My review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens
On Christmas evening, my family and I headed 1 mile to the nearby Rave Cinema to watch Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Together, the 7 of us encompassed several Star Wars demographics: my parents, who were teens and young adults when the original trilogy came out; one of my younger brothers and I, who experienced the prequels as kids and the original trilogy through the associated re-release campaign; my youngest brother, who experienced the prequels and original trilogy later on through DVDs and the TV; and my even younger sisters, who had never fully watched any Star Wars movie. And all of us except my dad loved The Force Awakens.
This broad appeal speaks to the alchemical balance of Episode VII: the movie is grounded in the character arcs of its 2 major protagonists, Rey and Finn, while composed of a sequence of set pieces alluding to Episodes I-VI — leaning heavily towards the original trilogy, though the specter of Darth Vader hangs so heavily over The Force Awakens that J.J. Abrams couldn’t help but connect Rey on Jakku to child Anakin (who himself may already have been connected to Luke, sure) or Kylo Ren to young adult Anakin.
The strikingly postmodern structure of this movie seems to have caught many off-guard, as one of the most frequent criticisms I’ve heard has been that The Force Awakens “rips off” the old Episodes too much. Such critics are maybe too betrothed to the modernist original trilogy, which purportedly retold myths for a 20th-century audience, revitalizing the heroic adventure genre in Hollywood. Yet those critics fail to recognize the similarities between postmodernism and modernism: while the original trilogy may be a Cold War monomyth with a heavy dose of Taoism, Episode VII seems to be a reappropriation of the myth that Star Wars has become.
Abrams may have failed to create a sufficiently interesting new context for many of his allusions, but there are some successes, most notably in the Riot Control Stormtrooper that defeats Finn in sword-to-sword — ok, Z6 riot control baton-to-lightsaber — combat before suffering a sucker-shot by Han Solo with Chewie’s bowcaster. Through this Riot Control Stormtrooper, who is most likely just 1 of many in that class of Stormtroopers and yet was the only depicted in Episode VII, Abrams played with the audience’s conventional expectation of a Stormtrooper so well that fans have given the ‘trooper a nickname: TR-8R, i.e. “traitor”, the character’s sole line. TR-8R has reached meme-status, which might be considered a sort of postmodern Oscar.
While these allusions may have been deployed by Abrams and his Disney focus group to gain goodwill with existent Star Wars fans in order to set the foundation of this Disney trilogy — and so on— the compelling portion of The Force Awakens to me was the character arcs of Rey and Finn. I’ve heard several critics argue that this Star Wars movie suffers from a lack of character development; that Rey is a Mary Sue; and that the 2 protagonists are simply token characters for the new Star Wars universe. I believe those opinions say more about the character of those critics than the movie.
For my part, I stepped into the theater in full critic mode, only to be completely won over by Finn and then, even moreso, Rey. At first, I was unconvinced, but when Finn helped Poe escape on a TIE Fighter, I was won over by their quick rapport, and Abrams had me for basically the rest of the movie. Unfortunately, Poe ended up disappearing for way too long and never substantially took hold of the movie like he did in the first act after returning for the third, but Finn and Rey’s rapport more or less made up for it. Rey especially became a character whose every step towards finding herself had me at the edge of my (unexpectedly renovated and comfy) seat. I have to admit I even teared up as she began to experience the titular Force awakening upon discovering the Skywalker lightsaber. I consider a Mary Sue character to not just be one that seemingly excels in everything, but also specifically based on the author, so that such a character is basically just the author living out their most ideal fantasies, which is dorky and seems to reject the art of fiction. Considering The Force Awakens was written by Abrams and 2 other dudes — even if it bears the obvious and admitted touches of a Disney focus group — I can’t call Rey a Mary Sue. Also, her skills are explainable within the internal logic of the movie: she’s a decent lightsaber-wielder because she used basically a quarterstaff to defend herself on Jakku; she’s an expert pilot because she’s lived most of her life on a desert planet full of abandoned ships that she scraps to survive, giving her intimate knowledge of every nook, cranny, and part, plus she’s heard so much about the Millennium Falcon through legends of the events of the original trilogy that piloting that old ship is basically just confirming stories for her; relatedly, her awareness of Force powers such as mind control once she begins to recognize her awakening may come from being such a fan girl of those legends of Luke Skywalker and the gang; and her ability to match or even overpower Kylo Ren in Force duels — both in the interrogation room and in the wintry forest — probably has to do with Kylo being such a conflicted Force-user, still in the process of figuring out whether he can fully embrace the Dark Side or not, while not having even finished his Jedi training with Luke, leaving the rest of Kylo’s training to Snoke, who may not be a master Force-user himself — note how in these Force duels Rey’s visage appears more determined and then serene while Kylo’s appears panicky and then hateful.
