Ladies, gentlemen, and other such creatures, I would like to wish you a Merry Christmas. And what better way to get in the Christmas Spirit than to rip into probably the most anticipated movie of the year. Yes, after decades of waiting, Star Wars is finally back, captained by none other than J.J. Abrams himself. It was as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror – upon finding out that that Star Trek guy will be directing the new Star Wars movie, and then were suddenly silenced. I fear something great might have happened.
Our little space opera takes off several decades after Episode VI. In the absence of the Empire, a new organization has taken to terrorizing the galaxy. The First Order, lead by the mysterious Snoke, and his apprentice, Kylo Ren, have made it their mission to colonize the galaxy, only meeting resistance from, well, The Resistance (lead by Leia). However, they have another agenda as well – track down and kill the last of the Jedi. After the battle of Endor, apparently Luke attempted to rebuild the Jedi order. He had a small group of students whom he was trying to teach the Jedi ways. One of his students, Kylo Ren, got seduced by the Dark Side, and proceeded to kill Luke’s apprentices. Now Luke is the last Jedi in the galaxy and he has gone into hiding. No one knows where he is. No one except a little droid called BB-8. Princess Leia has sent out her most daring pilot to retrieve a last piece of the puzzle that may reveal Luke’s whereabouts. Unfortunately, the First Order shows up unexpectedly, and the last piece of the puzzle is sneaked away by young BB-8 before the Storm Troopers can get their hands on it. BB-8 wanders across the path of a young and unexpected heroine, and so our story begins.
So first things first. The structure of this movie is built in strong parallel to Episode IV. Things are looking bad for the Resistance (Rebels), and the last hope rests in the hands(?) of a Droid sent out to seek out a Jedi. Droid finds him(it?)self on a desert planet (Jakku) where it stumbles across the path of a young hero(ine) unsatisfied with their current life. That is how we are introduced to Rey, a young woman who is a daring smuggler. She wanders off into the deep dessert seeking valuable parts in abandoned ships. She is quite likeable, she is determined, she’s fierce, and she seems to have a strong moral compass – particularly showcased when she has a chance to sell BB-8 for more food packs she has ever seen, but chooses to keep him instead after forming a bond with the droid. In many ways she is an improvement on Luke Skywalker from the earlier movies. She seems to have more going for her as a character, and she continues to impress as the movie goes on. There’s a particularly strong scene where she is being interrogated by Kylo Ren. He uses The Force to read her mind, but as her own powers begin to awaken she manages to turn The Force on him and reads his mind instead. She sees his fear and his doubts about himself and his destiny. It’s a really good scene, and huge development points for Rey get scored. She goes on to join the Resistance despite whatever doubts she has about herself, and continues to rise to every new challenge presented to her. Definitely a job well done.
We also have Finn, a young Star Trooper who deserts The First Order upon being in his first battle. When he sees the horror, violence, and destruction that The First Order brings he is severely shaken up. I think that is actually one of the movie’s stronger points. This is a sense of realism that we have not seen in the Star Wars movies (early or old) until now. The horror of war is a very serious topic which actually gets addressed quite decently by means of Finn. War isn’t glorious, war isn’t adventurous. It is brutal, ugly, and destructive. So when he leaves the Storm Troopers it feels like a very legitimate moment. I don’t feel like it’s just a plot being pushed along, it feels like some really genuine character development. So again, the big ups for J.J. Abrams. Finn’s loyal to a fault, he’s quite funny, he’s a bit of a goof-ball, but he has a good heart. He becomes good friends with Rey, and I really enjoyed their interactions together.
