WARNING: This is all spoilers, why would you read it without seeing the movie?
Previously on Disney’s Star Wars™: When it was announced that George Lucas had sold Lucasfilm to Disney and other people were gonna make new Star Wars movies, the world celebrated like the end of RETURN OF THE JEDI special edition but with the song from the original end of RETURN OF THE JEDI. I wasn’t so sure. I thought Lucas was a one-of-a-kind visionary whose works couldn’t be duplicated without his oversight, and I would rather see a flawed idiosyncratic Star War like his prequels than the potential mediocre one made by somebody else. But on the other hand as a huge Star Wars trekkie to the bone I couldn’t help but be excited to see Luke, Leia, Han, Sebulba and Chewbacca on the big screen again, something I never expected to happen. So when the trailers came out I was as down as anyone.
And as soon as the opening crawl started with “LUKE SKYWALKER HAS VANISHED!” and I realized what the movie was gonna be about I had a big damn grin on my face.
The first act of the new movie by director/co-writer J.J. Abrams (Felicity) is as thrilling as I could’ve hoped. Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron is not as complex of a role as he’s used to, but he seems to be having fun playing a suave, cocky smartass guy. And when the movie branches off to follow a conscientious objector stormtrooper (John Boyega as Finn) it feels like a new angle on the Star Wars universe. Even better, the heroine Rey (Daisy Ridley), in contrast to our sand-hating and power-converter-wanting boys of the other trilogies, is a quiet, self-sufficient loner, and her pre-adventure daily life as a scavenger is as interesting as her later star warring. It’s a portrayal of poverty that we haven’t seen in the Star Wars universe, even when Anakin was a slave.
The interaction between these new characters is great, partly because they become such fast friends. Usually the rule in movies is that characters have to bicker for a while before they start liking each other, so I love how quickly they’re having fun together. The talented X-wing pilot Poe is giddily excited to steal an evil TIE Fighter (“I always wanted to fly one of these things!”), and Finn cheers him on. Later, after Rey and Finn make their escape in the Millennium Falcon, they jump up and down yelling compliments at each other.
The action is a little chaotic, but effective, and stylistically distinguished from the other two trilogies. They have the same space ships as the original trilogy but done with modern effects, trailing after spinning high speed spacecraft in a way that’s a logical extension of what Lucas was doing with his models back in the day. The new stormtroopers, although I don’t think their armor looks as good, are more intimidating, moving more like soldiers in a modern war movie, seeming to be much more effective and cruel than the previous guys, including when they slaughter an entire village early in the movie. (I was a little puzzled by the movie’s insistence on explaining that they’re not clones, since they otherwise go out of their way not to make any reference to anything related to the prequels.)
The first time I felt let down by the movie, sadly, is around when Han Solo is introduced. It seemed a little cheap to me that Han, although a smuggler again, is also super famous so the kids know who he is and that he knows Luke Skywalker. Seems cornier and less dramatic than if they never heard of him. From that point it stays entertaining but gets increasingly reliant on references to the old shit.
As far as that goes, there are two things I was hoping to see that we didn’t get yet.
1. This is an opportunity to deliver on something that Lucas set up but never used: the importance of Leia as the other heir to Anakin Skywalker. When Kenobi says that Luke is their only hope Yoda says “No, there is another.” But the New Hope pulls through and they don’t have to resort to the back-up hope. It feels almost like a mistake – there’s no narrative reason why she needs to be his sister. Additionally, Luke tells her “You have that power too. In time you’ll learn to use it as I have.”
For these reasons we know that there should be a badass reveal of Leia using Jedi powers, much like that first time we saw Yoda bust out a lightsaber, which was a huge audience moment when ATTACK OF THE CLONES was released. Instead, she just “sticks to what she’s good at,” which is to be a General standing in a room and not even doing as much as she did in the old movies.
I actually believe they’re saving it for a later movie, when surely she’ll have to confront her son who killed her (boyfriend? husband?), so I will give this oversight a probationary pass. But if it turns out they don’t bother to deal with the one actual loose thread Lucas left then shame on them.
