We’re nearing a week since Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens premiered in cinemas, and unsurprisingly it took to work defeating the recently set record for best global opening weekend in history, eclipsing the benchmark set by Jurassic World earlier in the year. Whether the movie was good or not wasn’t going to matter, it was going to bring in the money. But was The Force Awakens actually any good? I’ve already given my thoughts in a spoiler free review, but before the year was out I wanted to take some time to delve into what we actually got. And there was only so much that was possible in a spoiler free review.
I won’t be ‘reviewing’ the movie again here as such, this is more a space for me to flesh out my thoughts on what I couldn’t previously say, as well as look forward to what we might get from the new trilogy now we have something to work with. It reads a little like one long train of thought, but that’s because The Force Awakens has left us with a lot to talk about, both what we saw and what we haven’t yet seen. So yes, spoilers and then some below (as well as incoherent theorising from a fanboy). You’ve been warned.
Let’s address the big one right off of the bat. Han Solo’s influence on the story was essentially the ‘Luke I am you father’ level spoiler for this movie. Both in respects of his family lineage connecting with the new bad guy Kylo Ren, but also his demise at the hand of said son. The idea of his and Leia’s child turning evil is a plot point drawn out from the now non-canonical Expanded Universe, but they seem to have twisted things around enough here so it’s not a direct copy. His (or Rey’s) connection to the Solos was the most popular theory prior to entering the movie, and I’m glad Abrams didn’t bother trying to make it some big reveal. The ‘Han is his father’ card is thrown into play early on and without much fanfare, which allowed for their intertwining stories to grow a little more organically. It also stopped there from being another OT callback by dropping that kind of revelation on the audience in the third act.
It does kind of make the galaxy feel a little small by making this yet another Skywalker story (and potentially more so as I discuss further down) but I’m ok with that. The Star Wars saga, from episodes 1-6, has essentially been one giant family story, and I kind of like that the primary movies (which is kind of necessary to specify now we’re getting spinoffs) follow that family. It also makes Luke’s apparent failure as a teacher that much more meaningful that the one who fell away was his nephew, and helps to justify his decision to go Where’s Wally on the rest of them. Whatever role he plays from here on in, it’ll run parallel with Yoda and Obi-Wans, who both went into exile after their failings in Revenge of The Sith (running away seems to be part of the Jedi doctrine…)
The scene where Kylo Ren kills his father is executed pretty well, but the foreshadowing of this event prior was a little clumsy. I’m all for foreshadowing – I’d rather clever nods to shock twists that come from nowhere for the sake of shock – but I found the foreshadowing of Han’s death a little heavy handed. I had unfortunately stumbled upon this spoiler prior to seeing the movie (thanks internet), so as soon as there were hints the story would go that way I had confirmed what would go down, but even otherwise the foreshadowing was pretty obvious. I talked to the two guys I saw it with who weren’t privy to the spoiler and they both saw the death coming fairly early on. It was just one or two ominous pieces of dialogue too many to stop it being from as impactful as it could have been.
It’s an effective moment however, and does a lot for the story. It raises the stakes for everyone involved, gives the series a sense of uncertainty surrounding the safety of some key members (valuable for building suspense) and perhaps more importantly makes any kind of redemption story for Ren more compelling but also more dangerous. Suddenly it’s a lot riskier to appeal to the good in him, because it’s cost key people their lives already. We don’t know yet how Leia feels about her son now and whether he can still be saved (and though it’ll run very Vader-esque I can see him being turned in time to help them fight Supreme Leader Snoke) but the dilemma faced by her, Luke and probably Rey should make for a compelling plot point. One possibility mentioned by a friend (and my go to co-writer here at 1Up Dylan) is that they could twist the redemption angle to tell a story of how not everyone can be saved. This would make for an amazing emotional gut punch in Episode IX when after three movies of trying to redeem him the heroes realise they can’t. It’ll also help the movies stray a bit from the OT.
Speaking of Rey, she’s a Jedi! Well, going to be at least. The promotional stuff of Finn with the lightsaber was a bit of a red herring, as was another key promotional piece we didn’t get. Namely, this quote from the trailer:
“The Force is strong in my family. My father had it. I have it. My sister has it. You have that power too” – Luke Skywalker
We don’t get that at all in the movie, in fact Luke doesn’t say a damn thing (and I’m ok with that, we were never told he had a big role in this movie, and that final reveal was pretty damn sweet), but there’s a reason that quote is there. My first thought was that it was referring to Rey being Leia and Han’s daughter, but after seeing them all interact that doesn’t quite seem the case. But it’s a clear family reference, and her being Luke Skywalker’s child seems the likely bet. Again we get the family parallels of an orphan growing up in the desert, initially refusing the hero’s journey offer to try and go back home and stumbling upon their father’s lightsaber, before seeing a new but close friend dying (and she’s a capable pilot!). We know the franchise likes to play with cyclical stories (we’ve now basically had three Death Stars). The other option is the line is meant for a flashback when he’s talking to his nephew Ben Solo, which would also make sense.
