There Has Been An Awakening

I saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens two days ago.  My wife and I took the morning off to see it, having waited until (a) the weekend crowds had died down and (b) our son, who is sadly too young to see or sit through it, was back in preschool.

I should state outright that neither of us have been to the movies since our son was born, more than three years ago.  We didn’t intend for that to happen, things just sort of worked out that way.  (I blame it on the lack of anything worth seeing, myself.)  So it was either the Star Wars butterflies in my stomach or my aged ineptitude, or both, that led me to accidentally purchase tickets online for the 11:00 p.m. show tonight.  We intended to see the 11:00 a.m. show.  The helpful, tattooed miscreant at the ticket counter directed us to guest services, where an extremely patient woman helped us exchange our tickets for the 11:30 a.m. show.

Of course, she had to exchange them again when we realized the movie would let out a half hour past the time we were due to pick up our son from school.  As I said, she was patient.  AMC should be proud.  I’d wanted to see it in normal (2D) projection, but as the only available showing that would let out in time was in (non-IMAX) 3D, we donned our cheap, sadly non-Star Wars themed glasses and headed in.  I tell you these things so you know how discombobulated I was going in to this movie.  Sure, I’m absentminded most of the time, but I think perhaps I was a little more nervous going into this film than I had anticipated being.

My anxiety, however, was misplaced.  J.J. Abrams had us all well in hand.  Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the best time I’ve had the movies in well over a decade, and the best Star Wars film since The Empire Strikes Back.

My thoughts, including all the spoilers, after the jump.

Still with me?  Because I was serious about those spoilers, dude.

OK, here goes.






(Still time to back out for the next five…)










Wow.  So Luke Skywalker hasn’t been seen in nearly thirty years, Kylo Ren is really Ben Solo, son of Han and Leia, Ren kills his father in cold blood, Rey, the scavenger girl from Jakku, is a force-sensitive who finds her way to Luke Skywalker by the end of the movie, and George Lucas surprised everyone by starring as the ultimate villain, Supreme Leader Snoke.

Just kidding about that last one.  Obvs.  But it’s good to get the spoilers out of the way.  It’s easier to focus on the story itself that way.

And let me get another thing off my chest, while I’m at it: the success, both artistic and monetary, of this film has shown the people who decried its casting as the racist, sexist idiots they are.  The diversity of this film invigorates a franchise near beaten to death by an uninspired creator.

The chemistry among the actors, harnessed by a competent director who clearly knew what a Star Wars film should feel like, is what makes this film.  The time that J.J. Abrams and company spent focusing on the “feel” of a Star Wars film clearly paid off.

There were so many “Star Wars” moments for me in this movie–I don’t even know where to begin.  The flight from Jakku, Rey piloting the Falcon; Han Solo caught between two groups of disgruntled space pirates, the banter between him and Chewie.  And that’s just in the first act.

It was a bit odd to not see the extended 20th Century Fox fanfare before the Lucasfilm logo appeared, but I was also grateful that Disney refrained from giving us the Cinderella’s castle treatment–that would have been over the line, for me.

But every moment from there forward, I felt swept along in a way I hadn’t experienced since seeing the original trilogy as a kid.  In all honesty, its’ difficult to review the film cogently, because it feels too personal.  It’s too emotional, really.  Which is appropriate, now that I think about it.  If this film is driven by anything, it is by emotion.

The Force Awakens opens around thirty years after the events of Return of the Jedi, and we are given very little context regarding what’s going on in the galaxy.  This is certainly preferable to the pedantic exposition of the prequels, and very similar to the feeling one has upon seeing A New Hope for the first time.  The characters reference past events without explaining what, precisely, they were, in a realistic way: Ben Kenobi and Luke Skywalker discuss the Clone Wars, but no explanation for what they were was forth coming until Lucas made the prequels.

Here it is much the same.  We follow a trio of young people brought together by coincidence and fate: Finn, the stormtrooper with a conscience; Poe Dameron, the Resistance fighter on a mission to find a map leading to Luke Skywalker; and Rey, a scavenger on the backwater planet of Jakku who is dragged into a galaxy-spanning conflict when BB-8, Dameron’s quirky droid, and Finn stumble into her path.

The opening–and the film as a whole–are deliberately reminiscent of Star Wars: A New Hope.  Perhaps egregiously so, according to the film’s critics, but I prefer to see it as more of a continuation on an overarching theme.  Just as the first Star Wars film was, this is an opening: an introduction.  It’s Act One in a three-act story that will be told through the next two episodes of this trilogy.

