Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens is the Star Wars film you’re looking for. Mostly.
In many respects, Star Wars was the film the helped to launch the modern “blockbuster” model of cinema, and a large part of The Force Awakens is the reassurance that not too much has changed in the intervening years. Sure, there are a few script tweaks to reflect more modern tastes for the post-Dark Knight era, but the basic storytelling engine is still the same underneath. If The Force Awakens is a hybrid, it is a hybrid fashioned from the parts of the three original Star Wars films and just a dash of something more twenty-first century.
After the issues with the prequels, it is reassuring to know that the engine still runs. The franchise’s history as one of the forerunners of blockbuster cinema makes it perfectly suited to JJ Abrams’ nostalgic stylings. Abrams gets a lot of flack for his evocation of seventies and eighties blockbuster cinema, but he does have a fundamental understanding of how (and why) it works. Ever the keen student of Spielberg and vintage Hollywood blockbusters, director JJ Abrams is able to effortlessly blend that classic aesthetic with a contemporary sensibilities.
There are moments when The Force Awakens threatens to suffocate under the weight of what came before, but it largely succeeds on its own terms as a doorway to something new and exciting.
One of the more interesting aspects of The Force Awakens is the way that it recasts the conclusion of Star Wars: Episode VI – The Return of the Jedi. The original trilogy ended on a note of celebration on the forest moon of Endor, with the special addition retroactively inserting footage of similar festivities on Coruscant and Naboo. The general impression was that this was a gigantic “happily ever after” for the universe as a whole, having vanquished the Empire by crippling its unhealthily Death-Star-dependent economy.
Of course, deconstructing and interrogating that supposedly happy ending is nothing new. The joy of large-scale science-fiction franchises is that there is never a shortage of film nerds ready to pick apart the finer details of a given story. (The infamous “Death Star contractors” debate from Clerks is just one example.) In particular, fans have wondered about the consequences of blowing up a moon-sized space station in orbit of a forest planet, wondering whether those cheerful little Ewoks would become an endangered species.
It is no surprise that any attempt to continue the Star Wars franchise would have to return to the ending of Return of the Jedi and strip away some of the finality. After all, the very existence of the new trilogy suggests that the story did not actually end with Luke and Vader vanquishing the Emperor as Lando blew up the second Death Star. Reopening the Star Wars universe for new stories mean tweaking that ending, changing the full stop at the end of the sentence into a comma so that the story might continue.
What is interesting, however, is the way that the film chooses to tweak the ending of Return of the Jedi. In many respects, the celebrations at the end of Return of the Jedi become an act of hubris; they become premature and arrogant. If George Lucas really did conceive of Star Wars as a metaphor for the Vietnam War, then The Force Awakens brings the metaphor into the twenty-first century. Luke, Han and Leia might as well have been hanging a “mission accomplished” banner across their celebrations in the Ewok tree village.
It is a very clever and very timely twist. The burning of Vader’s body at the end of Return of the Jedi becomes something more than simply a Viking funeral for a fallen Jedi; it becomes akin to burying Osama Bin Laden at sea or the destruction of Hitler’s body, a preemptive attempt to curb martyrdom. The burnt remains of Vader’s iconic visage have become a grim relic. To the mysterious Kylo Ren, the mask takes on an almost religious significance. It is an object of worship, a call to arms.
In its own way, the original trilogy has become an object of worship for The Force Awakens. The first time that the audience is introduced to Rey, we find her scavenging in the ruins of a crashed Stardestroyer. The deserts of the back water planet Jakku are decorated with relics from the original trilogy, with fallen X-wings and creatures who bear more than a passing resemblance to the Jawas. More than one technological artifact from the original trilogy is gleefully unveiled, the music soaring in recognition as the camera focuses on some piece of classic iconography.
Although three decades have passed since the events of the original trilogy, with many major characters born after the end of Return of the Jedi, it seems like very little has actually changed. Despite the fact that they are no longer a collection of scrappy rebels, our heroes still wear informal red-and-white flight suits and fly beat-up old X-Wings. The rebel base in the film is populated with faces familiar from the Battle of Endor at the end of Return of the Jedi, suggesting most of the major players never really moved on to life after the rebellion.
The fact that Han Solo has traded up from a waistcoat to a leather jacket is explicitly acknowledged in dialogue, but it still seems as though the lovable rogue hasn’t changed his shirt in thirty-odd years. More than that, the character is still running away from his responsibilities and still pretending not to care as much as he obviously does. The more things change, the more they stay the same. There is a sense that the world of Star Wars has changed very little in the years between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens.
