Star Wars: The Force Awakens or as it’s officially designated, Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens is the safe reintroduction to the Star Wars saga. With 10 years between Revenge of the Sith and a 32 year chronological gap between Return of the Jedi, I honestly never thought I’d see more Star Wars movies. I was perfectly happy with Star Wars: The Clone Wars, video games, comics, toys, LEGO, and anything else that was still being made at the time. All the hardcore Star Wars fans know George Lucas envisioned Stars Wars as a 9 Episode saga. The original trilogy first, the prequel trilogy second, and the sequel trilogy third. Lucas’ advancing age and unwillingness to get things started lead to his fateful decision to sell his creation to the corporate overlords at Disney.
I was stunned by the decision, but I can’t deny my overwhelming excitement. I didn’t even question the choice of director J. J. Abrams too much. The Force Awakens title felt like Star Wars, the trailer filled me with nostalgia, yet offered something new, and every tiny bit of information was worth analysis. Although we considered going with our parents, Star Wars was always something my brother and I were more dedicated to. Seeing Star Wars on the big screen again, surrounded by like minded fans, was indescribable. I was so overwhelmed by nostalgia and possibility that I didn’t let the full impact of the movie sink in until way later. As the least controversial installment in the sequel trilogy, The Force Awakens is technically the best. SPOILER ALERT! (now might be the time)…
Rey and Finn flee
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away… continues to give me chills everytime I read it. Lack of the 20th Century Fox theme is disappointing, but no one wants to see the Disney logo before Star Wars. Now it’s just an anti-climactic silent Lucasfilm Ltd. logo. I couldn’t resist humming along to John Williams’ nostalgic theme, although none of his new stuff stands out. The opening crawl makes it clear that Luke Skywalker won’t be around for most of the movie. With only unanswered questions left about why he’s the last Jedi. 32 years after Return of the Jedi, the Galactic Empire and Rebel Alliance have been replaced by knock off versions calling themselves the First Order and Resistance. The Republic has been rebuilt, but the First Order seeks to destroy it. Since she’s now older than a Princess, General Leia Organa leads the Resistance in a search for her brother.
The Force Awakens opens on the desert planet Jakku. It’s like Tatooine, but different somehow. Ace Resistance pilot Poe Dameron is there to receive a clue about Luke’s whereabouts. Unfortunately, the First Order is not far behind. Stormtroopers are once again the army that’s used. They just have sleeker armor and are slightly better shots. Their commander and Dark side Force user is Kylo Ren. The most intriguing new character made for Star Wars at the time. His black helmet and modulated voice gave off Darth Vader vibes and his three-pronged lightsaber (however impractical) was awesome to see. Although I couldn’t help but question his new Force abilities. Specifically stopping blaster fire midair, unlocking someone’s mind with the Force, and making someone faint with it. Before Poe’s capture, he gives the map to BB-8. Basically a droid shaped like an orange beach ball. All the devastation left on Jakku becomes too much for one Stormtrooper in particular. FN-2187 is sent away by chrome armored female Stormtrooper Captain Phasma. Another interesting new character. Only FN-2187 escapes with Poe in exchange for safe passage out of the First Order. The resulting TIE fighter chase earns him the name Finn.
Finn is mostly just the comic relief, but his rejection of the First Order at least gives him more of a personal journey. He essentially joins the Resistance the moment Poe is presumed dead. We’re then introduced to Rey. A lowly staff wielding scavenger who earns food trading parts she finds from decaying Star Destroyers. We learn everything we need to know about her in her silent introduction. She’s a dreamer longing for a way off her planet. Rey’s life changes the second she saves BB-8. Even more when she bumps into Finn. Leading the First Order directly to them. Take one guess which ship they end up escaping on. That’s right, an abandoned Millennium Falcon. Rey is apparently an expert pilot who gets them out of a ground level encounter with TIE fighters. While making repairs to the ship, Finn entrusts BB-8 with his secret and the Falcon is boarded by none other than Han Solo and Chewbacca. It’s like Han and Chewie never left. Han is grumpier, but time has opened his eyes to bigger things in the galaxy. He essentially takes on the role of Ben Kenobi by becoming a mentor figure. Trying his best to explain the Force and how Luke exiled himself after failing to train a new generation of Jedi.
