This post on the new Star Wars film contains spoilers.
I wonder at what point J. J. Abrams first felt The Force Awakens coming together. Through a multi-year-long process that involves intense planning, cooperation, vision, and compromise, it surely is an extremely stressful endeavor. Abrams himself was reluctant to take on the mantle of restoring The Most Beloved Franchise.
That’s what’s in my mind when I think about this new Star Wars. Everything worked, and that’s amazing. Not only as a single film itself; not only with the context of episodes I, II, and III; not only as beholden to the glory of IV, V, and VI; but as something that must capture everyone across gender, race, age, and more, for the newcomers and old fans alike.
In a Wired interview, Abrams mentions that the ball droid BB-8 being well-received by Anthony Daniels (C-3PO) while filming stood out as an early indicator that things were working. While watching the film, though, I saw so many more encouraging signs that this entry into the Star Wars canon was destined for success. I’ve grouped them into a handful of points:
- The new characters (and actors) are fantastic. Rey and Finn’s chemistry is apparent immediately and only becomes more pronounced after they work together to fend off Tie Fighters in the Millennium Falcon. Rey is independent and consistently refuses the pressures from Finn, and film tropes themselves, to be treated as anything but a capable equal. (I’m with many others in being overjoyed with this choice and feeling confident that Rey will be a role model for girls.) Finn is emotive and very funny, taunting his former commander when given the chance, slipping in a boyfriend question to Rey, and cheering when he takes out an enemy ship. Poe Dameron, the ace Resistance pilot, shows refreshing irreverence towards the villain, Kylo Ren, when he is captured. Ren’s character is understood and plainly visible when he lashes out, almost immaturely, with his erratic lightsaber. We don’t know much about any of these character’s origins, but that doesn’t detract from the film.
- In fact, I’d argue that the world building present in the original trilogy and this film is a huge part of what makes them so memorable and stand the test of time. So much is presented that tells the story of the galaxy by not telling it. How did the battle on Jakku go that created these wrecked ships in the dunes? What happened to C-3PO’s arm, the Falcon’s dish, and R2-D2? Planets, cultures, characters, aliens, and history are established, but only sampled from. There is always a sense that this is a real, lived-in place with more to know around any corner. We would be so lucky to learn more about these characters in future films.
- Character roles and skills are established, but also thwarted. Rey knows machines, can pilot, and is good with hand-to-hand combat. Finn, a former Stormtrooper, is good with both hand and ship blasters and uses intel from his time as a part of the First Order to help the Resistance. Han Solo gives Rey a blaster, however, and Finn is the first to use Anakin’s lightsaber. This, to me, set a new, practical tone for the series’ continuation. No non-Jedi/Sith (or -Padawan) to my recollection had ever wielded a lightsaber before this film. Finn’s story is also a closer look at the life of a Stormtrooper than even before, and his switching sides is equally unprecedented in the series (with the exception of Vader’s redemption). With new ideas and some broken rules in this new series, it’s going to be a wonderful experience to see these characters grow into their roles just as the actors do.
- The old guard passes the torch. Leia is now a general and commands the Resistance. Solo is back to being a scoundrel until he finds a grander purpose in confronting his renegade son. He respects Rey for her expertise of the Falcon, and he offers sage advice and needed criticism when Finn needs it. Luke in his teaser of an appearance convincingly evoked his likely Obi-Wan role. The original trio all play (or will play) important roles in ushering in these new characters, actors, and a generation of fans. Chewy, the droids, and the Falcon seem to bridge the gap between them.
- Once we meet Rey, the film stays grounded for a long time. The most exciting and visible example of this is in the first battle with the Millennium Falcon, which barely gets off the desert sands of Jakku. One could easily imagine a script of this film having the return of the Falcon be just like the older films, letting it take place in outer space. Instead, we get glimpses of what that space battle would be like (and possibly what the battle of Jakku was like) but through crashed, buried, and destroyed old ships. It’s exciting and fun to see our new generation of heroes take this first step, but we know it’s not the true battle we’re expecting. These characters are just starting on their journey, weaving through a kind of simulation of what’s in store.
