Star Wars: The Force Awakens ••••
Starring: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac
Director: J.J. Abrams
Screenplay: Lawrence Kasdan, J.J. Abrams,
Action/Adventure/Fantasy, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 135 minutes
Release Date: December 18, 2015
Well Scott, let’s review the movie that was 30 years in the making.
It was indeed a long time ago in a galaxy not so far away. Let’s recap.
We’re introduced to Rey (Daisy Ridley), a young woman who lives on the dusty planet of Jakka. She makes her living, such as it is, by scavenging parts from the deserted ships of the Empire. It’s been 30 years since the Rebellion defeated the Empire, which has been replaced by the First Order. Things are getting slim when she saves a small robot, BB-8, from being disassembled for parts. It’s not long before she encounters young Finn (John Boyega), a former stormtrooper of the First Order. Together, they learn that BB-8 has a map to the legendary Luke Skywalker and needs to be returned to the Rebel base.
Soon after Rey and Finn team up, they are aggressively pursued by a squadron of First Order stormtroopers. As fate would have it, the pair make their escape in a discarded old ship called the Millennium Falcon. Rey and Finn encounter the original owners of the ship who, of course, are Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo). We then get the backstory of how Luke Skywalker tried to rebuild the Jedi Order but was thwarted by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a former Jedi who fell into the dark side. Rey and Finn then spend the rest of the movie trying to deliver the map to the leaders of the resistance.
Scott, it’s deja vu all over again. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Episode VII) is merely a repackaging of Episodes IV, V, and VI. Just as in A New Hope we meet a young person who befriends a droid with a message to be delivered to the Rebels. This young person is unaware that they can command the powers of The Force and and must help their new friends blow up a gigantic planet-killing weapon. While from a technical point of view SW:TFA is a stunning film to watch, it is all too familiar territory. JJ Abrams has done with Star Wars as he did with Star Trek – he’s just replaying the best hits of the originals. I was less than impressed.
The build-up for this film was enormous and expectations were beyond the stratosphere. As for the final product — how could we expect anything different? JJ Abrams plays it safe by recycling old ideas and characters, which he had to do to please a fan-base that would not tolerate much deviation from the mega-successful formula. At the same time, Abrams introduces several new characters who can carry the mantle for the next several installments of the franchise. With these new heroes, not everything is the same — just similar.
As it turns out, our two heroic newcomers, Rey and Finn, are outstanding characters whom we grow to love and enjoy rooting for soon after meeting them. Both these characters are cut from that familiar Star Wars heroic cloth — they come from humble origins and are oblivious to their special pedigree. As these characters are tested, they begin to slowly transform into the greatness that was always there beneath the surface. No movie franchise does a better job than Star Wars at developing characters with this sort of amnesia about their true identities. It’s done with great effectiveness in this installment of Star Wars.
Well, you’re right about that, Scott. Rey is in every way a classic hero. She starts out alone and yearning for her parents to return. By the end of the film she has found a new home and a new belonging. Her growth from a scavenger to a warrior is heartening. She befriends Finn who literally has no identity. He takes on the ramant of a Resistance fighter and grows into it. Like Rey, he is alone at the start of the film (despite being surrounded by a horde of look-alike Stormtroopers). But by the end he also has found a new home. I like these newcomers very much and I look forward to their journey forth in this new series.
The villains in this story are also familiar. Kylo Ren is pretty much a Darth Vader wannabe. He uses the Dark Side and reports to an all powerful master. This is the same Mastermind/Henchman pattern we saw in Episodes IV-VI.
Harrison Ford nearly steals the show as an aging Han Solo. He delivers a great performance of the swashbuckling hero we knew in the earlier films. And in a twist, it is Han who is the father of Kylo Ren – echoing the Darth Vader/Luke Skywalker relationship. Carrie Fisher is all grown up and in charge as General Leia Organa. Her interactions with Ford are a bit stilted and “expositiony.” But, she is not the only woman in the galaxy, as was true of the last incarnation. Aside from Rey, we also have a Stormtrooper leader and several X-Wing fighters who are of the feminine persuasion. It’s a good crop of side characters.
