Star Wars: The Force Awakens: A Review

TFA is well-constructed, and does everything in service of character. I am not able to say whether it is a good film, a great film, or just an OK film — I’m too invested in the mythos — but it does some things that I think are really neat. At the same time, I can’t tell if the fact that I can see these slights of hands is indicative of an unpolished project, or if I’m more invested in picking this film apart than others, so take that with a grain of salt.

Spoilers follow.

The opening sequence is neat: unless you’ve been hiding from all media for the last year or so, you’ve probably seen the cross-hilt lightsaber. With the establishing shot of a Star Destroyer obscuring Jakku, we immediately know who’s on it — the tip of the ship is shaped exactly like the cross-hilt lightsaber.

When we get to the planet we’re immediately introduced to BB-8 — a lot of the film spends time very gracefully explaining its physicality. The introductory shot is no different: the camera orbits around BB-8 to give us a feel for the spherical way the droid moves, and an idea about the way the audience will be interacting with the droid for the rest of the film.

After a “here’s the macguffin, give the droid the macguffin, now the droid is the macguffin sequence” some interesting shots happen:

  1. The X-Wing is destroyed, and the audience has to know that BB-8 knows that the X-Wing is destroyed.
  2. BB-8 is left on its own on a dangerous planet.

How do we get a reaction shot from an actor that can’t make expressions? Well, after giving the audience a brief glimpse of the X-Wing exploding, we cut to BB-8 and watch the rest of the explosion reflected in its lens! We now know it knows that it’s time to roll.

How does the film convey that BB-8 is not safe on its own? Instead of showing it rolling off into the night by itself, which by itself might read as lonely, or sad, we show it rolling off and then have an alien pop its head over a rock BB-8 rolled past. This reads well: BB-8 is alone on a planet, heading off into the dunes, and alien things are noticing it, which adds the necessary undertone of suspense.

Back to Poe and Kylo. More importantly — back to Kylo. They hit the right notes here: Kylo is related to the Skywalker family, is powerful enough to do things we’ve never seen a Force wielder do before, and has sort of a weird sense of humor. He also fails a lot — like, constantly. Whereas Vader could blame it on subordinates, usually Kylo is the one responsible for the failure. We’ll get to that later. In any case: the scene sets up that Poe — who until now we’ve thought of as the hero of the film — can’t do anything to fight back against Kylo. Finn watches this in horror. The film is doing a bunch of things at once: we’re setting up that Finn’s arc, we’re setting up Kylo’s arc, we’ve set up the macguffin, and we’ve charactarized Kylo’s powers and outlook.

Now it’s time for another introduction sequence! This time, we’re setting up Rey, whose character is probably the deftest re-use of a slight of hand I’ve ever seen. Recall that Luke, as of “A New Hope”, is sort of an audience POV character: he’s never really traveled off of his moisture farm. He roughly knows what the audience knows — there’s a Rebellion, there’s an Empire, and most importantly, that the action is elsewhere. He exists so that the film can look like it’s explaining the concepts of the world it’s building to him, all the while it’s really explaining the world to us. As a result, we get invested, because we empathize with Luke: his successes and failures are relatable, because we’re puzzling out the rules of this new world along with him. By the time Empire Strikes Back rolls around, he’s no longer a POV character, he’s ready to take actions of his own.

The film uses Rey the exact same way! She’s metatextual: her arc is all about the character letting go of the past. In this, she represents the audience letting go of the bad taste of the prequel trilogy. Like Luke, she knows roughly what the audience knows. The interesting bit is how much more she has to know about the world than Luke, because the audience is already familiar with Star Wars.

What better way to accomplish this than to make her a scavenger? Like the audience, Rey literally grew up with Star Destroyers, TIE fighters, and X-Wings. Rey’s house is an AT-AT! She knows about the Empire and the Rebellion, to the point that she has a rebel pilot action figure and a Rebellion Starbird helmet. Knowing about these things is integral to her character, so that she can be a convincing POV character for the audience.

Anyway, it’s all in service of character — by the time we leave her, we know that she’s waiting for something (marking the days), salvaging for a meager subsistence (trading parts for rations), and that this is increasingly untenable (the same parts are worth less each time). Rey saves BB-8 from one of the various aliens we saw stalking it in the desert and fixes him up (she’s good at fixing things!) and grudgingly gives him a place to stay for the night (she’s helpful, but guarded — not naive!)

Note: the film has pretty good pacing in this regard: we’re only looking at a given party for long enough for them to either accomplish something or for the audience to learn something about them. At first, these scenes are given a lot of breathing room, time-wise. As the film goes on, the amount of time we spend on each party decreases, the rate of events goes up, and so the actions feel more intense.

At this point, Finn escapes with Poe. Poe is a supporting character — he has no arc. He exists purely as a yardstick with which to measure Finn’s progress through his arc. When we meet the two, Finn is only concerned with getting the hell out of dodge. Poe gives him some objectives, and some motivation for finding them (he literally names Finn — and is his first friend!), then the movie ejects him from the plot to give Finn some space to grow as a character. We see him trek through the desert, figuratively shedding his old identity in the forms of discarded Stormtrooper armor, then putting on Poe’s jacket to assume a new identity (and, you know, give Rey and BB-8 a reason to accost him.)

The film cuts to more character building for Rey — we know she’s in dire straits from the previous food apportioning scene, and has the chance to sell out a nominally sentient being in exchange for tons of food. By grabbing the food, then declining, we learn more about her: staying is important to her, important enough that she briefly considers doing something evil to enable it, but her good side wins out and she retains BB-8. BB-8 learns from this that Rey can be trusted. Portions-guy sets up the next scene by tattling to the First Order.

Back to the Star Destroyer, Kylo gets snarky with General Hux and suggests that next time they use clone troopers. The tenor of the conversation is one of mutual lack of respect — Hux clearly doesn’t think much of Kylo, or Kylo’s designs for the macguffin. From the high point of the beginning, we find more and more that Kylo is nowhere near Vader in terms of intimidation, control, or presence, and everyone around him knows it.

Over the next scene, we see Finn, BB-8, and Rey grow to trust each other. We learn that Finn’s most powerful drive is to protect his friends — he takes Rey’s hand while running much to her chagrin, and he checks to make sure she’s okay when Rey wakes him up from an explosion. He’s ashamed of where he came from (the First Order, cowardice) and aspires to be more (put on the trappings of the Resistance, heroism.) Rey is uncannily good at everything she tries, which is in line with how the series has previously treated Luke and Anakin. BB-8 continues to lend its physicality to scenes to convey motion — which is a nice double-duty for the macguffin of the film up to this point — making the topsy-turvy spins of the Millenium Falcon more visceral for the audience ( could you imagine how horrible those spinning set scenes would be with a human actor?) The Millenium Falcon continues to exceed initial expectations, and the film nicely echoes past “Star Destroyer pursuit” sequences by using the scuttled Star Destroyer to provide an exit for the Falcon. Oh, and because everything in this film pays rent to the characters, even the action sequences, we learn that Finn and Rey actually make a very good team (Rey flipping the Falcon to line up a shot for Finn.)

Insert reaction shot of Kylo not taking failure particularly well here. Remember folks, he’s no Vader!

After Finn convinces BB-8 to trust him, Han and Chewie retake the Falcon, providing the ultimate “why” for “why is Rey a scavenger?” As a POV character, she has to know what the audience knows. Part of what the audience knows is that Han is famous. Rey grew up in the outcome of what Han (and friends!) accomplished. She is as excited as the audience, if not more, to meet the Han Solo. This is super important to the film: if the characters didn’t share in the excitement, Han’s introduction into the film would feel much more like a cheap ploy to bring in past Star Wars fans. Worse, valuable screen time would have to be taken up explaining to the characters who Han is, and why they should trust him. As is, though, the film can use Han to speed through some exposition that would otherwise be difficult to hand to our heroes (and audience.) “Yes, the Force is real, there are two sides of it, Luke was real, he is gone, here is why, here is why BB-8 is important to you two.” We then go into another action sequence so that we can convey to the audience that while Han is up to his usual, his usual is still about the same as “at the end of his rope,” and also to casually discard the bigger, better spaceship Han and Chewie used to retake the Falcon. Oh, and because the film has to squeeze every last drop of value from every sequence, it uses Han’s stymied creditor to convey the location of the droid to the First Order.

Now that Han’s been re-introduced — and no sooner — we can finally reveal Kylo Ren’s parentage. We couldn’t do this before because, although the film assumes some broad knowledge of Star Wars, it doesn’t expect exact knowledge, and coming out and saying “Kylo is Han’s son” wouldn’t make a lot of sense to anyone who hadn’t seen the Original Trilogy. So, we wait to reintroduce the character and give a rundown of their accomplishments before we announce that Kylo is his kid. Then we tell Kylo that all of his failings are down to the fact that there’s still good in him by way of his connection to his father. Now Kylo can start failing in earnest: his arc is off to the races!

The gang arrives at Maz Kanata’s bar. It’s time for everyone to hit the “death and rebirth” part of their monomyth cycle! Finn reveals that he’s not with the Resistance and begs Rey to run away with him, Rey grabs Luke’s lightsaber and has a disturbing Force vision and rejects her destiny, and in general everyone’s running away from what they’re supposed to be doing. The film takes this chance to answer a few questions.

As one example: why is Luke’s lightsaber in a basement? Well, BB-8 is a sphere droid, and it’d be natural to ask how it handles stairs, so we give BB-8 some stairs to contend with. As a bonus, because BB-8 has to go slowly on the stairs, and we’ve already set up that BB-8 uses physicality to lend extra nuance to scenes, it punches up the trepidation and unease of the situation.

Another neat, natural slight of hand: the film plays a game of husker du with the audience, asking if they remember that the macguffin isn’t the droid, but the map it contains. The map which Rey has seen. We now have the reason Poe had to be interrogated by Kylo into revealing BB-8’s existence: the audience needed to know that Kylo can read minds. With all of this in hand, BB-8 no longer drives the plot, and we can use this transference to move Finn’s arc forward. The film sets up a kishōtenketsu-flavored device with regards to Kylo’s telepathy, and every character now has his or her own motivation. Leia arrives to deliver Han’s (bring back our son), Finn realizes his need to protect his friends outweighs his need to flee. Maz tells Rey point blank that her family isn’t coming back to Jakku, while introducing her to her personal connection to the Force. Oh, and to dial up the suspense, there’s a planet killing weapon (again) that puts a strict deadline on wrapping up these loose ends as we move into the second act (the Death Stars & Starkiller base are really just the plot version of giant egg timers.)

Back at the Resistance base, Poe and Finn are reunited. Poe gives Finn his blessing to wear the jacket, which is a metaphor for becoming a hero — Finn has accepted that to protect his friends, he must fight instead of flee. Poe’s job as a yardstick is now complete and he’s freed up to go be The Best Pilot again.

Up to this point, the film has been fairly subtle about how talented Rey is — from this point until the end of the film, it’s all about how powerful Rey is, and what that represents to Kylo. To that end, we hit the climax of the telepathy kishōtenketsu: not only can Rey resist Kylo’s mind control, she can turn it back on him and read his mind — which also helpfully lets her state out loud Kylo’s driving motivation if we haven’t gathered it yet. Her escape is the aftermath — after seeing Kylo’s use of the Force, she knows she has a connection to it as well, and she begins exploring it. Kylo is afraid of her, which gives his character the necessary motivation to finish his arc.

We reach the climax of the film. Rey and Finn are reunited and the film comments on how much they’ve grown in case the audience missed it (“how’d you get out” / “it was Finn’s idea to come here”). We’re ready to tie up the arcs now, in grand Star Wars fashion. It’s interesting to note that all of the main characters don’t want to finish their arcs — they’re all reluctant about the next steps, but they collectively goad each other into moving forward. This is a mark of solid craftsmanship, I think; the characters are forcing each other to move the plot forward, and it feels natural. Kylo is tortured about what he must do. He doesn’t want to kill his father and forsake the light side, but Rey forced his hand: she’s more powerful than he is, and he blames his failure on the pull towards the light side that Han represents. He’s got to kill Han. Finn wants more than anything to run with his friends, to protect them and be safe. He doesn’t want to fight Kylo Ren — staring Kylo Ren in the face at the beginning was one of the primary motivators for him to flee in the first place! Nevertheless, Rey is injured and Finn tries his level best to protect his friend. Rey doesn’t want to accept her fate and go down the path of becoming a Jedi, she wants to wait for her family on Jakku. However, Kylo threatens to kill Finn, and she takes up the Jedi mantle in epic fashion.

The film is all about moving the characters to a point where they cannot help but run into each other in the next film. Kylo’s arc is all about falling to the Dark Side, Rey’s is about letting go of her past, and Finn’s is about accepting that he will sacrifice himself to save his friends. By the time Rey leaves to find Luke, Finn must have gotten to the point that he will go after her in the next film, otherwise the next film will be awkwardly split between characters. Likewise, Kylo must fully embrace the Dark Side and mark Rey as his rival, so that he pursues her in the next film. By the end of the film, Rey must choose to abandon her vigil on Jakku to seek out Luke. All of the chess pieces have clear moves for the next round of the game, and the audience has watched them move for two hours and fifteen minutes or so.

Comparing this to the prequel trilogy, and even the original trilogy, there’s a renewed zeal for showing, rather than telling. How skilled is Rey? Here’s what she can do. How powerful is Kylo? Here he is, doing things that no other Force user has done. Are they evenly matched? Here’s a lightsaber fight to sort that out. Compare this to the prequel trilogy: to make Anakin seem powerful, an artificial unit is created (midichlorians), and the number of that unit Anakin has is the same as Yoda’s, Yoda being the most powerful Force user we’ve seen in the series. Wow-ie. That’s telling, not showing!

This happens over and over in the prequel trilogy — characters telling each other (and not so slyly telling the audience) who they are and what they think. A romantic getaway where young lovers discuss the relative merits of an autocratic government? Sure, that feels suuuper natural, and not forced at all. We’re told, not shown, that Anakin is powerful; told, not shown, that he thinks the Jedi are evil; told, not shown, that the Sith operate on a master/apprentice level; etc, etc. What we’re shown are various alien settings, but without fleshed-out characters to interact with them they all feel vaguely same-y, like a sample pack of wallpapers. Things happen, but nothing has weight, because we haven’t seen any of the characters grow or change throughout the prequel trilogy.

In the original trilogy, The love triangle between Luke, Leia, and Han has shades of this, especially in Return of the Jedi. It’s never quite as bad as the prequel trilogy, but you get the feeling that they’re shouting at the audience, not at each other, when they argue.

It bears mentioning that The Force Awakens borrows the plot structure from A New Hope and appears to re-use it wholesale. From that macro-level, at the micro-level it also re-uses entire lines of dialogue from the original trilogy, as well as specific situations. For some people, that’s enough to make it ring hollow. And if the level between the micro and the macro — the human level, the character level — wasn’t rendered so well I’d say it would ring hollow as well. But they knocked that out of the park — you could rip out all of the callbacks and replace them and you’d still have a very good film, albeit a less fun one. You could switch conceits of the larger plot structure to make it less resemble ANH, say, removing the Star Killer base and replacing it with a fleet battle, or something — and it’d still be a good film, because ultimately the film wasn’t about the base or the callbacks or Han Solo, it was about introducing three characters, growing them, and having them drive each other into an interesting situation for the next two movies to elaborate on.

If I have any complaint about the film, it’s that the character growth and interaction is too perfectly set up — there are no human fingerprints on it, just the welded seams of an industrial process, which reduces the charm somewhat. That we’ve industrialized storytelling, and one company has come to monopolize it, is a little bit disturbing. But even so, Disney is verygood at storytelling.

Some notes I couldn’t really fit in elsewhere:

Explaining the mechanism by which the Starkiller Base destroys worlds is a neat trick, because it lets the film adjust the lighting to match the direness of the battle — I’m a fan of Discworld’s “Psychotropic Weather”, and it’s neat to see it in a film. In addition, it takes some pressure off the film: you don’t need to insert a “there are N minutes left!” scene quite so often if there’s an obvious visual cue to see how close the protagonists are to losing. The lighting puts that countdown, and its current status, at the back of the audience’s mind in every scene, which is a cool trick.

The only mechanical plot hole I couldn’t explain away: if the shields only work on sublight craft, and the only thing that is necessary to destroy the base is to blow up the regulator, and the cost of leaving the base intact is upwards of five worlds per Starkiller volley, why not just fly a cruiser into the regulator at lightspeed? The cost of losing the cruiser is marginal compared to destroying the entire world-killing base. The answer, of course, is plot — it’s hard to move characters forward when the planet they’re on disappears out from under them.

There’s a little bit of weirdness poking through with regards to the Jedi Mind Trick — in past films, we’ve only seen established, trained Jedi use it. Rey uses it without having been introduced to it by another character. This seems like a bit of a plot hole, but the film is using it to play up Rey’s natural ability. The reason she knows about the mind trick is that she’s a POV character — the audience knows the trick exists, so she knows the trick exists, and her ability to exercise it only furthers her characterization as a powerful Force wielder. In other words, there’s no satisfactory in-universe explanation for Rey knowing how to use it, but the film (wisely, I think) doesn’t bother with one because then we get into questions of who would show it to her. Luke’s out of the picture, Kylo is only half-trained, and Snoke is, well, a giant hologram. We all know about the trick, though, so its acceptable that she figured it out on her own, because that makes her character more talented and sidesteps awkwardly introducing some random Jedi to teach her the trick.