Star Wars Episode VII: The Franchise Awakens to High Expectations and Uncertainty
Tell me a story?
“Sure. Once upon…”
No, no. Tell me a new story.
“All right. Once upon…”
No! Tell it like you told it last time.
This little dialogue was jumping around inside my head for the past few days, before I was able to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I saw it literally a few hours before I began writing this review on Sunday, December 20. I had a feeling about this — no, not a bad feeling — that I would exit the theater with a mixed-to-positive reaction.
And just as I expected, The Force Awakens was a new story told much like it was told last time.
I don’t meant this to sound too negative. In fact, attempts to tell a wholly new story with new tricks could have helped doom the prequels’ chances at long-term success. The Force Awakens director J.J. Abrams and company have decided that the best way forward into a renewed Star Wars franchise is backward, or at least partially backward for this first film.
Thus, as various other reviewers have noted, the film opens with an epic shot of a vast ship in space, then villains seek secret plans, a cute droid escapes with the plans, someone crashes on a desert planet, we meet a desert dweller with a quiet need, then it’s off to the Millennium Falcon with Han Solo and Chewbacca as well as fast-paced laser battles versus the forces of evil and a dark-clad villain with anger issues aboard a vast star-sized weapon to make war, literally, a star war — and well, I have actually not been speaking of A New Hope but The Force Awakens. The new film mirrors each New Hope element. So if you’re a relatively new convert to the franchise as I am, or have been raised in the Star Wars fan denomination since infancy, and you expect otherwise, you may be disappointed.
I’ll admit, even as a casual fan my expectations were abnormally high. As I said to someone at my wife’s office party last night, people have built up a level of anticipation that should only be reserved for the Second Coming of Christ, and only He can fulfill that hope. (Yes, I Jesus-juked that conversation, and have enough quarters to keep a Jesus Jukebox playing all night.) I didn’t want to overhype The Force Awakens — if that’s even possible. Because even when I tried to avoid boarding the Death Star of Star Wars Hype, its tractor beam overrode all my controls.
I thought I was stronger than this. Perhaps I thought that my being a new fan, having first seen the films in 2008, would give me resistance to the power of the Hype Side, which can only lead to hate, fear, anger, and prequel-traumatic stress disorder. Instead I’m fighting a little to take my own C.S. Lewis-inspired advice from my Avengers: Age of Ultron review:
Aim for a fun movie and you may get The Most Amazing Film Experience Ever thrown in; aim for an absurdly high experience and you will get neither.
Which is probably how the most positive reviewers of The Force Awakens are able to enjoy and (rightly, I think) give the film high rankings, some even higher than Return of the Jedi. Maybe by writing this review and aiming better, I will better delight in The Force Awakens.
1. People and plots
Of our three new heroes — loner scavenger Rey, confident fighter Poe Dameron, and repentant stormtrooper Finn — I identified most with Finn (John Boyega). I’m trying to determine why I do. From that moment early in the story when something happens that causes him to turn, I was drawn to his white-plasticky side. On the surface this makes little sense. Why would a stormtrooper convert? Weren’t they all clones? I figured Finn’s quiet uncertainty must have been building all along. It’s not seen, but felt. And Finn’s story worked for me. As did his reluctance about his sudden role as adjunct-hero. He helped draw me in.
Unlike savvier pop-culture types, I usually don’t see movie actors in anything before they’re cast in big blockbusters (save for Oscar Isaac who plays Poe here and who played Joseph in 2006’s The Nativity Story). I thought they all did a fine job here.
As my wife said about Daisy Ridley, who plays Rey, “I liked her. She wasn’t nearly as annoying as I expected.” I asked: Why is that? And why did you expect people to be annoying? “Because the Strong Female Lead™ usually turns out annoying,” Lacy said. Yet that’s not true of Rey. She’s a refreshing and realistic presence, strong and vulnerable at once, a normal person, and (here’s my last obligatory prequel dig, really) not a weird-galactic-anti-human like the prequels featured. Even when she experiences her own, well, awakening, and inevitable reluctance, it makes sense and doesn’t feel like going through the reluctant-hero motions. Thinking about it now, I loved her final battle. Loved it. Because it was so normal. Two untrained people, struggling to find their places in this sudden new drama, are thrust into a situation in which they must hurl sabers at each other. It feels real.