Those who argue that Rey and Finn have no character development have failed to construct an outline of The Force Awakens. While their respective character arcs are by no means complete, this movie showed enough to make me want more. Here’s my own sketch of the outline, which you may disagree with in certain small ways, but hopefully nothing major:
Status Quo: The looming threat of the First Order, Poe’s mission, and later, Rey’s life on Jakku.
Inciting Incident: Kylo Ren, Captain Phasma, and assorted Stormtroopers assault the village on Jakku where Poe has just received a piece of the map leading to Luke Skywalker. This incident incites several plot threads: the audience’s knowledge that the bad guys are looking for Luke — and, by extension, this part of the map — ; Finn’s rejection of the First Order; and BB-8’s quest to reunite with Poe, which will become Rey’s initial quest.
Predicament: These threads connect when Finn’s rejection of the First Order causes him to use Poe to escape, which results in his eventual detection by BB-8, who by then has become entwined with Rey, causing all 3 of them to embark on their journey to deliver BB-8’s piece of the map while escaping the clutches of the First Order — i.e. the main tension, with subtensions such as Finn and Rey’s differing motives for the journey, Rey’s need to return to Jakku, and BB-8’s role in a world without (supposedly) its master.
Lock In: For Finn and BB-8, this is when BB-8 decides to trust Finn to reach the Resistance with the knowledge that Finn just wants to ultimately escape from the First Order. For Rey, this may happen as early as realizing that she doesn’t want to sell BB-8, after which she seems keen on helping the droid accomplish its goal. Of course, all 3 must be locked in again when their initial tensions are resolved in Act III, but I’ll get there.
First Obstacle: Han Solo and Chewbacca capture the Millennium Falcon with Rey, Finn, and BB-8 inside. All are then promptly attacked by 2 gangs and the rathtar that Han and Chewie had captured.
Raising the Stakes: After escaping the mayhem together, Han trusts the new trio enough to fly them to Takodana, where he insinuates to Finn that Rey will see through his deception and offers Rey a job as co-pilot of the Millennium Falcon, tightening each of their existential escape routes.
First Culmination/Midpoint: In a continued raising of the stakes, Finn decides to flee with the 2 alien spacers in Maz’s tavern, prompting Rey and Finn to go off (for whatever reason) to the basement, where Rey finds the Skywalker lightsaber, only to reject it after suffering through the visions activated by the combination of such a powerful Force-weapon and her own nascent Force-sensitivity. The first culmination then occurs with the First Order assaulting Takodana only to be met shortly thereafter by the Resistance, including Poe. Finn battles the Riot Control Stormtrooper and loses, paralleling his loss to Kylo Ren in the third act, while Rey battles Kylo in the woods and loses, contrasting with her ambivalent victory against him in the third act. Rey is taken hostage by the First Order while Finn can only look on helplessly before leaving with the Resistance.
Subplot: Upon arriving at the Resistance’s headquarters, Finn and BB-8 are each reunited with Poe. Finn wants to go rescue Rey now, but such a brazen operation as storming a First Order base for her seems out-of-the-question. However, when the First Order use their Starkiller weapon to annihilate the Republic’s 4 planets, and then the Resistance finds out that they’re next, the stakes become so extreme that they’re forced into a plan to invade that base. Cue Operation Death Star 2.0.
