Yeah, yeah, I know; this is supposed to be Star Wars EU Reviews and I am reviewing new canon material. The only thing I can say in my defence is that May 25th was the first of the last seven days of the month and it just seemed appropriate to do all seven movies to fill in the rest of May. And, to be honest, I really like The Force Awakens anyway. I must confess to liking both the New Canon and the Expanded Universe. Do I like them both equally? No, but which one I like better is a subject I will get into at a later date. For the time being I am going to review the latest film in the main Star Wars saga.
Since episodes I through VI are universally known by the fans who read these reviews I thought it best to avoid reviewing their respective stories and instead discuss my feelings on the films in general and my overall impressions of them. However, since The Force Awakens is more recent I am going to review it more like I do my comic reviews and go over the plot in more detail. Obviously this means there are going to be spoilers in this review and if you haven’t seen the film yet (which I kinda doubt by this point) it may be best to turn away.
For the rest of you who have seen the film or at the very least those of you who don’t give a womp rat’s butt about spoilers here goes:
The Force Awakens is set 30 years after Return of the Jedi in a galaxy so far away that there are no Yuuzhan Vong around, Chewbacca is still alive, and the Solo family only had one child. And there is not a sign of any Mara Jades, Kyp Durrons, or Jaxxon the Green Rodents to be found. If Disney’s axing Jaxxon from the canon infuriates you then avert your eyes from The Force Awakens.
The story opens with the opening crawl declaring that Luke Skywalker is missing and General Leia, who is leading a Resistance against an evil organisation called The First Order, has dispatched her best pilot Poe Dameron to find him.
On the desert planet, Jakku, Poe Dameron (played by Oscar Isaac) receives from an old man named Lor San Tekka (Max von Sydow of Ingmar Bergman fame) a star map which will reveal the location of Luke Skywalker when combined with additional maps. The other maps are thankfully all stored in R2-D2’s memory banks so the Resistance doesn’t need to go looking for them, but getting this final piece to R2 may be harder than it sounds.
Their meeting is interrupted by a sudden attack of First Order Stormtroopers led by a Dark Side user (he’s not a Sith, remember that) named Kylo Ren (played by Adam Driver). With Kylo is a chrome plated stormtrooper named Captain Phasma (played by Brienne of Tarth herself, Gwendoline Christie).
To prevent the First Order from getting the star map to Skywalker Poe gives it to BB-8, his ball-shaped astromech side kick. He tells the droid to get as far away as possible and find a way to get the map to the Leia.
Lor San Tekka is soon killed and Poe Dameron is captured and taken to Kylo’s Star Destroyer. Kylo Ren orders Captain Phasma to have all the villagers from where Lor San Tekka resided to be executed, but one of the Stormtroopers named FN-2187 (played by John Boyega) is too horrified by the carnage to take action and watches in silence.
Meanwhile, BB-8 wanders the desert when he is nearly captured by a junk dealing alien named Teedo before he is rescued by a young woman named Rey (played by Daisy Ridley). She, who can understand astromech language, reluctantly lets the droid follow her, but resists at first only giving in when the little robot tugs at her heart strings by making wimpering sounds. Why she didn’t want BB-8 following her in the first place is beyond me since the droid took up little space and it wasn’t like she needed to feed it.
Rey lives by herself in an abandoned ruin that was once an AT-AT and she makes a living scavenging parts which she sells to a dealer named Unkar Plutt who gives her meager payment which she spends on food. She has lived on Jakku since she was a little girl and she hopes some day that her family will come back for her. Spoiler: They don’t.
Elsewhere, Poe Dameron is being interrogated and tortured by Kylo Ren until he is forced to reveal the location of the map. When Kylo finds out that the map is located in a BB unit he informs his colleague and rival, General Hux (played by Domhnall Gleeson). While preparations are made to return to Jakku, FN-2187 finds Poe Dameron and busts him out of his cell. FN, whom Poe nicknames Finn, decides he wants nothing to do with the First Order and he defects. But, lacking the training to pilot a TIE Fighter he recruits Poe Dameron to help him.
How a low ranking stormtrooper whose specialty is sanitation knows that there is a high-profile prisoner aboard who is a pilot for the Resistance is beyond me. He was not there when Poe was captured and he was ordered to shoot everyone in the village. Either the First Order is fairly open with their intel or some water cooler gossipers are overdue for a good Force choking.
They steal an X-Wing, but they are almost instantaneously shot down and crash on Jakku. Finn survives, but Poe Dameron is nowhere to be found and Finn assumes his new friend is dead. He treads through the desert until he reaches Niima Outpost where BB-8 and Rey happen to be. BB-8 spots Finn and recognises the jacket he is wearing which he scavenged from the crash. BB-8 tells Rey that that is Poe’s jacket and she charges at Finn with a big stick and knocks him over with it. She demands to know where he got the jacket and he tells her that he is with the Resistance and the jacket belonged to Poe Dameron who gave it to him.
But, before any introductions can be made they get attacked by low flying TIE Fighters hellbent on retrieving BB-8 and the map.
