Phenomenal. That word has been used to describe the original. Does the latest installment in the series from a galaxy far, far away live up to the original? Critics and moviegoers seem to think so. According to the current Rotten Tomatoes ratings, moviegoers are giving The Force Awakens a solid 91%, while critics weigh in at 94%. These scores are similar to those for A New Hope: critics 94%, and audience 96%. Interestingly, while a significantly larger percentage of viewers “liked” A New Hope, The Force Awakens gets a bit higher average star rating: 4.4/5 versus the original’s 4.1/5. Critics, however, slightly favor the original, with 8.5/10 stars, while The Force Awakens averaged 8.2/10.
Far and away, Star Wars fans apparently have concluded this was the movie “they’re looking for.” After seeing it the first time (I’ve now watched it three times.), I posted a very brief spoiler-free “review” on Facebook:
The feel of J.J. Abrams with the spirit of Lucas’s original. Nostalgia without being over-obvious or tedious.
From what I’ve seen online, fans generally agree with that analysis. However, there are a few critics, such as Los Angeles Times’ reporter Michael Hiltzik, who believe the film was too formulaic, and a mere copycat of the original: “Star Wars: The Force Awakens, is not very good. It’s professionally made in the sense that it displays an industrial level of Quality Control. But it’s depressingly unimaginative and dull in long stretches, and — crucially — reproduces George Lucas’ original 1977 movie slavishly almost to the point of plagiarism.”
I’m not sure what movie Hilzitk was watching, but I certainly didn’t find any “long stretches” which were “dull.” And if by “unimaginative” he means it does not reinvent the wheel, this is admittedly true. However, filmmakers would be foolish to try to make every movie unique, or even groundbreaking. Hilztik is right to conclude The Force Awakens, or its predecessors, were not “cinematic breakthroughs,” but that does not mean the movie “stinks,” as the headline declares. Yes, the Star Wars franchise which Disney bought is about making money. Formulas and reboots make money. But that does not mean they are not worth making, or do not speak to the culture in worthwhile ways.
Right from the beginning, I knew The Force Awakened was going to be a combination of old and new. I expected to miss the drums, harmonic horns, and violins of Fox’s opening theme, but I assumed Disney would stamp their brand on Star Wars by having us wish upon a star. Instead, we were greeted with silence and a glimpse of the LucasFilms logo for a few fleeting seconds, followed by the famous Star Wars crawl. But even the opening crawl was a bit different. The wording didn’t seem as stilted as the previous movies (especially Revenge of the Sith). This was the first indication the franchise was in good hands.
Recently, there has been speculation the first spoken line in the film was a slap at George Lucas. Poe, the “best pilot in the fleet,” meets up with Lor San Tekka, who somehow has recovered a map that is the key to finding Luke Skywalker. San Tekka declares, “This will begin to make things right.” Is the screenwriter winking at the audience, implying The Force Awakens will make up for what many have viewed as inferior prequels? Speculators point out that Abrams co-wrote the movie with Lawrence Kasdan, who wrote episodes V and VI, and wasn’t involved in the prequels. It’s an interesting theory, and even if the screenwriters should vehemently deny this was their intention, this line is sure to stick in the minds of fans as long as Star Wars is talked about.
I am one of the few fans who don’t think the prequels were a disaster. They certainly have their weaknesses, but were good enough to garner blockbuster support from the fan base. And they do present themes which are worth thinking about. (See my previous reviews here on Screenfish.) The prequels showed what happens after centuries of peace when the protectors of that peace become too ingrown and complacent, concerned only about preserving that peace at almost any cost. They were too easily deceived, resulting in disaster and ever-escalating war.
Darth Vader actually took over where the Jedi left off. His desire was to restore order to the galaxy, but was willing to accomplish “peace and order” using means the Jedi would have rejected. That is why the Jedi needed to be removed, and the rebellion squelched. One self-deceived supposed altruism is replaced by another. It is no wonder Kylo Ren is so easily seduced to the Dark Side. He wants to accomplish what his grandfather could not because, as Kylo sees it, Vader was seduced by the Light. He let sentimentality get in the way of destroying the last Jedi. (See the SlashFilm article “10 Insights From the ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ Novelization Not in the Movie.”) This is why it was so important for Kylo to overcome his feelings for his father and kill him.
Contrast this to the main protagonists, Rey and Finn, who are learning to overcome the darkness surrounding them with compassion. Rey is not your average damsel in distress. She can take care of herself, as Finn discovers as he takes action to try to rescue her and ends up having to defend himself from her. Rey has had to learn to fend for herself by finding valuable parts in the vast warship graveyard on Jakku, all the while defending herself from the heartless inhabitants of the planet. However, unlike Princess Leia in the original movie, she has not become jaded, and is able to show compassion for BB-8, sparing him the scrapheap even though selling him would have kept her in food for months.
Finn was kidnapped as a child and “recruited” as a stormtrooper. However, facing his first action near the beginning of the film, he is unable to bring himself to kill the innocent villagers. He then seizes the opportunity to escape the First Order with Poe, whom he rescues. His motives at this point are rather selfish; he just wants to get as far away as he can, and will try eventually to escape to the outer rim. But the Force is not done with Finn. He and Rey have roles to play, and both are beginning to see beyond themselves, and to become part of something bigger than themselves.
Along the way, they learn the old stories they have heard were more than make-believe myths. Han Solo tells them he once disbelieved the stories of the Jedi and the Force. He had lived in an age, like Rey and Finn, where the Light had dimmed and the Force was mere legend. But Han experienced first-hand the power of the Force. He was a close friend with the last Jedi, after all. His lines are memorable:
It’s true. All of it. The Dark Side, the Jedi. They’re real.
Finn and Rey are about to become part of the legend—part of the myth. They don’t want to be, but they are. They are being drawn in whether they like it or not. It is like Luke and Han in the original story. Like Rey, Luke felt he must go back to the obligations he thought were waiting for him. Rey had to realize her parents weren’t coming back, and there was nothing left for her on Jakku but danger. Luke had to realize there was nothing left for him on Tatooine. Finn, like Han, could only think of running from danger. But both turned back and came through when they were needed.
It reminds me of Frodo and Sam in The Lord of the Rings, who had fame thrust upon them they didn’t want. Yet, once they were in it, they did all they could to do what was right. They could have found a safe place to stay, like Rivendell, and let others take on the Quest. But they realized they were destined to play their part, and did so willingly. As Gandalf tells Frodo, we don’t get to decide what happens in our time, but, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
The ending of the movie indicates it is now time for Luke to decide, again, what he will do with the time given him. Will he become an active player, or will he become like Yoda on Dagobah, training Rey to take up the mantle? I can’t wait until Episode VIII to find out.