Then again, that would seem to be the point. “Home” is a recurring theme of the film, from Ren’s fixation on returning to Jakku through to the advice given to Han that he should “go home.” Maybe he does. “Chewie, we’re home,” Han Solo boasts upon returning to the Millennium Falcon. The Force Awakens insists that you can go home again. In a way, this makes perfect sense. After all, nostalgia seems to be the defining tone of twenty-first century popular culture, as the success of Jurassic World demonstrated.
Even within the context of the film itself, nostalgia is a powerful force. (Or, “Force”, if you will.) The Force Awakens makes it clear that the younger characters within the narrative have been raised on stories and fables about the original trilogy. At one point, Rey wonders whether any of it could possibly have been true – whether the Jedi (or even Luke Skywalker) could ever have existed. As brought to life by Adam Diver, Kylo Ren feels almost like a Darth Vader cosplayer, complete with James Earl Jones baritone and distinctive black mask.
JJ Abrams seems perfectly suited to this sensibility. After all, Abrams has defined himself as a director with a clear eye on Hollywood’s blockbuster past. Appropriately enough for a director working on Star Wars, his filmography is heavily inspired by Lucas’ contemporary and collaborator Steven Spielberg. (It is no surprise that Spielberg was the one to recommend Abrams for the job.) For better or worse, Abrams’ work on Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness often felt like a nostalgic highlight reel of the franchise’s (and Hollywood’s) greatest hits.
Abrams seems to relish the “long time ago” promise of the opening scroll. There are points at which The Force Awakens feels a little bit too much like a remix of classic moments and sensibilities from the original trilogy. The opening pan features the distinctive silhouette of a Stardestroyer moving through space, to reassure viewers. Presented with details of the Empire’s new secret weapon at the obligatory climactic briefing, one rebel wonders, “Is that another Death Star?” It’s not actually, but the similarities are striking.
There is, admittedly, something cynical about all this. The three prequel films serve as something of the elephant in the room, mostly awkwardly ignored by The Force Awakens. In some ways, the decision to maintain aesthetic consistency between The Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens feels like a rejection of the aesthetic gap between the zeerust retro futurism of the prequels and the grittier design of the original trilogy. The Force Awakens is keen to integrate with the original trilogy more aggressively than the prequels did.
Though understandable, this glosses over the fact that the problems with the prequels had nothing to do with the different aesthetic and more to do with the basic mode of storytelling. Quite simply, the prequels were nowhere near as skilfully constructed as the original trilogy had been. While the vocal internet backlash to the prequels tends to drown out reasoned discussion, the prequels were quite interesting in their own way; albeit largely lifeless and without a lot of the charm that made the original trilogy such fun.
Most obviously, the prequels are defined by their relationship to the original trilogy. While the “ring theory” might be over-elaborate, there is mirroring at work. This is most notable in the way that Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones tries to mimic the episodic structure of Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back, or in the way that Star Wars: Episode III – The Revenge of the Sith incorporates elements (a battle for Coruscant, the planet of the Wookies) that had been planned and abandoned for Return of the Jedi.
The Force Awakens offers little tangible connection to the prequels. Perhaps stung by criticisms about the time spent on trade negotiations and political manoeuvrings, The Force Awakens largely eschews any political context for its conflict. Although the First Galactic Empire has given way to the First Order, casual fans will be hard-pressed to distinguish between the two organisations. The First Order is not an insurgency or a revolutionary force; opening massacre of a desert village aside, it is not a metaphor for ISIS or al-Qaeda. The First Order is functionally equivalent to the Empire, right down to the design of their ships and costumes.
Similarly, the rebels have not transitioned to a position of authority. The Force Awakens rather pointedly identifies Leia as “General Organa”, but there is no sense that the previous three decades have seen her assume an official position in a victorious revolution. The Force Awakens has little time for the world-building that was so heavily criticised in the prequels. Indeed, imagery evocative of Coruscant and the Republic makes only the briefest of appearances; when it does evoke the look and feel of the prequels, it feels like The Force Awakens is taking more than just a glancing shot at the political machinations of the prequels.
It is telling that the film opens with a conversation between an old man and his younger companion about trying to “make things right.” A large part of The Force Awakens seems (fairly or unfairly) dedicated to winning back the trust that was lost with the prequels. A lot of the movie’s familiarity can be excused as an over-eager reassurance that things are being corrected. (The same is arguably true of Abrams’ Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness, nostalgic course-corrections that make a lot more sense when considered in the context of the twin failures of Star Trek: Enterprise and Star Trek: Nemesis.)