2. Luke. I mean, Luke is the fucking hero of the original trilogy. He’s the guy that grows the most, but we don’t get to see him as a Jedi Master, a title he only achieved at the end by facing Vader. To see him on the screen again is the reason to make new Star Wars movies. That they kept his role mysterious in the trailers, didn’t even put him on the poster, and made the mystery of his whereabouts and present status the whole question of the movie, makes it all the better. All this buildup and then old Luke is gonna show up and just seeing him on screen there’s gonna be goosebumps popping up off everybody’s necks and arms causing a commotion…
And then nah, never mind, let the kid who did that LOOPER movie figure out what to do with him in two years I guess.
In this article Michael Arndt (who wrote the draft before Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan took over) explains why they ditched Luke: when they tried to write it with him in it he always became the center of the story, because who gives a shit about any of these other characters if LUKE FUCKING SKYWALKER IS BACK!
An interesting storytelling problem, but also an acknowledgment that Luke Fucking Skywalker is the reason to make the movie. It’s too bad Arndt didn’t have the power to travel ahead in time and see CREED. There’s a movie with a beloved iconic character in a supporting role to a new one. It can be done.
I had been worried that Luke could end up being the villain of the movie. It could be a way to try to shock the audience and a reason to keep him out of the advertising. So I was a little relieved he hasn’t as far as we can tell turned to the dark side. He just turned to the sad side. But for a movie so calculated to stoke nostalgia and give the audience what they want it seems like a pretty major missed opportunity to return to these characters for the first time in 33 years and then not have the triumphant return of Luke Skywalker.
Even worse, as was pointed out to me, they against all odds brought Han Solo, Princess Leia and Luke Skywalker back to the screen… and then killed one of them off before they even had a scene together. Whoops.
About that. Other than the huge waste of not reuniting the trio, I’m okay with the death. This in fact was one of the best scenes in the movie, an unusual and effectively melodramatic confrontation. I love that Han, a non-Jedi, would walk out onto that long bridge, knowing the obvious danger but feeling a responsibility to try. And the reveal of his son’s name was a good one, though I think he should’ve yelled his full name (Benjamin Kyle Solo, you are grounded!) I think Kylo really was conflicted, really considering listening to his father, but there is some ambiguity there. He could’ve been just fucking with him. It’s intriguing. That’s the kind of stuff I love in this movie.
* * *
They’re definitely making a run at pandering to the people who grew up on original Star Wars and hate the newer ones. So is it better than the infamous prequels? I figure most people, at least right now, would say yes. I will say yes and no.
It avoids the weaknesses of the prequels. The acting of the leads is much better, more natural. Rey is a more believable, likable and strong presence than either of the Anakins. An obvious example of the differences in the movies is to compare desert-dweller Anakin’s infamous monologue about how much he hates sand to Rey’s amazement upon landing on a planet full of green plants. Two very different ways of delivering the same information.
The banter is funnier and there’s not a bunch of stiff, awkward dialogue, except maybe a few of Han’s lines. There aren’t as many cartoony characters who seem out of place (though there are many that don’t seem like Star Wars aliens as we know them – apparently on these planets there are many alien races but none of the ones from all the other Star Warses). There’s no character nearly as annoying as Jar Jar, though I’m sure some people won’t appreciate Boyega’s young-Nic-Cagian choice to play Finn with a comically dorky voice. And the introduction of Rey in her life as a scavenger has a raw, realistic feel completely absent from the prequels (or even the originals).
But can you understand me when I say that it’s not as bad while also not being as good? Whatever it was that Lucas wrote in his Episode VII outline that was thrown out, I bet it wasn’t a movie about another young person living on another desert planet who meets another droid with another desperate message from another rebellion and ends up learning the Force in another battle with another empire and another emperor with another Skywalker that turned to the dark side, and they stop by another alien-filled cantina and later watch helplessly as another mentor is killed and then they get in more X-wings and blow up another planet-sized, planet-destroying space station.
There are other things that are intentional reversals of what we’ve seen before. Instead of the rebels pretending to be stormtroopers there’s a stormtrooper pretending to be a rebel. They come to rescue the girl and it turns out she’s already rescued herself. Instead of dreaming of leaving her shitty desert life she’s anxious to get back to it. These examples are fun but when too much of the movie is built on references to an already existing movie it’s the opposite of that “I’ve never seen anything like this!” feeling STAR WARS was so famous for creating.
It certainly could’ve been worse, but this was my fear about Star Wars minus Lucas. Now instead of being actual Star Wars, Star Wars is people who grew up on Star Wars paying homage to Star Wars. This one verges on remaquel. For all his mistakes with the prequels, Lucas’s films are still distinct because he didn’t just do variations on the elements of his old ones, he absolutely loaded them to the brim with new shit. People made fun of his little “fan service” nods, but that’s because they were little moments that stood out, they weren’t the basic building material of the movie. Mostly he was excited about all the new concepts he wanted to show us.