Rising Action: The Resistance (plus Finn and Han & Chewie) set off to Starkiller Base to enact their plan. Meanwhile, Rey is strapped in a chair in that base’s interrogation room, in which Kylo tries to draw the map information out of her. Little does he know that Rey’s Force is awakening, marking the beginning of his downfall.
Main Culmination/End of Act II: By now, Rey has been found by Han, Chewie, and Finn and the 2 pairs split up to carry out the final steps of their part in the plan to destroy Starkiller Base. Han and Chewie split up further for their parts, after which Han notices his son, Ben/Kylo Ren, and calls out to him, begging Ben to return home with him. As Chewie and Rey & Finn — all of whom have finished their parts — look on at this father & son duo, Kylo holds out his lightsaber, asking his father for help, before activating the beam and plunging it into Han’s chest. Kylo then battles Finn and then Rey in the wintry forest outside, defeating the former to the point of Finn losing consciousness — though Kylo toyed with him the whole time and suffered a single wound as a result — while losing to the latter in basically a battle of will. I’ve been ignoring Kylo’s character arc in this outline, but he has one too — just not as compelling as Finn and Rey’s for me — and his survival of this battle promises a juicy filling of that arc in Episode VIII, if not Episode IX as well. Meanwhile, Rey rescues Finn and brings him back to the Resistance.
New Tension: Now Finn is too indebted to Rey for him to spend the rest of his life cowering from the First Order as planned, and Rey has recognized her Force-sensitivity, preventing her from going to back to her normal life on Jakku.
Twist: R2-D2 turns back on from powersaving mode after recognizing Rey’s Force-sensitivity upon her arrival at the Resistance’s headquarters. The droid then projects a map of the galaxy, for which BB-8’s piece fits perfectly, completing the puzzle.
Resolution: Rey, having now taken up Han’s job offer as pilot of the Millennium Falcon, flies to the coordinates on that map that show where Luke is. She arrives on the watery planet with sparse islands that Kylo Ren mentioned while trying to read her mind, and on one such island is Luke Skywalker. Of course, Abrams couldn’t resolve much more than that, as there are still 2 more movies left in this new trilogy!
I just created that outline by memory of the 1 Force Awakens viewing experience I had, so forgive me if I left anything out. It sounds about right to me, though, and through it one can clearly see the character development of Finn and Rey from sequence to sequence, act to act. It was also very easy to map Episode VII onto each part of this standard screenplay format. And because Abrams played it safe with such a format, I believe the movie as a whole suffers, specifically when it comes to the subplot. In fact, I propose that The Force Awakens would be a better movie if you removed the subplot, including some of the extraneous bits supporting it.
As I’ve stated, what kept me interested in Episode VII was the characterization of Rey and Finn. The Starkiller Base subplot serves this characterization very little, and instead focuses on the other selling point of this movie: allusions to past Episodes. The subplot gives everyone the chance to watch Leia, Han, and Chewie (not to mention C3-PO and R2-D2) in a Star Wars movie for that much longer, while also reappropriating the cheap stakes of a timed fight to destroy an immense weapon with one glaring weakness. We watch the First Order wipe out the Republic’s planets that we’d never seen before and thus had no emotional connection towards, then we watch Poe return only to deliver some more banter without anymore characterization of the guy who we all started this move with, then we watch an old character sacrificed as the token patricide in a pretty unconvincing — to me, at least — display of conviction by his son. (It’s become a meme since the “Dumbledore dies — and Snape kills him!” spectacle to relentlessly post spoilers of blockbusters as soon as possible, which carried over to The Force Awakens with countless internet trolls spamming that Kylo Ren is Han Solo’s son and kills him. And yet the joke’s on the trolls, because those 2 points turned out to be incidental to the movie as a whole and relatively minor to its plot.) None of this contributes to the development of our 2 major protagonists other than ostensibly giving them motivation to fight the First Order out of revenge — as if they didn’t have any motivation to do so already, or to do so even more after their own personal fights with the First Order on Takodana. In the end, this subplot is just fanservice that sets the stage for the final showdown of the movie, returning us back to the duo we’ve grown to cheer for.
