Image Courtesy of Lucasfilm. Ltd.
This review contains MAJOR spoilers for The Force Awakens. If you haven't seen the movie (huh?), go see it and then read this!
Near the beginning of The Force Awakens, Rey tells her spherical new companion, BB-8, “I know all about waiting... for my family.” Indeed, after a little over three years, multiple trailers, a plethora of magazine and television interviews, and what seemed like the daily release of new commercials, we all have learned about waiting. On Friday, December 18th, my wait was over. I sat in a theater next to my wife, and she and I and nearly twenty of our closest friends celebrated both her birthday (which has to come first, right?) and the release of The Force Awakens. At the end of the showing, my friend, Tim, looked at me and asked, “So, Matt, how’re you doing?” It was an honest question because he knows that this film meant a lot to me. I’ve been enjoying the building excitement, letting it flow through me until in the moments right before the film, I nearly stood up and yelled, “Woo! Star Wars!” How was I doing? I’ll be honest, right after the film, I wasn’t sure. It was a lot to take in. I knew I liked it, but how much did I like it? Where would it fall in my own personal ranking of the films? Was it even fair to look at that with it so fresh in my mind? What did I think of the characters, both old and new? My initial reaction was more one of just being stunned. I wasn’t sure what I felt. The concoction of excitement, pressure, junk food, and expectations that preceded the film was so busy swirling around inside me that I just wasn’t sure. I had time to contemplate after the film though and to deliberate with my wife on the long car ride home, and I have come to at least an initial conclusion that The Force Awakens was a return to form for the franchise. It is a fun, character-driven, adventure story with just a little bit of the cheese-factor that was a part of the classic trilogy in the 1970’s and 80’s. That’s not to say that it doesn’t have some flaws - all of the previous Star Wars films have as well - but I like it flaws and all and would say that it was worth waiting for.
In the film, we are introduced to many, many new characters of varying importance. There are simply too many to talk about, but any discussion of new characters has to begin with Rey. She is without a doubt the main character of this film, and she is glorious. Rey is the kind of strong, caring female character that we’ve been getting from the animated branch of Lucasfilm for years that has finally been given the starring role. I love the mixture of emotions within her character and the nuanced portrayal of those emotions by actress Daisy Ridley. Rey goes from being strong and protective (as she is when she initially meets BB-8 and Finn) to friendly and caring when she stands by those two characters throughout the rest of the film. She moves from face-shaking, tear-inducing fear in the face of Kylo Ren’s interrogation to steely resolve as she holds strong against him. It is this mixture of emotions that make Rey more than just a stereotypical, strong, female action hero. She is a haunted but hopeful young woman, and she is more real and more complicated than most female characters in action movies we get from Hollywood. I’m thankful for that because as a father, I want my daughter to see women like Rey. I want her to see that life is messy, and we will go through loneliness and fear, desperation and despair, but we can act rightly in the face of it all if we all just hold true to ourselves and dare to have hope no matter how dark it gets.
My only complaint with the character of Rey is that she seems hyper-competent at everything. She can fly like Han, repair things like Chewie, stand up to interrogation with the inner strength of Leia, and with little to no training, she can fight just as well as Luke. If she were a player character in the Star Wars RPG I run, she would be rolling dice at a higher success rate overall than most of the other player characters. (Somewhere in the corner, I imagine Rey saying, “Mechanics check. I got this! Force check. It’s mine.” Finn muttering, “I wish I could roll a Triumph.”) As much as I can look at Rey and think that it’s odd that she’s such a jack of all trades, I find myself thinking that she should very competent because she’s had to take care of herself in the harsh, unforgiving landscape of Jakku for what has been most likely a little over ten years. We get little to no indication that she had too much help from anyone; in fact, you get the sense that most of the people on Jakku would turn on her in a second for more of those little dried, astronaut food packets that the junk dealer is giving out. If she has had to learn how to scavenge, pilot, and fight to survive for so long, it makes sense that she would be so great at so much.
In contrast to Rey’s capability, we have Finn. He was one of the few characters that after one viewing of the film, I was most unsure about. I knew that I appreciated the humor that he brought to the film, and I came away with a deep longing for more Poe and Finn buddy cop moments after the scene with them escaping in the TIE Fighter, but I also felt like he was not what I expected. I had expected him to be more stormtrooper and less sanitation worker. I was expecting more of a force to be reckoned with in battle, and after watching the film, it is clear that fighting is not really Finn’s strong suit. He is constantly being physically defeated in the film: by Rey, by creatures in the Falcon, by Chewie in the medical bay, by the stun-bayonet wielding stormtrooper, and by Kylo Ren. This stands in stark contrast to the way Finn was presented to us at times. The Instagram trailer and D23 poster showed him with Luke/Anakin’s lightsaber, ready to duel Kylo Ren in the forest fight; in the end, he was the red herring to draw us away from the revelations about Rey’s character. Initially, I didn’t know how I liked that, but the more I think about it, I really applaud J.J. Abrams, John Boyega, and crew for taking such a risk. In our society, we are used to seeing men as having to be the fighter. They are supposed to be the protectors because they have bigger muscles, but Finn’s muscles (while putting mine to shame) are not where his strength comes from. His strength comes from his weakness: he is willing to act, despite his cowardice, because Rey and Poe and all the other characters have believed in him. The First Order had only ever placed upon Finn the value of his job; the members of the Resistance place value upon him because of who he is and accept his fear but prompt him to move through it.