He gave us the Jedi Council, padawan learners, younglings, what the actual role of the Jedi Knight was, how they actually fought (with far more elaborate lightsabering than before), what they could do. He gave us the Sith and how there can only be two of them. He gave us podracing, battle droids, clone armies, the first Star Wars metropolis, the detailed cultures of Naboo, the Galactic Senate, “Order 66,” the mystery of “the chosen one who will bring balance to the Force,” which has many possible interpretations that are still interesting to me. So there is plenty of new shit.
As much as I enjoyed THE FORCE AWAKENS, it was the least elated I’d felt after a new Star War. It felt a little empty. I felt like I had less to wonder or speculate about, and while most of the flaws of the prequels are obvious up front and you just have to choose to forgive them or not, this one starts to fall apart the more you think about it. Like, wait a minute, am I to understand that they had the map the whole time but R2-D2 was takin a fuckin nap? Did this great hero of all six authentic Lucas Star Wars pictures cause the deaths of Han and five entire planets by being asleep on the job? And was there some reason why he turned on at the end?
(I’d heard some convincing theories about what was up there, but unfortunately in that article I linked to before, Abrams explains what happened. R2 is in a “coma” because he’s depressed about what happened with Luke. But he has the map to the last Jedi temple because of when he plugged into the Empire computer files on the Death Star in the original STAR WARS. But he has to think about it for a while or something before he decides to help. So yes, millions died because R2 was brooding. I feel like this could’ve been done better.)
Abrams once did a TED talk about “the mystery box,” a sealed box that you don’t know what’s inside, that he uses as a metaphor for the allure of the unknown in storytelling. People thought it was deep at first and now they make fun of him for it, complaining about the mystery box early on when he was keeping all the FORCE AWAKENS details secret.
But the finished movie makes me think of a different Abrams box, the one that appeared in his directorial debut, “Todd Mulcahy Part 1,” an episode of a TV show called Felicity. I’m not familiar with the show but from what I’ve heard, Felicity receives a package from Todd Mulcahy, a boy she knew when she was a kid, who now has come to New York thinking he’s in love with her. The package has a note that says “Enclosed find a Felicity time capsule, circa 1992. My hope is that this will rekindle a certain child-like sense of wonder I’m afraid you might’ve lost.” And the box is full of things she liked when she was young, like Mallomars and a VHS copy of DEAD POET’S SOCIETY.
And it’s fun, but it doesn’t necessarily rekindle her child-like sense of wonder because she has grown into a different person than the 12 year old beanpole at summer camp, and craves new experiences. It’s cute to remember what candy she ate when she was a pre-teen but it’s never gonna be the same as it was then. You just can’t have that same joy again, you can’t relive that. Thinking about her youth actually sparks an important life decision for her, but it doesn’t make her fall in love with Todd, and I doubt Mallomars return to her diet.
(By the way, reportedly this is a very good episode of the show Felicity, and at the end HUGE SPOILER FOR FELICITY she turns Todd down and he’s walking away kinda laughing and light-heartedly talking about how he’s not gonna give up yet and suddenly he gets totally nailed by a bus. To be continued.)
In its weakest moments THE FORCE AWAKENS is like that time capsule, pathetically trying to remind you that you love STAR WARS by showing you the same shit again. Remember? Remember the Death Star? And the other Death Star? Well, what if I were to give you the OTHER other Death Star! Oh my god we are living it again you guys it’s the same stuff we love and we love to love it!!!!!
But shit, I don’t want a copy of DEAD POET’S SOCIETY. I want what’s in that mystery box over there! This is the same problem I have with the Expendables movies, or the new Muppet movies. Yeah, we all know which movies you’re from. Now, don’t re-enact those or talk about them. Make a new one. Don’t be like Rey, living among the leftovers of the old movies, figuring out which pieces a mean fat guy will pay you for.
I think this time capsule approach is kind of cheap and pandering, but oh well. I can’t front on everything in that box. For now I’ll just eat these Mallomars.
