Star Wars has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. I don’t remember the first time I saw the original trilogy, but I can remember having lightsaber fights up and down outside the cinema, eagerly awaiting Episode III. As you can imagine, the announcement of a 7th Star Wars film set off all sorts of emotions in me. I could go into more details, but basically I was terrified it wouldn’t live up to the expectations of my childhood memories, and now, as a socially aware adult (always seeking to become more so), I was even more terrified that the film wouldn’t represent anyone apart from heterosexual white males.
My fears were unfounded. Holy Batman, The Force Awakens is a good film.
The first time you watch it, yes, it’s a little like A New Hope, but honestly that is only a good thing. It felt like coming home, it was familiar, it was safe. After the generally poor reception of the Prequels, can you blame JJ Abrams for taking a slightly more familiar route? But watching it a second time, The Force Awakens really comes into it’s own. It feels less like Episode IV and more like Episode VII. Thirty years ago, George Lucas created a vast universe, big enough for one person to be lost in it for a lifetime, and last year JJ Abrams pulled us back into that universe showing us once again, that heroes can be found anywhere. But they’re probably found on a sandy planet that no one really likes going to.
There are two reasons I love science fiction and fantasy; world building and the stories told within them. With Star Wars the world was already built and it would have been very easy to sit back and let that do the talking. Instead, JJ chose to expand on it, explore new worlds while visiting old ones, and still managed maintain the distinctive Star Wars feel that we know and love.
The cinematography was good, in the sense that you didn’t notice it, which is a distinguishing style of JJ. In none of his films have I sat back and gone “wow, that cinematography was incredible” but it lends itself well to his story telling. The shots serve their purpose, and blend seamlessly into one another. You forget you are watching something through a camera and it lets you get totally immersed in the experience of the story. Along those lines the directing was excellent. There were subtle moments of tenderness amongst the madness of fighting a galactic war. The inner torment of Kylo Ren was obvious from such small things, like the way he looks at his father when he takes off his mask. And those tears in Luke’s eyes, right at the very end. My heart! JJ made the most of his talented actors, there can be no doubt about that.
Parallel lines seems to be a big theme in The Force Awakens. There’s numerous parallels between the original trilogy and this new one, but also so many between the characters in the film themselves, mainly between Kylo Ren and Rey. These two characters are clearly starting along different but parallel paths. Look at their clothing. Rey is dressed in an off-white tunic while Kylo Ren is dressed head to foot in black. These are obvious allusions to their allegiances, Luke Skywalker remains the only Jedi ever to have dressed in black and not fall to the Dark Side, but it also mirrors their personalities. Kylo Ren is hiding himself from the world, and to a certain extent from himself. Rey however has nothing to hide, she is open and honest, her clothes are loose and functional with no frills or bells to make them look like they are anything else. It goes further than this however. Both Kylo Ren and Rey have tunics that hang down like a skirt, both have material that wraps around their arms, even both their masks look somewhat similar. There is an obvious visual similarity between the two characters outfits, they and their journeys are tied together and personally I can’t wait to see the two of them grow into their parallel roles as hero and villain.
Can we just talk about set design for a minute though? I’m trying not to fangirl all over this, but the sets were incredibly wonderful and just so beautiful. JJ’s decision to mostly use real physical props was an excellent one. CGI is great, and many modern films could not have been made without it, but using physical sets and props creates a chemistry on set that no amount of computer programming could replicate. BB-8 for example is just a prop. He’s a machine, a puppet. There’s someone controlling him, and yet when you are watching the film you cannot deny that he is a character in his own right. Even the actors treat him as such and he was a huge part of the promotion in the build up to the release of the film. That never could have been done with a CGI BB-8 and although it must have been daunting to have to build so many physical sets, the decision was the right one. It rooted this film solidly in reality even as we are watching entire solar systems be destroyed.
