Star Wars: The Force Awakens
2015 • 135 minutes • Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
I have never really been a big Star Wars fan. I’d always found the franchise fascinating, as both a pop culture junkie and an amateur fandom historian, but I’d never developed the deep, enduring affection I’d seen it generate in other people. But something about the run-up to Star Wars: The Force Awakens woke something very strange within me. I watched a fanedit of the prequels. I talked endlessly about how terrible Obi-Wan Kenobi’s life is. I threatened to make Mrs. Captain Phasma sweaters (which will totally happen). I plotted endlessly about what the film could hold. I became, bit by bit, obsessed with Star Wars.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens made me a Star Wars fan before it came out, and now? I am completely composed of Star Wars for the time being and I am loving every minute of it.
Second verse, much the same as the first—after Luke Skywalker disappears, General Leia Organa of the Resistance sends her best pilot, Poe Dameron, in search of an artifact that might lead her to her brother before the nefarious First Order, the last remnants of the Empire, finds him. Said artifact is hidden in a droid, who gets abandoned on a desert planet, only to be found by a young woman, Rey, with small prospects and big hopes. She’s soon caught up with someone on the run from the First Order, Finn, and leaves her desert planet behind for her true destiny…
There have been some complaints that The Force Awakens is derivative of A New Hope. I find these complaints reasonable, but The Force Awakens, for the most part, remixes and calls back to A New Hope in engaging and fascinating ways. (There’s a larger callback that doesn’t quite work, unless you, like myself, find the Empire’s—er, the First Order’s—lack of imagination hysterically funny.) All of Luke’s fears and hopes from the first act of A New Hope are condensed into dialogue-free scenes with Rey, conveying her fear of growing old on Jakku, her dreams of adventure, and how young but tenacious she is in a few shots. A callback to Luke crowd-surfing the Rebel base after winning the day (that’s how that scene happened, right?) gets some tragic weight by focusing on two characters who can’t join in the celebration. And, surprisingly, the only major reference to the prequels is how Kylo Ren is basically an amazing remix of Anakin Skywalker if those films acknowledged just what a mess he was.
Honestly, The Force Awakens reminds me of nothing so much as Legend of Korra—a sequel that looks at the original and just follows the worldbuilding to logical conclusions to find new and interesting stories to tell. Nowhere is this more evident than how humanizing Stormtroopers benefits the film. Finn, of course, is the biggest example, since we watch him go through so much even before he takes off his mask, but there are others. They’ve always been good for comedy, with their stark design managing to be anonymously intimidating and cartoonishly appealing at the same time, but it’s the dramatic weight given to a few other Stormtroopers in the film that amazes me. Specifically, the moment where another Stormtrooper, encountering a now lightsaber-wielding Finn, screams “Traitor!” at him before wailing on him with an axe. It’s, obviously, totally rad (it’s an electric axe), but also forces us to think of the Stormtrooper as someone who knew Finn and feels betrayed by him. It’s such elegant characterization.
And that elegant characterization extends to nearly every character in the film, especially our new trio, all of whom I absolutely adore. (This is a fancy way of saying that I sob “my babies” at the thought of these characters.) John Boyega, naturally, knocks Finn out of the park, as if we ever doubted that he would. Finn, despite his training and indoctrination, is a ray of affable, dorky sunshine, trying to bluff his way through a world he doesn’t really know, dealing with the nerves and fear he feels as he’s being hunted (he keeps instinctively trying to hold Rey’s hand in a firefight because he’s terrified), and being a devoted friend to the only people who have ever treated him like a person. Poe Dameron manages to best Han Solo by virtue of not being a jerk about how cool and hot he is. And Rey, oh, Rey. Daisy Ridley’s Rey is elfin, eager, and steely; excited by the wonders of the universe, a gearhead with unorthodox methods of engineering, and troubled by (but more than up to) the destiny that the Force has in store for her. Some have called Rey a Mary Sue (as if Luke wasn’t?), to which I can only say—she is the Mary Sue that this generation of little girls (and kids of all genders) deserves.
Their chemistry is through the roof—I’d watch Rey and Finn try to stay out of harm’s way while wanting to see what the harm looks like all day while arguing or Finn and Poe zipping around the universe in a junky old stolen Imperial ship. Poe and Rey don’t get to interact in this film, but they will be best friends when they do. Search your feelings, you know it to be true. Rey, Finn, and Poe were already going to be majorly important characters, as a diverse trio in a sf cinematic landscape that is almost aggressively white, but the fact that they’re well-written and instantly endearing characters? My face is all warm just thinking about it, and I have the resting pulse of a dying lizard.
This diversity extends to the background characters as well; men and women of various different races appear as extras with speaking lines in both the First Order and the Resistance, although the Resistance is more colorful. (I’m particularly fond of the young ladies of the Resistance, who mostly wear their hair in elaborate but battle-ready braids as if in tribute to their general.) I was so scared that Maz Kenada was going to be awful, but it turns out that using mo-cap to let Lupita Nyong’o play a grizzled old lady space pirate is perhaps one of the best uses of that technology. It’s not perfect: Han Solo referring to a gang called the Kanjiklub played entirely by Asian actors (who speak in a subtitled alien language) as “freaks” could have been handled better, and it stands out because the film is otherwise so blasé about how diverse it is.
There’s so much more that I want to scream about from the rooftops, even after adjusting for spoilers. General Organa! General Organa and Han Solo and the weight of the history between them! Kinetic but clear action sequences! Lightsabers! Droids! Chewbacca! It’s not perfect—I could have used a lot more Captain Phasma and even more practical effects—but it’s damn close, give or take your taste for riffing on A New Hope. Star Wars is actively for all of us now, and I am so excited that I could bust.
I saw this film in theaters.