Furthermore, this subplot seeks to justify Phasma’s inclusion in this movie by depicting her laughable lack of a fight against a rag-tag group of heroes with a gun, then subsequent incredible betrayal of the organization she has devoted her service to, leading to the utter destruction of their facility/weapon/planet, to which she presumably succumbed, if she wasn’t already killed in the garbage disposal by a basilisk-esque alien. It seems as though Abrams kept Phasma in this movie so Disney could sell merchandise of her, which is one of the only significant problems I have with his movie.
Granted, the subplot is a Hollywood convention because audiences supposedly get bored with a movie around that point in Act II, but I’d appreciate Hollywood having a bit more respect for the audience, even if some of us don’t deserve it. Some have criticized The Force Awakens for feeling rushed, which I didn’t necessarily feel myself, but it suggests that the subplot could have been cut in exchange for a bit more time with Rey and Finn — and maybe Poe too.
Other than this editorial suggestion, I just wanted to touch on 2 things I hope don’t happen in Episodes VIII and IX: Rey being revealed as Luke’s daughter and Rey & Finn becoming a romantic couple.
While walking home from the movie theater with my 2 brothers after we saw The Force Awakens, we discussed how much we liked it and what we especially liked or wanted more of in the next Episode. In that discussion, they mentioned how it was obvious that Rey is Luke’s daughter. I hadn’t even considered this possibility while watching the movie, nor had I even given much thought to the identity of either of Rey’s parents, having assumed she was just separated from a couple of poor random humans who had lost their daughter to slavers — evoking Anakin’s childhood. Then I got online, and there almost seems to be a consensus that Rey is Luke’s daughter. I have to strongly disagree with that sentiment: people are reading into various allusions — of the dozens and dozens throughout this movie — and taking them as gospel that Rey MUST be Luke’s daughter. At best, these signs are ambiguous.
Actually, I read the final scene as one of great ambiguity, not of a daughter reuniting with her father after decades of separation. The circling helicopter shot that Abrams used may have been unnecessary, but in that scene, Rey is looking at a man she’s heard about in legends throughout her life, just think about how overpoweringly awesome that would be. And she’s got his lightsaber! It’d be like handing King Arthur Excalibur. As for Luke, I read his expression in a meta way: this is Abrams showing the world how the character Mark Hamill made famous looks after years of absence — just as Luke Skywalker was absent from the citizens of the galaxy for so long.
Reasons I’ve heard for why Rey MUST be Luke’s daughter include: Rey plays around in clothes and equipment resembling Luke’s on Jakku; Rey’s visions she experiences once she touches Luke’s (and Anakin’s) lightsaber; Maz telling Rey that she knows what her destiny is then; and, finally, as if Rey realized she must be his daughter by then, Rey going on that solo mission at the end to see him. I can easily explain how each of these “reasons” aren’t so clear-cut as people make this theory out to be: Rey is basically a massive fangirl of the adventures of the original trilogy, and so her mimicry and knowledge of Luke is of a fan-idol nature; Rey is apparently the last known Force-sensitive person in the galaxy, so the lightsaber reacts to her out of desperation and not only reads her mind but injects relevant memories and premonitions into it; Rey’s destiny is “simply” to become a Jedi; and Rey has been revealed as the only Force-user remaining, so she’s sent to Luke not only to request his reinvolvement with the Resistance but to train her. I’m not saying I’m 100% sure about these explanations, but they seem clearly feasible to me, which casts the whole question of Rey’s relationship to Luke as ambiguous.
And ambiguity makes for great art. I’d rather not this trilogy be all about one family; instead, Rey is a sort of everyperson, wish fulfillment not as a Mary Sue author’s stand-in, but as a girl from modest means who found out she was more special than she thought — the perfect model for a genre adventure. We’ve all spent varying years fantasizing about how cool it would be to live in the Star Wars universe and use the Force. We’ve played countless video games in which we do that, read countless books following those who do that, and watched countless TV series of the same. As I experienced Rey discovering she was Force-sensitive, I felt so, so happy for her. At least one of “us” had our dream come true. If she’s Force-sensitive only because she’s Luke’s daughter, then that special status she has is diminished. We’ve seen it before.