Rey’s backstory is going to come into play, they spent too much time making it a big deal here for it not to matter in the future movies. And since at the end of ‘Awakens’ she’s basically at Jedi boot camp with Luke, it’d make sense for the hurt caused by being abandoned to come into play as she’s trying to master The Force. What better way to have to deal with it if the person who ‘abandoned’ her is teaching her? Couple that with Luke trying to train someone in the Jedi arts while still dealing with how badly that went last time with Ben Solo, and there is a lot of potential for some powerful scenes at play here. They can even show the differences between the light and dark side of training, since Snoke is calling back Kylo Ren to complete his training – which also helped explain why he was defeated by a rookie when it came to the lightsaber duel and even in using The Force. Of course we don’t know how far into the future VIII will skip, there was a three year jump between ‘Hope’ and ‘Empire’ after all, but there are too many unanswered immediate questions for the movies to skip too far ahead.
It makes the story a bit too predictable perhaps, but I think Rey being Luke’s daughter and Kylo Ren’s cousin makes the most sense from a storytelling perspective. Not only does Rey now have to deal with what I mentioned above, but she also has to deal with her primary adversary (right now, before Snoke takes that role) being her cousin. So we still get the family lightsaber duels and the emotional warfare that goes on like we did in the Original Trilogy but on a broader scale with the other parties involved. What effect that might have on Kylo Ren once he finds out could be interesting too. He struggled with killing Han, his father, and we know he’s battling with the temptation of the Light Side, having to face more family could really mess with him (as an aside, having Ren punch away at the bowcaster wound Chewbacca gave him while he fought was genius – he’s struggling to channel the Dark Side so he intentionally causes himself pain to help fuel those feelings, it’s a simple idea but speaks volumes of his character).
Moving away from the potential Jerry Springer Star Wars edition, we were also introduced to Poe Dameron, The Resistance’s ace pilot who works with Finn early on to get away from the First Order, and is one of the catalysts in destroying Starkiller base. There was an article that came out over the weekend that mentioned that Poe’s character was originally going to be killed off in VII, but Abrams built upon the role after meeting with Oscar Isaac. You can see that, he kind of disappears after the Tie Fighter crash and just magically turns up. It’s a little jarring in the film (but it makes sense, the movie follows Rey and Finn not Poe) and it’ll no doubt make for some great bait to get fans to delve into the books and comics that’ll come out explaining how he got back to the Resistance. The fact he survived is great, Poe was instantly likeable and should fill a great role (especially now Han is gone) through the next two movies. It worked out well because losing both him and Han might have made the movie a bit of a downer. His survival should also give us more great Finn/Poe moments – I can’t be the only one who wants Poe giving Finn advice big brother style on woo’ing Rey right? Help Finn become the ‘big deal’ he was hyping himself up to be (which was hilarious and gave the movie a bit of a different feel to the previous Star Wars films).
A quick tangent on the Starkiller base….can this be the last Death Star these movies give us? Please? Yes it was a planet not a space station, but we all know it was the Death Star part III (It’s even lampshaded by one of the pilots in the movie). The idea does makes for fun action sequences and an excuse to do space battles, but it felt recycled when it happened in Return of the Jedi, and in a movie that already felt a little too much like a HD remake of ‘A New Hope’, the Death Starkiller was a little too much. I’m sure the creative team can find another way to get X-Wings shooting down Tie Fighters with the stakes at third act tension highs…
It didn’t use up a lot of screen-time, but one of the weaker plot elements we received surrounded R2D2. This might make more sense if it’s touched on in the sequels, but him magically powering back up at the convenient time didn’t make a whole lot of sense. The only explanation I can see is Luke has some kind of influence over R2 even from their vast separation and was now ready to be found, but without any kind of context it felt like poor storytelling. Star Wars has always relied on conveniences driving forward the plot, but this one stuck out like a particularly sore thumb, and it wouldn’t have been that hard to construct a better explanation.