- Continuity and change strike a perfect balance. The bad guys have a new name but still want to make a giant sphere that destroys planets. (The actual destruction, with people elsewhere looking on, feels more weighty in this film, which was appreciated.) The Falcon is there, but the hyperdrive actually works, and the quintessential Star Wars icon takes a real beating throughout the film. Solo and Leia are the same characters but changed with 30-year’s-time and with a child whose tumultuous education and behavior shaped their lives. The story hits many of the same marks as A New Hope, but it’s retold with clever changes, an existing enriched world, and with a passing of the torch to a new generation. Oh, and the little droid on the Star Destroyer still makes that same bipping sound as it whizzes by.
- Speaking of droids, I already mentioned him, but BB-8 is the cutest thing in the galaxy. And our galaxy. His motion is earnest, elegant, and adorable. The sounds he makes are delightful: evocative of R2-D2 but distinct. Smart choices and shots reveal how he can navigate stairs and holes with grappling hooks. That “thumbs up” he does? It slayed me. His head moves around like a human’s, giving a wide range of emotion, from confusion, to sadness, to curiosity. And He Purrs. Like a cat! AHHH! (It’s at this point that I Can’t Even.) He’s a crucial character to the plot, holding part of the map to Luke Skywalker, so it’s a relief and joy that he’s wonderful to have along.
Some may criticize The Force Awakens for its similar plot to A New Hope, but I appreciated the homage and story structure. It’s an archetype that perhaps deserved to be redone to clear the palette from the more recent trilogy. If I had to pick one thing that did feel like a flaw, it is that Captain Phasma, the shiny Stormtrooper, was very much underused. She could have had a more prominent role as an antagonist with Finn, though it’s possible she survived to appear in a future film.
I can also note elements of the film that didn’t stand out as previous films had. Existing lovely musical themes for individual characters, as well as the Force, the Rebels/Resistance, and the Empire/First Order, were reprised. I didn’t leave the theater feeling like anything rose to the level of the opening fanfare or “The Imperial March”, however. Perhaps that takes time to develop in the public consciousness, but “Duel Of The Fates”, arguably one of very few elements worth remembering from The Saga Begins, was an early stand-out.
I saw The Force Awakens at 12:30 AM on Friday morning, or late Thursday night on 17 December 2015. (Going at the tail end of premiere night meant I got to see a Carbonite Han Solo being stored into a van, Fett-style.) During the day leading up to seeing it, I had two very distinct interactions with people.
First was at the spot I was getting lunch. I offered a “Merry Star Wars” to the cashier, who responded that most of the people working that evening were going to see the film together that night. The Force was strong with them. It was exciting to be a part of this huge group of people who were enthusiastically awaiting the return of a beloved series after a decade.
Second was at a grocery store, where I was grabbing essential candy supplies. Star Wars came up again, and the bagger cautiously admitted that he hadn’t seen any Star Wars films. He’s right to be wary: a lot of people will jump on someone admitting such a thing and make big mouth shapes of astonishment, stretching out their vowels. “Whaaat?” “Reeeaally?” This is often immediately followed by insistence to stop whatever the person was doing to rectify this grave error.
I was happy to be able to say to him that from glimpses of early reviews, the film was wonderful for old and new alike. I encouraged him to see this one and discover for himself if it’s a series he wants to learn more about. I’m even happier to say that after seeing it, this is even more certainly true. A beloved piece of fantasy/sci-fi that has shaped so much of our culture, yet has failed to satisfactorily resurface since the 80s, has finally arrived and delivered what so many have wanted. It’s updated for today’s standards in many positive ways. The Force Awakens has not only rekindled the love and excitement we fans have had simmering for years but invites newcomers to join the party. I’m so very glad this film exists and has now set the stage for more wonderful entries into this galaxy far, far away…