Star Wars: The Force Awakens / Star Wars, Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015) ***
First in 2009 and then again in 2013, J.J. Abrams directed two Star Trek movies, apparently for no other reason than to show the world how much he didn’t like Star Trek. For this, he was rewarded with the keys to the other globally beloved, perennially money-spinning sci-fi blockbuster franchise. So perhaps you can understand why my attitude toward Star Wars: The Force Awakens has hitherto boiled down to, “well, at least Abrams can’t fuck this up any worse than George Lucas already did.” I’ve clung tenaciously to that frame of mind, too, even as a string of attractive-looking trailers, a promotional campaign focused on implicit promises not to repeat the mistakes of the prequel trilogy, and finally positive-to-glowing word of mouth from people whose tastes I can usually trust conspired to instill hopes of something more. And in the end, I do believe that The Force Awakens benefited somewhat from my determination to let their air out of my expectations every chance I got. At the same time, though, I also believe that The Force Awakens would have impressed me plenty even without the baleful precedent of The Phantom Menace looming over it. It owes entirely too much to its predecessors— the original Star Wars especially— to win my unqualified praise, but Abrams and company get enough right to accomplish something I would not have thought possible this time last year. They have me looking forward to further Star Wars movies!
Orson Welles once said that a happy ending depends on where you stop the story, and that observation might have made a more fitting epigram for The Force Awakens than “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.” A generation after the events of Return of the Jedi, things don’t look nearly as rosy as they did from the midst of an Ewok tribal barbecue. For one thing, the Empire proved more durable than the Emperor, as any sensible person could have predicted. So rather than spanning the galaxy in free and peaceful glory, the New Republic sits uneasily beside the First Order, the Fascist dictatorship welded together from die-hard fragments of Palpatine’s tyranny by the mysterious Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis, from Rise of the Planet of the Apes and King Kong). Nor can the Jedi be said to have returned in any meaningful sense. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) tried, to be sure, but his efforts went so catastrophically awry that the only one of his pupils neither dead nor in hiding is a Darth Vader wannabe called Kylo Ren (Midnight Special’s Adam Driver). Ren has attached himself to Snoke in much the same way that Vader was attached to Emperor Palpatine, making him basically the worst nightmare of the Republic-backed resistance movement that has sprung up inside the part of the galaxy controlled by the First Order. Is it any wonder, then, that Skywalker has since disappeared into self-imposed exile? Kylo Ren is also the worst nightmare of Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Princess Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), because he just happens to be their son. The lad’s turn to the Dark Side doomed a marriage that had always struggled under the weight of its contradictions, and Han and Leia both withdrew into what they were best at. Solo returned to smuggling with his loyal Wookie companion, Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), while Leia smuggled herself into First Order territory to become the leader of the Resistance.
Given her prior experience in overthrowing tyrants, Leia naturally believes that nothing would improve the Resistance’s chances quite like enlisting her brother’s aid, and she’s thus made finding Luke a top priority. Luckily, one of her contacts from the Rebel Alliance days (Max Von Sydow, of Conan the Barbarian and Solomon Kane) has come into possession of a star chart purporting to show Skywalker’s route into exile, and Leia has dispatched ace pilot Po Dameron (Oscar Isaac, from Sucker Punch and Ex Machina) to the old man’s hermitage on the desert planet of Jakku to collect the map. Kylo Ren is but a step behind Dameron, however (what did I say about him being the Resistance’s worst nightmare?), and Po has just enough time to entrust the star chart to his astro-droid, BB-8, before he is captured and hauled back to the flagship of First Order military honcho General Hux (Domnhall Gleeson, of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and Dredd). With his business on Jakku concluded, Ren orders the extermination of the entire settlement that had been harboring the aged Resistance fighter— which fortuitously provides more than enough noise and chaos to cover BB-8’s escape into the dunes.
That wasteland is the hunting ground of a junk-scavenger named Rey (Scrawl’s Daisy Ridley). Rey was left on Jakku when she was but a child, entrusted by a family she can barely remember to the care of a dirty-dealing trader called Unkar Plutt (Simon Pegg, from Shaun of the Dead and The World’s End). Plutt employs a whole stable of desperadoes like Rey to scour the desert surrounding his home base for the technological detritus of the Galactic Civil War, giving them just enough food and water to keep them alive in return for whatever gizmos, doodads, and gewgaws they can pry from the carcasses of Rebel and Imperial war machines that still litter the surface of Jakku. Rey remains convinced that whoever dumped her in this sand-blasted shithole will be coming back for her someday, but let’s face it— if there were any chance of that, it would have happened years ago. She encounters BB-8 by rescuing him from one of her competitors, and although she initially professes to want nothing to do with the droid or his supposed secret mission, she quickly comes to like having BB-8 around— so much so, in fact, that she refuses to sell him to Unkar Plutt, even for 120 times what she usually gets for a day’s haul. Inevitably, that merely convinces Plutt that the droid must really be worth something, and the junk magnate vows to have him by fair means or foul.
