When the Disney Corporation purchased Lucasfilm in 2012, a lot of questions came with what was coming, and how would they “change” the Star Wars galaxy. Five years later, they’ve regulated the previous expanded universe canon to “Legend” status, where they cherry pick bits and pieces that they like for use, a new animated series (Rebels), the start of “side story” films (Rogue One), multiple comic series, and have decided to continue telling the story of the “Skywalker Saga” in film again.
In 2015, we got the results of that first cinematic story. A return to form of the Original Trilogy, for the most past. Disney has decided to wrap up and put the Prequel Trilogy to rest in order to tell new stories with both new and the original characters. I had been at a point where the Prequel films had left a bad taste in my mouth, and had wondered/feared that I might have been moving past my love for Star Wars at this point in my life.
I can assure readers that this is not the case.
The Force Awakens is a pure return to form for the Star Wars series. The characters of Luke, Han, and Leia are again integral parts to the plot. Lucas’ love of CG-laden scenery against a greenscreen has been dropped for practical effects and models. Some critics have decried that Force Awakens was too tonally similar in plot to the original Star Wars (then again, so was Phantom Menace), but in many ways, this decision was a necessity of sorts. It’s an intentional “olive branch” to long time fans that had been burned out on CG spectacle over story and three films worth of leaden dialogue.
Here we are introduced to the AWOL Stormtrooper “Finn”, who has spent his whole life unquestioningly following orders only to have to now having to learn to think for himself and be his own person. Poe Dameron is a hotshot pilot who owns the personality-laden droid BB-8. And Rey, a scavenger from the desert planet of Jakku who lives an isolated life, yet yearns for something more.
Rey is the Anakin/Luke proxy of this new trilogy, and is similar enough to the point where she is likely a Skywalker herself (the film never reveals her heritage). As mentioned in my Rogue One review, unlike Jyn Erso’s exposition laden backstory, Rey’s depiction of her hard life is shown, with very little use of dialogue. We see what she needs to do in order to survive, her fears of what her future on this planet might hold, and her isolation is waiting for someone to literally rescue her.
The new villain of this film is Kylo Ren, a literal Darth Vader wannabe. The son of Han and Leia, Kylo Ren (Ben Solo) idolizes his grandfather Anakin Skywalker for all the wrong reasons, interpreting his grandfather’s mistakes as the “correct” path. For his own reasons, Kylo Ren desperately wants to be “bad”, feeling the need to be stronger than Anakin to compensate for Vader’s failures, yet Ren lacks the self-control and anger management to truly follow through.
The Force Awakens is filled with plenty of “fan service” for those that loved the original films. Han Solo and Chewbacca are at the forefront of the story, though Han takes on more of an Obi-Wan style mentor with a sarcastic edge. Leia, C-3PO, and R2-D2 also interweave throughout the story, though Luke’s presence is shrouded in mystery until the literal final minutes of the film. Of course, John Williams’ score plays throughout the film, as it has defined the saga for 40 years now.
Harrison Ford has reportedly disliked the character of Han Solo, going on record in saying that he felt the character was shallow, and actively tried to get Solo killed off in Return of the Jedi. And yet despite those criticisms, Ford slipped effortlessly back into the part, unlike how seemingly tired and “off” his characterization of Indiana Jones was back in 2008. The cocky, sarcastic roguishness of Solo comes through, and delivers some of the film’s better lines.
The lack of Lucas’ involvement in this film is a benefit to the film, especially in referencing the improvement of story quality in Empire Strikes Back. Lucas has derided the film as being “too retro” and how Star Wars “was never about the spaceships”. And yet, we no longer have CG elements shoved into every single scene. We have dialogue that allows characters to have stronger personality and a sense of humor. We no longer have extended political plots and senate sessions, or numerous re-edits of any of the films. The Force Awakens provides numerous action scenes and space battles. Having actors interact with props, sets, and actual locations that help make the galaxy seem more real again.
While there are similarities to the original Star Wars film (less of a reboot and more of a gentle retelling of a “chosen one”), we are given new questions to work with, and new character motivations. Viewers realize that the jubilant celebration that closed out Return of the Jedi was not a “happily ever after”, as they were back to work the next day. After 30 years time, it never got better. In many ways, it got worse. Losing a childhood hero during the course of the film was a crushing moment, though I am sure we will find the story behind that decision in the future.
Of course there were issues. At times, the film did follow the beats of Star Wars perhaps a little too closely, notably with the inception of the New Order’s Starkiller Base. I hope this is the last that we’ll see of planet sized super lasers and related trench runs, because after three full attempts they don’t work. There’s also the matter of Captain Phasma falling into the “cool looking, but useless” trope that befell Darth Maul and Boba Fett in previous films. We don’t need to rely on expanded media to tell you why this character is “awesome”. This point needs to be depicted on screen.
As The Force Awakens ends on a cliffhanger, we look to have a lot of questions answered in The Last Jedi. There is more to Rey than what we are given, though reactions of familiarity by Han, Leia, and even Luke hint that they know exactly who she is, even if she does not.
The Force Awakens is Disney’s goodwill attempt to return Star Wars back to form with familiar characters and storylines. As with Empire, I expect the next film to be darker and full of character defining moments, though I am highly looking forward to seeing an older Luke Skywalker back in action once more.