Summary: 30 years after Return of the Jedi, Luke Skywalker has gone missing and it’s up to Rey to find him. Meanwhile, the Resistance continues to fight the First Order.
With the upcoming release Star Wars: The Last Jedi, I refreshed my memory with Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It’s two years, one non-canon entity later and I still love The Force Awakens. I love The Force Awakens more than I love Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. And Rogue One has Donnie Yen!
“But it’s literally a rehash of Star Wars: A New Hope! There’s nothing new there!” says a mild fan. Nay, mild fan. The Force Awakens is so much more than that.
Let’s go back to 1999. My dad had just showed my sister and me the Original Trilogy and I was pumped for Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. At the time and as a kid’s movie, Episode I is fine. Amidala’s outfits are great, Ewan McGregor was amazing, and that lightsaber duel was everything I had ever wanted. I still go back and wow over those elements. They’re not all that fun to go back to but they have their moments. But.
There are obvious issues with Episodes I-III– let’s not dally on those. Let’s talk about how The Prequels don’t register as my Star Wars series. You don’t even have to talk about it- just say at random moments, “Oh, you mean like the Prequels?” and everyone is suddenly in on the joke. When I think back to what shaped my adolescent years, what comes to mind are The Lord of the Rings movies (All hail Theoden King!) and the Harry Potter books. LOTR wasn’t THAT mainstream in my demographic, and Harry Potter only caught fire when the movies came. I can’t think of anything else that might have had similar widespread appeal or in-the-moment fandom- let me know if I am missing anything. As for the topic here, Star Wars was always in the conversation but we were always referring to the Original Trilogy and somewhat disowning the Prequels (people had already given up on those so quickly after their release). We were always talking about the terrible dialogue, how George Lucas needed to step off, and asking where the fun was. The Star Wars name became “Oh it was great back in the day, but those Prequels…”
One only needs to look at “vintage” Star Wars items. You’ll never see a shirt with Qui Gon or a mug shaped like Jar Jar Binks sold at Target today. The Prequels today aren’t anything more than an OK action series with some moments we enjoy because they’re good or straight up laughable.
When you live, breathe, internally know something inside and out, this shouldn’t be the attitude to have. Mind you, I’m not claiming to be a huge fan of Star Wars (it’s been about five years since I watched the Original Trilogy, blasphemous, I know), but I do know what it’s like to see something you love get run into the ground with something that doesn’t quite match its predecessors or improve upon it. Game of Thrones is getting dangerously close to this, Marvel has a few of these, and most recently, The Hobbit did it for LOTR.
So with this mindset, when Star Wars (within the Skywalker-canon) was announced for 2015 and subsequent years, it had a lot to live up to. It had to garner both new fans and win back the ones they lost. They had to introduce new characters while giving us good reasons to love them. They needed to bring back the adventure while also modernizing the story with this generation’s more serious tone. Not to mention how the methods of storytelling and the use of technology has changed! Star Wars suddenly had a million new tools to work with and one chance to win us back. This was lots and lots of studying of why the originals were such a hit, what fans didn’t like, and why the Prequels failed to bring in any new fans. In those regards, The Force Awakens is a slam dunk. Why not go back to those elements with new faces? Why not use a few visual reminders of the things we fell in love with, the people we quote, and the stunts we live for?
Aside from the many reminders of what we love about Star Wars, The Force Awakens is a good introduction to the next generation of the series. It’s an excellent first outing of a trilogy and great lead up to the sequel (or Episode VIII). Aside from the familiar faces and banter, there’s a gang of New: new characters, new gadgets, new action- all providing solid entertainment, the appropriate laughs, and getting the right emotions.
Newcomers Daisy Ridley (as I say in my head, “Day-say”) and John Boyega were the perfect casting for this movie, as Rey and Finn respectively. As an added bonus, the entire cast is entirely charming and engaging in interviews, cons, etc. The characters are extremely well-written. While it’s true they feel familiar in a Star Wars capacity, they also carry several traits for what we have been begging for from leading men and women in this 2010s decade. I love that we get these traits through establishing scenes and through demonstration, instead of the characters just talking about it and assumptions. Finn has pride but isn’t above his situation to follow another person’s lead, has feelings for Rey but doesn’t cross the line, and his first reactions are never to defend his masculinity but to question it. For me, I just love that Rey is capable: she’s a scavenger, used to dealing with things on her own, teaching herself skills, and winging her survival. The two mutually respect each other and support each other’s strengths, helping each other get to the next step.
I’ve heard a lot of returning fans complain that the story in The Force Awakens was too predictable, but we’ve had quite a few years of nonsensical movies riddled with plot holes and something I like to call automatic audience acceptance. These are things that focus on spectacle and not the story- like because this is a sci-fi movie, someone has to know how to fly and when it happens, we just accept it. The so-called predictability of The Force Awakens is much better executed than this, thanks to the solid crafting the story itself as well as the characters. The abilities of the characters are what gives the story sense and logic. They serve to benefit and support the plot, while also providing solid exposition and consistent character development. It’s not out of the ordinary that Rey would be able to pick up some Jedi techniques on her own or be afraid to test them out once she realized she had a special connection to the Force. It’s not really a question that Finn, a trained soldier, would have a slight idea of how to use a lightsaber.
I don’t even question Rey’s ability to match the skills of Kylo Ren, wonderfully played by Adam Driver. While Finn probably shouldn’t have been able to hold him off for that long, Kylo’s pride is what works against him when he faces off with Rey. Not to mention, he has a whole burden of expectations from himself, his bossman Snoke, conflicting moral choices he still feels guilty about, masculinity, elitism, and the fate of the First Order on his mind. Also, he just killed his father… and got shot. His struggle against an newly empowered potential Jedi makes sense. A character would be affected by all these things, whether they are a protagonist or antagonist- it’s unfair for the audience to expect them to maintain a mental state, even if they are perceived to be the most powerful person in the galaxy.
The only downside to The Force Awakens is that it’s all establishment for the next two installments- the tone, the meat of the Rey/Kylo conflict, Snoke, even the abilities of General Hux aren’t going to be touched. While this gives The Last Jedi a lot to work with, The Force Awakens feels a tad incomplete.
However, that’s exactly what it’s supposed to do- it’s a setup piece! At the end of the day, this is fine for a series, especially for the first of many installments and for what we should expect of a trilogy. I admit, I’m out-Marveled by their three-a-year releases, crossovers, cameos- they’re all starting to blend together. However, the structure of Star Wars with its many different characters and how it’s built on the anticipation factor is what really sets it apart and will keep me returning to the theater. The Force Awakens is a strong starting block for future projects, both standalone and canon, in re-establishing the universe, giving us an set of expectations, and a glimpse into the real potential of the series. It’s just a tiptoe in the huge ocean of Star Wars, but one that was badly needed.
The Force Awakens had me sold. I hope The Last Jedi exceeds the expectations it has set.