Star Wars: The Force Awakens
WARNING: contains major spoilers.
That was amazing.
Sure, The Force Awakens isn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination. There are big plot holes and things that Just Don’t Make Sense if you think about them too hard, some clunky lines, and attempts at fancy directing that are just distracting. But somehow, the movie gets away with all of it. It has an epic feel, with thrilling battles and great characters, and once it gets moving, you’re too swept up in all the fun of the action to really notice any of its flaws.
You might come out of the movie and go “wait, why would Luke ever make a map to where he was hiding??”, but as long as you’re willing to roll with it for as long as the movie is playing, that doesn’t really matter. The logic of the story isn’t as important as how it feels to the audience, and The Force Awakens is one of the most heart-swelling-ly awesome movies I’ve ever seen.
The Force Awakens follows the formula of A New Hope, from the plot-sparking droid to the death of the protagonist’s mentor to the giant laser-beam station that will destroy everything unless our heroes can hit one little part of it and make it explode. That might feel a little derivative to some people, but it’s also one of the reasons why the movie is successful. A New Hope is excellently plotted, to the point that many writers use it to understand how a good story is structured. It quickly draws the viewer into the action, gets them emotionally invested in the characters and their relationships, and delivers on all its promises for danger and dramatics. And this familiar story structure, more than the familiar characters and throwback references, is what makes The Forces Awakens really feel like a worthy Star Wars movie.
Throughout, The Force Awakens finds a great balance between the familiar and unfamiliar. A little hand-waving allows the movie to recreate the Empire and the Rebellion under different names, and all the familiar trappings of giant ships and lightsabers and Stormtroopers are there. It also sticks to the series’ thematic roots, with a villain tied to our protagonists, and a reluctant hero motivated by family who turns out to be a Jedi. And of course we have the reappearance of characters like Han, Chewie and Leia, and the significant use of the Millennium Falcon. But The Force Awakens doesn’t stay stuck in the familiar. It uses the past as a foundation to build a new story, one that feels like Star Wars, but with new characters and new stories to explore. It’s Rey living inside the fallen shell of an AT-AT — the original trilogy is there, but it’s not the main focus any more.
The movie is a new beginning for the franchise, but it’s also a clear transition, with the old characters handing the mantle on to the new. So we see Han Solo first being impatient with Rey, then offering her a job. We see Rey respecting him, then wanting to see him as a father figure, then dealing with his death, before she seats herself next in Chewie, in the pilot seat of the Millennium Falcon, ready to carry on the adventure herself.
And that, sadly, is one of the reasons why Han’s death really works. It worked so well, in fact, that it was fairly obvious what was going to happen as soon as Han stepped onto that bridge. It was the “mentor death,” as I already mentioned, with Han easing both the characters and the viewers into this new incarnation of the story before stepping aside. It also helps the audience to really hate Kylo Ren and feel like he poses a serious and personal threat — an important thing if he’s going to stand a chance of measuring up to Darth Vader. And it allowed us to see the battle between good and evil still raging inside him. He hasn’t been redeemed yet, because it’s only the first movie, and he’s taken a decisive step toward evil now, but you know the third movie will have him redemption, which can now feel complicated and hard-earned.
Of course, this wouldn’t be a Feminist Fiction review without mentioning the new diversity of this Star Wars world. Race representation in media is a really complicated issue, especially when you’re dealing with Good vs Evil and alien races and all that jazz, and I’m supremely unqualified to comment on it, so I’m going to leave that analysis for people far smarter and more articulate than I am, except to say that the movie has multiple non-white characters, and that in itself is a huge step forward.
But I am going to talk about the new presence of female characters in the world. We got to see a female hero wielding a lightsaber! Of all the things that made me giddy like a five year old in this movie, I think, subconsciously, that fact was one of the biggest. And it wasn’t just Leia and Rey. There were enough speaking female characters that I was able to forget some of their names. They were fighter pilots and heroes and villains and potential future Jedi and members of the Resistance and generally interesting and there, and it was amazing.
They even got to have significant relationships with one another. Sadly, the relationship between Leia and Rey isn’t as developed as I would have liked here, but it has huge potential for the future. If the series keeps the old characters around — and I assume it will, with the signficant introduction of Luke at the end — then I really, really hope it takes the time to let Leia and Rey talk more to one another, strategize together, and learn from one another. Please, please, please. There is so much potential there, especially as Han’s death is going to be one of the motivating forces as Rey and Leia fight Kylo Ren and the First Order. Whether it turns out that Rey is Han and Leia’s child, or Luke’s daughter, or just some random person unrelated to anybody (unlikely, given this series’ preoccupation with family), I really want to see them take this opportunity for character development. The series has so much fantastic material to work with.
And now I guess it is time for me to abandon all pretence of articulateness and talk about Rey. Oh my god, Rey. Rey! How can I possibly write about Rey? All my thoughts are just melting together into mindless squee. Little girls are going to grow up wanting to be Rey. I want to grow up and be Rey. She’s a fantastic protagonist. Resourceful, brave, intelligent, and all-around brilliant, with some fantastic moments of badassery. I absolutely fell in love with her. Maybe I’ll write a whole post about her later, once I’ve seen the movie a couple more times and can figure out my thoughts. Right now, all I have is, “Eeeeee!”
Finn is a great protagonist too. While Rey breathes new life into familiar Star Wars tropes, Finn provides us with an entirely new perspective, and the “rebellious Stormtrooper” narrative adds depth to the series’ morality. Unfortunately, it also creates a problem. Through Finn, we learn that Stormtroopers are kidnapped and brainwashed, and that at least some of them would choose another path if they had the chance. So now every time our heroes kill Stormtroopers on a massive scale, it’s sad to watch. They’re not really all evil! We have to give them a chance!
But then, we don’t know what the new instalments will bring. Perhaps the Stormtroopers will continue to be disposable enemies. Or perhaps Finn and Kylo Ren mean that the story will explore how people are manipulated or forced into evil, and how perhaps un-brainwashing the Stormtroopers is a worthwhile mission. We can only wait and see.
Either way, simply noticing the deaths of Stormtroopers is part of a greater change that JJ Abrams brought to the series, although it’s one I’ve been struggling to find a word for. All I’ve got is that it feels grounded, like it has actual weight. Not just in a “it doesn’t feel like 100% CGI” way, but in a way that it felt real, from the dust and dirt that gathers on the characters as they fight, to the angry, terrified tears in Rey’s eyes as she faces Kylo Ren for the first time.
All details that made the movie feel realer, somehow. And that’s what really matters here. The Force Awakens is an experience. It’s the bouncy, giddy feeling I felt as the cinema lights came up and that hasn’t left me since. It’s that need to talk and talk about it — and whisper when other people are in earshot on the street, because Han Solo’s death is a secret that must be kept safe. It’s laughing and aww-ing over how damn human they managed to make BB-8 feel, and wanting to freaking cheer when Han and Chewie stepped into the Falcon for the first time instead of the Stormtroopers we were expecting. It’s the feeling that you’ve just been on a crazy adventure, and you can’t wait to meet up with those friends and adventure with them again.
On that basis, the movie was absolutely fantastic, and May 2017 can’t come quickly enough.