The other new character I want to cover before getting into the universe and overall broad strokes of the movie is Kylo Ren. Now, I went into this movie not reading any of the fiction in the Star Wars universe, so Kylo Ren was a total mystery to me. From his first scene, I was quite impressed. He bore a strong resemblance to Darth Vader, he was intimidating and he was a huge mystery. He carried himself with a sense of power and purpose. He demonstrates a strong use of the force – stopping a blaster shot in mid-air for a prolonged period of time, using the force choke, reading people’s minds. All this held true while the mask was on. When the mask came off, he was a scared little boy throwing temper tantrums. He went from baring the resemblance of a strong Sith Lord (Yes, I know he’s not a Sith) to an arrogant boy who has some semblance of Force-power, and abysmal duelling abilities -as demonstrated at the end of the movie. He literally loses a duel to Rey, who has literally never used a lightsaber before. So in that regard, he was a bit of a disappointment. However, in the movie’s defence, it could very well be that he is being built up for something greater. This is the first movie in a trilogy, and maybe he is intentionally made to be more human and vulnerable than what we’re used to in a villain. That being said, as a movie that stands on its own (despite it being a trilogy), he was definitely a let down.
Now for some broad strokes. I understand that this movie’s a continuation of the original saga, so it obviously makes sense that some of the old characters are in it. However, besides delivering fan service, I feel like they were more or less over-indulgent cameos. Leia, Han Solo, C-3P0, R2-D2, Chewbacca, all felt like shadows of their former selves. And it’s not because they acted badly, or because they were written badly. But it’s because they have no story. They have no purpose in this movie (save maybe for Han Solo). Through Episodes IV-VI, it was their story, their adventure, and their development. But this movie is very much about Rey, Finn, and Kylo Ren. However, when a third of the movie is devoted to showing me these old faces that don’t really have that much involvement in the main story, it made the movie feel weak in a lot of places. Also, in a strictly practical sense, that was a lot of time that could have been spent expanding the universe and developing the plot – as opposed to getting a wink, wink, nudge, nudge, every 10 minutes. I understand that it’s been over 30 years since Star Wars fans have had the opportunity to see their classic favourites, but just sticking them in a movie like this isn’t really the way to go. This is a new trilogy, telling a new story, and it shouldn’t be afraid to make its own way and tell its own story. It shouldn’t have to be slave to fan-service in order to be successful. My hopes are that there will be less of this in the next two movies.
Moving on, the cinematography in this movie is a point to discuss. I am really impressed with how J.J. Abrams shot this movie. Obviously modern technology was used to edit the movie, but the look of it is very much the same as the original trilogy. The creatures, and droids, a lot of the special effects look THE SAME. And that’s quite a good thing, actually. Imagine watching a Star Wars continuation with everything looking hyper-realistic and detailed out. It would feel alien. Abrams recognizes that he is continuing an already existing visual medium, and that deserves a lot of respect. Well done. On a similar note, the soundtrack was also 110% spot on. Abrams brought in none other than John Williams to score this movie, and after watching it and hearing the music first hand, I think it’s fair to say that he was the only man for the job. I am aware that this sounds a little nit-picky, but imagine for a moment how difficult it would be to pick up another director’s work, from a different time period, with different technology, with a different crew, and then now, to remake that exact same feel and look. It is a VERY tall order, and Abrams managed it with flying colours.
The last thing I am going to cover is the strong parallel between this movie and Episode IV. Again, I understand that Abrams is a fan of the saga, and I understand that he wants to pay his tribute to the Star Wars gods. However, you can’t make great things unless you are prepared to write with as much confidence and imagination as Lucas did when he made the original three. While some of the things I mentioned earlier about this movie are really amazing, there’s an undeniable parallel between the two films. Tatooine – Jakku, Rey – Luke, Darth Vader – Kylo Ren, Death Star – Death Planet (Did we really need another one of these in a Star Wars plot?), R2-D2 – BB-8, Old Ben Kenobi – Old Han Solo, death of Obi-wan Kenobi – death of Han Solo. It’s just too much. I kind of enjoyed a good chunk of the movie, but another equally big part of it was just an ongoing omage. I came to see a new Star Wars movie, not the biggest love letter to George Lucas.
With everything said here, I won’t even bother telling you if you should see it or not. It’s a new Star Wars movie, of course you should see it. Go out there and experience it first-hand. For all its faults and drawbacks, it is still quite the cultural phenomenon, and therefore, quite the experience. May the force be with you 🙂