Building an impressive backdrop would only work however if the characters in front of it where as complex as it was. I’m very pleased to say that I wasn’t let down by any characterisation in this film. I intend to discuss Rey fully in a later post, but for the moment it is enough to say that it was so refreshing to have her treated as a fully formed character. Her role wasn’t dependent on the fact she was a girl, that was irrelevant. She has her own set of skills and weaknesses, just like any other character. Pus her interaction with Maz Kanata means that it passes The Bechdel Test. A++ JJ. I still would have liked to have seen a bit more female representation. As it is, when you watch the background you can see other females, as well as PoC, not to mention that badass X-Wing pilot who went into battle with her lipgloss on point, but I still feel females could have been a bit more visible throughout.
Finn and Poe are both delights to have onscreen. Finn is just so happy all the time, so full of joyful energy and Poe, although he has been fighting this war for a long time, still does so with a smile and the firm belief in what they are doing. From the moment Finn rescued Poe from The First Order, I knew that these guys were going to be something special. And how nice is it to see two PoC characters interacting in a friendly way, with no toxic masculinity to be seen? The strength of these two characters comes from their compassion and ability to care about others more than themselves. Heck, Finn’s compassion is what makes him a terrible Stormtrooper, having to be sent for “reconditioning”, i.e. brainwashing. Without Finn’s compassion, we would have no film. Poe never would have been freed and BB-8 would have fallen into the hands of The First Order.
I have to admit, one of the things I was most excited for was to see Han and Leia together, their relationship stronger than ever, fighting side by side like they did at the Battle of Endor. I did not get that. What I got was better. It would take a heck of a strong couple to deal with the fact that their son turned into a murderous Sith, destroying everything that your brother (in-law) had worked towards and then joined the very side you had been fighting your whole life to bring down. Han and Leia are not that couple. I love the whole “Space pirate falls in love with a Princess” storyline, but despite the fact they obviously love each other, Han is used to doing things by himself, and Leia is used to dealing with problems bigger than herself. Like Leia said, they suffered an extreme emotional blow and went back to what they were good at. I knew the moment Han stepped onto that bridge what was going to happen. Han was going to do something for the woman he loved, or he wasn’t going back at all. He loved Leia so much, he was willing to sacrifice his life for her. It was reminiscent of when he was lowered into the carbonite. An expression of love bigger than himself, typical of Han. Leia now has literally lost everything to the Empire. Her foster family, her planet, her son and husband. Luke is the only thing left to her now and he too has lost everything (yet more parallels) and I am very excited to see how this effects Leia in the coming films.
There was weaknesses in the film, a few too many coincidences for such a vast universe, but still, without those we would have no story, so they can be forgiven. The imagery was a bit heavy handed at times, the light literally disappearing as Kylo Ren struggled with inner torment on the bridge anyone? There were characters that promised a lot but ultimately were under utilised. It would have been nice to have Phasma confront Finn in the attack on Maz’s palace, instead of a random Stormtrooper. I feel that would have added a lot more weight to Finn’s eventual outwitting of her in the final battle, not to mention given Gwendoline Christie a better chance to flex her acting muscles. However, I don’t think we’ve seen the last of her, so there is hope for the future films.
I think one of my favourite things about The Force Awakens is the way it defied all expectations. Watch the trailers again having seen the film. All those awesome shots of the Falcon? That was Rey, not Han. Finn taking on Kylo Rey in the snowy forest? He’s not actually the Jedi. Kylo Ren is the ultimate bad guy to follow up from Vader? He’s just a torn chid beginning his journey to villain-hood. How exciting is all of that?! We have two more films to explore the journey of the new characters introduced to us, and tie up loose ends of old characters. Not to mention answer all those questions which were raised and never answered in this one. What happened to C-3PO’s arm?!
Look, the film was excellent. JJ Abrams tread the fine line between keeping enough of the old to make it familiar and enough of the new to make it exciting. That can’t have been an easy thing to do. But with excellent writers, fantastic set design and costuming, a heart-wrenching musical score and out of this world acting, he manages to pull it all together in an incredible way that had me leaving the cinema having fallen in love all over again. The Force Awakens re-awoke my love for telling epic tales of good versus evil, of spaceships, and of lightsabers. I can’t wait to see where we go from here.