Star Wars Binge Week 2020: The Force Awakens

So, it’s finally come down to this: the Star Wars sequel trilogy. By the time that The Force Awakens was even revealed to be a thing, my fandom for Star Wars had already cooled considerably. I didn’t see any of them in their opening months, nevermind opening day. To tell the truth, when I watch The Rise of Skywalker this Sunday, it’ll be my first viewing of the film. So know that I’m going into these with a lot less bias than I have for the original trilogy. Though my passion may have been stoked a bit by the previous six films that I’ve just watched…

When I first saw The Force Awakens, I was in absolute awe. I loved it. It was the glorious return of Star Wars, and it had everything I could have asked for. It was exactly how I remembered Star Wars being after so many years, probably due to the fact that it heavily mirrors A New Hope, but with years of special effects enhancements and elements that moviegoers expect from a modern-day blockbuster.

And while it does mirror a lot of the major story beats from A New Hope, The Force Awakens does like to twist and skew them in somewhat unexpected ways. I think that it’s very successful in walking the line between creating something new and making something that will get the old timers feeling nostalgic. Of course, by doing this it opens itself up to criticism for being too derivative, which is absolutely fair. Though I obviously don’t agree.

What really shines here, in my opinion, are the characters. A few of them anyway. Finn is a man who was raised from birth as a soldier, and then on his very first combat mission, he watches his cohorts execute an entire settlement of innocent civilians. He immediately defects and intends to run as far away from the First Order as he can, but is slowly drawn back into the war by the need to protect his only friend. Finn’s character arc over the course of the movie is great; his gradual turn from coward to hero is commendable and earned. Makes me sad that he gets relegated to the boring C-story in The Last Jedi.

Kylo Ren, the antagonist of this film, shows us a completely different side of the Force than we’re used to: one who has given himself to the Dark Side, but struggles to control his impulse to turn back to the light. Han Solo says at one point that “He’s got too much Vader in him”, which is technically true, but Kylo Ren actually has too much Anakin Skywalker in him: he’s got that same burning rage inside and little to no control over it. Unfortunately this does make him come off as a more of a man-child than anything, but I can see what they had intended to do with the character, and I appreciate that they at least put in the effort to make him more than a one-dimensional prequel trilogy villain.

Lastly, we get the grand return of Han and Leia, who have aged and become estranged from each other, but are still doing the things that we’re expecting them to. Han has gone back to a life of smuggling, and Leia is leading the Resistance against the First Order. We know these two already, so this is more of a short catch-up than anything. And short it is: their reunion is sweet, but little is said; really only enough to give us an idea of what they’re up to and how they got there. The audience is left with little more than context to fill in the rest of the blanks. It also shows us another facet of how the Star Wars universe didn’t quite get a happily ever after at the conclusion of Return of the Jedi: while their relationship did work out, they ended up being driven apart by the loss of a child and not knowing how to really deal with it. That was a really unexpected turn for me.

Speaking of which, when I saw this film in the theatre for the first time, I went in completely spoiler-free, leaving me shocked but not surprised at Han’s death. He is this film’s Obi-Wan, after all. And on both viewings I shed a couple tears when Rey and Leia meet at the end, because it’s a powerful scene. And neither of them need to speak a single word to get the point across to the audience. Filmmaking: when it’s done right, it’s so good.

That leaves us with Poe and Rey, as far as main characters go. Sadly to say, they’re not really as well-developed as the rest. Poe is the Resistance’s most capable fighter pilot and… that’s basically it. He’s clearly intended to be a merch-moving hero, but we don’t see him do a whole lot more than fly starships. And Rey, she’s going to go on to be the main character of the rest of the trilogy, but she doesn’t get a lot of meaningful development here. We know that she was abandoned as a child and is living a solitary life as a scavenger on Jakku while waiting for her family to return. Then she’s told that her family’s not coming back but hey good news the Force is real, and suddenly she’s better at it out of nowhere than Luke was after his (admittedly brief) training with two Jedi Masters. I get that she’s resourceful and good with machines because of her previous lifestyle, but she did not earn her Force abilities at all, and it’s definitely a fair point of contention.

But then again, Rey is also so cool. So, split the difference?

The last thing I want to highlight is that lightsaber duel at the end. People like to rag on the prequel trilogy’s lightsaber scenes because they’re too choreographed and look more like a dance or children playing swords than an actual fight to the death. And they’re no wrong. I just watched all three of those movies and I can get on board with that point of view. The Force Awakens, though, does an amazing job with the lightsaber fight. Each swing is hard and is intended to be a killing (or at least dismembering) blow. There’s an actual force to each hit, like those lightsabers have real weight to them. They don’t just fly around every which way as a visual spectacle. Plus I really like that Finn, completely void of Force ability, manages to hold his own against Ren for a while. It goes a long way to show that either Ren’s combat ability is not at the same level of his Force powers, or he’s so overconfident that his fighting is sloppy. Both possibilities add that much more to the character.

So do I still think that The Force Awakens is an excellent movie? For sure! I’ve mentioned before that you know I’m really into a movie when I go the whole thing without a break, falling asleep, or checking how much time is left. I sat through this one from start to finish, completely engaged with what was happening on my TV screen. One time I checked my phone for a little bit because I wanted some more background on the New Republic, but otherwise I was all in. The Force Awakens passed my test with flying colours, and I’ll be glad to watch this one over and over.

As to where it ranks in the saga… I have to let it stew a little longer and my nostalgia gland is giving me the stink eye for even suggesting this, but I think I might actually put it second to The Empire Strikes Back. I don’t know that it’s an all-time classic or anything, but I really did have a great time watching it, and it held up perfectly to my impressions from watching it for the first time. To me, that says a heck of a lot. I also thought The Last Jedi was incredible when I saw it for the first time, but I have a feeling that it’s not going to fare quite as well on the revisit. Tune in tomorrow to find out!

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