SDG Reviews ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’
A well-crafted, crowd-pleasing sequel shrewdly continues George Lucas’ beloved saga, but adds little to the mythology.
Do you love that time long ago in that galaxy far, far away? Do you adore Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Han Solo, Chewbacca, C-3PO and R2-D2? Do you thrill to the hum and flash of lightsabers, the wedge-shaped blades of Star Destroyers splitting the screen, the scream of TIE fighters and the rocket-like roar of the Millennium Falcon?
Do you love the lived-in trappings, the grimy surfaces, the scratched paint, the frayed clothing? The hovering, wheel-less technology, from Luke’s landspeeder to those speeder bikes on Endor? The extravagant alien characters and other creatures?
If you do, Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens is for you. It is a film made for Star Wars fans, by a filmmaker who knows what they want, and how to deliver it. J.J. Abrams is a canny purveyor of nostalgia, as even his Star Trek reboot demonstrates — and while he was never a Trekkie, his devotion to Star Wars is true. From the opening pan, which demonstrates careful thought about the opening shots of every Star Wars film and how to do something in that tradition yet unique, there is no doubt that we’re in the hands of someone who takes Star Wars seriously.
Not only does The Force Awakens feel like a Star Wars movie, it feels like one in all the ways that the prequels didn’t. The casual banter and humor of the original trilogy is back, and the mythology-bound, politics-heavy plotting of the prequels is gone. The best action scenes aren’t just rousing, like the climactic lightsaber duel in The Phantom Menace, but fun, like the rescue of Leia in the original Star Wars, a.k.a. A New Hope. Visually, Abrams continues to indulge an idea he has explored before, that spaceships are more interesting when they aren’t in space, but on or near the surfaces of planets.
Abrams and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan (The Empire Strikes Back) also bring back a sense of prior history and continuity, invoked in old Ben Kenobi’s references to “a more civilized age” and Han Solo’s glib remarks about the strange things he’d seen flying from one end of the galaxy to the other. In fact, Han himself — a grizzled Harrison Ford reprising arguably his most celebrated role — finally sets the record straight regarding the Force and the Jedi.
I appreciate all these things. I am happy to return once more to this world and these characters. I easily and warmly accept Carrie Fisher as a matronly General Leia and Mark Hamill (barely present) as a bearded Luke Skywalker aged into Alec Guinness-like venerability. I’m happy to not quite see Peter Mayhew as an unchanged Chewbacca and Anthony Daniels as a somewhat shriller C-3PO.
In brand-new roles, Daisy Ridley’s Rey, a tough loner on a Tatooine-like desert planet, and John Boyega’s Finn, an unexpectedly personable stormtrooper, feel to me persuasively of a piece with the world of all the previous films, even if they have curiously brief, nondescript names for Star Wars characters. Certainly it’s great to see a Star Wars movie with a female protagonist and a black deuteragonist.
There’s also a heroic pilot named Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac, who is Guatemalan) whose role is briefer and less developed than you’d expect from the outset, and a CGI alien played by performance-capture virtuoso Andy Sirkis. Oh, and a new robot named BB-8 who seems very Disney-friendly (sort of a Mini-Me for Bigweld from Blue Sky’s Robots, actually).
I smiled and laughed through much of the film. Why don’t I love it more? Why did The Force Awakens make almost no lasting impression on me?
Let me admit, first of all, that I’m the last person anyone need take seriously about this movie. I loved and defended the Star Wars prequels for years before their weaknesses finally sank in, and to this day I remain fond of them. I was bowled over by Abrams’ Star Trek reboot for months. There are any number of reasons to consider me the least reliable critic in the world regarding this film.
Still, for what it’s worth, here’s how this version of me responded to this version of Star Wars.
From the opening crawl, in which we learn that the fallen evil Empire has been succeeded by a sinister organization called the “First Order,” and the former Rebellion is now the “Resistance,” I felt that the triumphant victory of Return of the Jedi had been undermined. The Force Awakens acknowledges that the fall of the Empire led to the reestablishment of the Republic, yet the Republic here seems as nominal as in A New Hope. It’s like destroying Vader and the Emperor along with the second Death Star accomplished nothing.
While this might not be implausible, it strikes me as bad dramaturgy of a particularly Abrams-esque sort: a failure to take consequences seriously. Whatever else one might say about George Lucas, he always moved the story forward; the situation in each film always built on the previous films. Abrams’ habit, by contrast, is to return to the status quo as cheaply as a Looney Tunes cartoon. Why not take the fall of the Empire seriously and lead with the renewed Republic in power, with the First Order as a lawless, terroristic resistance movement?