Yes, there’s much to like about this incarnation of Star Wars. Our two new young heroes show some demographic diversity. How refreshing it is to see non-Whites and non-males dominate the heroic landscape. Yet the movie remains faithful to the classic elements of the hero’s journey. Rey and Finn both undergo transformations of the head, heart, and identity. They both have important mentor figures to guide them. Luke Skywalker, for example, is a mentor from afar whose legacy has been mythologized by the resistance. Rey has her own Yoda, a wonderfully wiseand exotic female alien named Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o).
The villains are a multi-layered version of the mastermind-henchman template that we discuss in our most recent book, Reel Heroes & Villains. Usually this template features a single evil mastermind who uses henchmen and minions to do his or her dirty work. In this movie, we see several layers of the villainous onion, starting with a horrid ‘Supreme Leader’ who really could benefit from a trip to Bath & Body Works. Beneath this Supreme Leader are several mid-managers of evil such as Kylo Ren, each of whom order their assigned Stormtroopers to carry out specific evil deeds.
I can’t emphasize enough this film’s use of the classic hero journey in mythology. George Lucas himself made much of his use of Joseph Campbell’s analysis of mythic symbols, images, and plot points. Here Abrams carries on the tradition. For example, some key scenes in this movie take place in the forest, which is always a symbol of the unknown, dangerous, and volatile forces lurking within our unconscious. There is also a strong family structure that characterizes the ensembles of both the heroes and the villains. These strong family roles run deep in fairy tales and legends throughout the ages. Finally, the theme of redemption courses through this film’s veins. Heroes like Finn set out to turn their wrongs into rights, and villains like Kylo Ren are given the opportunity, and fail — for now at least.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a technically exciting film with a familiar story arc. While it will win no awards for originality, it should win awards for special effects. It will certainly win awards at the box office for the records it will break. While I enjoyed myself, there is nothing that will entice me to keep coming back. I am tempted to award only three Reels, but that’s a score I use for the average film-going experience. SW:TFA is well above average, but lacks anything new. I give it 4 out of 5 Reels.
The heroes in this film are plenty. We’re reminded of the heroes gone by and introduced to new ones as well. Rey and Finn work well together as newcomers, but neither is naive. Each has street smarts from their own worlds. And they both grew in their roles. It was good to get caught up with Han, Chewie, and Leia. As with other aging heroes we see that the destination for the hero is to become a mentor. And the old guard did not disappoint. I give the heroes in this film 4 out of 5 Heroes.
The secondary characters were also very good. Kylo Ren as the fallen hero-come-villain fits nicely into the “Villain’s Journey” that we outlined in our last book. He is subservient to a (nearly) hidden mastermind. BB8 as the dutiful and emotic sidekick played its role well – although I’m confused as to how everyone understood BB8’s beeps-and-boops, but no one understands R2D2 but C3PO (who also made a nice pair of cameos). I give the secondary characters 4 out of 5 Cast points.
The Force Awakens definitely kept me awake and is a box office force to be reckoned with. But does it deliver the goods? Mostly yes, in a play-it-safe kind of way. Fans of Star Wars will be elated, while fans of outstanding movies will have more muted praise. JJ Abrams does his usual excellent job; he injects the Star Wars universe with new interesting heroes, technical marvels, and a lot of clever one-liners. But there isn’t a whole lot of new ground broken here. I’m with you, Greg, in awarding this movie 4 Reels out of 5.
The characters of Rey and Finn in this film are an impressive pair of buddy heroes. They follow the usual buddy-hero pattern of distrusting and disliking each other at first, but after learning they have the same goals they develop an unshakable bond. They also help each other transform and evolve into heroically courageous individuals. All the elements of the hero’s journey stand out in bold relief, and it is refreshing that the filmmakers dared to embrace diversity in their casting of this duo. I’m happy to award Rey and Finn a full 5 out of 5 Heroes.
The remaining characters all did their jobs in superb fashion. I agree with you, Greg, that Harrison Ford handled his geezerly role with both charm and alacrity. All the secondary heroes and villains were fun to root for and to despise. The treachery of Kylo Ren was somewhat routine and predictable, and the Star Wars robots, whom I’ve never been fond of at all, were grating to me. Still, the cast did a great job overall and so I also award them 4 out of 5 cast points.