By this point, it probably sounds like I hate The Force Awakens and want to excise its memory from every human mind. Not so. My complaints are real, and they frustrate me to no end, because…dammit, there is just so much that this movie gets right. The Force Awakens feels to me like the filming of the third draft of a script, when it really needed a fourth.
I also suspect, in terms of the film’s refusal to explain things, that this is part of a New Media strategy for Star Wars. Remember, Disney specifically declared that the old “Extended Universe” material is no longer canon, and that everything else from now on would be. Not just the stuff in the new movies, but all of the comics now being produced, all of the novels, all of the animated teevee series, all of the events depicted in games. If all this is canon, then it’s clear that Disney can now relegated background material and its explanation to other media formats. Thus The Force Awakens can plow ahead and not tell us anything at all about this old geezer who just happens to have the piece of Luke’s map that will solve the puzzle, and then later on, they can come out with a novel or comic that explains it.
Well, I hate that. I don’t want to have to do extra research to enjoy a movie, or the reverse. If I read a novel, I shouldn’t have to go see some other movie to explain just what’s going on. I’ve no doubt that a lot of this stuff is going to be fleshed out, and I’ve little doubt that a lot of it will be in other media. And I find that incredibly irritating.
But anyway, let’s talk about what’s good with The Force Awakens, starting with the cast.
With one exception, the cast of this film is brilliant and does an amazing job. (The exception is the guy playing General Hux, with his weird blend of Hitler and Anglo-Shatner. I frankly hope that Hux is killed in the first scene of Episode VIII. Along with Captain Phasma…but her failure is one of writing, not acting. Hux is both.)
Seriously, aside from Hux, nobody in this movie turns in a bad performance. In fact, the performances are so good that they really do lift the movie above what I see as its pretty significant problems in the script. Daisy Ridley plays Rey with a nearly perfect blend of confidence in her short-term planning (once she decides to do something, she’s ruthlessly competent and very skilled at sizing up exactly what needs done), and lack of confidence in the big picture. Whenever she’s confronted with the “larger world” beyond her crappy little hole on Jakku, her confidence disappears, because she doesn’t know what she’s supposed to do or want. Ridley’s performance in this movie is as perfect as it gets. I love her strength, her emotion, and her refusal to give up or withdraw into a shell when things get bad. Rey never loses her agency, and that’s really a great thing. Not even when she’s a prisoner does she lose her agency.
Likewise, John Boyega delivers a powerfully skilled performance as the “little stormtrooper who could”. It’s clear that Finn should never have been on that mission to Jakku, but he was, and that’s how a lot of stuff gets started. Finn has skill and training, but he lacks confidence and has to keep doing things like telling himself to be calm and grabbing Rey’s hand, more for his own comfort than hers. Finn is naïve, and in some ways he’s even a child, but he also has a lot of training and is able to call on it in a lot of situations. Best of all, when he realizes that his training is useful, there’s always this little hint of surprise in his eyes: “Hey, guys, I’m contributing!” Even when it’s something simple like “Fly low! It screws up their sensors!” or “Stormtrooper masks filter smoke, not toxins.”
Oscar Isaac is perfect as Poe Dameron. I do wish the script had given him a little more to do during the final battle than just keep saying “Hit it with everything you got!” and then deliver so supremely melodramatic a line as “As long as there’s light, we got a chance!” I don’t have any idea if they plan to go any deeper into Poe Dameron, or if he’s going to be Wedge Antilles with a bit more screentime, so we’ll see.
And yes, I know that Han had to die, because of reasons and structure and Hero’s Journeys and all that stuff. But dammit, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher are just so damned perfect together. It’s a bummer that they’ll never be together again on the Star Wars stage. I love the scene when they meet each other again – “Same old jacket.” “No! New jacket.” Harrison Ford really brings his A-game here, and it’s nice to see. His self-satisfied smile as he stands in the Falcon cockpit, his look of dismay as he realizes he’s about to go right back into his old world of Luke and the Force and the rest of it…and my favorite little Solo moment, when after Kylo Ren leaves that one planet with Rey in captivity. Finn runs up to Solo and says something like “They took her! They’ve got Rey!” and Han, who has just seen his son in action and is realizing just how bad things are likely to get and knows that he’s about to be face-to-face with Leia, waves Finn off with a gruff “Yeah, yeah, I know.”
The Force Awakens is also a beautiful film. All the Star Wars movies are beautiful, really; one thing that I’ve always loved about Star Wars is that the eye candy is always beautiful and real, whether it’s the miles-high cityscapes of Coruscant or the dawn clouds of Bespin or the forests of Endor. The Force Awakens keeps this tradition going. We get a desert planet, to be sure, but this movie makes Jakku different enough that we know we’re not just on a Tatooine stand-in; this film’s forest planet is entirely different from ones we’ve seen before, and the Starkiller Station planet is icy without being Hoth again. Abrams has a strong gift for visual flare, and I’m glad that he actually made this movie look like a Star Wars movie, with ships that move with weight and with nifty things like the X-wing assault coming from low across the lake and the Millennium Falcon exploding from the trees.
