Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens

A lot of people are sensitive about spoilers. I get that. You’re still a whiny bitch, but I’ll offer a compromise. At the bottom of this is an expand link. If you want the real dirty dozen, you click that. If not, you don’t. I can’t guarantee that all browsers will honor the WP plugin being used to hide it, so once you reach SPOILERS BEGIN, you exit this page. By reading this, you acknowledge that any spoilers you read are because you really wanted to read them and then cry about it on social media, like a whiny bitch. We clear?

I won’t say I am Star Wars biggest fan, but I have always been a huge fan of the Star Wars universe. Science fiction for me sort of came to me by accident when I was ten or eleven, and neither of my parents are your stereotypical nerds. But ever since I watched the non-special edition original films then, I’ve always been enamored with the fantasy of space. What ended up calling to me first was Star Trek. Compared to Star Wars, Trek is more cerebral, more technical. It aims to explain how everything works before it thrusts you in to a political, social, or economic conflict in space. Wars discards a lot of that to focus more on the experience of space, being in the heart of conflict and emotion. Certainly, with the original trilogy, it was about one man’s journey from being a simple farm hand, to becoming a Jedi Knight, a follower of a lost order, destined to restore order to the galaxy. Star Wars is a space opera, and it does not seem to be over until the cash register sings.

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens reaffirms what everyone knew all along; Having anyone but George Lucas write the movie is the best decision ever. Lawrence Kasdan, who co-wrote two of the original trilogy films The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi certainly helped co-writer and producer J.J Abrams focus on getting a lot of things right about this movie, namely the characters, the story, and the pacing. It looked, and felt like one of the original films. In many ways, it operated more closely to A New Hope with how similar the characters of Luke Skywalker and Rey began their journeys into space. Only, for once, Tatooine is not visited even once in this movie. Instead we start with the planet Jakku, and focus on the conflict between The First Order, compromised of remnants of the First Galactic Empire from the end of Return of the Jedi, and The Resistance, comprised of elements from The Rebel Alliance, and The Republic, presumably re-founded after the destruction of the second Death Star on Endor. It’s here you meet the dark side villian, Kylo Ren, and our stormtrooper protagonist, Finn. Like the opening twenty minutes of A New Hope, you’re immediately thrust into a conflict where Kylo Ren and his stormtroopers are searching for a droid with information vital to The Resistance, and it’s here you begin to unravel the mysteries behind Ren and his devotion to the Dark Side of the Force.

What separates this movie from the newer trilogy, is really the characters and how they interact with each other. One of the main complaints about Lucas’ three prequel films is that all of the characters cast were often stiff, devoid of any real feeling, and armed with clumsy dialogue. The Phantom Menace was honestly just plain boring, there was nothing, internal or external to the main characters, that grabbed my attention when I saw it in theaters in 1999. I often use the Homestar Runner Cheat Commandos joke BUY ALL OUR PLAYSETS AND TOYS to describe Star Wars because even though it had a strong merchandising component to it before the prequels, it exploded after, partially due to millennials having kids and inundating them with their nerd hobbies. Episode I was really meant to be a child’s gateway in to the universe, but it didn’t have to be tailored specifically for kids. Episode VII managed to accomplish the same thing without resorting to using Jar-Jar Binks or centering an entire plot around podracing. I think that is where most of the older fans will appreciate Abrams’ effort in maintaining the original trilogy’s spirit.

As for the characters themselves, the casting decisions made fit the bill. Daisy Ridley and John Boyega played dynamic characters that naturally adapted to the advancing story as if their characters would have given their situations. There were moments where Boyega seemed a little lost-in-thought or otherwise spacey, which I thought put authenticity in to his character given their (rather brief) explanation of how he became a Stormtrooper. Ridley’s character Rey had many of the same characteristics Mark Hamill played well in Luke Skywalker, but added additional touches like technical know-how, and survival skills that younger Skywalker did not really possess at the beginning of the original films. What made her character an interesting follow was that she would sort of slide back-and-forth from tanking, to supporting, to borrow World of Warcraft terminology. Her insistence that Finn let go of her early on as they escaped from Jakku was no doubt a nod to her strong independent woman archetype, but she hardly fit that mold. She is certainly as strong as she needs to be, but never beneath allowing others to support her as she supports them. It sets her up for the last quarter of the film, and explains why those characteristics are desirable going forward in to what I presume will be Episodes VIII and IX.

Next is Kylo Ren. Frankly neither my wife or I were completely on-board with him as the film’s lead villain. She called him “emo”, which just made me think I’M BREAKING THE HABIT TONIGHT the entire way driving home after the movie. But it certainly fits, and not just because of how his character is portrayed throughout the film, but how he was played by Adam Driver. The direction they gave him was to portray a character that isn’t as darkly evil as Darth Vader was portrayed in the original films, but something more ambiguous, as if he is using evil means to achieve an end. Considering you see Vader’s melted helmet in the trailers, it’s not hard to assume that he is modelling his character off of a famous Sith Lord like someone would idolize an evil dictator. Only, he has no idea what kind of person Vader was, which adds an awkward complexity to the character that you have to see to really click.

