This post includes MILD SPOILERS for some elements in The Force Awakens.
At the press screening of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, a group of critics discussed how we would relay our initial reactions while remaining as spoiler free as possible. Here you will see my first impressions, but not my final thoughts. I will wait for everyone to catch up before diving into in-depth analysis. With Mockingjay Part 2, a story I knew because I had read the book several times, it took two viewings to absorb Francis Lawrence’s handiwork. Star Wars movies have been that way, too. They are not intended to be watched once, and I certainly needed the help of others to hash out some of the questions in my mind.
Questions are the key to my first impressions. We all take into Star Wars movies our expectations, and in this particular movie much of fandom had core information they wanted to know. Who is Rey? Why is Kylo Ren devoted to the memory of Darth Vader? And what is a Snoke? The answers aren’t necessarily what many fans were hoping for.
Rey is the hero, played with dramatic depths by newcomer Daisy Ridley. She isn’t Luke, nor is she Anakin, but you can see reflections of both characters. Unlike either of her male predecessors, Rey channels Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, longing to return home and await her family. You might see another Oz reference embedded in The Force Awakens, too. Rey is resilient, self-sufficient, a STEM inspiration, compassionate, skilled on many levels – and lacking what it is necessary to round out a hero’s journey protagonist, some good old-fashioned flaws. This movie played out like a story about a strong female heroine written by two men who couldn’t quite get into the heart and soul of a woman in the way Suzanne Collins does with Katniss Everdeen or Bryan Konietzko and Michael DiMartino did with Korra.
Star Wars continues a long pattern of putting female characters in a class of first name only. Princess Leia, Rey, even Padmé in The Phantom Menace was the handmaiden Padmé or the Queen, never both. Rey’s counterpart, Finn, a person of color, is left with the same dilemma. The white male heroes, on the other hand, have come into the movies with full names. What does that say about the characters? In part that there is more mystery to be unraveled, but I believe it also speaks to a double standard so embedded in the Star Wars storytelling culture that they felt it was an appropriate approach for Rey and Finn in the first place, and then to leave those characters unwhole through the end of the movie.
While Rey’s story fulfills one of my biggest hopes and dreams for the movies, this wasn’t really her story, but rather Kylo’s. In his plotline questions are asked and answered, with a few shocking surprises. Star Wars has been a vehicle to explore the Father Quest from the beginning, and Episode VII doesn’t shake this up. Fortunately, Kylo Ren – he of two first and last names – is a starkly different and fearsome type of villain. Adam Driver brings it, and the irony is that his character comes across as the embodiment of the Bring Back Legends movement. He wants things to happen and when they don’t go his way, temper tantrums reveal Kylo is in far less control than his predecessor and idol, Darth Vader.
My favorite scenes were between Kylo Ren and Rey. They brought each other to a different level. There were unspoken moments that required a lot of the two actors. Ridley and Driver drove those home. In those moments, I would suggest listening to the musical cues and focusing on their faces. Everything else is extraneous, a distraction from the interplay being waged unseen in the Force.
Of the rest of the new generation, Finn and Poe are stellar. Boyega brings charm to a stormtrooper with a less-than-impressive résume. His story includes an interesting twist on the hero’s journey as well, with the Woman As Temptress trope turned on its head. The woman pulls him back onto the path of heroism, rather than away. Poe Dameron steals the scenes he is in, unless his one-of-a-kind BB droid is in the same one as well. BB-8 gets far more screen time than his master, but Poe gets one spectacular hero scene.
The Force Awakens is structured less like A New Hope than some may expect. The band isn’t all together. If I were going to align The Force Awakens with a predecessor counterpart, it’s more Revenge of the Sith, and Abrams and Kasdan’s use of the word “delightful” to describe the story could lead some to unrealistic expectations. Neither would I use delightful to describe Dohmnall Gleeson’s performance; something more toward underwhelming is appropriate.
That brings us to the old cast, and their part in the movie. The scroll opens with “Luke Skywalker has vanished.” Then like A New Hope, it sets the stakes for the movie by stating Leia is desperate to find him. Han Solo appears in the second act, like Episode IV, and weaves heavily into the story for the second act. The movie underscores the challenges of creating a sequel to the original trilogy. Considering how unpopular James Luceno’s Agents of Chaos novels’ take on Han and Leia was with fans, I was surprised the movie took that route with these two characters. Harrison Ford has some great moments; Carrie Fisher does too. And she’s right, that hairdo that looks like a baboon’s behind was ridiculous, especially given all that has happened by the time she appears in it. Threepio, R2-D2, and Chewbacca appear in moderation. So enjoy the moments they are on screen.
The first act of the movie is a great Star Wars romp, but the second act stalls with the scene in Han’s freighter, apparently Abrams’ take at giving the kids something. Out of everything, the plot line with the pirates and the Rathtars felt out of place, goofy, and full of Easter eggs that accomplished little in the story. The Force Awakens really isn’t a kids’ movie, but that is a discussion for another day. The threads for central characters picks up in earnest when the Millennium Falcon arrives on Takodana. Maz Kanata, played by Lupita Nyong’o, is a refreshing character who interacts wonderfully with Han Solo. It will probably take a few viewings to get a handle on what happens to Rey in Maz’s castle. From there the movie gets a bit convoluted with First Order firing off superduperweapons of mass destruction. Who is fighting who, and why, is vague. Societies are blown to bits, but unlike A New Hope where we knew it was Leia’s homeworld, we get no sense of why we should care about the victims of Starkiller Base. Here all Abram’s storytelling weaknesses – vague overarching worldbuilding structure, over-the-top action sequences with space ships and superweapons, and oodles of coincidences – come to the fore.
While I won’t give away anything in the third act, it struggles with pacing and keeping the emotional themelines running. In fact, I’m still trying to puzzle some of them out. A New Hope does a better job of setting the countdown clock and keeping that suspense. The Force Awakens has scenes when characters were standing around at a time when they could have been doing something. The dogfight sequences against Starkiller Base get short shrift for some nifty lightsaber battles. This movie does not end with the zip of denouement in the way A New Hope or The Phantom Menace managed to. I’m not clear it really intended to offer denouement, though, but rather to serve as the opening salvo for the sequel trilogy. The Force Awakens is a first act and needs its counterparts Episode VIII and Episode IX to create a complete story.
The Force Awakens is a fun Star Wars movie. It’s not the best or the worst. It delivers great characters with potential, but we aren’t going to see that potential paid off for over a year. It asks more questions than it answers. In some ways, it is progressive. In many other ways, it is stuck in regressive storytelling notions. Overall, it marks a nice start to this new era, but Star Wars can do better.
I attended a press preview screening of The Force Awakens provided by Disney and Lucasfilm.
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