Meanwhile, Po Dameron has resisted all of the tortures at General Hux’s command, but his determination is no match for Kylo Ren’s telepathy. It’s just a good thing Dameron never actually looked at the map; as it is, all Ren can extract from him is the knowledge that he gave it to an orange BB-series astro-droid which he left back on Jakku. Po’s about to get even luckier, too. Storm trooper FN-2187 (Attack the Block’s John Boyega), one of the soldiers assigned to wipe out the old hermit’s village, couldn’t bring himself to fire his weapon as ordered, and his dereliction of duty did not go unnoticed. His superior, Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie, from The Zero Theorem and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2), has instructed him to report to divisional headquarters for reconditioning, but fuck that. Now that FN-2187 is his own man, he intends to stay that way. Although that would normally be a pretty tall order, FN-2187 paid enough attention to his mission briefing to know that the prisoner his platoon brought in was a Resistance pilot. In other words, Dameron and FN-2187— or Finn, as Po dubs him— are about to become each other’s tickets off of Hux’s ship. Alas, the escape doesn’t go quite as well as either man hoped. Their stolen fighter gets shot down over one of Jakku’s least hospitable areas, and although Finn bails out successfully, he finds no sign of Dameron back at the crash site.
Inevitably, Finn’s desert wanderings lead him eventually into contact with Rey and BB-8, and after some initial misunderstanding, he’s able to convince both girl and robot that he’s working for neither Unkar Plutt nor the First Order. It might have been going just a tad far to claim that he’s affiliated with the Resistance, however. He’ll have plenty of time to regret that fib later; for now, his former comrades are doing a great job of selling his story by throwing everything up to and including an air strike at Rey’s village in their effort to capture BB-8. Once again, though, Finn has chanced to fall in with someone who possesses exactly the skills to save his ass, for Rey understands the crashed spacecraft she strips for parts well enough to fake flying one in a pinch. Stealing a familiar-looking junkwagon freighter from the yard behind Plutt’s trading post, the harried pair and the sought-after droid narrowly make their escape into deep space.
Of course you realize that by “familiar-looking junkwagon freighter,” I mean the Millennium Falcon. And of course you realize that the most famous of her several owners has the sensors on his current ship programmed to keep an eye out for her at literally all times. Han and Chewbacca thus reenter the picture not long at all after their iconic ride, scooping up the Falcon in the hold of the hulking cargo vessel in which they’re engaged at present smuggling Dunwich horrors— excuse me, rathtars— for some minor potentate’s private zoo. Solo’s reputation precedes him, but that turns out to mean rather different things to each of his unexpected guests. Both charmingly and plausibly, Finn knows him as a hero of the Rebellion, while Rey is better acquainted with his nigh-legendary exploits as an outlaw. What neither is quite prepared for is the old pirate’s reaction upon learning what BB-8 is carrying, a sort of bemused reverence toward Skywalker, the Force, and the unfathomable cosmic will that keeps picking him, of all people, to play taxi driver to Destiny. However, Destiny will have to wait a bit this time, because Han has some business to attend to right this second with two different space mafias to whom he owes money. Perhaps the prince’s rathtars can help out with that…
With the gangsters sorted out, Solo takes Rey, Finn, and BB-8 to the millennium-old outlaw refuge run by Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o). Picture Mos Eisley with trees and a lake, and you’ll have the general idea. Or alternately, you could imagine a sci-fi version of Caritas, the Infernal karaoke bar from “Angel.” In fact, that might even be a better point of comparison, because Maz is a bit of a mystic. She’s no Jedi Knight or anything, but she is Force-sensitive and perhaps just a touch clairvoyant. And rather more significantly, Rey discovers while under her roof that she might be both of those things, too. Rey is led away from the table where Maz seated her party by the unlikely sound of a child crying, in a voice that strikes her as eerily familiar. Following the cries to the cellar of Kanata’s establishment, she finds a cluttered room in which a particular box virtually insists that she open it. Inside is a light saber— and not just any light saber, either. Those of us who’ve been paying close attention throughout the preceding films will recognize the weapon as the one given to Luke Skywalker by Obi Wan Kenobi, which had belonged to Luke’s father before him. When Rey touches the light saber, she is overwhelmed by a cascade of enigmatic yet troubling psychic visions, including one from her own past which identifies the phantom sobbing as that of Rey herself. Once Rey wrests control of her brain back from the visions, she finds that Maz has followed her downstairs. The ancient little woman is less than forthcoming about where she got Luke’s old sidearm, but she doesn’t mind explaining that the girl’s disturbing experience just now proves that she is unusually strong with the Force. Hell, she might even be Jedi material! In Kanata’s opinion, what Rey must do now is to take the light saber and seek out Skywalker for a proper introduction to the mysteries of the Force. Rey wants nothing to do with anything that weird or scary, however, and she takes off running in the direction of the Millennium Falcon. BB-8, not knowing what else to do, rolls after her.