Everything comes to a sudden halt when Han negotiates with rival gangs and monstrous Rathtars attack. After that pointless detour, Han takes everyone to meet a Resistance ally on Takodana (a forest planet I guess). Meanwhile, Kylo Ren learns of Solo’s involvement by speaking with Supreme Leader Snoke. A villainous Dark lord with limitless possibilities who reveals Kylo to be the son of Han & Leia. On Takodana, Han, Rey, Finn, and BB-8 go to see Maz Kanata in her castle cantina. Maz is an ancient alien with a mysterious connection to the Force. Rey discovers that she somehow found Luke’s lightsaber after it fell in The Empire Strikes Back. It gives Rey a vision that leaves open so many unanswered questions about her past and Force sensitivity. Before anything is answered, the First Order strikes back at the New Republic by taking out 4 planets at once. The blast came from Starkiller Base. Basically the Death Star if it was attached to planet Hoth. Kylo Ren and an army of Stormtroopers arrive on Takodana and in the confusion, Rey is captured, Finn uses the lightsaber, and Poe & the Resistance fly in to help.
That’s when Leia and Han finally reunite after spending time apart. Of course they’re interrupted by C-3PO. Meanwhile at their base on D’Qar, R2-D2 is powered down in Luke’s absence. You know the drill, the Resistance discuss a plan to destroy Starkiller Base. The plan consists of Han, Chewie, and Finn avoiding detection with lightspeed and planting explosives directly on the Base. Finn is more interested in saving Rey who manages to easily escape on her own. After resisting an unmasked Kylo Ren and casually using a Jedi mind trick on a suave Stormtrooper. Everyone reunites, but Han attempts to reason with his son. Revealing his name to be Ben Solo. Despite the lack of personal connection Han or Leia had with Obi-Wan. In their heart stopping exchange, Ben chooses the Dark side. The death of a famous character is emotional, but I saw it coming from a mile away. So I didn’t manage to cry, but you can feel the pain in Chewie’s growls.
Finn and Rey escape as X-Wing pilots take out more of Starkiller Base. While running through the snow, Kylo Ren stands between them. Finn’s lack of Force sensitivity cuts their lightsaber duel short. Although I didn’t know what it meant at the time, I found Rey dramatically summoning Luke’s lightsaber to be very cheerworthy. Their duel is intense and just fast enough to feel exciting. It ends when Ren is scarred and the crumbling planet separates them before exploding into a sun. Back at the Base, Han is mourned, Finn is unconscious, R2 wakes up in time to complete Luke’s map, and Leia sends Rey, R2, and Chewie off on the Falcon to find him. Rey finds Luke on Ahch-To where she presents him with his father’s lightsaber. Ending with the first ever Star Wars cliffhanger…
Han Solo and Chewbacca return to the Millennium Falcon
The Force Awakens is a lot like A New Hope in terms of story structure. And by “a lot like,” I mean it’s practically a remake. There’s a longing orphan living on a desert planet, a dictatorial regime of Stormtroopers lead by a helmet wearing villain cloaked in black, a McGuffin hidden in a droid sought after by resisting heroes, a cantina, a planet destroying super weapon, the death of a mentor (followed by a big “No!”), and so much more. Among other things, lack of originality is really the biggest problem with The Force Awakens. But it was practically a studio requirement. Even when fans criticized his decisions, George Lucas remained passionate about Star Wars. I won’t act like all his ideas for the sequel trilogy sounded great, but Disney throwing them out completely was a low blow. Plus there were perfectly good extended universe stories that could have been used. Disney and newly appointed Lucasfilm head Kathleen Kennedy essentially hijacked Lucas’ franchise to make it however they wanted. Which meant playing it safe with a throwback that would please fans. As well as releasing it around the toy friendly Christmas season instead of the traditional May.
