“I know what I have to do, but I don’t know if I have the strength.”
That quote is spoken by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) in The Force Awakens, the long-awaited seventh instalment in the Star Wars franchise, but those words could easily have been put into the mouth of almost every prominent character in the film. Yes, first and foremost this is a film about satisfying fans, which means hewing so closely to the particulars of A New Hope that it blurs the line between sequel and remake. But it’s also a film about the difficulty of denying destiny, about seeing what you have to do and doubting whether you can actually go through with it.
This is your daddy’s Star Wars; fans who grew up with the first film – whether on the big screen in 1977, a VHS in the ‘90s, a DVD in the ‘00s or a pirated, “despecialized edition” in the ‘10s – will not be disappointed. J.J. Abrams understands that, after the perceived failure of the prequels, his job is to reassert the natural order of things – nothing too challenging. This means star wipes and star ships and Star Destroyers (okay, there are no actual star wipes, but there are plenty of good ol’ fashioned wipes). This means lightsabers and desert planets and snow planets and Death Stars …and death. This means fanservice, too, though thankfully it’s mostly brief rather than belaboured (and not limited to impressing long-time Star Wars fans, either – there’s a pleasant surprise waiting in the first act for Indonesian action aficionados).
But most of all, this means a storyline that doesn’t stray too far from what we saw in Lucas’ original, celebrated trilogy. A storyline that leans heavily on Campbell and fairytales, only shunted into the future (or a long, long time ago, whatever). You can easily synopsise The Force Awakens in such a way that it’s literally indistinguishable from A New Hope. Observe: a droid carrying a secret message on a desert planet is discovered by an unsuspecting local, who soon finds themselves caught up in an intergalactic adventure – pursued by a black-clad, evil warrior, stowing away on Imperial battle stations and ultimately proving to be a crucial component in the fight against an evil Empire. I could continue, but let’s not risk spoiling anyone (though why you’d be reading this review before seeing the film, I have no idea).
No-one in The Force Awakens seems especially comfortable following Campbell’s path, however; right from the opening scene until the very last moment, our players resist their destinies – or at least, they attempt to. Rookie Stormtrooper, FN-2187 (John Boyega) – soon known as “Finn” – refuses to engage in the kind of cruelty concomitant with his role within the “First Order”, the modern incarnation of the original trilogy’s Empire. Rey (Daisy Ridley), seems destined to fill Luke Skywalker’s shoes as the desert-dweller with big dreams, then perhaps Leia as the damsel-in-distress/princess-in-waiting … yet again and again she struggles against her role in the narrative, wanting only to return home.
Kylo Ren is the most emblematic of this struggle, torn between the Light and the Dark (as telegraphed, perhaps too overtly, in expository dialogue). He strives – as character and actor alike – to live up to the iconic aura of Darth Vader, and yet he’s not as ruthless, not as powerful, not as consummately controlled. Driver plays him with a ragged edge, somewhere between an archvillain and a toddler mid-tantrum. These are characters who understand their destiny – yet thrash against it. This is futile – there’s a space opera to be filmed here, guys – but it lends the film a compelling tension, with the characters resisting the screenplay’s whims in a way that never feels unnatural.
There’s a larger Resistance, too, that houses all our old friends: Han, Chewie, Leia, that weird alien dude who blew up the second Death Star (I’m pretending that I’m not nerdy enough to know he’s called Nien Nunb). It’s not quite the Rebellion anymore, nor is it the Republic, and that’s about as close to a coherent understanding of intergalactic politics we’re going to get. No discussion of trade embargoes or the like here; action is the driving force, and one that gives The Force Awakens plenty of momentum.
Abrams drives the film from scene to scene relentlessly, cramming a whole lot of plot into his two hours and 15 minutes. (It really is relentless – pre-film beers made me need to duck out for a bathroom break, and it was literally impossible to do so without missing something crucial to the story.) The action – and there’s a lot of it – is kinetic and stylish, though Abrams has a better knack with the flying scenes, which are genuinely thrilling, than filming gunfire and lightsaber battles. (They’re fine.) It’s funny, too; drawing laughs from callbacks and the chemistry of its cast alike.
It’s hard to walk out The Force Awakens disappointed. Sure, part of me wishes that maybe its characters’ resistance could have resulted in something genuinely surprising; that maybe we could avoid another obvious plot twist, or that the heavy-handed foreshadowing would turn out to be a feint. But to gripe about this would be to deny how fun it is, and how refreshing it is to see Star Wars on the big screen again – silly and bombastic and glorious.
12 thoughts on “Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens: Resistance Writ Large and Small”
I liked all of the new main characters, I don’t think I enjoyed the last third (from about the time 3PO showed up) as much as the first two but I guess where else was it going to go. The “I’ve seen this movie before” feeling was strong in this one.
I still don’t know about the final scene. Maybe it’s eye rolling fan service maybe it’s great. I guess the next movie will give the context to judge it.
The last act was definitely the weakest, but I think that’s just a reflection of the formula (and foreshadowing) locking into place. I think the fact that there was a sense of inevitability was deliberate, but it’s always going to make things less exciting. I dug the final scene, personally.
I’ll be seeing it Saturday, and this makes it sound like everything I was hoping it would be.
I hope you enjoyed it!
I thought Boyega was terrific – the best thing about it. Resurrecting the death star plot was disappointing and unnecessary, but I guess its tradition. Pity the ‘big moment’ was so predictable. 3.5 stars.
Boyega was great. Agreed that the Death Star shouldn’t have come back. I don’t think that unpredicability is what they were going for, though, and I’m okay with that. They can break the mould next time.
Yep. It’s good. 🙂
Good review, Dave. Here were a few scattered thoughts I had upon exiting the theater:
-This was a very formulaic movie, but fortunately it’s a great formula! Lack of adherence to the formula is one of the ways Lucas went astray with the prequel trilogy. This film probably could have strayed a bit more, though.
-I guessed right on half of my wild-ass guesses during the movie. Correct: the character death. Incorrect: Kylo Ren is not, in fact, a woman.
-I liked that the final scene had multiple meanings. Not just “here’s your lightsaber,” but also “return to the Jedi order” and also “here is a weapon, it’s time to fight.”
Yeah, its devotion to formula is a little overdone, but I suspect (hope) we’ll see much more divergence in the next couple – and certainly in the spin-off films. Agreed on the final scene – a good place to end things.
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