It’s been 10 years since Revenge of the Sith and over thirty years since Return of the Jedi. Yet Disney has resurrected Star Wars and given fans the long-hoped for third trilogy. They tapped JJ Abrams to direct the first of these, The Force Awakens. So how was it?
It felt magical. The audience applauded at several points in the movie, particularly at the first sight of the Millennium Falcon and the appearance of Luke (for which I’m not going to give away the circumstances. We know he’s in the film already, but to say how is most definitely a spoiler.)
And yet Abrams essentially remade the original Star Wars (Let’s put all this A New Hope business aside. It was Star Wars in 1977, and Star Wars it shall stay. And Han shot first!) There are some who will cry foul at this, and already there have been a couple of rather thoughtful reviews to that effect. But the resemblance to Star Wars, while uncanny, is little more than an outline. It starts with our newest hero, Resistance pilot Poe Dameron, traveling to the desert world of Jakku to obtain a map that could lead the Resistance to Luke Skywalker, the last Jedi Knight who went missing. However, the First Order, a splinter of the old Galactic Empire, also wants the map. Kylo Ren, an adept user of the Dark Side of the Force, is keen on finding his old master and possibly killing him. Ren might get his way, but the Force really does awaken in a strange place, a Storm Trooper named FN-2187. (“I’ll just call you Finn,” says Poe.) Finn helps Poe escape, gets separated, and ends up with Rey, a scavenger on Jakku who has happened upon BB8, Poe’s droid and keeper of the map to Skywalker. And here’s about the only spoiler I’m going to give you. They escape by stealing the Millennium Falcon (which proves fortunate to its former owners) from the latest thief holding the keys. During their escape, Finn and Rey discover they have abilities they never knew about. The Force has indeed awakened. From there, they meet up with Han and Chewbacca, find their way to the Resistance, the latest incarnation of the Rebel Alliance, and take on Kylo Ren to destroy his own super-weapon.
The basic storyline, as I said, is the original Star Wars, but the focus is more on character development than in Abrams’ Star Trek reboots. This is good because a slapped-together retread would simply have put this below the prequels in most people’s minds. The returning characters all have aged and changed and show the effects of what their long battle has done to them. Han Solo is world-weary and not willing to carry on with the fight, not because he’s a smuggler out for a buck but because it has already cost him so much personally. Leia, too, shows the strain of command, but thirty years as a leader in the Republic have also made her a mother figure. Most interestingly, Chewbacca shows the most growth since Return of the Jedi. He still communicates with grunts and growls (which Rey can understand but most of the other characters cannot), but often times, you can almost understand what he’s saying. His mannerisms and some of his actions show a depth of intelligence and emotion that Lucas only hinted at in Return of the Jedi (Chewie’s presence in Revenge of the Sith was so limited that Lucas did not have time to do more with him.)
And then there are the new characters. Poe Dameron is the soul brother of Chris Pine’s Kirk, but it fits better here. Poe’s sarcastic manner and leap-before-you-look attitude puts a uniquely Abrams stamp on the franchise, and he’d have been right at home with Wedge, Luke, and Han in the original trilogy. He might even have been the audience’s entree into the prequels. Finn is interesting in that he’s essentially a human machine suddenly having to deal with free will and a conscience. This, of course, is the influence of the Force. Meanwhile, Rey is a slumming counterpart to Padme and the younger Leia. She doesn’t know what the Force is, but once she learns, she uses it to beat Kylo Ren over the head with it at every opportunity. What’s more dangerous than a Jedi turned to the Dark Side? An untrained Jedi learning the Force all by herself.
Kylo Ren is the new Dark Side villain. Young and impetuous, he’s a fan of Darth Vader’s to the point where I kept half expecting Hayden Christenson to show up in a newly-fitted blue outline and say, “Okay, dude, that’s just creepy. Did you miss the part where I turned back at the end?” But Kylo is everything Lucas intended for Anakin, conflicted, evil, but salvageable.
The jury is still out on Snoke, Supreme Leader of the First Order and successor to Palpatine. Maybe I’m spoiled for Ian McDiarmid’s deliciously malevolent schemer, but Snoke comes off to me as a mutated Old Man Potter from It’s a Wonderful Life. He appears as a giant, but it’s in a hologram. One wonders if, like Yoda, he’s really a tiny being with enormous power. Sirkis does well enough with Snoke, but the character left me flat. Maybe it’s the voice. Palpatine was such an iconic character who made the prequels watchable and, between McDiarmid and Clive Revill’s original vocal in The Empire Strikes Back, he is simultaneously funny and scary, a sort of comedic Dracula. Snoke is just an ugly asshole who hasn’t shown his menace yet.
There were other sour notes. I do think Abrams paralleled the original movie too much in this one, but his focus on character development, especially with Finn and Rey, carry this story. You even ache for Kylo at one point. And then he does something few fans will ever forgive him for, and you start praying for Luke to return and kick his ass. That honor likely will go to our new heroes, however.
Overall, this movie restores the magic that was in the originals. It had the spectacle of the original, some of the drama and desperation of Empire, and occasional bits of dumb fun that made Jedi a ride. Star Wars is back, and this time, it’s not so tone deaf. Hurry up with Episode VIII please.