The Force Awakens lends an aspect of genuine craftsmanship to the Star Wars saga that has been sorely missing since The Empire Strikes Back. It’s not as if TFA attempts to disguise all its blatant attempts to capitalize on the Star Wars franchise, i.e. sell toys, but for the first time since Irwin Winkler and Lawrence Kasdan’s pivotal Episode V, Star Wars feels like a phenomenon again. Chalk it up to the thirty-year gap between the end of Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens, blame it on marketing hype and auteur fetishism (looking at you, J.J.), but no matter the manipulations behind its inception The Force Awakens emerges as a confident, true-to-form installment in the Star Wars saga. It may err on the side of caution by retreading familiar ground and embracing archetypal story structure, but let no one accuse this film of being any more derivative than A New Hope was upon its release, because Episode VII successfully introduces a fresh, charismatic slew of new characters and pushes the boundaries of story and lore where it counts.
Let’s clear this foul air for starters: Rey (Daisy Ridley), the cocksure-yet-wistful hero of this new trilogy, is not a ‘Mary Sue’ or whatever other cheap misogynistic term nerd-bros online have concocted to justify their discomfort with a female protagonist. Criticisms of Rey’s robust skill-set and near-mastery of the Force despite a lack of training are couched in pro-narrative language; neckbeards claim that because Rey’s character is so skilled and powerful right off the bat, she will not be able to undergo the essential Hero’s Journey that framed Luke Skywalker’s story in the original trilogy, thereby robbing these new films of a fundamental, sympathetic narrative tool.
First of all, that’s bullshit; the Hero’s Journey need not have anything to do with physical skills, and The Force Awakens makes it obvious that Rey is seriously struggling with some internal baggage that we’ve yet to see fully unfold. She is introduced to the audience as wistful and arrogant, and she arrives at the end of the movie… a little more wistful and a little less arrogant. Not exactly a complete character arc. Secondly, this reading is such a predictable double-standard. In the original film, Luke Skywalker successfully shoots his way through a platoon of highly-trained Imperial stormtroopers on the Death Star, pilots a combat fighter on a high-risk mission despite having no formal training in that type of ship (T-16s are unarmed and about half as fast as an X-Wing, check your canon nerds), and oh, yeah, Luke connects deeply enough with the Force, after only about a day, to hit a target “two-meters wide” with a proton-torpedo sans targeting computer. No one ever whined about Luke being a ‘Mary Sue,’ because it’s a sexist term that only gets dredged up when frightened lonely men are exposed to the sight of a woman more skilled than their male idols.
Sure, Rey is more powerful with the Force than Luke is during his early-training period, but why is that such a problem? She’s clearly some kind of prodigy; the movie goes out of its way to say so: “She is strong with the Force! Untrained, but stronger than she knows.” – Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Anakin was ‘born of the Force’ – literally a cheap Jesus ploy – and he builds an advanced protocol droid from scratch, builds his own podracer from scratch, pilots said podracer despite it being humanly impossible, and flies a combat mission when he is nine years old. Meanwhile, Rey struggles to get the Millennium Falcon to lift off, manipulates one inept Stormtrooper, unlocks a few doors and bypasses some compressors and everyone gripes about her being OP. It is sickening to see disbelief go unsuspended merely on the grounds of sexism.
Rey is a fantastic character, weighted by an insecurity masked as arrogance and dripping with wide-eyed charisma. She and the buoyant turncoat-cynic Finn (John Boyega) are the best Star Wars leads we’ve had since the original trio, and they’re better actors than Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher were during their first Star Wars movie. Any criticism of The Force Awakens condemning shoddy character craft is simply unobservant and false. Every new character and nearly every old one – from God’s gift Poe Dameron (nothing-but-respect-for-MY-president Oscar Isaac) to barb-tongued Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o) – is sharply defined from the moment they first appear on screen and progresses satisfyingly, at least until this first installment is done with them.
