The Next Generation
Star Wars, Episode VII: The Force Awakens
As I've noted in my reviews of these movies, I really can't be considered a Star WarsThe modern blockbuster: it's a concept so commonplace now we don't even think about the fact that before the end of the 1970s, this kind of movie -- huge spectacles, big action, massive budgets -- wasn't really made. That all changed, though, with Star Wars, a series of films that were big on spectacle (and even bigger on profits). A hero's journey set against a sci-fi backdrop, nothing like this series had ever really been done before, and then Hollywood was never the same. fan. I enjoyed the original movies when I was a kid, but I moved on to other Sci-Fi as a grew up and, once Episode I: the Phantom Menace came out with his terrible story (and midi-chlorian abominations) II realized this series was no longer my jam. My wife, however, is hugely into the series so, of course, I ended up going to see Episode VII: The Force Awakens in theaters since she wanted to (and if I was going to see these movies it had to be done on the big screen). I left the theater thoroughly underwhelmed.
But opinions like that are what this project is for. Over the course of going through all the old media for the series I found a film I appreciated more than I remembered (Episode I, although it still sucks), discovered that the Clone Wars very nearly redeemed Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, and that at least one TV show in the universe, Rebels, was really worth watching. With that in mind, I went into Episode VII ready to find some appreciation for the film the second time around. And I did, although I do still have qualms with the presentation.
When The Force Awakens picks up, it's been 30-ish years since the Rebels defeated the Empire and free the old worlds of the Republic, allowing the New Republic to form. On the edges of Republic territory, the last vestiges of the old Empire reformed, taking the left over ships and technology to build a new regime, the First Order. They're goal was to conquer the New Republic and reestablish the Empire to its former glory. Lead by fallen Jedi Padawn, Kylo Ren (aka Ben Solo, played by Adam Driver), and his master, Supreme Leader Snoke (voiced by Andy Serkis), the First Order is a power that could cripple the New Republic, especially with their new super-weapon, the Starkiller Base.
Into that conflict we find three heroes all looking to do their part. The first is Po Dameron (Oscar Issac), a pilot and spy for the New Republic who steals from the First Order a portion of the map that could lead to a missing Luke Skywalker (who fled civilized territories years early when Ben, his apprentice, turned to the Dark Side and destroyed the nascent Jedi Temple Luke was building). Aiding Po is Finn (John Boyega), a one-time stormtrooper he no long had a taste for the fight and just wanted to escape the war. And finally there's Rey (Daisy Ridley), a young woman on the desert planet of Jakku who finds Po's lost droid, BB-8, and aids it in its quest to get back to the pilot. These three will end up joining together to help the New Republic and fight to take down the Starkiller Base... but they may be too late to fully turn the tide of the war.
When I first watched the movie, the biggest issue I had with The Force Awakens was that it just didn't feel fresh; it felt like the classic trilogy from 30 years prior (just with improved special effects). While I appreciated the fact that it wasn't more bull like the prequel trilogy, the simple fact was that this movie (and it's director, J.J. Abrams) was deeply in love with the trilogy of old and had a hard time telling a new story set in the universe we knew. That's how we get yet another Force-sensitive dreamer waiting for fate to find them on a desert planet, or how the Rebellion is once again sneaking Imperial secrets away from the bad guys so they can use it to aid their cause. It's why we have everything rotate around adventures on the Millennium Falcon and how the movie ends with yet another version of the Death Star (Starkiller is an evolution of the Death Star, just bigger). The originals had these elements, so the new movies parallel them slavishly.
Call backs to older works in a series are all well and good and I'm not against reusing some elements, like classic characters, to build continuity for the new generation of characters. My issue is just how much this film is devoted to the classic films. Watching it the first time I was able to guess a lot of the elements of the story simply because it had been done in Episode IV: A New Hope. Rey, being of a desert planet and sensitive to the Force, is basically a Skywalker without the name, so of course a lost droid with secret plans end up with her. Of course the First Order builds a new version of the Death Star and then uses it to destroy a planetary system to show their power. Of course the aged mentor to our Jedi hero dies at the hands of the Sith to cause an instant hate between hero and villain. While not every element is one-to-one, you could effectively lay Episode VII over Episode IV and see the story beats align.
Going through the movie again, my dislike of those callbacks had softened, maybe because I'd watched so much Star Wars in a row that I didn't care as much about the overt call backs and lifted story beats as I was the first time around. While, yes, the movie feels familiar, there's enough new material added in that its devotion to the original films doesn't bother me quite as much. And, oddly, that starts with Rey. While she may be our Skywalker stand-in, I actually like the fact that (at least right now, before anything is revealed about her parentage or history) she doesn't seem to have any connection to the last class of Jedi we had. She's not secretly the daughter of Anakin or Luke, not the third cousin once removed from Obi-Wan, which makes her interesting and a bit of an anomaly in this incestuous series where everyone in the entire Galaxy Far Far Away is somehow related in some form or another. Plus, she has two points in her favor over the other featured Jedi in the series, Anakin and Luke: she female, and we don't get enough female Jedi in the series (sorry, Ahsoka), and she's not whiny and needy and annoying. She's a hero I can actually get behind.
