Director: J.J. Abrams
Writers: J.J. Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan, Michael Arndt
Harrison Ford as Han Solo
Mark Hammill as Luke Skywalker
Carrie Fisher as General Leia
Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron
John Boyega as Finn
Daisy Ridley as Rey
Adam Driver as Kylo Ren
I saw Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope in 1977. I was 23, a young cop, freshly out of the Air Force. Much has changed since then. The friend that took me to the movie died shortly thereafter in a car accident. The theater in which I saw the movie–a single screen affair; a relic of the past–has long since become a parking lot. I have become older. It took 38 years for me to learn enough to write this critique. It took that long for those responsible for the Star Wars franchise to resurrect everything that made it part of our mythos. The Force is with me.
I had no idea what “Star Wars” was when I sat down in that small theater in 1977, no idea what to expect. From the moment the iconic logo flashed on the screen accompanied by John William’s stirring theme, I was enthralled. I had never seen that level of special effects wizardry; no one had. But it was the story, and the characters, noble characters I cared about, that really mattered. Even then I loved to read, but I had much to learn about why Star Wars means so much to so many.
I watched in dismay as the prequel trilogy limped across the screen, becoming a self-parody even as advances in computer technology made possible imagery barely imaginable in 1977. George Lucas lost sight of how to tell the story. He created characters no one cared about–Jar Jar Binks–in an apparent attempt to recapture the easy humor of the original. He forgot that the genuinely funny moments of that movie came from the humanity of the characters, the same human vulnerabilities, striving and failures we all endure, and if we’re smart, find funny. Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Princess Leia could laugh at each other, and at themselves. We saw in them our own flawed humanity, and our own possibilities. Jar Jar Binks was a poorly imagined, one-dimensional walking comic book still in the bin months after its release.
When I learned Disney bought the farm–so to speak–I was cautiously hopeful. Perhaps there was a new hope. I waited three days and saw the movie at 2300 on Sunday night with about ten others. Only one other was old enough to have seen the original in a theater.
By now, gentle readers, you know that The Force Awakens has already set box office records. Anyone that has seen A New Hope will recognize this movie, will, as Han Solo said, feel that finally, they’ve returned home. J. J. Abrams has returned to the formula that made A New Hope everything it is.
I won’t go into the plot in any detail. I’m not going to spoil it for you. By all means: go. See it. I can’t wait to buy it on DVD, and will probably see it again in the theater. I saw A New Hope seven times–there was no VHS of DVD then.
Star Wars works because it is, in a very real sense, The Odyssey, that, and every other great literary epic. All of the motifs, the elements, are present: the hero, the quest, great sacrifice, great suffering, great loyalty, great nobility, and above all, great love. Everything that makes man great, and everything that makes him evil, is present. The eternal battle between good and evil is fought on the screen before us, by people that are, in many respects, just like us. They’re intensely human. They fear, they hesitate, they are tempted, but they do what we would all like to believe we would do in their place. They risk everything, including their lives, for those they love, and for a cause greater than themselves: liberty.
But what of The Force? Much has been written about it. One may appreciate that plot device for its supernatural elements, ignoring any connection to Christianity, but those that believe will find it familiar and comforting. What is the force permeating the universe and everyone and everything in it? For me, it’s God. Surely, the superhuman powers wielded by the Jedi in the franchise are visually dramatic and necessary to the means we have of telling stories on the big screen, but the power of prayer, and the miraculous power of faith, is no less dramatic and far more powerful. It’s merely expressed in the human soul.
The Force Awakens begins exactly as A New Hope did, and it still works, stirring the blood and heightening anticipation. The setting is a galaxy far, far away. The Empire is gone, but so are the Jedi. Replacing the Empire is The First Order, an equally evil organization that has coopted much of the Empire’s equipment, including the cloned storm troopers. They seek Luke Skywalker, the last Jedi. They want to kill him. The rebellion–guess who leads that?–wants desperately to find him. They want to reestablish the Jedi knights. A map to Luke ends up hidden in a cute little droid–BB8–and the chase is on.
Darth Vader is dead, but is replaced by Kylo Ren, who worries that he will not live to be as evil as Darth. By the end of the movie, he is even more evil. The First Order is thwarted, the good guys win–for now–and Rey saves Luke Skywalker, but not physically. Have you noticed that Luke is missing from the posters? Read on.
I’ll get to the characters in a minute, but the other characteristics of the movie are worth mentioning. The script is, for this franchise, well written, and returns to the wry humor of the original trilogy. By “for this franchise,” I mean that there is little depth. This is an action movie, and action is the goal and the point. The movie does not drag, and moves swiftly from scene to scene, planet to planet.
