Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Melding of new and old
I don’t blame anyone for loathing the Star Wars franchise. It’s a multibillion-dollar industry now in the hands of Disney. Go into any store—not just toy stores—and you’ll find all kind of tie-ins: vitamins, bandages, cereal, notebooks, and action figures. If you have Star Wars fatigue, or if you never cared for the franchise, then skip the long lines and sleep through the hubbub. If you can separate the hype from the art, however, and look at Star Wars: The Force Awakens, as a solitary story, then you’ll appreciate it for what it is: a well-made film.
I was talking to a pastor friend who brought up the good point that the filmmakers could have changed the conversation of good versus evil by further humanizing the First Order.
Director J. J. Abrams, who already invigorated a tired Star Trek franchise by directing two excellent installments in the past six years, helms The Force Awakens. Series creator George Lucas wrote the previous trilogy, but he became caught up in a “look what I can do with computer-generated imagery!” mind-set and seemed to forget what made the series intriguing in the first place. Sure, the special effects seemed cutting edge in 1977, but it was the study of evil and good forces, endearingly flawed characters, and family tree intrigue that kept me interested. Abrams surrounded himself with experienced and versatile cowriters Lawrence Kasdan (Empire Strikes Back, The Big Chill, and Return of the Jedi) and Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine, Toy Story 3, Hunger Games: Catching Fire).
The movie started to build buzz more than two years ago when news leaked that original franchise stars Harrison Ford (as Han Solo), Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia), and Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker) were getting into shape to reprise their roles from 30 years before. The trio of writers had the complicated task of integrating the established characters with new ones who would be good enough to take the baton and lead the franchise into the next two episodes.
This melding of new and old stands as the true triumph of The Force Awakens. Abrams and crew smartly focuses the first 30 minutes of the film on Finn (John Boyega), a trained Stormtrooper who flees the Dark Side, and Rey, a strong-willed, unintimidated loner who can fix any machine and doesn’t expect—or desire—anyone’s help. Rey and Finn unknowingly have tangled themselves in past story lines, as the evil First Order goes on a mission to destroy any planet in the galaxy that gets in its way. The First Order also wants to capture the long-lost map to find Luke Skywalker, who is now a recluse living at an undisclosed location. Little by little, the filmmakers reintroduce the older characters as they intersect with Rey’s and Finn’s stories.
My daughters and I saw the film in a full theater of moviegoers who often showed their appreciation with applause. They applauded at the opening credits (or they were just happy that the six previews finally ended). They again erupted when Rey and Finn come upon Han Solo’s deserted ship, the Millennium Falcon. Every 20 minutes or so, the filmmakers drop in a nugget from the past, much to the crowd’s delight.
In general, the film’s pacing is impeccable. It doesn’t bore but it also doesn’t try to overdo the movie with over-the-top, exhaustingly long sequences. The plot and themes will be familiar to Star Wars aficionados. Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is essentially the new Darth Vader; he inherited the powers of the Force thanks in part to his heritage, and now is high-ranking official with the First Order. Skywalker is the last known Jedi, and Princess Leia—who is now General Organa—leads the Rebellion in its quest to find Skywalker and thwart the destructive plans of the First Order.
While the formula works, Abrams and company missed a few opportunities for change. We finally get to see under a Stormtrooper’s mask to see that real people live under there. I was talking to a pastor friend who brought up the good point that the filmmakers could have changed the conversation of good versus evil by further humanizing the First Order. Finn could have been a deeper character. He reveals that Stormtroopers are captured and trained to be killers from a young age, and sees an opportunity to escape this life. But instead of empathizing with his fellow Stormtroopers, Finn is more concerned with vengeance.
Finn’s story is interesting, but clearly this franchise is now in the hands of Rey. As the story moves along, Rey discovers new hidden forces within her as she tries to unravel the mystery of her past. Is she related to an established character? Is she an orphan? Can she use the Force? Always resourceful, Rey can wield a weapon but would rather use her mind. Rey is compassionate, not easily fooled, and an independent thinker. While she has few relationships from her past, she is fiercely loyal to the new friends she has made.
Let’s hope that the writers of the next two Star Wars episodes allow Rey to continue on this current trajectory and don’t allow her to fall into the same Hollywood pitfalls of female action characters before her. My daughters immediately loved Rey. Granted, they don’t see a ton of movies, but they haven’t seen a female character this strong since, well, Princess Leia. My 9-year-old is already planning to be Rey for Halloween.
My daughters were somewhat miffed at the filmmakers for the ending. There isn’t a cliffhanger, but there are more questions than answers. And now we all have to wait another year and a half for the next episode. There is more to explore, and if the next installment mirrors this one, we’re ready to ride along.
3.5 out of 4 stars. Rated PG-13 for regular action-film simulated violence. If your children have seen past Star Wars movies, The Force Awakens will translate as the other ones did. Conversely, if your children shied away from the franchise, the latest installment most likely won’t convert them.