I also like the film’s implications regarding Force users. The previous six films have all focused on the Jedi and the Sith, but it’s pretty much a matter of faith that there are Force users who are neither. Even the Jedi are prepared for this: in The Phantom Menace, when they learn of this kid who might have more Force-potential than anybody else ever, they’re prepared to send him back to Tatooine and be done with him. The Force, remember, is originally described to us as an energy field that surrounds us and penetrates us and binds the Galaxy together, which ought to make it much bigger than just the Jedi-Sith divide. In fact, what if the Force’s moral “sides” turn out to be less rigid than both Sith and Jedi have always thought? If so, then maybe the “awakening” of the Force, referenced in the film’s title, represents the Force itself starting to shake off the dominant narrative regarding its nature for the last thousand generations. Maybe, just maybe. And maybe not…but The Force Awakens does make some interesting leans in that direction.
What else is good in The Force Awakens? Every action sequence. I’ll give Abrams his due here: he is a very good action director. He manages kinetic energy on the screen very well, and it’s almost always easy to figure out exactly what’s going on. He also manages to make his camera do the right thing from one shot to the next, such as one time when we’re swooping around the sky with Poe, and then we cut to Finn, with the camera still swooping (albeit in closeup) as Finn cheers and shouts, “That is one hell of a pilot!” The first Millennium Falcon sequence, with the TIE Fighters in the desert, is brilliantly done, as is every action sequence in the film. This is no surprise: JJ Abrams managed the hectic action very well in both Star Trek movies (say what you will, the action sequences in those films were not poorly shot or directed) and in his Mission: Impossible movie.
What I love most about The Force Awakens will surely not come as a surprise to anyone familiar with me. John Williams’s score is fantastic. It might not be quite The Empire Strikes Back good, but it’s right up there with every other Star Wars score to date. There’s the undeniable thrill that comes with that magnificent opening fanfare and the opening crawl, but then we start getting the new dark music right off the bat, with the opening sequence – the attack on the Jakku village – culminating in a powerfully bleak motif for Kylo Ren. Next, though, comes the theme that is the heart of this film’s score: Rey’s Theme.
For Rey, John Williams spins some particularly wonderful magic. The theme is lyrical, but not in the usual Star Wars sense. The theme is beautiful, but it is also yearning and hopeful, and it bears some melodic resemblance to the famous Force Theme; more than that, Williams imbues Rey’s theme with a rhythmic sense of urgency and unrest, first with a repeating ostinato that is, in itself, quite the ear worm but later on with a churning under-rhythm that gives Rey’s theme its sense of forward motion.
The score also revisits a number of themes from the Original Trilogy: Leia’s Theme, the Love Theme for Han and Leia, and even the Imperial March, quoted when we see Vader’s wrecked mask. Williams brilliantly repurposes the old Rebel Spaceship Fanfare to stand for the Millennium Falcon herself, and the
Rebel Resistance Fighters get their very own march, which is brassy and thrilling. The use of this march lends a sense of legitimacy to the Resistance: this isn’t a group of rag-tag Rebels anymore. Williams does not repurpose the Imperial March for the First Order; neither does he use the Emperor’s old theme in reference to Supreme Leader Snoke. Maybe this is by design, maybe not (recall, the old Imperial March didn’t show up until The Empire Strikes Back). The music from The Force Awakens is one of the most exciting and listenable scores I’ve encountered in years.
With all my complaints about the film’s execution in its details, I do think that it leaves things in a very intriguing place. Everything depends on the next two Episodes, obviously, but there are lot of amazing places to which Episodes VIII and IX can go, based on what’s been established here. I’m not going to make any “educated” guesses – or the other kind – as to the major questions left behind by The Force Awakens. I’m not sure if I hope Rey turns out to be a major relative of one of the beloved heroes and central families, or if I hope Rey’s parentage is similar to Taran’s in Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles (we never do find out who his parents are). There needs to be an explanation for who Supreme Leader Snoke is and where he came from, and if Finn is Force-sensitive, that needs explained and fleshed out as well.
What I hope does not happen is any kind of redemptive arc for Kylo Ren. We’ve gone down the “Good side to the Dark side to the Good side” road again, and somehow it will just seem a bit repetitive to do that for Kylo Ren. Besides, quite frankly…I’m not really interested in seeing the guy who killed Han Solo get any kind of reprieve, even if it is something like “Somebody has to say aboard and pilot the Death Star III into the sun! Tell my mother I love her!” or some such. Kylo Ren is not a menacing villain; he’s a pathetic one, and pathetic villains need to stay pathetic until the moment their pathetic nature takes them to ruin. Kylo Ren is no Darth Vader. He is Gollum with a better hair cut, and that’s how he needs to stay.
So, there we have it: The Force Awakens, a fun film to watch that has a lot of great things going for it and which also has a lot of things about it that are maddening. Which, I think, makes it what it is: a pretty decent Star Wars movie.
Next up: Rogue One this winter, then Episode VIII next year, and then (I think) the Han Solo “origin” movie. That could be fun, but I do hope it’s not too much origin – I wouldn’t mind just a straight-up young-Han adventure. In any case, I think a major opportunity will be missed if that film isn’t called Never Tell Him The Odds: A STAR WARS Story.
Until the next movie, Star Warriors!