Warning: Spoilers abound.
I wrote this piece for the Presbyterians Today blog. I didn’t realize at the time of writing just how low I had allowed my expectations to sink. Really all I was looking for was to not hate the newest film of my favorite franchise. I wanted to be mildly amused for a couple of hours. I wanted to not feel like I was being naive and childish in my building enthusiasm. Honestly, I just didn’t want it to suck.
The Force Awakens begins very differently than the other six films of the series. The other films were distributed by 20th Century Fox and, as such, include the now iconic Fox Fanfare. TFA is the first film released since Disney’s purchase of Lucasfilm and opens with a silent reveal of the Lucasfilm logo. I’ve seen the film three times and each time I find it jarring. This actually epitomizes the film. instead of being eased into this new reality, we are thrust into at break neck speed. TFA has a lot to do and limited time to do it. It has to wash the bad taste of the prequels out of our collective mouths. It has to recapture the magic of the original trilogy. And it has to introduce new characters in are lovable and identifiable without getting bogged down in weighty exposition. For my money, and it has taken a lot of my money, The Force Awakens succeeds on all fronts.
I have a few criticisms. In a film that is heavily reliant on being ground in practical effects, there are two significant characters that are done in distracting motion capture animation. They are well done effects, but they snap you out of landscape filled with beautiful puppetry and effects that have gravity to them. There are times when the speed of the film feels absolutely breathless. Again, the movie is doing A LOT in the shortest runtime of the franchise. There are times when that means emotional connections are shortchanged. Old characters are brought back and we want to see them catch up with each other, but there’s no time for that. Much like Episode 4, there is no time for anyone’s grief in this film. Bad things happen. Suck it up, we’ve got more movie to do!
Lastly in way of critique I will concede that there may be a few too many notes borrowed from the original trilogy, particularly episode 4. I didn’t find this problematic. In fact, it seemed absolutely necessary to re-establishing this beloved universe, but it’s clear that the filmmakers knew this was a liability as well. The scene where the attack on the Starkiller base is planned is played totally tongue in cheek. “we can blow it up. There’s always a way to do that,” Han snarks. It takes some of the suspense away knowing that the characters are so self assured in their ability to destroy superweapons.
My quibbles are minor though compared to my praises. I love the new cast! At least two more films of Rey, Finn, and Poe against Kylo Ren? Yes, please! The protagonists are immediately endearing. Poe and Finn have instant rapport. It’s easy to imagine them a a buddy cop duo, having wild adventures to bring down the First Order. Rey is delightful. She’s tough, but she also has a childlike quality to her. She is very different from Luke. Luke looks to the sky, looking for excitement. Rey looks to the sky looking for the return of those who will take her home.
“Home” is a major theme of the film. In fact, I would say that the ethos of the film is summed up in Maz Kanata’s words “The belonging that you seek is ahead of you not behind you” (paraphrase). Leia wants to bring Luke home. She also wants to bring her son home. Han declares himself and Chewie home when they step onto the Millenium Falcon. The filmmakers are trying to bring us home, knowing that we can’t fully go home again, but maybe we can find a new definition of home if we’re willing to trust them on this new journey.
Unbeknownst to me, the character I was most worried about in the new film was Kylo Ren. Films of this kind rise and fall on the strength of their villains. Kylo Ren’s effectiveness as a villain is a big part of what makes the film work for me. The film does a great job from the character’s first appearance of letting us in on who he is. We know that he has important family connections so when it’s revealed that he’s Han Solo and Leia Organa’s son, it’s more of a confirmation than a reveal. Ren is menacing in a different way than Darth Vader. He is emotionally unstable, wildly insecure, and wrestling with the different sides of his heritage. We’re forced to wonder what made him identify more with his grandfather’s villainous side than with the heroism of his parents and uncle Luke.
Luke Skywalker’s name is mentioned throughout the film. He is the stuff of legend, even to those closest to him. At some point, he trained a new class of Jedi, but his wayward nephew, seduced by the mysterious Supreme Leader Snoke, ruined what he created. He took to exile, seeking the origins of the Jedi perhaps hoping to find an answer for the this continuous cycle of good vs. evil. When Luke is finally revealed, seeing his old lightsaber in Rey’s hands, you see surprise, exhaustion, concern, and ultimate acceptance in his eyes. Kudos to Mark Hamill to making the most of his very limited screen time.
Harrison Ford is given the most to do from the original cast. On one hand, he too is legendary, known as both a rebel general and a notorious smuggler. On the other hand, he’s a washed up pirate being pursued by younger gangs. He’s the surrogate father to Rey and the absentee father of Ben. He’s as loyal as ever to Chewie and achingly estranged from Leia. He’s a skeptic turned believer. He embraces his role as hero and is more reluctant in his role as father. Though it was telegraphed even in the marketing, the death of Han Solo is both truly heartbreaking and absolutely essential to move the story forward. The tone of the film changes dramatically once he falls and it is up to the new cast to carry the weight.
There’s so much more I could say about TFA. It’s funny, it’s exciting, it tells a compelling even if well worn story. It captures the magic of Star Wars while putting it into new context. The final lightsaber battle epitomizes all that this new chapter is meant to be. It’s not slick like the prequel battles, it is raw and intense like battles between Vader and Luke. Yet seeing a black man and then a woman holding the legendary blue saber reminds us that we’re not witnessing the Star Wars of our youth. We’ve grown up and Star Wars has (finally) grown up with us. Where we go from here won’t be like where we’ve been before, even if there are familiar notes. I grew up watching Han and Luke. My kids will grow up watching Finn and Rey. I went in hoping that I would not be disappointed. I came out unafraid to believe that the future might have more magic and adventure in store than I could have possibly dreamed.