Finn, too, is a character I rather enjoy. Everyone in the series, aside from Anakin (and a few other Jedi in the expanded media), is dedicated to one side or the other, good or evil, Rebellion or Empire. There are no shades of grey in the Galaxy Far Far Away, everyone already settled into their opinions and beliefs. Finn, though, is the first character we see in the series that actually defects from his side, electing to leave the First Order and, eventually, join the Rebellion. He gives us a perspective we haven't really seen in the Saga before, a fresh set of knowledge and ideas. Plus, he adds color and shading to the First order we wouldn't get if he hadn't defected and told us about how he was raised. Plus, he's played charismatically by Boyega, which helps a lot.
The third new face, Po, isn't given nearly as much to do. We learn as much about him as we do Wedge in the previous movies, a character we see and kind of recognize from time to time, but at least in this film he's not as critical to the story. Not like Han (a returning Harrison Ford) or Leia (Carrie Fisher), who get to bicker and banter as a divorced couple (who still care for each other) would. Each of these characters are good for the roles they're given, but the movie is really all about Rey and Finn. Oh, and Kylo Ren.
What's interesting to me is that Kylo is, essentially, the Skywalker of this film and he acts like it. He's whiny and needy and kind of annoying, like Anakin throughout his run or Luke in the first of his movies. I didn't care much for Kylo the first time I watched this movie, finding him an ineffective villain. The second time around though, with the recent memories of all the previous Star Wars films dancing in my head, I could understand where the films were coming from. I got his character and could see that, despite his training and skill, he was still at the start of his journey. We get to watch someone go through the traditional Skywalker path but from the perspective of the Dark Side. I find that interesting even if, in this film at least, Kylo still isn't that great a character.
It leaves of two minds about The Force Awakens because there's a lot to like about the film but also a number of flaws. It's slavishly dedicated to the old movies, wants so much to say, "you liked A New Hope, right? Well, I'm like that film." And yet its the stuff that isn't ripped right from Episode IV that works best, the beats that are new and the characters that find a new angle for their story. I enjoyed this film more the second time around and might actually be willing to watch it again at some point in the future. While it might not be the best film in the series (even if it did make close to $2 Billion in theaters), it's still a fun (if expected) continuation of the Star Wars Saga.
Continuity and Issues:
I have so many issues with the attack from Starkiller Base. For starters, let's talk about the basics of the attack itself. Starkiller is, presumably, on the other side of the galaxy from the central hub of the Republic. Logically it has to be since there's no way the Republic would let Imperial wannabes build their base in the heart of Republic territory. So, assuming they're a good distance from the Republic, any attack they launch would need a lot of time to travel across the galaxy. The attack is presented as if it takes seconds to travel the distance which, even at the fastest hyperlight speed we've seen, that's an impossible speed to achieve. It puts the Kessel Run, our standard measure of fast flying, to shame.
Secondly, it's some kind of plasmic attack. Even if we accept that somehow it can travel huge distances in a short amount of time, there would still be a lot of plasma left in its wake, However powerful it was when it was fired, there's no way it could have enough energy, when it reached its destination, to destroy one planet in the Republic's hub, let alone five. Beyond that, looking up the basics of the weapon, the attack is considered a "linear burst" meaning it's first in one direction and cannot leave its path. Except that's exactly what the attack does, splitting into five projectiles and hitting five different planets with perfect precision. That's not a "dark energy plasma discharge" as the continuity explains it, that's homing missiles.
And then, of course, there's the fact that all five planets are nearby each other which, if you know anything about the positions of planets in a solar system, relative distances thereof, and physics and gravity, you know is impossible. Plus, the attack can be seen from other planets in other solar systems, another impossibility considering the distances between solar systems. None of this makes sense unless Starkiller base is in the same solar system as the Republic hub, fired off five blasts at once to take out all five planets, and for some reason let a sixth planet in that solar system remain for no reason. It's stupid.
Oh, and Starkiller base is essentially another Death Star, as if we really needed another version of that in this movie series. Really, guys? Really?
While I don't agree with the Internet anger towards Rey (and I completely don't understand it for Finn since he's a pretty useless character for most of this movie so why people would bitch about him being "OP" is beyond me), I will say I can art least see some of the argument about her being a kind of Mary Sue. Again, I don't really agree with the sentiment, but considering the fact that Rey goes from total novice at the Force to taking on a trained Sith Knight in the span of, what, a day seems a bit off. That said, I do think we'll have some explanation for that when Episode IX comes out.
And, finally, we have to note that Harrison Ford finally got the death for Han Solo he's wanted since The Empire Strikes Back. While I think Ben Solo is a solid character and adds some interesting family drama to the series, I still think we would have been better served with Han getting a heroes death all those years ago.