Star Wars Awakens: A Film Review

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is good. It’s really good. It has so many clever flourishes and amazing moments that it isn’t just a movie, but a film. It’s art. A+ for JJ Abrams and his cast and crew. If you haven’t seen it yet, go. Go now. Definitely don’t read this first, because it’s full of SPOILERS!!!

Okay, so you’ve seen the film. Good. Here we go.

From the opening shot of a shadowed star destroyer flying over and blotting out a bright planet, we know The Force Awakens is both the Star Wars we know and love (not that Prequel nonsense), and that it’s about to get turned on its head.

Sure, we’ve got the mechanically inclined future Jedi scrambling around on a desert world full of aliens and ‘droids. We’ve got an even bigger Death Star. We’ve got Storm Troopers and blue-tinged holograms and light sabers. We’ve got the Sith Lord and his far more interesting Apprentice. We’ve got the clash between light side and dark that is central to the Star Wars mythos.

It’s Star Wars reborn; all the old, beloved stuff we grew up with fresh and new on the big screen again. The Prequels may not be expunged from the canon, but they are utterly irrelevant.

So what’s new?

Diversity.

Not that the original Star Wars movies didn’t push the envelope with Lando Calrisian and Darth Vader both played by black men. But Vader the character is white when his helmet finally comes off, and Leia seems to be the only woman in the Galaxy after Beru is murdered.

By comparison, the Resistance is richly diverse. Male and female, human and alien, Caucasian, Asian, Indian, African. I haven’t seen  a more diverse cast of one-line characters and extras since The Matrix.

In sharp contrast, the First Order is pointedly homogenous. They got the women-in-the-workplace memo, but anyone with a little extra melanin had best keep his white helmet on, thank you very much. And aliens aren’t wanted. I don’t even remember any ‘droids among the First Order.

Since every other setting is rich with aliens, ‘droids, and humans of every color, it becomes clear that the purely human, overtly white First Order is a creative choice. Abrams has given his evil army a Nazi-ish vibe, emphasized by their military trimmings, their whiteness, and their chilling, bent-armed variant of the Heil Hitler salute. And before you roll your eyes at the Jewish director casting Nazi-analogues as his villains, remember that we have a certain political party campaigning on a platform of fascism and xenophobia*.

Think about it. Nazis are way more relevant now than when Captain America was punching them back in 2011.

Star Wars wasn’t so political before, but it was never meaningless space opera. It was psychological. The story of Episodes IV, V, and VI is a basic hero’s journey, and everyone undertakes their own inner hero’s journey when they decide to start fighting their inner demons. And Abram’s Star Wars remains psychological, the politics an extension of the discussion about light and dark.

The locus of that discussion isn’t Rey, or Finn. It’s Kylo Ren.

Having watched the film twice now, I’ve got to give a shout out to Adam Driver for his amazing performance. He’s suave, menacing, pathetic, and completely unhinged by turns. In Driver’s capable hands, Kylo Ren’s emotionality and fragility emerges slowly, until he’s outdone by a kidnapped, restrained, and untrained Rey.

Kylo Ren is the realization of what George Lucas attempted — and utterly failed — with Anakin in the Prequel Trilogy. We only see Ren near the bottom of his fall from the light, but we can picture his childhood with two famous, demanding parents and the threat of assassination over all their heads. We can imagine young Ben (his true name) training with Luke, asking questions about the nature of light and dark and receiving unsatisfying answers from his half-trained master. We can see Snoke entering the picture, the first to tell Ben that all his fear and anger is okay, even desirable.

Unlike Anakin’s fall, Ben’s transformation into Ren makes sense even if it doesn’t happen before our eyes.

As the good guys, Rey and Finn still stumble and struggle and don’t always have the courage to face what they fear. Yet they are strong in the light — they will follow their Hero’s Journeys to their end. But Ren? Who knows. I can’t predict if Kylo Ren will follow the full circle of Anakin/Vader’s path from light to dark and back to light, or if he will emerge as a more confidant Dark Lord in Episode VIII, or if madness will take him down some murky third path.

I’m guessing, obsessing over a character that could have been a complete joke.** There aren’t many stories that get me so involved.

Holy crap, I love The Force Awakens.

I love the new characters and the old ones. I love the nigh seamless mix of CGI and traditional effects. I love the costumes and the sets. I love the story, and Abram’s audacity to actually kill Han Solo. I love the performances. I love all the brilliant little moments; Poe Dameron looking back in interest at his jiggling blaster bolt as it hovers, caught in Ren’s power. Rey’s bread rising up out of a bowl of water and her “quarter portion.” BB-8 unveiling R2D2, and looking so small and sleek beside the older ‘droid. Ren’s red light saber jittering against the steady blue of Finn’s and Rey’s. Luke saying nothing at the end, but speaking volumes of hesitancy and pain with his gaze alone.

If I had to give The Force Awakens a critique, the only one I can offer is that the main characters never take a break. They run straight from scene to scene without the time to sleep, or eat, or even take a bathroom break in between them.

And that’s it.

Sure, there’s a good deal of Deus ex Machina, and the characters are awfully competent, and really, a whole planet has been terraformed into a giant sun-gun? But no one can honestly complain about such things. That’s Star Wars. That’s what we all wanted, and it’s exactly what we got, only made richer, contemporary, and unexpectedly relevant. Thank goodness, and thank Abrams.

I can’t wait for Episode VIII!

—————————

*Bernie Sanders, you’re our only hope.

**I love Kylo Ren, but I also love Emo Kylo Ren, who has one of the funniest Twitter feeds I’ve ever seen.

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