The Force Awakens is relatively uninterested in world-building or explaining itself. Those looking for logical (or even logistical) issues with the basic plot will find them in abundance; from why the First Order seems to be repeating many of the mistakes that defined the Empire to how exactly their top secret weapon is supposed to work on a day-to-day basis. It feels like The Force Awakens is eager to avoid getting bogged down in issues of procedure or continuity, which does lead to a situation where the finer details of its fictional world might not hold up to scrutiny.
The Force Awakens moves swiftly enough along that none of these logical questions seem particularly glaring while actually watching the film. The Force Awakens is much more interested in getting its characters to the next dramatic beat than it is in explaining how or why a particular plot point actually works. (The film is almost gleeful in its own internal leaps. Han Solo seems capable of getting the hyperdrive to do whatever he wants, but then somewhat hypocritically warns Finn that his generic plan to “use the Force” won’t work, “The Force doesn’t work like that!”)
While The Force Awakens includes its own themes of mirroring and recurrence tying back to the original trilogy, these feel primarily like nostalgic indulgences. As with the original Star Wars (and Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace), the story centres around a lost young soul from a desert planet who finds themselves thrust into an epic universe-altering adventure when strangers literally fall out of the sky bringing a galactic conflict to their doorstep. Abrams even borrows a number of shots from the Tatooine sequences of Star Wars.
(That said, some of the film’s most striking images are not those literally borrowed from the original trilogy, but those that feel like they might have been borrowed; images that fit so perfectly that they would blend seamlessly to Lucas’ originals. At one point, General Hux addresses an assemblage of Stormtroopers in what might be the most brazen use of Nazi imagery in the franchise’s history. At another point, the film evokes Rey’s listlessness and her existence in the shadow of the original trilogy by having her stop to rest in the remains of an old AT-AT walker. There’s a beautiful shot of TIE fighters silhouetted against Jakku’s sun.)
The film takes considerable pleasure in its in-jokes and references, Han Solo and Rey gleefully repeating the nonsensical boast about the Millennium Falcon making the Kessel Run in “in only twelve parsecs.” Trying to determine what to do with a prisoner on a hostile ship, our heroes wonder if there is a garbage chute or a trash compactor nearby. Rather than resisting the sense of nostalgic joy at bringing all of these elements together, The Force Awakens plays into it. “If you live long enough, you get to see the same eyes on different people,” reflects one wise old soul at one point.
Recurrence seems to be the point. Following on from the troubled prequel trilogy, The Force Awakens is very much about trying to reassure viewers that the magic has not been lost. While the film walks a very fine line, it just about gets away with it. The Force Awakens feels very much like it has been crafted with care and reverence for the original trilogy, blending together plot structure from Star Wars, the emotional arcs of The Empire Strikes Back and the characters of Return of the Jedi.
The Force Awakens offers a return to the life and vibrancy of the earlier instalments. Whatever criticisms might be labelled at Abrams’ tendency to channel nostalgia, he does understand the basic emotional beats of blockbuster storytelling. The hype and mystery around Luke Skywalker’s absence from the marketing of The Force Awakens is quite telling, as is the ubiquity of Han Solo in the trailers and posters. In fact, the opening line of the title scroll explicitly acknowledges as much.
After the relatively lifeless prequels, Abrams understands that the film can afford to bury Skywalker, but it needs the charm of Solo. Harrison Ford was very much the heart of the original trilogy, bringing incredible charisma and energy to the part. It could be argued that Harrison Ford’s smuggler brought an excitement to proceedings that was sorely lacking from the prequels. The Force Awakens makes sure to put Han Solo front and centre, even affording him what is very clearly a “Han shoots first” moment in the midst of a big action scene.
However, the real charm of The Force Awakens is not just the reverence with which it treats Han Solo. As much as JJ Abrams might be criticised for nostalgic pandering, the director has a keen understanding of how blockbuster cinema actually works. The Force Awakens is not simply interested in Solo himself, realising that the new trilogy cannot coast on the charm of established characters like some sort of science-fantasy version of The Expendables. Instead, The Force Awakens is imbued with the spirit of Solo.
The film’s three heroic lead characters feel more human and nuanced than just about any character inhabiting the prequel. (In fact, there is an argument to be made that all three feel more human than Luke and Leia.) Rey is smart and assertive, repeatedly insisting that her male co-stars stop holding her hand while they run, no matter how it lends itself to publicity photos and trailers. Hotshot pilot Poe Dameron is not afraid to puncture a big dramatic moment with wry questions about “big dramatic moment” etiquette. (“Do I talk first or do you talk first?”)
It is quite refreshing to have a diverse ensemble. Rey is very much the centre of the film, a much more dynamic female protagonist than Leia. Finn represents the first time that a black character has been at the centre of the trilogy, with Lando Calrissian and Mace Windu very much supporting players in their own trilogies. The central characters of The Force Awakens feel a lot less generic than many of their predecessors, acknowledging that the films might pay homage to the seventies, but are products of the twenty-first century.
