I don’t want to disappoint anyone so please note that “SPOILER” is clearly in the title. I not-so-fondly remember the Friday morning when the first Avengers film came out. I was minding my own business – wearing a Captain America shirt – in Target, when I was approached… and BAM!
“Man, isn’t it crazy that they killed off Agent Coulson?”
I started in disbelief and silence at the man as he walked away, in ignorant bliss. I hadn’t seen the film yet, and the heart of the film had already been ripped out an exposed.
So, just to be clear, this Star Wars: The Force Awakens review contains major plot points.
Before we get there, let me just say that I found the film to be beautifully conveyed, with a narrative that matched the tone, style, and pace of the original trilogy. In fact, it was a simplified plot that allowed the character development to deepen the action rather than glorified political bickering and grandstanding that work fine in House of Cards or Scandal, but which turned the prequels into some heavy-handed clunkers. Capturing that lyrical storytelling style, J.J. Abrams’ and company also found a way to reel back in the ‘old school’ look of the various planets that the narrative took us to — the snowy final act was one of the best looking sets in a film I saw this year.
BB-8 wasn’t as annoying as I expected. Okay, I’ll admit it: he was no Jar-Jar, and was more huggable than most Ewoks.
The cast’s diversity was a strength, not an add-on. Whether it was a central black character or the depth of options for women, The Force Awakens proved that it wasn’t all about white male superiority.
You could probably enjoy this one without seeing any of the others. But it wouldn’t be as much fun, so why would you?
John Williams’ score is again simply fabulous.
Now, to the plot points…
As a fan of the oldest trilogy, it was delightful to see the old crew back at it, and to recognize that there were several set pieces that were mimicked from previous films. While the film did finally deviate from being a straightforward copy of the Battle of Endor, it was at times off-putting to find that we were watching a mirrored image from somewhere else. I was thinking of Gandalf versus Balrog, but honestly, things went better for Harrison Ford the last time he stood on a bridge…
Ironically, it’s that scene that I saw telegraphed from the first third of the film. While the Internet has been buzzing with anger over the preposterous suggestion that someone might leak information about the film, it struck me as completely “unshocking” that Han would die at the hands of his son – who we knew early on was Kylo Ren. Ren’s temper tantrums mixed with the Force tied him to both Leia and Han, and reflect the failure of Luke as a teacher in his first attempt (setting up his redemption as teacher in the second film?) Ironically, or not…. Luke’s visual appearance reflects that of Obi Wan Kenobi in A New Hope: he’s isolated, bearded, reclusive, and dismissive of the Force and its application. But that, and the probable reveal that Daisy Ridley’s Rey is in fact his sister. [Editor’s note: We’ve seen this before and Timothy Zahn’s post-Jedi trilogy included that plot point.]
For all of its flash and sparkle, The Force Awakens plays out like Star Wars should, and certainly like a Disney film. There are dysfunctional kids, dysfunctional parents, and the quest to find the family who left you behind. It’s just ironic that rather than letting this meander around, Abrams actually went for it and pulled off his own Oedipal moment. The end result is one I expected, but it also sets us up to see the conflicted pain of Ren and the potential future clash with Rey. Thankfully, here, Abrams’ sequel proved to be more open minded to both women and minorities; by herself, Ridley’s portrayal would have provided the necessary ‘juice’ to make us care, but she was not alone.
That said, Ridley wasn’t alone. On one side of the equation, she had Finn (John Boyega), who provided a depth to stormtroopers we hadn’t seen in the films before. His recognition that war was dangerous, and that the First Order was not just, leads him to first a Han Solo position (the good for the sake of self) to the Luke Skywalker position (the good for the sake of friends … and for all). Finn’s development was a testimony to the script but also to Abrams’ casting of this fine, young actor and his portrayal. Finn made us care because he had seen evil from the inside, and been prey to its bullying and manipulations. Recognizing that evil, Finn’s desire to do good is redemptive, but it’s also braver – he knows what is at stake. Interestingly enough, if he was stripped of his parents and raised to fight for the First Order, then it is ultimately his nature that dominates his nurture, right? That could lend itself to a completely new conversation about the nature of humanity, the fall, and grace, too.
Ren is of course the flip side to this. Ren’s conviction in the direction of the eerily absent Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) is creepy. (Snoke looks incredibly like a decomposing Voldemort, who has been kept alive by hate and bitterness. Is he the manifestation of evil?) He knows he’s being manipulated, but he specifically prays to the spirit of his dead grandfather to help him eradicate the light in his own heart. I know that Adam Driver has given interviews where he worked to create the idea that Ren wasn’t evil, but even before his final acts of violence, he’s literally aware that good/light is better and he’s turning toward the darkness. [For a Biblical comparison, the Pharaoh rejecting Moses’ pleas on behalf of God use the phrase “hardened his heart,” implying his desire was evil and God allowed him the resilience to stay that way. Ren seems like that.] This also shows that his grandfather’s final act of “good” – and his place in the dead Jedi pantheon – has not offset the way that Snoke uses Ren to think about the world, or how Ren remembers his own history.
What is clear is that the history of Star Wars includes peaks and valleys of times when the Force was prevalent, and times when it was left dormant. Is that because it wasn’t needed? Is that because people had forgotten the Force, their heritage, or their history? Is it because there really are a limited number of people who can wield it? Time will tell for sure, but the history of the Force is what bonds the stories, and our collective understanding of what is going on, together.
That history, and the backstories of Finn and Rey, will have to remain for another day. We don’t know exactly how they will play out yet, but we know that they will ultimately matter because they are still seeking. They are seeking opportunities to grow, people to mentor them, and family to surround them – those same things which we seek today. In the case of Finn, Rey, and Ren, others have stepped in where family did not or could not, and altered their worldview to reflect things that weren’t true. By seeking out the Force, each of them comes to a place of choosing what to believe and who to follow. They are faced with the same decisions we experience everyday.
And we must choose wisely.