That puts the two of them far enough from Kanata’s sanctuary to buy them a bit of extra reaction time when Kylo Ren and his soldiers attack it, tipped off by a customer who recognized BB-8’s description from an all-points bulletin sent out by the First Order. A Resistance fighter recognized the droid too, though, and before long Maz’s bar is the site of a pitched battle between the rival forces. The Resistance gains the upper hand, but not before Kylo Ren has detected a certain inconvenient memory in Rey’s mind. BB-8 showed her and Finn the map while they were on Han’s ship together, and Ren’s mind-reading ability makes capturing Rey therefore the next best thing to snagging the elusive robot. When the beaten First Order forces withdraw, it’s with Rey as their captive. Obviously it’s imperative that Leia and her insurgents get her back before Ren has a chance to extract from her the location of Skywalker’s refuge, but there’s actually a bigger and more immediate problem than that. Those First Order legions we’ve been seeing all this time? They operate out of an outpost called Starkiller Base, a planet which General Hux has converted into a super-mega-ultra Death Star capable of wiping out whole solar systems at a go. The Resistance knew of the base’s existence (even if this is the first we’ve heard of it), but they’ve been unable to do anything about it up to now. Finn’s insider knowledge (limited as it may be) changes the picture, however. What do you want to bet that the plan arrived at with his help will somehow involve Han, Chewbacca, and Finn himself infiltrating Starkiller Base to shut down some manner of energy shield so that Po Dameron (reports of whose death have been greatly exaggerated) can lead a squadron of fighters to attack the apocalypse machine’s one vulnerable spot? And what do you want to bet that their arrival will come just in time to facilitate Rey’s escape from Kylo Ren?
The script for The Force Awakens is practically a scene-by-scene reworking of that for the original Star Wars, and the screenwriters (director Abrams, along with Michael Arndt and Lawrence Kasdan, of Empire Strikes Back fame) were not shy at all about what they were doing. The blatant copying becomes intensely annoying by the time we see the space reggae band performing at Maz Kanata’s place. At that point, we’ve seen analogues for everything from the Cantina Café to “Help me, Obi Wan Kenobi— you’re my only hope,” and about the one consolation is that at least there hasn’t been another goddamned Death Star. And then of course Abrams and company take even that away from us with the revelation of Starkiller Base. Look, twice was plenty. The whole Star Wars franchise, all media included, needs to stop hitting the planetary-scale superweapon pipe, okay? No more Death Stars, no more Starkillers, no more Sun Crushers. No more Planet Pummellers, World Wallopers, Satellite Savagers, or Moon Mellon-Ballers. From here on out, I don’t even want to see a Comet Consternator or an Asteroid Inconveniencer. Just cut that shit right out, and find a new story template to run into the ground. Or better yet, don’t have a stock template at all, and treat each new Star Wars story as something actually new. [Rant Mode disengaged.]
I get it, though. The makers of The Force Awakens had a colossal challenge before them. They had to convince people to trust the Star Wars franchise again. They had to persuade ex-fans like me, who had bowed out either during or after the prequel trilogy and never looked back, that they knew how to do Star Wars right. They furthermore had to allay people’s not unjustified fears that the acquisition of Lucasfilm Ltd by Disney wasn’t going to mean Star Wars, Episode VII: Escape to Sith Mountain, and that the relaunch of the franchise wasn’t merely a weak excuse to put up yet another theme park in Orlando. And they had to do all that in the face of our knowledge that the top man on the project was the director of Star Trek: Into Lens-Flares. So under those circumstances, what surer way to win back a disgruntled fanbase than by giving them more of what you already know they like? Just this once, then, I’m prepared to forgive the cover band approach. I expect to hear some original tunes in Episode VIII, however.
That said, if The Force Awakens is little more than a cover version of Star Wars, it is at least a cleverly arranged and skillfully performed cover. The most immediately obvious of its virtues is that it fulfills the implicit promise of its promotional campaign to restore a sense of reality to the Star Wars universe. I don’t mean to say that the franchise was ever realistic, but the original trilogy put a lot of emphasis on creating the illusion that its setting was an actual place where actual people lived actual lives. The prequels fucked that up with their unintelligible politics, inexplicable character behavior, and purely computer-generated environments. In The Force Awakens, though, Abrams and company avoid getting bogged down in the intricacies of the new galactic proxy war, and the story is structured so that we don’t need to care about how the governments of the New Republic or the First Order work. The characters have motivations we can recognize, which drive their actions in understandable ways. The occasional winks at the audience are handled lightly and tastefully, like when Finn, rummaging through a box of junk on the Millennium Falcon, picks up and tosses aside the sparring drone with which we saw Luke training in the first Star Wars. Even the cute little robot transparently calculated to inspire toy sales is a roaring success, in that BB-8 is legitimately adorable. Someone who wisely sat out the prequels might find little cause to praise The Force Awakens for clearing such a succession of low bars, but that too is a big part of winning back the trust of the fanbase— and it goes farther in that direction than any of the plot points the present filmmakers swiped from their predecessors.