In this respect, Luke’s conspicuous absence feels almost pointed. In a twenty-first century return to Star Wars, there is no blonde-haired and blue-eyed male protagonist. Even Poe Dameron is portrayed by the Guatemalan-Cuban-American Oscar Isaac. While The Force Awakens never explicitly acknowledges it, it represents an effective acknowledgement of some of the more unfortunate undertones of classic fantasy. On a related note, The Force Awakens is quite shrewd in avoiding the unfortunate racial caricatures that cluttered the prequel (and, at times, original) trilogy.
Daisy Ridley and Oscar Issac do great work in their roles. Ridley adds some nice complexity to her character, presenting perhaps the best central performance in the franchise’s history. (It is also nice to have a primary female character in the franchise who is not a queen or a princess.) Oscar Isaac feels somewhat underused as Poe, a character who is introduced in a very memorable and decisive way, only to disappear into the ether quite quickly. Then again, given the embarrassment of riches presented by the film, it seems almost churlish to complain.
However, perhaps the most compelling of the trio is Finn. Finn is a former stormtrooper, perhaps the most compelling addition to the franchise. (Another passive-aggressive shot at the prequel trilogy comes when First Order General Hux dismisses the idea of clone troopers.) Finn is a soldier with a conscience, a stormtrooper who rejects all of his training. In a franchise that is so predicated upon the notion of fate and predetermination, there is something very shrewd in having a major heroic character whose primary arc is the rejection of his destiny.
(In his own way, Finn feels very much like a hero for the twenty-first century. Kylo Ren and various other characters repeatedly label Finn as a “traitor” for refusing to carry out his orders and betraying his sworn duty. In the era of Wikileaks and Edward Snowden, Finn seems like quite a timely protagonist for the Star Wars franchise. Given the broader cultural discourse on acceptable use of state-sanctioned force by its representatives, whether in the police or military, The Force Awakens feels surprisingly in tune with the times around it.)
As ingenious as the character might be – and he is very ingenious – the very existence of Finn does raise some awkward questions that The Force Awakens is not prepared to answer. After all, one of the joys of the stormtrooper costume is that it dehumanises the soldiers for both the Empire (or the First Order) and the audience. Watching our heroes carve swathes through armies of identical footsoldiers becomes decidedly less comfortable after even one of those soldiers has been humanised.
The Force Awakens touches on this in its opening scene, providing a distinctive and memorable visual as one trooper’s familiar white armour is stained red. However, once that imagery has served its plot purpose, The Force Awakens is quite happy to go back to treating stormtroopers as disposable cannon fodder. Even Finn himself seems to have little sympathy for his former friends, though they have been programmed as thoroughly as he was. There are limits to just how subversive The Force Awakens can be.
At the same time, the script offers several surprisingly playful moments when it comes to classic Star Wars tropes. Although Ren might idolise Vader, it appears that he adopts slightly more HR-friendly approach to disappointing performance from his subordinates. Two of The Force Awakens‘ best gags play off the expectations of Darth Vader’s impromptu (and often fatal) performance assessments. Indeed, a lot of Ren’s characterisation plays more skilfully off the idea of “Sith Lord as spoilt child having a temper tantrum” than the prequel trilogy did.
In terms of playing off the franchise’s history and iconography, The Force Awakens does an excellent job of building the relationship between General Hux and Kylo Ren off the dynamic between Grand Moff Tarkin and Darth Vader from Star Wars. Given how the role of Vader evolved in the two movies that followed, the tense relationship between Tarkin and Vader from Star Wars feels like something of an anomaly. Vader was characterised more as a vicious henchman than a primary antagonist in the original Star Wars, his authority on par with that of Tarkin.
The Force Awakens suggests a similar dynamic between Ren and Hux, albeit one informed by the possibilities suggested in later Star Wars films. One of the more interesting aspects of the original Star Wars film viewed through the prism of history is that it is the only movie in the franchise that feels (mostly) self-contained. As such, Tarkin can seem like a missed opportunity, particularly given his relationship to Vader and the fact he was played by Peter Cushing. Domhnall Gleason gets into the spirit of the role by channeling his best sinister British accent.
The Force Awakens is a triumph in pretty much every way. Occasionally, the nostalgia becomes a little top heavy, but Abrams keeps the movie ticking along fast enough that it never collapses in on itself. The Force Awakens remembers that Star Wars was at its best when it was fun and playful, realising that logic and internal consistency are not a substitute for a likeable cast and sense of adventure.