* * *
Despite my misgivings about the scavenging and what was done with some of the old characters, what I really did love about the movie was the new characters, especially Rey and Kylo. The light saber duel between them is worthy of real Star Wars and helps redeem the last act of the movie. Although it seems to go against what we previously knew about how hard it is to learn to use a lightsaber, it gives Rey a fighting style based on her established abilities: the way she fights with her staff, her parkour/American Ninja Warrior type talents for climbing and jumping, her burgeoning use of the Force. She does a flip not because she’s a trained Jedi who has Force-jump powers, but because that was already part of her vocabulary. Since she’s small, Anakin’s lightsaber seems big and heavy to her, and she seems to swing it almost like a sledge hammer, using its weight for momentum. Meanwhile, Kylo has a raging style, like his tantrums, madly chopping, destroying the trees and things around them.
And I have heard that it’s controversial, but personally I really like the unexpected choice of Rey winning the fight, leaving Kylo on the ground, sweaty and emotional, like Luke after losing his duel in EMPIRE (abbreviation for EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, not the tv show Empire, although that is also good). I think it’s an interesting choice for the continuing story, because it’s a different power dynamic than Luke and Vader. It’s two unusually promising, completely undisciplined students of The Force facing off. They make a big deal about Kylo not being ready yet, needing more training, like his uncle did. That will be a different competition. Who can learn faster?
I’ve got a tip for Rey or Kylo: go track down the Kanjiklub. If they survived the monster attack they could teach you how to kick ass. If you didn’t catch them, they’re the gang played by the guys from the RAID movies. Yayan Ruhian (Mad Dog), Iko Uwais (Rama) and Cecep Arif Rahman (“The Assassin” from THE RAID 2) all appear together in a scene as some badasses who then… don’t get to do much. I feel like maybe Abrams hates us fans of THE RAID and wanted to put something in there that only we would know to be disappointed by. But you know what? We don’t know if they die. It would be great if near the end of STAR WARS EPISODE IX: GRIP OF THE LURKING PERIL, Mad Dog suddenly shows up out of the blue saying “your dad owed us money” and gets to have the climactic fight with Kylo Ren.
I predicted before the movie that Kylo would be Han’s son. It’s obvious, because Adam Driver is based on how Han looked in the animated part of the Star Wars Holiday Special.
I wasn’t sure about the guy from Girls playing the new Star Wars antagonist, but now I’m sold. I know J.J. pulls a total J.J. by making him kind of a reverse of Luke, but it’s still a cool idea: a bad guy tempted by the light side of the Force. He’s a weirdo wearing a mask to be cool instead of because he got burned by a fucking volcano like his poor Grandpa. Kinda like the people who wear non-prescription glasses to look smart. And speaking of Ani, his Force ghost needs to have a stern word with grandson here. What the fuck is this “finish what you started” shit? Kid, you know nothing.
Also I like that not only does he not call his father “dad” or something, he always uses the full name “Han Solo.” “Han Solo can’t help you now,” etc. And what about when he’s fighting and keeps angrily punching his chest wound? He’s strange. I like it. He has a more interesting personality than expected.
(But it would be cool if the next one gives him a henchman who’s more the iconic Star Wars villain, the enigmatic cool looking type like Boba Fett or Darth Maul.)
I assumed going in that Rey was gonna be a Skywalker, and there are many reasons to believe that will turn out to be true. But I actually prefer it how they’ve left it: that it didn’t matter who her family was. She doesn’t have to be of some royal lineage. She just has to be Rey.
This brings up a question I’ve had about the Force. Are we supposed to take it that Luke can only be a Jedi because he’s the son of Anakin? I guess so, because Yoda seems to consider he and Leia the only possibilities. But I always took it that other people could use the Force, these two just had a natural predilection for it.
After all, wasn’t that why people were so offended when THE PHANTOM MENACE introduced the concept of midicholorians? It seemed to imply that if you were born with a low midichlorian count you were useless in The Force. If we are to accept that only those who inherit it can do it then midichlorians are just a quasi-scientific way of describing the exact same concept as “being born Force sensitive.”
If Rey is not a Skywalker, or from any special family, it takes the elitism out of it. Brings some new blood into the Jedi game. And that’s what we need. You got rid of Lucas. Now stop remembering what he did and start doing what he did. Create new worlds, make new stories.
Don’t blow it Rian Johnson. Give us something that’s Star Wars but weird and unexpected and frankly of a higher quality than your previous work no offense. no pressure thanks bud we’re all counting on you you will be shamed for generations though
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.