One of ‘The Force Awakens’ biggest strengths is also a weakness. It relied so much on what we know and love from the Original Trilogy. It really did feel like a remake rather than a sequel at points. The callbacks and homages were damn cool and got me excited, but it limits its merits a little on its own. The problem here is that if you follow my suspicions for where the story is headed, we’re not straying from the formula: Episode VIII will tell the story of the hero training with the old wise Jedi master hermit while the other heroes are separated and following their own quest lines. The villain returns bigger and meaner than ever and a major family lineage will be revealed. Then IX would be all about the final redemption of the masked villain thanks to his family, including the shadowy figure who’s pulling all the strings. It’ll make for an interesting story, but it’s one we’ve already seen.
It’s possible to tell it with plenty of freshness by twisting some things around and changing some aspects, but it’s going to read more like a re-imagining. Yes many people felt the prequels were too different to the originals, but the problem there wasn’t the story concept necessarily but its execution. The fact we’ll have a new director for each of the next two however does mean the movie will feel different, because The Force Awakens is very much a JJ Abrams piece. How this affects the familiarity to the originals will remain to be seen, but the Disney machine continues to pump out quality.
To finish (because this is already a fairly long breakdown without delving even further) I’m going to do a quick lightning round of scattered thoughts about parts of The Force Awakens
The scene with Finn and BB8 arguing about revealing the Resistance base to Rey, which was topped off with BB8 giving him a robo-thumbs up, was maybe the funniest Star Wars scene yet. A silver medal for that award goes to C-3PO’s introduction, ruining the Han/Leia moment just like he did in Empire Strikes back. Yes it was another callback, but it was too brilliant.
I mentioned in my spoiler free review how I loved the representation of The Force, but here I can actually give examples. When Kylo Ren had caught Rey and used The Force to hold her in position, it looked like she was being physically restrained against her will. Daisy Ridley’s acting is a big reason why, but it never looked so physical before. When Vader would force choke I never really bought into it like I did with The Force Awakens. Between that and the mind invasions The Force has never looked so brutal. As the two grow in The Force, their future battles could be even more intense.
How cool was the scene where Rey pulled the lightsaber past Kylo Ren? Another brilliantly executed scene that had me bouncing in my seat with excitement. The more I think about that fight the more I like it. Ren may have lost but both Rey and Finn were retreating basically the entire fight, and that was probably the fight lightsaber duel he’s had since he turned on Luke and the other trainees.
I kind of wish it was easier to shorten Kylo Ren’s name. Kylo on its own doesn’t sound right, but just calling him Ren is awkward when one of the lead protagonists’ name is Rey. They’re too similar to use within close proximity.
How could this movie include Iko Uwais and Yaya Ruhian (Rama and Mad Dog/Prakoso from the Raid series) and not have them burst out into a martial arts fight at any stage? You can tell they influenced the lightsaber fight scene with how real and natural the battle between Ren/Finn/Rey felt, but it was a bit of a waste not to get anything from them. Two of many cool cameos, and while there was no reason for them to fight, I couldn’t help but be a little disappointed. We know what they’re capable of, and they’re capable of art.
I’m so glad we got some kind of iconic opening shot. A New Hope won many over the instant the Star Destroyer hit the screen, and while the opening shot of ‘Awakens’ isn’t as memorable, the Destroyer blocking out our sight of the planet is damn cool nonetheless
Congratulations to JJ Abrams for some gorgeous cinematography. We saw some of it in the trailers, like the Tie Fighters silhouetted by the sun, but the flying scenes were truly jaw dropping on the big screen. Some very clever use of angles and momentum.
- Phasma was…umm…over-advertised? There was quite a bit of publicity for the character, she appeared in a lot of the marketing and she was just kind of there for a couple of scenes, did nothing and then got somewhat outplayed. I’m guessing she’ll have more of a role down the track, but as a single movie situation it kind of seems like she was advertised because she was a shiny chrome suit.
Another funny scene that needs credit, the introduction of the Millennium Falcon. The way Rey casually dismissed it as a piece of junk without us knowing what ship she was talking about made for a great fan moment. It could have easily been executed in a way that would have come off as cheesy, but they did a good job of making that bit work.
There is still plenty that could be said about The Force Awakens, and that is perhaps what makes it work so well. It gave us answers and questions, but importantly we want those questions answered. You can judge a movie on its technical merits, and that’s fine, but the best praise I can give a movie is to simply say I enjoyed the hell out of it. I can appreciate a near perfect film, but I’m more likely to watch and buy the movie that put the bigger smile on my face. And that’s what The Force Awakens did. I loved watching it, and I’m loving talking about it even more. If the rest of the Disney Star Wars movies are as enjoyable to watch as this, then I’m going to enjoy going to the cinemas every year for another dose of this far, far away galaxy