Plot-wise, there are more than a few convenient coincidences in this film: Finn running into Rey, the sudden appearance of the Millennium Falcon, Han and Chewie showing up at precisely the right time, etc.  In any other movie, these might strain belief, but in The Force Awakens J.J. Abrams manages it with a wink and a nod.  The Force, as represented in this film, is not the Force of the prequel trilogy.  Nary a midichlorian is mentioned.  The Force has once again become the mystical, mysterious thing it was in the original movies, and as the story moves along we are shown clearly that destiny is at work with many, if not all of, these seemingly coincidental moments.  It seems like an intentional nod at Obi-Wan’s line from A New Hope: “In my experience, there’s no such thing as luck.”

And it’s that feeling, one of destiny and fate and world-shifting acts of valor and evil, that drives the film, so even when you’re not feeling acute wonder or sadness, there’s still a current of amazement.

Several moments in the film made the skin prickle: Finn and Poe’s escape from the First Order; the first flight of the Falcon; the opening shot of Maz Kanata’s cantina; every single moment of the showdown between Kylo Ren, Finn, and Rey; Rey’s departure at the end of the film, and the look she shares with Leia.

It should be mentioned that the climactic lightsaber battle is easily the best of any Star Wars film.  Yes, you read that right.  It’s more of the original films that the prequels: the action is hard-hitting and emotional.  Every swing seems heavy and intense.  But the sheer energy of it, the youthful vigor, also references the choreographed dances of the prequels (one of the few good things about those movies).

But there are perhaps two specific moments that define this film as undeniably Star Wars: Han’s death and sacrifice, and Rey’s acceptance of her destiny.

The death of Han Solo is perhaps the biggest spoiler of this film, the one everyone’s worried about hearing and ironically the one most people seem to have heard.  The idea of killing off Han Solo, of course, is nothing new: it was originally planned for Return of the Jedi and supported completely by Harrison Ford, but George Lucas decided against it (arguably for the purposes of retaining a kid and merchandising friendly happy ending for the movie and the trilogy).  Rumors at the time of his casting said that Ford only returned under the condition that they kill off the character, which makes sense.

The power of the moment is unaffected by this, however.  It’s a great moment, one that manages to reference the earlier films while being completely its own thing.  We learn relatively early on that Kylo Ren is in fact the son of Han and Leia, turned to the dark side as a child.  But it’s still shocking to hear Solo name him for the first time on that walkway (“Ben!”), and the moment they share before Ren kills him manages to be both tender and terrifying.  Solo’s death is tragic not only because it’s the loss of a beloved character, but because of the unresolved issues that die with him: he and his son will never reconcile.  He failed.  He knew he failed, too: his conversations with Leia imply that his own view of the situation is far more pessimistic than hers, and Harrison Ford does a great job portraying Solo’s doubt about seeing his son again.

Leia pleads with him to talk Ben into coming home, but you can see on Solo’s face when he embraces his [wife? partner? baby mama?] that he doesn’t think that a likely outcome.  And in the moments before he steps out on the catwalk and reveals himself, you can see sadness, regret, and determination on his face.  Solo knows he’s walking to his death.  But it’s his son, so he’ll do it, even if the chance of redeeming him is one in a million.  He’ll do it, too, to buy Rey and Finn and the Resistance some time.

Watching him fall off that catwalk, I felt almost as much for Kylo Ren as for his father.  The obvious torture that runs deep in that character is portrayed very well by Adam Driver, who makes a surprisingly effective villain–lightsaber temper tantrums and all.

His sacrifice, for his friends and for his son, mirrors that of Obi-Wan Kenobi, whose mentor role Han Solo essentially assumes in this film (though in a far more humorous, Soloish way).  It’s even more powerful, though, because as wonderful as Obi-Wan was, he dies in the first act of A New Hope.  We barely knew him when we saw him die.  Han Solo we’ve known for three films, and the ensuing thirty years.

Shortly after we say goodbye to Han, Rey is forced to confront her own Jedi-ness during a battle with Ren.  The moment where they struggle to call Luke’s lightsaber to them with the Force is, perhaps, the most Star Warsy moment of the movie for me, and sets the tone for the film’s conclusion.  This is Rey’s journey now, a journey to follow in the footsteps of Luke Skywalker, and perhaps to succeed where he failed.

Perhaps most appealing about The Force Awakens is that it asks more questions than it answers: we’re left wondering many things, Rey’s parentage and destiny perhaps the greatest of them.  The tantalizingly brief sight of Luke Skywalker, and the tortured look on his face when Rey finds him, hints at a darker, more dangerous story to follow.

The line of dialogue, spoken by Supreme Leader Snoke (Ren’s strange master), that references the film’s subtitle speaks of an awakening.  Not to be too on the nose about it (thought I have a feeling this is exactly what J.J. intended), but this movie awoke a new love of Star Wars in me, and I can’t wait to see where it takes me next.

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