With the rest of the film, it checks off all the boxes classic fans enjoy while placating newer fans. Space and ground battles, X-Wings, TIE Fighters, lightsaber fights, and Han Solo and Chewbacca. The original film cast, Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, and Carrie Fisher, all play well within the film without stepping over the new cast. It felt like a changing-of-the-guard ceremony in a way, ushering a new era that we hope might continue building new blocks in a still-unexplored universe. My wife isn’t in to Star Wars as much as I am, but she enjoyed the film and of course enjoyed characters like Chewbacca and BB-8 among others. She also did not like Kylo Ren as previously stated. But neither one of us thought much of Captain Phasma, a Chrome Stormtrooper character played by Gwendoline Christie, who Game of Thrones fans know as Brienne of Tarth. The main issue was that Phasma had few lines in the film, and as they did not really explain her purpose, it’s hard for you to justify why she is even there. I have a few guesses as to why she is there, and I imagine they will explain her character in a book or short in the future, but my wife felt like she was a cardboard-cutout placed in the film to reinforce the fact she is a she and she is a Stormtrooper leader, a de-facto nod to feminism social justice.

Overall, J.J Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan prove that Star Wars can be done with today’s audience and today’s budget while retaining yesterday’s look and feel. The movie captures everything you love about the original films while giving it a chance to finally move in to the future. The Force Awakens is a strong entry in the post-original trilogy era that seeks to expand the Star Wars universe further on the big screen. With any luck, the next movie will be just as good.

My only wish is that Abrams would have done this with Star Trek as well, but sadly that franchise is forever left in yesterday’s shadow.

SPOILERS BEGIN AWAKEN.

EXPAND FOR REAL TALK

So you’ve read everything above. Now let’s get dangerous.

First, let’s address this film’s similarity to A New Hope. It was lacking in the restraint the former had. Introducing a super-weapon and immediately wasting five populated planets was an obvious drawback to The Death Star blowing up Alderann, but that film took its time displaying the power of a superweapon capable of blowing up a planet. A lot of that had to do with Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin. The dynamic of Tarkin to Vader was much more menacing and much more methodical than that of General Hux and Kylo Ren, which came off to me as Dick Dastardly and Muttley only the two couldn’t figure out which one was which. A lot of the scenes in this movie play off of similar scenes in the original films, and sadly the only thing I can attribute this to is J.J Abrams. I know he is revered in many new nerd circles, but I’ve never held a particularly high opinion of this guy as a writer. When you’re handed the film industry’s best-selling sandbox and given complete artistic freedom, making something that sticks close to the originals is just a safe bet. I understand why, because I wouldn’t want to go all-out on an unknown and piss the fanbase off even further than Lucas already did with the prequels, but really, you already have alienated the core fanbase that considered the existing Extended Universe canon by making it non-canon in favor of your film. We’ve spent the last thirty years with Jacen and Jaina Solo, Han and Leia’s kids, Mara Jade from the Thrawn Trilogy, and a giant cast of book and game universe characters. I’ve accepted that they were never going to make films based on that universe, but that doesn’t mean they can’t create whatever they want so long as it fits the spirit of the original films. What we got was a very good compromise, maybe better than compromise. I’ll take it for what it’s worth.

Then there is Han Solo. If you thought that was a plot-twist, it wasn’t really. Everyone went in to this movie figuring Kylo Ren was either going to be Han and Leia’s son, or Luke, or someone else we knew. The interesting thing is that Abrams might’ve actually studied the original Extended Universe and decided to sort of re-work it in to his new canon universe. But as I told my wife on our way home, I cannot rule out that Han survived somehow. I know, he fell, the thing exploded, and the planet imploded, but if science fiction and Gundam taught me anything, is that you have to see the dead body or the funeral for it to be really real. Hell, I still think Palpatine is still alive somewhere in this universe.

But speaking on Kylo “Ben Solo” Ren, the reason we both found his character mopey and emo was that he was mopey and emo. My wife did not like him because he “threw tantrums”, destroying the console in the beginning, force-choking people, and otherwise having a breakdown every time things didn’t go as planned for him. Darth Vader was more cool, calculated, and even though he also force-choked people to death, it was always done swiftly and quietly. Vader inspired true fear, Ren is merely trying to imitate something he knows nothing of. He speaks often of trying to “finish what you started” but what does he think Vader started? We, the audience know, we knew Anakin Skywalker before he became Darth Vader, we saw his struggle, his turn to the dark side out of his need to protect those he loved. As Vader, he continued to use the dark side to control the universe because he saw that control as the only way forward. When he fought Luke, when he fought his son, he initially wanted Luke to join him on that path forward, but when it became apparent that wasn’t going to happen, he sacrificed himself to end the struggle. Kylo Ren knows nothing of this struggle, and knows nothing of how truly terrifying The Dark Side is when you fully embrace it. What he does not realize is Han sacrificed himself to try to save his son much in the same way Vader did. My hope is that by the end of this new trilogy, Ren realizes that. But at the moment, we have Teenage Angst Jedi who might as well be listening to Linkin Park.