There is a deeper sense in which The Force Awakens maintains the status quo. Prior Star Wars films can be seen as reinterpretations of their predecessors as well as expansions of the mythology of the Force, the Jedi and the Sith. The Empire Strikes Back told us bold new things about A New Hope; not only would we never again hear Ben Kenobi’s remark about Vader murdering Luke’s father the same way, we learned that evil was not as simple or as easily defeated as it seemed, that it is in all of us, and even the wisest mentors might not tell us the truth or guide us in the way we need to go.
Likewise, Return of the Jedi told us new things about The Empire Strikes Back. We learned that an iconic villain who had seemed to be the darkest possible incarnation of evil might still be more human and redeemable than we would have dreamed; that not resisting evil, even against the wisest of counsel, might be more powerful than fighting. And of course Jedi threw a completely unexpected light on the early romantic rivalry of Han and Luke with the further revelations of Luke’s family history.
Even the prequels continued this tradition, however dubiously. The idea that Anakin Skywalker had been a messianic chosen one, born of a virgin and prophesied to restore balance to the Force, radically reconfigured the original trilogy with Anakin rather than Luke as the true protagonist. We learned that the Jedi had never been as wise or trustworthy as we might have thought, that the Sith always come in twos, and that the Force might be alive and have a will of its own. Even the boneheaded idea that Anakin had built C-3PO was classic Lucas.
By contrast, The Force Awakens is content to continue the story, satisfying that curious wish to catch up with old friends that commends other latter-day sequels from Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull to Live Free or Die Hard to Men in Black 3, if perhaps more competently than any of those. It answers the question “Where are they now?” but has no new thoughts or insights regarding the stories we know.
Familiar characters have grown older, new characters have joined the story, and not everything has turned out as we or they might have hoped, but there’s nothing here to make us rethink anything. There is a helmeted, hooded Sith-like dark warrior named Kylo Ren (a somewhat Hayden Christian-ish Adam Driver), and we find out who he is, and it makes sense. Rey, perhaps the year’s second-best non-eroticized action heroine, after Mad Max’s Furiosa, is also connected to the prior stories; if her character changes anything, it may only be to backpedal on a bit of lore from the prequels, along with midi-chlorians and clone troopers.
The Force Awakens reveals that Luke began training a new generation of Jedi knights, but after one of them went rogue, Luke vanished, retreating to penitential solitude like Yoda (and perhaps Ben). Finding Luke is the film’s main preoccupation, both for the heroes and for the villains — and the film opens with a hero acquiring a map to Luke’s location, a plot device that functions much like the Death Star plans in A New Hope.
Okay so far — but then when characters get their first look at the map, they say the stars don’t map to any known sector. Wait, what? Was a whole sector wiped from the star charts, like a mystery planet in Attack of the Clones? Later it turns out that a much bigger piece of the map is in an unexpected but oddly familiar location. Why? How? That I was asking these questions at all during the screening means that on some level the film wasn’t working for me.
Despite the suggestive title, there are no new ideas about the Force, no new wrinkles in the story of its balance or imbalance. It would be fair to say that a character awakens to the Force, much as Luke does in A New Hope, but there’s no hint what it might mean for the Force itself to awaken.
I guess we could say that just as Empire Strikes Back established that a place (the tree-cave on Dagobah) could be a locus of the Force, The Force Awakens establishes that an object can become linked to the Force in ways that can be powerful and revelatory to the right Force-adept — something like relics in Catholic tradition, perhaps. On the other hand, the moment in question echoes a similar moment in A New Hope with no such revelatory impact.
More interesting to me is a brief line in a quiet moment that passes almost without notice: something I wish the film had explored in greater depth. A minor character who appears in only one sequence says something like, “I’m no Jedi, but I know the Force.” Closing her eyes, she adds, “Let it in.”
This seems to be the first clear indication that ordinary people may be receptive to the Force — that it can play a role in the spiritual lives of the non-adept “Muggles” of the Star Wars universe. (Until now, we knew that the line “May the Force be with you” might be uttered by good characters like Rebellion leaders, but it wasn’t clear that this was anything more than a generic piety like “God bless America.”) I’d love to see more of this.
Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic and creator of Decent Films.
He is studying for the permanent diaconate for the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey.
Follow him on Twitter.
Caveat Spectator: Stylized sci-fi combat violence and menace. Too intense for sensitive kids.
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