Speaking of first installments, The Force Awakens absolutely operates as most high-budget trilogies have in the last twenty years (Planet of the Apes and Nolan’s Dark Knight being notable exceptions) and establishes the principal plot as a three-movie design. In other words, The Force Awakens is essentially the first act of a larger story. It does not stand alone in the same way A New Hope does, with a neat-and-tidy wrap-up, and perhaps the main criticism to be leveled against Episode VII is that its own third act overflows with hasty plot points in an effort to better compartmentalize and consolidate this ‘first chapter’ of the overarching story.
Han Solo’s (Harrison Ford) death is as devastating on the sixth viewing as it is on the first, but it admittedly arises rather quickly in the context of the narrative. Finding out Ren is Han and Leia’s son, seeing Han and Leia meet after however-many years apart, hearing Leia beg Han to save Ren’s soul, biting our nails as Han walks the deadman’s gait down the catwalk – all within about an hour of run-time – it inarguably feels rushed. Only exceptional editing and breathtaking lighting lend the scene an emotional resonance that rushed development otherwise threatens to diminish, but damn is the lighting breathtaking:
Even after six viewings, The Force Awakens is surprisingly funny – perhaps even funnier than I remember it being back in the theater. Poe (Isaac) is particularly quippy, especially in his scenes with Finn (Boyega), and Kylo’s temper tantrums bring some much-needed levity to the thin Nazi allegory of the First Order. Of course, there is a marked difference between the humor in The Force Awakens and the humor in, say, Attack of the Clones; the former intentionally prompts laughter while the latter actively discourages it. The prequels are funny in spite of themselves, more often because of post-facto memes, while The Force Awakens is genuinely funny when it wants to be. The humor meshes well with the deep operatic pathos of death scenes and heartfelt revelations, and The Force Awakens even incorporates some pseudo-gothic horror during Rey’s vision.
The great complexity of Star Wars lies in how it picks and chooses what to leave to the audience’s imagination. The original trilogy would dangle legends and histories like ‘the Clone Wars’ and ‘the Jedi Council,’ only to snatch them away into the wilds of speculation. The Force Awakens is no different. It mentions the ‘Sith’ and the ‘Empire’ as separate from the ‘First Order,’ but makes no firm distinction between this new evil and the old. It introduces ‘Supreme Leader Snoke,’ towering with Andy Serkis gravitas, but offers no explanation as to who he is or what he plans to do. It talks of the ‘New Republic,’ but we only see the Republic capital for a moment before it is destroyed by yet another planet-killing superweapon. It treats the ‘Resistance’ and the First Order as warring military juntas at the edge of the galaxy, a clear departure from the centralized galactic conflict in the original trilogy, but this assertion is subtle at best. These hints and foreshadowings are surely established to open up space for a slew of new extra-canonical cash-grab comics, but even so, they hint at that same sense of expansive lore Lucas originally envisioned with A New Hope.
Make no mistake, The Force Awakens is indeed a ‘soft-reboot’ of A New Hope. I take no issue with this characterization, but I do take issue with judging the film as uninspired or facile because it rehashes an old story. A New Hope is one of the most derivative films of all time; essentially just a reboot of The Hidden Fortress (1958) spiced with Flash Gordon flair and jet-fighter action, set in space. Star Wars has always been about translating and transposing a grand, mythic dichotomy between good and evil, light and dark, and framing it with atmospheric lore and Eastern mysticism a la the Force. The Force Awakens does just this. It fits firmly within the general modus of the saga but still breaks new ground with young, fresh talent and promises of further revelations. There have been no drastic changes to the Star Wars mythos since Lucas stupidly introduced XP points (‘midichlorians’) as a causality for Force-sensitivity in The Phantom Menace, and while The Force Awakens sticks to well-plotted ground, there are certainly hints that the upcoming The Last Jedi will introduce entirely new elements to the heart of the saga. These new films are thus far anchored in ‘safe’ territory, but seemingly not for much longer.
The Force Awakens aims to reacquaint old audiences with the Star Wars legend, introduce the mythology to the next generation of young fans, and push the boundaries of Lucas’s original Frank Herbertian vision. It’s a visual splendor with rich and sympathetic characters, strong ties to the collective unconscious that made the original film so universally accessible, and bold aims for the future of the franchise. There might not be much new to be had, but there is certainly much awe, and in the end this is what Star Wars has always been about.
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