Finn is a character that our young men need to see because despite how much media attention is paid to the expectations placed upon young women by our society, our young men are having expectations placed upon them, too. I see it in my classroom almost every day: a young man who feels like he has to act tough because he doesn’t want everyone else to see that he’s really just scared or lonely or feeling any number of other emotions that he doesn’t know how to process. As much as many of us would like to say that we’re much more like the debonair, confident Poe, or the resourceful, Macgyver-like Rey, we’re probably actually much more like Finn: just trying to hold ourselves together and do right by our friends and family. It’s important to know that that’s okay.
Rounding out the new “big three” on the side of right is Resistance hot shot pilot Poe Dameron, played with an awe-inspiring amount of swagger by Oscar Isaac. I was ready to like Poe because he was a pilot, and that’s my thing, but I found him to be one of my favorite characters regardless of that, and I actually wished that we saw him a little more outside of the cockpit. Oscar Isaac infuses Poe with a cockiness that calls to mind Han from the Classic Trilogy but mixes in an equal amounts of the protective instincts of a big brother. That’s what makes him so inspiring to both Finn and his fellow pilots; it’s not the fact that he can in the course of one, long, glorious camera shot take out five TIE Fighters and multiple stormtroopers in his X-Wing. Everyone follows Poe because he cares. He puts himself in danger first, so you don’t have to be. He’s sassy EU Wedge Antilles with just a little bit of Wes Janson’s biting humor mixed in, and it convinces me more than ever that Marvel needs to produce a comic or Del Rey needs to produce a series of new X-Wing novels S.T.A.T. I would very much like to see what happened to Poe’s parents, and how he learned to be the leader that he very clearly is.
As the dark mirror to our new heroes, we have new villains: Kylo Ren, Captain Phasma, Supreme Leader Snoke, and General Hux. I found Kylo Ren to be a very interesting character mostly because he is presented in many ways as a reflection of Anakin Skywalker. While Anakin struggled with the darkness inside of him, Kylo Ren sits speaking to the charred helmet that once trapped Anakin and muses about how he is being tempted by the light. It’s an interesting concept that immediately conveys how broken and hurt Kylo, is only to swat away most of the sympathy you had for him as he mercilessly attacks our heroes and commits patricide. Kylo’s very methods of attack are also a pretty cool link to his grandfather. He often employs a Force-powered ability to extract information from others. This was a cool, mostly unique, ability that called to mind times in The Clone Wars animated series when Anakin would use the Force to push his way into the minds of bounty hunters like Cad Bane. A use of the Force I was less pleased with was Kylo’s ability to freeze blaster bolts in mid-air. It felt a little too much like something out of The Force Unleashed to me, but even this draws an interesting parallel to Anakin. The only other time we see a character use his hand to deflect blaster bolts is when Vader deflects Han’s shots before stripping him of his pistol at the banquet table when Lando betrayed Han and friends.
We see similar connections between Kylo Ren and Darth Vader throughout the film as well. His helmet is clearly Vader-inspired, and his hair is very Anakin circa Revenge of the Sith. It’s like he went to the temple salon with a picture of Darth Vader and said, “I’d like this, please.” One other connection that I wanted to make but was unsure about was during the final battle in the snow between Ren, Rey and Finn. During this battle, he keeps pounding his chest and thighs in what the few PBS specials I’ve watched have told me is a sign of dominance. I didn’t know what was going on with that. Was he trying to circulate his blood because of Chewie’s earlier hit on him? Or is he just very stressed and deranged, so he turned that conflict upon his own physical self? A third option that I wondered about was whether he might have mechanical parts. In his obsession to be so much like Darth Vader, could Ren have agreed to mechanical enhancements the way that General Grievous did so many years ago? When we see his blood on the snow during the fight, I had to double-check that it wasn’t oil. My wife thinks it may be a mixture, and I will just have to see it again in order to make a sound judgement. The visual and behavioral comparison between Anakin/Vader and Kylo Ren is fascinating and should only be made more so as we see if he eventually ends up following his grandfather’s path to redemption.
On the villainous side, it’s pretty clear that Kylo Ren is the only show in town. All three of the other villains are given so little to do that they ultimately disappointed me. Hux was much more Admiral Ozzel than Grand Moff Tarkin and would have hardly been noticed aside from his Nazi-inspired, spit-spraying speech before the initial firing of Starkiller Base’s super-weapon.
Supreme Leader Snoke remains a mystery. We know none of his motivation, presumably it has something to do with “power, ultimate power,” and his appearance reminded me a little too much of a cuter version of Voldemort from Harry Potter. I was kind of impressed by how much bigger he appeared than Kylo Ren and General Hux when he first appeared in the film, and a part of me started imagining Rey and Finn having to scale up him in an epic fight straight out of the video game, Shadow of the Colossus, but that thought faded away right with that initial hologram. That’s probably for the best too because giant Snoke would have been best left to a videogame. After so much anticipation by fandom, the fact that Snoke remained a blank slate was a little depressing, but I have to wonder if fans didn’t feel the same way prior to The Empire Strikes Back if they had heard beforehand that the Emperor was in that film.
