Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a damn good movie. On a technical level, it’s astounding. But that comes with the territory of J.J. Abrams. What was most striking to me after one or two (or a few more) viewings in theaters was the attention to scale and character. Star Wars is a series that is inherently expansive in scope and detail. The worlds are vast, ever-growing and are the definition of unlimited potential (UnlimitedPower.Gif)
This movie got a lot of flak for being similar in structure to the original trilogy but that’s kind of the point? From a marketing/production standpoint, it makes sense to retrofit the series to the story that drew in the initial fanbase. From a storytelling perspective, it’s a dark twist on a series whose strength comes from optimism in the face of overwhelming darkness. The Empire and Palpatine were defeated. The First Order rose from the ashes of the previous regime. The equivalent of Neo-Nazis aiming to replace Nazi organizations in the face of embarrassing defeats at the hands of those fighting for good. As heartbreaking as it may seem, our protagonists in the original trilogy, as heroic as they may be, could not establish a suitable post-war galactic economy that would stop something similar from happening ever again. This impacts the movie from top to bottom. Plot, characters, theme, production, etc.
Keeping it strictly focused on plot, the use of another Death Star-like structure is common criticism for the story. Think of it like the atomic bomb: the Death Star is a weapon of mass destruction; one in which anyone who holds instantly becomes a superpower. While from a storytelling perspective it may seem tiresome to continuously visit similar grounds, from a linear timeline of history, there are plenty of reasons to address the existence of a WMD in space fantasy. Our threat of nuclear armageddon in reality is just another version of the Death Star, and vice versa.
It’s in the characters where The Force Awakens truly soars. While it may have been more exciting to watch new characters in new territory on a superficial level, The Force Awakens does something different. In early conceptions, J.J. Abrams references Terrence Malick as one of the inspirations for his reboot film. It’s a bold claim, one that I initially rebuked without seeing the film. And on first viewing, I still found myself scoffing at it. But only a day after my first watch, I couldn’t get it out of my head. Malick detractors potentially scoff at the almost non-verbal storytelling Malick communicates between his visuals and audience, citing it as empty spectacle; not to mention the backlash from his freeform style swinging camera movements of recent years. Malick is an artist experimenting with his craft on a technical and narrative level. It’s not always the case, but for his Star Wars outing, the same goes for J. J. Abrams.
Abrams re-teams with his cinematographer (and one of my favorites) Dan Mindel to frame striking new compositions in a galaxy far, far away. The wide landscapes of Jakku, narrow steel corridors and snowy forests of Starkiller Base are all gorgeously captured. Thankfully, it’s not just pretty imagery on display but legitimate artistry to invoke the carousel of emotions one should feel from a Star Wars adventure.
Take this opening shot for example:
The moon over Jakku illuminates the planet and by proxy the audience. It’s the nearest source of light, almost immediately covered by the extending arm of The First Order’s darkness. There’s an abundance of visuals where it appears light is being forced out of the frame. Star Wars was never a subtle franchise but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t earn its emotional pull. In one of the galaxy’s darkest hours, the heroes struggle to keep the light alive.
Here are a bunch of other shots I adore.
I think it’s reductive to say the The Force Awakens does nothing to add to the Star Wars universe. While it’s an ever-expansive series of films about science fantasy concepts, the series is and always has been grounded by characters caught in the balance of light and dark. The purpose behind the new characters is unmarked territory. The Force Awakens asks us to look at young heroes who aren’t destined for anything. When we first meet them, Kylo Ren, Finn and Rey are all hiding behind masks. They’re concealing who they are with what they believe is expected of them.
Kylo Ren marches off a ship with designs familiar to the Galactic Empire, harkening himself to the likes of Darth Vader. Kylo Ren struggles to reclaim past glories of other stronger users of the force. He’s arguably the best new character in the series based on story potential alone. Behind the facade of a powerful badass is an angst-filled young adult who is not the person the mask portrays. Darth Vader was impeccable in his journey to the dark side, doing so only to protect those he cared about in a tragic downfall and maintaining his own illusions. Vader was truly a broken man only redeemed in his final act by saving his son. Kylo Ren is trying to be something he was not meant for. He’s an entitled fanboy of Darth Vader and I hope this bastard never gets a redemption arc. If Kylo Ren gets a final moment of clarity I guess I could live with it, but not only is that another reiteration of plot details already explored by The Force Awakens and the original trilogy, his murdering of Han Solo seems to toss aside any hope for the once legacy to the Skywalker and Solo lineage. Kylo Ren deserves what he wants: a life fully absorbed by the dark side of the force where he is truly alone.
Rey’s arc is not one of physicality but of spirituality. As the great Rocky Balboa once said, “It’s not about how hard you can hit, it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward; how much you can take and keep moving forward.” Her entire story motivation (or purposeful lack thereof) is about holding on to the past regardless of how it stops her from furthering her own future. She knows all about waiting but no one is coming to meet her. She’s surrounded by scraps from a galactic junkyard. At least Tatooine has some semblance of an economy. Jakku is a pile of dirt floating aimlessly through space. Rey watches ships take off into space, cold and alone with remnants of previous wars. It’s all she knows. How could Rey want anything else when she doesn’t know what else there is? But Rey is a kind soul. She looks out for others. She may not have aspirations beyond finding her family, but she has a calling that she only comes to accept through the force. It calls to her not because she wants it. The force calls to Rey because it needs her in these times of darkness.
Finn is the only new character who completely disregards the past, opting to escape it and forge his own destiny. He has no aspirations so to speak but he’s aware his story doesn’t belong with The First Order. Arguably, his acts are selfish. Finn only wants to protect himself and only passingly comes to join other people on an inter-galactic adventure. But Finn, like Rey, has a big heart. He comes to sincerely care about people, and while he still only heads into the finale because of his commitment to his new friend Rey, the open heartedness that drove him away from The First Order draws him into a battle between good and evil that is sort of an “all hands on deck” situation; specifically, the good side of things. Finn is a bright eyed puppy looking for some semblance of peace in the universe with his new friends and he’s just happy to be there.
I don’t know where BB-8 fits into all of this but just look at the little bastard. BB-8 is fucking adorable and I want 100 of them.
I’m not sure where Star Wars and our central characters go from here. But to truly succeed, they and the series need to continue disregarding the past and learning from it when necessary.
I was initially disappointed with the movie and how it ended, but whereas some movies falter with repeat viewings I find myself more enamored with The Force Awakens in every instance. What initially felt like a safe retread of the original revealed itself to be far more thought provoking.
The Force Awakens brings the idea of repetition into central conceit, as the new characters have been forced into various states of life in an attempt to recapture elements of previous glory – Minus Poe, who doesn’t have much to do but still seems like the coolest guy ever so I’m glad he’s around. Rey and Finn break free from chains of the past; Rey leaving Jakku behind and Finn becoming a soldier of The Resistance. Ren falls under the weight of his own hubris to be the next Darth Vader; an angry space neo-nazi who feels entitled to rage and superiority. What we’re left with is characters that have either stepped out of the shadows or succumbed to it.
What we’ve grown accustomed to in Star Wars is the traditional stagnant final shot. However, Abrams utilizes pacing and momentum to tell his story so it makes perfect sense for his entry to negate tradition. Not to mention this is the one thing that’s wholly different from anything else in the series.
When Rey walks up those steps to greet Luke Skywalker the past and present collide, bringing with them an ocean of change encircling them. The camera spins around, unifying the past and present as they embark towards an uncertain future.