The Force Awakens is Good, Actually
Ivy vs. Star Wars, part VII
Posted 08 May 2020
I had a vague understanding, based on memory, that this trilogy had followed a distinct downward slope, but I’d forgotten how genuinely good that first installment was.
First, the characters are delightful. Inventing all-new characters and using them as the protagonists of a highly-anticipated sequel is a risky game, but they pulled it off. (Look no further than the incredibly forgettable stars of Rogue One to see an example of the opposite.) Rey, Fin, Poe, and Ren are all believable and fun to watch, and they’re put together with just enough depth that their actions aren’t easily predictable. Rey in particular has a really wonderful scrappy quality to her, even moreso than Luke and Han did in the original trilogy. You can’t force a character to be likable (heaven knows they tried with Jar-Jar Binks), but somehow this film managed to create several likable characters at once.
And fun as these characters are when they’re at their best, the film doesn’t shy away from giving them some moments of surprising vulnerability and humanity at times. The scene in which Rey is forced to accept that her legendary parents are never coming back for her is heartbreaking. Some scenes also benefit from rewatch, such as the moment where Han confronts Ren. It takes on a completely different nuance when you know that the decision Ren is consciously struggling with is whether to surrender to his father or murder him, knowing that to do so is wrong but having been heavily conditioned to do it anyway. I can’t think of any other Star Wars film that invested this kind of depth into its characters.
Of course, there are plenty of cameos by Old Pals, in particular Han Solo and Chewbacca, but the film doesn’t let them steal the spotlight when they easily could have. Our former protagonists are now just ancillary characters in the story of our new protagonists, and that’s OK.
Next let’s talk about the visuals. This film looks amazing. Every shot is perfectly composed, from the placement of objects onscreen to the subtleties of the color palette. This counts for a lot, more than people realize, but that’s not to discount the actual content of the visuals, which is also excellent. Rey’s introduction as she scrambles around the inside of the crashed spacecraft has some of the most striking imagery that this series has ever seen. The final duel, with the colored light bouncing off the white of the snow and the occasional falling tree, is perhaps the most visually appealing lightsaber scene to date. And every shot is packed with fun, creative details, which is exactly the kind of thing that made Star Wars so popular in the first place.
All the action scenes are skilfully done as well. The massacre at the beginning is horrific, and the stormtroopers, who lost all credibility when they fell to an army of larping teddy bears, finally seem menacing again. Throughout this movie, battle sequences are cut with a sense of danger and chaos that wasn’t always present in the original films and certainly wasn’t in the prequels. The pacing of action is also rock-solid in general, the stakes shifting frequently but not so frequently as to confuse the viewer. The action scenes here feel “just right,” a slightly different tone than their predecessors (and not in a bad way), coming just rarely enough to build plenty of anticipation, and not not overstaying their welcome when they finally arrive.
Finally, I’d like to touch on the story. One frequent criticism of the film is that it’s “just a retread of the first film,” to which I respond: A) No it isn’t; and B) Even if it was, why would that matter?
To the first point: Yes, there are parallels, in particular the fact that we open with someone entrusting secret plans to a droid and sending it into the desert. But most of these things are fairly superficial resemblances, and what’s actually important in a story is what happens to its characters, not the blow-by-blow details of a plot. (This is why reading plot summaries is generally a mind-numbing and uninformative exercise.) Going back to those secret plans for a second, there are important differences between the this film’s Luke Map and the original’s Death Star Blueprint. Both are significant to the outcome of the plot, but the Luke Map is not the downfall of the Death Star analogue. Rather, Starkiller Base’s vulnerability is Fin, and embodying this into a character is a lot more interesting than putting it in a computer chip.
To the second point: It’s particularly ironic that this charge is leveled at a Star Wars film, since these are highly derivative already. The plot of the first film was beat-for-beat aligned with the Hero’s Journey framework, literally the oldest story of all time, and much of its content was cribbed from Dune, Flash Gordon, and any number of other existing science fiction universes. There are no new stories. It’s all about how you tell it. And this film tells its variant of this story pretty darn well.
You guys got off to such a good start. How did you blow it so badly?
Essay portion over. Here are some stray thoughts, just for fun:
- The people who made this film don’t seem to understand how maps work.
- J.J. Abrams thinks all planets are within sight of all other planets, and that if anything interesting is happening in space, you’ll be on the side of the planet currently facing the action. (See also: Star Trek 2009.)
- This film doesn’t have nearly as many “hey look it’s that thing from the other movie” moments.
- The witty dialogue in this movie is genuinely funny.
- The Star Wars universe sure has a lot of desert planets.
- Kylo Ren’s spaceship is frickin’ terrifying.