Nowhere was fan expectation more devastating than with the character of Captain Phasma. Despite having read interviews with Kathleen Kennedy and Gwendoline Christie in which they said that Phasma would have a small role, I was shocked by how small it was. A couple of small conversations and then getting Fetted by Han, Chewie, and Finn when they subdue her without her firing a single shot. The fact that the character was given so much attention by the media and through merchandise did not help things. I think Captain Phasma actually did more on some of the merchandise packaging than she did in the film, but her design is solid and she was still portrayed with a great amount of venom by Christie, so I hope that she will have a much larger part to play in the second film. In my head canon, Phasma doesn’t appreciate Kylo Ren and General Hux’s cavalier attitude towards her troops, so she plans a coup with the help of some Mandalorians.
While she was not given much more screen time, Lupita Nyong’o’s Maz Kanata was one of my favorite new characters. I appreciated that while she was clearly rich, powerful, and respected enough to have her own castle with giant statues of herself outside, she was first seen serving drinks to the riffraff who populated its rafters. I cannot claim to have made this connection myself, but I heard someone on a podcast draw a comparison between Maz and Jesus. Just as Jesus often sat and served sinners, Maz Kanata serves food and drinks in this new refuge of the scummy and villainous. Maz is also clearly a believer in the Force and can see deeply into people. While I wouldn’t draw any deeper connections to Christ than that, it’s an interesting concept. Visually, Maz was also intriguing. Her visage is cute and disarming in a similar way to Yoda’s initial appearance in The Empire Strikes Back. She is seemingly not a physical threat, but in a film where many character’s greatest danger is the fear, doubt, and secrets within, a character who is able to see past all that may be the most dangerous of all.
That leaves the “legacy characters.” While everyone else was glad to hear that Han, Luke, Leia, Chewie, and the droids were returning, I was reluctant. I was okay with them handing off the torch, but I wanted new characters not just a rehash of older ones. Lord if they didn’t get to me though. Harrison Ford stepped right back into Han’s seat on the Millennium Falcon and took us for one heck of a ride; in fact, the moment when Han stepped back into the cockpit was one of the moments that made me tear up in the film. Ford’s smirk and one-liners were vintage Han polished up and made new for old and new generations to share. For a character he at times seemed so loathe to play, Harrison Ford certainly brought his best. I will be happy if I never have to hear another joke about Chewie’s bowcaster though. Once was enough for me, and twice brought me right out of the movie along with any references to Finn being called “big deal.”
Carrie Fisher had a similarly great return to form as General Leia. Her interactions with Harrison Ford were great and recalled her snappy dialogue from A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back. As a character, Leia ranged from being the strong, vigilant leader of this new resistance group to being almost like a den mother in the way that she cared for the soldiers under her command. It’s interesting to see a similar style of caring in Poe, which leads me to wonder what connections there are between the two. A connection of some kind is implied in the Princess Leia novel, Moving Targets, but it’s not made very explicit; never-the-less, I was glad to see similarities drawn between them in The Force Awakens.
What is there to say about Mark Hamill in the film except that when it was clear that the film was on its way to wrapping up, I was concerned that the only bit of Hamill we would see would be the hand on the dome of R2-D2. When we did get the scene at the end of the film, I was thankful that not only did we get some Luke, but Hamill looked like Luke. For me, it was something about the hair that did it. He looked like Luke Skywalker, Jedi recluse, and I cannot wait to see more in Episode VII.
In terms of the plot, it felt like a combination of A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back. It had plenty of sight and dialogue gags that pulled up just short of being too much for me. It answered lots of questions I had and left many more to speculate about during the long wait for Episode VIII. There were minor plot holes with the biggest for my friends and I being what exactly causes R2-D2 to wake up. After a second viewing of the film, I found myself with no more answers. His waking up is preceded by a mournful growl from Chewie, but it seems like that would not be the cue to cause R2 to awaken. Is there some recall button that Luke presses on his end when he’s ready? “Okay, R2. I’ve finally got my hair looking exactly how I want it and found the perfect spot to stare out longingly at the sea. Send the girl over.” I don’t know. Is it really that important? Perhaps not, but it was the one hole the plot really poked in both all of my friends and I.
Three years. Three years to see a movie filled with a new family of characters to love and do deep analysis on, an old family of characters to welcome back, and some plot holes and cheesiness to forgive. Three years to wait and speculate with social media friends and social media “family” about what would be in this new film. The waiting was a lot of fun, just as the film was. Now’s the time to relish in that wait being over and view the movie again and again with our friends and family. A few months down the line, we’ll be back to waiting again, but like Rey, we’ll have the hope The Force Awakens gave us that theatrical Star Wars is back. With films like Rogue One and television like Star Wars: Rebels to tide us over, the wait shouldn’t be bad at all.