The music, drawing almost entirely on William’s original music, works well. In any movie, good music well placed is almost unnoticeable. It grabs the viewer’s emotions, taking them where the director chooses. Bad music is jarring, annoying, obvious. That’s not the case here.
The casting is very well done. In a movie like this, casting is everything. The audience must like the characters, must care about them. Han Solo, the Millennium Falcon, Princess Leia, Chewbacca, C3PO, even R2D2 are back, though C3PO and R2D2 have small, and appropriate roles. The new characters are instant classics, with perhaps one reservation.
Production values are exemplary. CGI makes possible backdrops and dogfight sequences that were utterly impossible in 1977. It’s actually thrilling, a physical as well as aural and visual experience. Sets, costumes, props, every element of movie making, is very well done. I was pleased that Abrams did not fall prey to a technique of hip action movie directors: filming every action sequence in near darkness, and with a blurry, handheld camera. Why spend huge amounts of time and money on special effects if the audience can’t clearly see and appreciate them?
On first viewing, I could detect no continuity errors. It’s a visually beautiful, and obviously expensive, movie. They’ll make back every penny and far, far more.
The most engaging character is Daisy Ridley as Rey. Like Luke Skywalker, she comes from very humble beginnings, but the seeds of greatness–the Force–are within her. Ridley’s British accent is charming, and the eye is drawn to her: she’s a real screen presence. The Force awakening within her is her salvation, and will be the salvation of Luke. Rey is repeatedly tempted, but her innate decency wins out, as does her willingness to sacrifice herself for others.
John Boyega as Finn is a storm trooper with a conscience, who saves Rey, and is in turn, saved by her, not only physically, but spiritually. His acting appears, from time to time, a bit forced, a bit frantic, but it’s not really a distraction.
Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron is an interesting character. He’s the best pilot of the resistance–sort of this movie’s Luke Skywalker in that respect–and has a great deal of screen time. His acting is sure and relaxed, and Abrams would be wise to continue to develop and use his character. I suspect he will.
Harrison Ford demonstrates that he’s learned a great deal as an actor since 1977, and Chewbacca is Chewbacca, which is just fine. Carrie Fischer as Leia does well in an understated role.
It is Adam Driver as Kylo Ren that I’m conflicted about. I’ll leave discovering his origin to you. He is truly evil, possessed by the dark side. Unlike Darth Vader, we see his face, often, and he is not a human/machine hybrid. He merely chooses to wear a vaguely Vaderish mask, a mask he does not have to wear. Because we did not see Vader as human until late in the first trilogy, he was more menacing, more evil. Driver appears to be a long-haired, angst-ridden teenager more than the mystical evil enforcer of an evil organization. He doesn’t resemble his parents either. Not remotely. Oh, he does evil things, to be sure, but I’m not sure of Abram’s choices with this character. I’ll have to wait for the rest of the trilogy to see if his vision is vindicated. There are–possibilities…
As for Luke, we don’t see him until the last few minutes of the movie. Rey, the Force is strong with her–climbs a mountain to find him–the last Jedi master–and there he stands, alone, brooding. She offers…and because she is there, offering that, he realizes…you’ll just have to see the movie.
Star Wars is important to us, because it is a tale of salvation, of redemption. We need to believe that second chances exist, that beyond this veil of sin and tears, there is something waiting for us, something better, something eternal. Rey saves Finn and herself. She is instrumental in handing The First Order a major defeat, and will, if I am reading the plot line correctly, save Luke. But she is human. She couldn’t save…you’ll just have to see the movie.
Many will find The Force Awakens compelling because in it we see many parallels with contemporary America. Like Luke, Rey labors under a soft tyranny. She, and most people, understand that The First Order is evil, that it crushes freedom, but like most people, that is not enough to spur her to action. She does not lack intelligence, determination, and courage, but Rey, like Americans, will put up with a great deal before she decides she has to fight, to risk it all.
In Luke Skywalker, we saw true courage, not the faux courage of the social justice warrior crying “racism,” where none exists. Not the non-existent sacrifice of the college radical, demanding a “safe space” because they can’t deal with anyone disagreeing with their idiotic, juvenile notions. Not the bravery of the minor celebrity that changes their gender or chooses to “identify” as something or someone they are not. In Rey, we see that same courage, and I, for one, can’t wait to see her full awakening as a Jedi. It reminds of me what Americans–I pray–are still capable of.
See the movie. We all need an infusion of courage, and genuine hope. For a little over two hours and a relatively small amount of money, it’s there for the taking.