(I recently heard an alternate theory attempting to explain Rey’s origin and apparent proficiency with the Force — at least moreso than Kylo Ren. While the theory seems less probable than the daughter-of-Luke or random-scavenger ones, I’d love for it to come true.
Before BioWare developed the disappointing — though recently revitalized — MMORPG Star Wars: The Old Republic, and before they developed the Mass Effect series — which I couldn’t help but view The Force Awakens in relation to at times, especially during the destruction of the Republic’s planets by the Starkiller, reminiscent of the Reapers destroying planets — the now-acclaimed player choice-centric RPG studio developed Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (KotOR), which was followed up by the Obsidian Entertainment-developed Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II — The Sith Lords (KotOR II).
As with most BioWare games, players could choose in KotOR (and KotOR II) whether they wanted their character to be male or female, and through subsequent actions and chooses whether they wanted to favor the Light Side or the Dark Side, but the canonical protagonist is a female Jedi who was trained to be a powerful Force-user before having her memory wiped, at which point the player takes control of her adventure, leading her to regain her powers and in fact become the most powerful Force-user in the galaxy — by far.
KotOR and KotOR II are beloved entries in the Star Wars video games corpus, and yet as remnants of the pre-Disney era, they’re not officially canonical to the current Star Wars universe. Yet, certain characters from these games have recently appeared in the animated series that are canonical, prompting excited fans to wonder how much of the rest of the games will return as canon. Enter Rey, a female Force-user who seems to naturally find strength in the Light Side and who has a mysterious past, of which the only memory we know about is being dropped off on Jakku and crying out for her parents, who are leaving her there. By defeating Kylo Ren, the most powerful known Force-user in the galaxy — after wiping out the rest of the padawans Luke was training — Rey seems to be preternaturally gifted, having only just begun to recognize her Force powers. Her potential seems so great that it’s not out of the question that, after completing Jedi training under Luke, Rey could become the most powerful Force-user in the galaxy — ever. What if her Force-sensitivity was known while she was a child, and she was forcibly separated from her family and dropped off on a desert planet that the First Order had no reason to monitor? Until one fateful day, when the First Order arrived on unrelated business, leading to Rey’s Force eventually (re)awakening. In fact, what if Luke personally knew about her Force sensitivity and dropped her off as a way to preserve the Jedi race, possessing some foreboding knowledge of the genocide that was to come at the hands of one of his other students? Luke may have memory-wiped Rey so that she’d live the rest of her life normally, and maybe Luke planned on eventually returning for her if the situation became absolutely desperate, or after he finished his quest to learn more about the history of the Jedi. The possibilities really spin out from here, because it’s such an exciting theory. Unlikely, but much more satisfying than the daughter-of-Luke possibility.)
While I feel most strongly about not wanting Rey to be Luke’s daughter, I also don’t want her to end up romantically involved with Finn. Furthermore, I don’t believe The Force Awakens suggests that will happen. Finn needed Rey a lot more than Rey needed Finn, and her affection towards him seems to be based on the fact that he’s the only human companion she’s had in her life struggles to this point. She had to save him countless times and does so not just because he’s fun to be around, but because she’s a good person and he’s a human being worth saving. I read that kiss at the end as one of such affection, being on Finn’s forehead, hoping he pulls through because Rey knows he’s a good guy. Finn still has a lot of soul-searching to do in VIII and maybe IX, and I don’t think Rey needs to end up with someone like that. She’s got her own Jedi training to do, which is usually monk-like, so she actually shouldn’t be getting with anyone. If Rian Johnson wants some Hollywood romance in his Episodes, hopefully he writes it for other or even new characters. I don’t cheer for Rey and Finn to get together; I cheer for Rey and Finn to work together to overcome the obstacles they face.
All that said, I’m very much looking forward to Episode VIII coming out around my birthday in 2017. After watching The Force Awakens, I’ve felt compelled to discuss the movie and, yes, consume its transmedia and merchandise like no movie I’ve seen in a long time.