I was never a huge Trekkie, but I have to admit J. J. Abrams leaving Star Trek for Star Wars felt like a betrayal. But I didn’t question Abrams too much because I knew he was in a difficult position. How to awaken a dormant franchise, please fans, do something new, and not repeat the mistakes of the prequels? I’d say he did well enough to earn the biggest box-office gross of the saga. So The Force Awakens refers to both the Force and Star Wars. Several decisions were made to recapture the feel of the original trilogy. The Force Awakens was shot on film, practical effects were a priority, and CGI was minimized. I understand the decision, but not every practical effect looks convincing. Why does something from the 80’s look better than something created now? You can see all the hard work that was put into the aliens and droids, but some just feel off. I’m not crazy about the lack of familiar Star Wars aliens. Outside of key characters like Chewie, Admiral Ackbar, or Nien Nunb. Easily the best practical effect is BB-8. I’m still trying to figure out how his sphere technology works.
CGI mostly went to fighter battles, lightsabers, and sparse motion capture characters. Notably Supreme Leader Snoke and Maz Kanata. Planets were almost entirely shot on location. Sure it’s not artificial, but some settings feel less memorable because of it. Outside of Jakku, how many other new planets can you name off the top of your head? Another franchise tradition was the use of newcomers and A-listers. Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford were all in vastly different places before agreeing to return. Hamill preferred voice acting, Fisher limited herself mostly to cameos, and Ford continued making blockbusters. Hamil and Fisher had to lose weight, but Ford was still in perfect shape. Out of the 3, Han Solo has the biggest role and it’s like he never left the Millennium Falcon. I know Fisher grew more snarky over the years, but she brings a weary optimism to an older Leia. I’ll always treasure the brief moments she spends with Ford. Of course the sheer lack of Luke Skywalker in promotional material was suspicious. It only gave more anticipation to Hamill’s eventual appearance. I can’t say I was expecting long hair & a Jedi beard.
Although they were relegated to minor roles, Peter Mayhew, Anthony Daniels, and Kenny Baker were welcomed legacy actors too. C-3PO & R2-D2 are the heart of Star Wars afterall. New faces included British actors Daisy Ridley and John Boyega. Both of whom appeared in small independent work beforehand. Their casting was meant to add more diversity, but the idea of a black Stormtrooper or one carrying a lightsaber wasn’t exactly new. Boyega is fine as Finn, but his over reliance of semi-comedic banter doesn’t feel natural. Neither does his friendship with Rey or Poe. In fact, most character interactions feel artificial. Plus the humor feels forced at times. Ridley does an admirable job as Rey, but it’s difficult to judge her personality when she’s perfect at everything. At least her hairstyle & staff wielding gave her potential as an icon. Poe Dameron is basically a Han Solo clone, except he could have been killed off before they realized Oscar Isaac had more potential. It’s ironic that the roles are reversed with his Ex_Machina co-star Domhnall Gleeson. General Hux is a ruthless Nazi-esque Commander, but the Stormtrooper salute is a bit on the nose.
Adam Driver is the best new actor playing the best new character. It’s obvious from his name that Kylo Ren isn’t a Sith, but his idealization of Darth Vader is clear. In fact most of The Force Awakens is characters appreciating the original trilogy. The Knights of Ren, a brand new crossguard lightsaber, his fun to imitate voice, and moral complexity were all key to making Kylo Ren an intriguing new character. Gwendoline Christie had just as much potential as Captain Phasma, but she’s thrown out just like Boba Fett. The biggest new A-listers were Andy Serkis and Lupita Nyong’o. Serkis maintains his motion capture credibility as the unusually mysterious deformed villain Snoke. While Nyong’o is practically unrecognizable as Maz Kanata. Since Star Wars was a big deal for everyone, a multitude of big name actors make cameos. Abrams favorites Simon Pegg and Dominic Monaghan, 007 himself Daniel Craig as a Stormtrooper, and even Carrie Fisher’s daughter Billie Lourd. The Force Awakens continued to favor a PG-13 rating. Only it feels more forced when characters randomly swear and blood is shown indiscriminately. Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens succeeds with nostalgia, but that’ll only get Disney so far. “May the Force be with you.”
Kylo Ren confronts Rey and Finn
Preceded by: Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi & Followed by: Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi