The force is strong with this one
Ten minutes into The Force Awakens, viewers witness a stormtrooper’s moral struggle between right and wrong, and it’s here where the question on everyone’s mind is answered: The Force Awakens works. Showing how stormtroopers deal with morality just as much as Luke Skywalker and Han Solo is totally new ground for the Star Wars saga, and yet it fits perfectly with the themes of the franchise and all that it stands for. The Force Awakens embodies the spirit of the original Star Wars trilogy, but also manages to go deeper, show us what we have never seen before, and create a strong setup for the next two films.
The latest film in the franchise takes place about 35 years after Return of the Jedi (1983). While the Empire has been defeated, a new authoritarian regime called the First Order has taken root. It’s led by the mysterious Supreme Leader Snoke (played by Andy Serkis through motion capture) whose paleness and snake-like face suggests a Lord Voldemort-type villain. Under his command is Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who is more angsty teen with anger issues than ‘terrifying villain.’ Ren’s character is particularly well done. He’s obsessed with carrying out the legacy of Darth Vader, yet is clearly trying too hard. Where Vader wears his suit and mask for survival, Ren dons it merely to look badass. The scene where Ren lifts his mask, revealing a perfectly normal face definitely results in a few snickers from the audience.
With new villains come new heroes. Rey (Daisy Ridley) is an orphaned scavenger on the desert planet Jakku, where she lives a desperately lonely existence. Ridley plays Rey as quick thinking, tough, and a bit emotionally distant, making her a compelling hero for the new trilogy. Finn (John Boyega) is a rogue stormtrooper who chooses not to be a pawn to the First Order and reluctantly joins up with the Resistance. Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is the dashing Resistance X-wing pilot. He’s a political fighter and passionate about the Resistance cause to the last. Much has been said about the main heroes being female and black, respectively, and the diverse cast is overdue. The Star Wars saga has always been about how anyone can be a hero, yet the rebels of the original trilogy were overwhelmingly white and male.
Along the way, the new heroes receive help from the old ones. Harrison Ford returns as Han Solo to guide Rey and Finn, functioning as a much cooler Obi-Wan Kenobi. The decision to make Han Solo a major character in the film shows that Director J.J. Abrams can please fans without sacrificing quality. Solo has always been a favourite character and it’s Ford that gives both the new and old films their reckless and adventurous spirit, juxtaposed to the pious journey of the hero. Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) also returns and now leads the Resistance against the First Order, dropping the ‘princess’ title for ‘general.’ Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has become a mythical hero throughout the galaxy but has since gone MIA.
Abrams also shows that he can bring the humour and light heart along with the deeper themes. The Force Awakens is fast paced and doesn’t shy away from visual comedy, especially in regards to the new lovable droid, BB-8. Where the prequel trilogy often went overboard with CGI and effects, The Force Awakens uses them skillfully to create beautiful, colourful, and emotional images. Shots of Rey scavenging through a ruined imperial starship, half sunken in sand are hauntingly beautiful and sad.
Probably the biggest criticism of The Force Awakens is that it is nothing more than a remake of the original 1977 Star Wars Episode VI: A New Hope. The plotline of The Force Awakens clearly and deliberately echoes the plotline of Star Wars, yet the similarity only shows off Abrams and screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Ardnt’s skill. The characters, the emotions and the motives couldn’t be more different from A New Hope and where the original film could often feel campy, The Force Awakens brings a darker and serious tone.
—Anna St. Clair
$TAR WAR$: Nostalgia at a price
Given the sheer force surrounding Star Wars (cultural, not midi-chlorian) the notion that J.J. Abrams’ latest entry into the saga did not live up to the hype is dangerous ground to tread on; however, the heavy-handed nostalgia, the pervasiveness of one-dimensional, flat characters and settings, and a fear of expanding upon what little novelty is presented, arguably posits Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens as a film fuelled by a thirst for profit rather than the imagination and wonder that drove Creator George Lucas’ works. Before the ‘bantha poodoo’ hits the fan, it is important to acknowledge that Star Wars, despite whatever childhood or nostalgia might be tangled up with it, can and must be critically examined like any piece of art in order to better understand the work itself and the medium it belongs to.
One of the most notable features of the newest entry into the Star Wars canon is how much it borrows from the pre-existing films. At best, Abrams’ appropriations come off as necessary tools to ease the audience into the reboot of an old classic; however, in actuality, the film’s borrowing extends far, far beyond merely preparing the audience for new material, as it simply revamps the exact plot of Lucas’ Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, albeit with some name changes and flashier special effects. This time around, the Death Star is bigger, shoots multiples lasers at a time, and looks a hell of a lot more high definition. As the film progresses, it increasingly seems to take on the form of a ‘hype man,’ in a sense, presenting familiar faces and places to pump up the audience instead of trying to explore a new dimension of the vast Star Wars universe. There certainly is a magic to seeing Han Solo and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) aboard the Millennium Falcon again, yet that in itself does not a good movie make.
This over-reliance on nostalgia found in Episode VII is intimately tied to its very surface-level settings and characters. The film’s portrayal of desert planet Jakku, a conscious callback to Lucas’ Tatooine, stands as perhaps the best example of the vacuous settings that pervade the film. Tatooine, in Lucas’ films, comes across as a living place where we can truly empathize with the plights of either Anakin, under the yoke of his master Watto, or Han Solo, in his deliberations with the greedy gangster Jabba the Hut. Lucas gives us a tangible, emotive face to the alien world of Tatooine, and thus allows us to better connect with the protagonists as they confront dynamic characters who oppress them. Abrams’ version of Jakku provides the necessary template for such a conflict, but with no dynamic characters for the audience to form meaningful relationships with. Pinning Abrams’ characters on a planet that, only in the background, has slavery and sand simply cannot inspire the same amount of character intrigue and attachment that Lucas’ Tatooine did.
This phenomenon pervades the entire film: Poe Dameran is simply an awesome badass good guy, not because we witness some strength in his character or moral growth in the face of adversity, but simply because. The destruction of the Republic by Starkiller base is emotionally trivial when compared to the destruction of Alderan in Episode IV, as the Empire’s torture of Leia and the relationship we develop for her throughout the movie gives us a reason to care about Alderan. Abrams’ work goes through the motions of Star Wars, but isn’t really a Star Wars his film makes viewers care about, aside from the fact that it’s Star Wars of course.
The movie does however, provide a glimpse of some very interesting and promising stories. Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Finn (John Boyega), aside from delivering some of the strongest acting in the movie, offer interesting and never-before explored sides of the Star Wars universe. Watching a stormtrooper defect from his platoon, musing on Rey’s origins, and watching the dynamic between Han and villain Kylo Ren were truly fascinating moments, but the film ultimately only scratches the surface on these tales and instead chooses, in the all too literal words of Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o), to make them a ‘story for another time’ and another $13 movie ticket, presumably.
Ultimately Episode VII seems to be preoccupied with finding widespread commercial success, comforting audiences with familiar faces and cashing in on the success of prior films, rather than standing truly on its own as the first episodes of the prior trilogies do.