. He and Finn and Rey engage in their sword fights, detailed earlier. Poe flies inside the oscillator and blasts the rest of the superstructure. Planet be doomed now, y’all.

A chasm opens between Kylo and Rey, ending their fight. A literal chasm that wasn’t symbolic at all. Chewy lands the Falcon to rescue Finn and Rey and fly away. Kylo is left on the planet, but Hux was ordered to take him to Snoke to complete the training. We have to assume, because of Hollywood dollars and story continuity, that Hux rescued Kylo before the planet exploded, but the movie offers no solution.

Two things irked me about the climax. One, it’s just setup. Maybe Force Awakens was the straw that broke the camel’s back, but I want some finality dammit! Two, the end repeats Episode IV and VI. Star Wars needs different weapons of awesome power. Watching an entire planet explode should have made me go “Holy cow!” Instead, I shrugged. Seen it.

Near the end of Mad Max: Fury Road, one vehicle explodes. I know, about every vehicle exploded in that movie. George Miller filmed the explosion from above, perhaps from a helicopter, where before most of the shots were at ground level. The movie used slow motion to capture the car’s destruction. Even after countless booms and fireballs, this particular one still made me go “Holy cow!” That’s how you do it.

Jokes (3/4)

This section is the lone one to differ much from the original six films. It’s funny!

I’ve gotten this far without making a Kylo Ren & Stimpy joke, and I guess I’ll keep going. Just know that I’m showing great restraint in holding back.

While trying to fix the Millennium Falcon, Finn and Rey banter lines like a ping pong exchange. BB-8 beeps at Finn, and he says, “Droid please.” Meme, please. BB-8, in the same scene, exchanges a thumbs up with Finn, using his lighter in place of his thumb. Damn it, droid, you are too cute.

Poe, when captured by Kylo, breaks the awkward silence by asking which one of them talks first.

Han is his old self, but equally a mentor and thus forced to be less the rogue figure and more the doting father type. He still says things like, “That’s not how the Force works,” in exactly the same way your uncle would say, “That’s not what the ’60s were about, kid!”

The scene in which Rey escapes was a little too dumbed down for me–more for the kids, I think. The stormtrooper’s name, JB-007, was the scene’s best joke.

I won’t detail all the jokes. Abrams and co. layered them like whipped cream icing on a cake, enough to temper the taste of the whole cake and make you think you’re having something healthier than a fondant wedding cake. Finn is supposed to be our next Han Solo, but he lacks Harrison Ford’s curmudgeonliness. That’s OK; it’s just different.

I’m tempted to write that General Hux constituted one big joke. Tempted.

Setting (3/4)

The Star Wars galaxy has always evoked fantastic imagery that you can’t believe could exist on Earth. But very often it does.

Takodana: I’m a sucker for green worlds, and I felt like Rey when she first saw Maz’s planet. The forest moon of Endor was my favorite of the original trilogy worlds, and so is Takodana. The stone castle by the sea couldn’t speak to me any more loudly. Ruins, forest, blue water–Takodana, you had me at Tako-.

Jakku: I’m not crazy about desolate, desert worlds, but Jakku put a spell on me, in the way endless, shapeless deserts have cast spells on their denizens and visitors throughout history. But that’s the thing about deserts, they deceive. Jakku, and Earth’s deserts, are hardly shapeless. Rey, after scouring a fallen star destroyer, sleds down a huge dune to her speeder. The dunes are dynamic and dangerous. And the place reminds us of Tattooine. But it’s not the same.

The creatures enduring on Jakku are hearty folk, and perhaps they only exist to raid the wrecked spaceships, in the way coral love to colonize sunken, Earthbound ships. The Force might be strong with Rey, but her solitary life on an unforgiving planet must have affected her.

Starkiller planet: The base was set on a carved out planet of frosty mountains and snowy forests. Maybe the whole planet wasn’t like that, but the parts we saw were. Maybe because so many of the scenes at the base were inside, I never felt that the characters were on a cold planet, even when the main players were dueling in the snow. The issue is clothing. Han, Finn, and Rey wear the same clothes inside as outside. No one was doing that on Hoth in Episode V.

Starkiller base: Death Star III is somehow full of cavernous abysses and spotless, gleaming hallways. Unlike the original Death Stars, Starkiller is a planet, so First Order architects could afford to use large spaces, and they succeeded. Interrogation rooms and hangars are larger or as large as those on the Death Star. Hux addresses stormtroopers standing on a vast concrete field full of red flags before the Reichstag, er, First Order top brass. I dunno, whatever, it’s the same.

Commentary (0/2)

Any doubts we had about Star Wars stormtroopers being modeled after Nazi stormtroopers flew out the window faster than a Messerschmitt 262. Hux hypes up the troops while standing in front of a huge red banner. First Order red banners stand amongst the stormtroopers.

Offensiveness (0/-2)

The highest-grossing film in American history stars a black man and a white woman.

Others

  •  The death of Han Solo shocked me. I didn’t know he was to die and I didn’t know Ford only signed on for one movie. When Han gripped that lightsaber, I genuinely believed Kylo would let go. I couldn’t fathom Star Wars killing off one of the most popular characters in cinema history. That’s exactly what they did. It was a bold move in a movie devoid of them. Han Solo is the highest-ranking fictional character on AFI’s list of top heroes to die.

Summary (36/68): 53%

Star Wars: The Force Awakens offers exactly what you loved about the original movie. Maybe too exactly. It was pretty much the same movie. I’d say that’s a bad thing, but $2 billion box office can’t be a bad thing.

A friend described this movie to me as “perfect fan fiction.” I can’t agree more. I don’t mind watching remakes, as long as I know going in that I’m watching a remake. At times, Force Awakens nearly matched Episode IV shot for shot. This annoyed me. I’ve already seen and love Episode IV. Give me a new movie.

I don’t think Abrams and Disney had to recreate the original potion to earn $2 billion, but they did, so let me just wash the mud from my face. If Episode VIII offers a giant slug freezing Finn in carbon, I’m done with Star Wars.