Rey and Finn. Social justice are all over these two because WOMAN and PERSON OF COLOR. Thing is, I have no problem with either, and neither should you. The manufactured controversy people have been trying to start up on Facebook and Twitter over these two is just that, manufactured. Both Rey and Finn are awesome characters written extremely well. But even further still. we have had female Jedis before, in the prequel films, the animated shows, and the Extended Universe books. Rey however is the first rags-to-riches Jedi in some time, and I am okay with this. I think she makes an excellent character because she is technically-minded, with a strong sense of justice, and adaptable to situations. Now you might say the technically-minded part is an obvious insert like WOMEN IN STEM AMIRITE??? but why is that hard to believe in the Star Wars universe? The thing SocJus has to understand about the Star Wars universe is that in it, people grow up learning how to fly ships, operate speeders, shoot lasers, and deal with alien races. Trying to frame a movie universe under the constraints our regular universe is stupid. Roleplay a little, put yourself in that universe and think, if you grew up tinkering with ships and scavenging Star Destroyers for a living, would you not know a thing or two about how to drive The Millennium Falcon? That’s why Rey is such a good character. It has less to do with her being a woman and more about her being a smart, crafty, and resourceful person in the middle of a desert. As for Finn, again, color doesn’t really matter here. He was conditioned to be a soldier, he broke free from his conditioning, and used that knowledge to escape. But rather than truly escape, he found a purpose in helping others, and especially Rey. He was Rey’s opposite in that he wasn’t very resourceful or clever, lacking any real-working knowledge of the universe outside of his helmet, but he learned to be adaptive as the story moved along. I’ve heard a few people quip “Social Justice Star Wars” and honestly, while I see their concerns and see their examples, I don’t want to fully buy in to that. I know that is easy given today’s climate in nerd culture, video games, and so on, but this film was far from lazy on characters and casting. I’ve always maintained that true artistic equality in the media and arts means that you have to have characters that are written well and they aren’t just obvious cookie-cutter cardboard-cutouts. Abrams could have easily just made Rey “God Mode Woman” with all her lines being “I’m a strong independent woman who don’t NEED no droid/man/old man/wookie/lightsaber.” But he didn’t. Both Rey and Finn have faults, and they use those faults to learn. If you came in to this movie expecting it to be Twilight in Space, get the fuck out.

Ultimately, I think my favorite new character in this film was Maz Kanata, the owner of the bar Solo takes Rey and Finn to where Rey finds Anakin’s (later Luke’s) lightsaber and taps in to her force abilities to see the past. Maz came off to me much as Edna Mode did in The Incredibles, and given the new Disney ties, I almost felt like this was a callback in a way. What makes her character interesting is that she calls upon an old trick where you slow the movie down a little to dispense some much-needed advice to the characters from someone unconnected to any side in the fight or force in the universe. Star Wars is always at its best when it involves non-humanoid characters in some kind of key role, like Nien Nunb and Admiral Ackbar.

Finally, we got our shot of grizzly-old Luke Skywalker at the very end of the film, and much like Yoda’s retreat at the end of Episode III, it seems Skywalker also high-tailed it before The First Order took hold. Considering how rough-around-the-edges they made Leia and Han, I am hoping his role in the next film is equally as interesting as I presume he will be training Rey in the use of The Force.

As for my predictions for VIII and IX, it depends on how much J.J wants to stick to the original films. Making VIII out to be like Empire Strikes Back would suggest that The First Order, and Kylo Ren, is going to come back and hit hard as Luke and Rey prepare for the final confrontation. I imagine Luke is either going to face Ren and perish, giving Rey the keys to the next generation of Jedi, or he is going to turn Ren back to the light and all three will take on Snoke in a final confrontation. Finn’s role will probably be with The Resistance, or with Rey and Chewbacca in the Falcon. It’s hard for me to tell what they’ll do with him, but hopefully he remains part of The Resistance’s air or ground troops, given his gunnery skills. They will probably introduce more characters in the next film that will carry over in to IX, though I am not sure to what role. If J.J is still sampling some of the old Extended Universe, I wouldn’t mind him casting someone like Thrawn commanding another branch of ex-Empire assets that enters the fray, or Mara Jade to try to kill Luke only to be turned. I guess I will be interested to see where this new trilogy will go.

But overall, Star Wars was awesome. Worth seeing in theaters.

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