The Force Awakens also gives us something we’ve never had from a Star Wars movie before. In this film, the young people at the core of the story are played by good actors, acting well! To be fair, Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher all improved markedly between 1977 and 1983 (Ford especially), but even Return of the Jedi scarcely deserves to be counted among their best work. And the prequels made Ewan McGregor and Natalie Portman— two of the finest film thespians of their generation— look like refugees from an Al Adamson shoot. Here, however, John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, Oscar Isaac, and Adam Driver all more than hold their own against the old guard.
Boyega is, for me, kind of the Ewan McGregor figure in this cast. I already knew from Attack the Block that he was capable of great things, and when I realized that I was indeed going to be seeing The Force Awakens, he became the person who I most hoped wouldn’t screw up. He doesn’t. Just like in the aforementioned Brit monster movie, Boyega is effortlessly charming (or at any rate, he makes it look effortless), a natural comedian, and a deft juggler of humor and pathos. Most of all, he carries without breaking a sweat the burden of playing someone who must learn how to be a hero when he’s only just getting started on learning how to be a person. And his interplay is flawless with both Ridley and Isaac.
Daisy Ridley, on the other hand, was a revelation. I’d never even heard of her going into The Force Awakens, but I feel confident in predicting that we’ll be seeing a lot of her from now on. Ridley’s part is especially challenging, because Rey is just a little too good at just a few too many things. In the hands of a lesser actress, she could easily have come off as an obnoxious screenwriter’s pet. The only time I ever felt like Kasdan, Abrams, and Arndt were cheating on her behalf, however, was when Rey crossed light sabers with Kylo Ren at the climax. Everywhere else, Ridley gives such a clear impression of a talented and adaptable person winging it and hoping for the best that the mere invocation of Rey’s unusual strength in the Force does the rest. Ridley nails her share of the birth-of-a-hero stuff, too, as Rey transitions from self-interested survivalist to candidate for Jedi Knighthood.
Oscar Isaac makes less of an impression than Boyega or Ridley, largely because Po Dameron spends the film’s whole midsection presumed dead. Nevertheless, we see enough of him to wish we could see more. Abrams and company have cannily decided that the franchise needs someone who truly is the badass that fandom has retroactively made of green-helmeted X-Wing pilot Wedge on the flimsiest of circumstantial evidence. That’s Dameron’s job, and Isaac invests him with an unprepossessing competence far more attractive and far more convincing than the showboating swagger conventionally associated with ace fighter pilots. As default settings for pop-culture masculinity become more and more strident, I find that I commensurately value portrayals like this one instead.
It was Adam Driver who really took me by surprise, though, not least because I only gradually realized what he was doing. Like pretty much everyone else, I expect, I groaned a little the first time I saw Kylo Ren in one of the early pre-release trailers. Just what we needed, right? A sad counterfeit of Darth Vader to remind us of how much we’d rather be watching the real one. And then the mask comes off, and it gets even worse: a sad, emo pretty-boy counterfeit of Vader! But it turns out that’s actually the entire point. Kylo Ren wants more than anything to be as bad and as fearsome and as powerful as Vader, but he knows that’s never going to happen. You might even say that Ren is the opposite of Anakin Skywalker. Whereas Anakin failed at being a Jedi Knight because his personality was too strongly attuned to the Dark Side of the Force, Ren is struggling at being a Sith Lord because his nature inclines to the Light. Driver is far better at playing the conflicted villain than Hayden Christensen ever became, too. There’s one scene in particular that I don’t want to talk about too much, in which Ren asks for and receives redemption and absolution from someone very important to him. This is Sith redemption we’re talking about, though, so what he requires is help and support in being evil. It’s an immensely powerful scene— certainly the most powerful in The Force Awakens, and one of the most powerful in the whole series thus far. And on Driver’s end, it is as much the antithesis of the lead-up to Revenge of the Sith’s Anakin-vs.-Obi Wan duel as Kylo Ren is the antithesis of Anakin himself. I said before that I now find myself looking forward to future Star Wars installments, and the opportunity to see where the new team takes this intriguingly weak and insecure villain is one of the things that has me most excited.