So do the interactions between original trilogy stars, especially two, who return for this last bow (or next-to-last bow?). And I liked how Finn and Poe make introductions and instantly bond in battle. This may be a galaxy far away, but humans ought to feel the same in every story, with light and dark sides, and this is our lighter side. These little moments reflect our longing to befriend people and fight epic battles together while yelling “WAAHOOOOOO!”
Story shorthand tells us all we need to know about what they want, perhaps except for Poe. Rey wants her family back. Finn wants to escape. As for the greater plot in motion, I felt a bit confused. I can share my questions and keep things spoiler-free because the film does not answer them: After the Empire fell, whence came this “First Order”? What is the relation of the New Republic to the Rebellion or the “Resistance”? What kind of motivation is driving anyone on either side here? Perhaps this was also true of the original trilogy, while the prequels attempted to explain things more, but sometimes I get lost in all of Star Wars because I lose track of what the wars are over, other than freedom versus something else.
My uncertainty deepened regarding the story’s central villain, Kylo Ren. (One of the film’s only revealed mysteries is his identity.) Surely the later films will reveal more of what drove Ren to the Dark Side, but so far the logic isn’t holding together well. Is Ren president of the Darth Vader fan club? Angry at his parents? Some combination?
By contrast, Darth Vader from the first film was basically a standard heavy. New Hope was not interested in his tragic past. Empire alone raised the possibility that more was going on between Luke and Vader, then answered that question in one fell saber swoop. But in The Force Awakens, we must get the mystery teased years before it’s answered. So I suspect The Force Awakens as its own film and Ren as a viable enemy must suffer for that lack of resolution, at least temporarily. For now, Ren works best when he’s masked. The more we know, the less scary he becomes.
3. Story-world and style
I’ve said that Abrams and company felt it best to move forward by looking to the past, and wow, did they pull it off. As others have noted, the “lived-in universe” of the original Star Wars trilogy is back. That aesthetic was groundbreaking for its time, compared with the sleek-and-polish of other science-fiction film sets. And for The Force Awakens, the very-amateur-film-historian in me got a kick out of seeing an odd reversal: Places that could have easily been filled in with green screens were instead made by real sets, and creatures that could have been drawn by computer imagery were played by real puppets. I saw only a few CG folks in the set of Mos Eisley bar scene 2.0 (and could have sworn I saw the wolfman-mask-wearer who was permanently excised during George Lucas’s special treatment of A New Hope).
That vintage style makes me hopeful for the future of filmmaking. Not everyone wants the stereotypical approach of making and editing movies all inside a computer and splicing in humans at the edges. Audiences and other directors will push back, and God bless ‘em for it.
If you want me to discuss differences between the original trilogy look and this new film, this isn’t the review you’re looking for. For example, some have said the X-Wings look different; I’m a casual fan and saw little difference, myself. But I did notice enough to refute people who say the places are basically repeats of original-trilogy locations such as Tattooine, Hoth, and Endor. Rather, The Force Awakens‘ locations hint at them without mirroring them.
All the while, John Williams’s magnificent score uplifts every scene. Hardcore fans will doubtless do even better hearing reprises of themes for the Empire, the Force’s magic, or Han and Leia’s relationship. Williams hasn’t lost it. In particular, his introduction theme for Rey made me consider going out to purchase a Star Wars film score for the first time.
Speaking of the Force’s magic, the film left me a little lost about exactly when and how the Force did an actual Awakening. Was the Force asleep? If so, why? Did it vanish with the last Jedi? Based on the trailers, I expected more emphasis on any recent legends of the Empire’s defeat as well as the Force vanishing from memory for a generation. That would have been cool — a world with its magic gone until something happens to bring it back. Instead I heard only a few passing references to the Force along with ancient religion. This felt like playing things really safe. As a Christian, I don’t believe in the Force, but for story’s sake, I would prefer more about the magic and Jedi belief. Anyway, people can say all they want about “balance to the Force” and such. We’ll all still want the Light side to win 100 percent.
Aim to delight in a decent and fun movie, not the Second Coming of Your Childhood, and you will likely find The Force Awakens to be an amazing cinematic experience. Aim for anything else, and you may be disappointed. This recent fan believes The Force Awakens is the first of many delights over the next decades. The franchise has awakened, and I anticipate seeing where we go next — not to darkness, not to “balance,” but toward the light and delight.