Rey, Finn, and the droid escape inside the Millennium Falcon which just happens to be in the possession of Unkar Plutt and take off. Just moments after going into hyperspace they get caught and are tractor-beamed into a large cargo freighter. The Falcon is then boarded by none other than Han and Chewie themselves who are pleased to have their old ship back. Apparently in the past several years the ship had passed hands from thief to thief and having tracked it down, Han is intent on claiming it back. When Han sees that Rey, Finn, and BB-8 are not the original thieves he decides not to lock them in the brig. And when he learns that the droid is carrying a partial map to Luke Skywalker he tells Rey that years ago Luke had tried to start a Jedi academy, but a young student rebelled, turned to the Dark Side, and destroyed it all. Luke felt responsible and he fled in search of the first Jedi temple. Kylo Ren, the boy who rebelled, who we learn is Han and Leia’s son had worshipped Darth Vader and sought to mimic him. He joined a Dark Side cult called the Knights of Ren and changed his name from Ben Solo to Kylo Ren. Han became devastated over his son’s betrayal and left Leia to return to a life of smuggling. Leia continued leading the Resistance against the First Order which is being led by an evil being called Supreme Leader Snoke (voiced by Andy Serkis of Gollum fame). The origins of Snoke, the First Order, and the Knights of Ren are not elaborated on in this movie and barring reading the new canon material I feel that most of the information that is missing is going to be expanded upon in The Last Jedi.
After Han discusses the state of the Galaxy they are suddenly boarded by pirates who are bent on collecting a bounty on Solo’s head. This goes poorly for the pirates, however, when Rey accidentally opens all the cell doors containing Han’s cargo. The cargo happens to be giant man-eating rathtars which are basically huge tentacled monstrosities that make the dianoga in the trash compactor in A New Hope look like a kitten. While the unfortunate pirates are getting devoured by the rathtars our heroes escape in the Falcon and leave the cargo ship behind.
They head to Takodana to meet a thousand-year old alien woman named Maz Kanata who runs a bar that hosts a variety of unsavoury patrons, but is a good and friendly source for information. Like Lor San Tekka she venerates the Force while not being a Force-sensitive herself. When the main characters arrive she detects Han’s presence almost immediately and shouts his name across the bar. You know, because that is what friends do. They loudly and obnoxiously declare the presence of their friends with bounties on their heads in a seedy bar.
This goes exactly as one would expect and while Maz and Han converse several patrons secretly dispatch messages to the First Order notifying them that BB-8 and by extension the map to Luke are here.
Maz tells Rey that she has the power of the Force within her and that she can use it to fight the First Order. Rey refuses as she still believes her family will come for her on Jakku. She storms off but starts to hear a child crying in the bar’s cellar. She goes down to investigate and finds that the sound is emanating from a wooden trunk in a closet. She opens the trunk and finds inside an old lightsaber. When she grabs it she is suddenly plunged into a Force vision in which she sees her younger self dropped off on Jakku crying for those who abandoned her to come back. This is followed by images of Luke sitting by R2, Kylo killing students at the Jedi academy, and visions of locations such as Bespin. When the vision ends she is accosted by Maz Kanata who tells her to take the lightsaber which once belonged to Anakin and Luke Skywalker. But Rey refuses despite Maz’s pleas that Rey’s future is ahead and not behind on Jakku. Maz tells her she needs to stop waiting for someone who isn’t gonna come back, but Rey doesn’t want to hear it.
I am not sure why Rey is so upset. I would have been relieved persoanlly. If I was in some seedy backwater bar and heard a child crying in the basement my first assumption would not be that it was Force vision.
Rey runs off into the woods and around this time the First Order arrives and attacks Takodana. But before doing so they demonstrate the full power of their new super-weapon, Starkiller Base. This weapon is a planet whose core has been converted into a device that can annihilate several planets at once. With this weapon the entire Hosnian Prime system (It’s not Coruscant so you can stop saying that!) which is the current seat of the New Republic is wiped out.
Han, Chewie, and Finn manage to get out of Maz’s bar and the old woman gives Finn the lightsaber Rey wouldn’t take. Finn who is trained in melee as well as blaster combat proves effective with the blade and takes out several stormtroopers with it (TRAITOR!).
However, in the end Han, Finn, and Chewie are captured by the overwhelming forces and Rey is abducted in the woods by Kylo Ren who takes her to his Star Destroyer; though Han and his gang are soon rescued by the Resistance who fly in with a squadron of TIE Fighters. These are led by Poe Dameron who is alive and well. After the First Order flees a Resistance shuttle lands and out comes General Leia and C-3PO who is sporting a red arm. Don’t ask; the canon explanation is really quite stupid.
After a brief bonding moment Han tells Leia he saw their son carrying Rey away. The heroes all head to the Resistance base on D’Qar and discuss plans to destroy Starkiller Base. Finn who has by now fessed up to being a former Stormtrooper claims that he knows the inner workings of the facility and can help them not only rescue Rey, but also destroy the base. The base is heavily shielded which protects it from attack, but Han and his friends devise a plan to infiltrate the base and plant explosives that would shut down the shielding system.
They take the Falcon to the base and get to the surface of the planet by taking advantage of the shield’s refresh rate. The Falcon has a rough landing but they all make it in one piece. Inside the base they find Rey who had already escaped by herself using a Jedi Mind Trick on one of the guards (fun fact: he’s played Daniel Craig in an uncredited cameo!). After Maz told her she could use the Force Rey apparently decided to try it by using her guard as a test subject.
After Han and Chewie plant the explosives Solo sees his son Ben walking along a catwalk. Han calls out to him and tries to convince him to come home and leave the First Order and the Knights of Ren. Kylo feigns remorse and offers to let his father take his lightsaber. Unfortunately, when Han make a grab for it Kylo Ren ignites it and the blade penetrates through Han Solo’s chest. The wounds are fatal and the last thing Han Solo does before he dies is take his hand and gently touches his son’s face before falling off the catwalk to his death. While I am not the biggest fan of how Han is killed off for reasons I will get into later, I do like this scene as it shows how Han feels about his son. Touching his son affectionately was his way of showing Ben that he forgave him and still loved him at the end. We see Han Solo grow in the Star Wars films from a cynical self-serving scoundrel to a loving father who firmly believed in the good of the Jedi and the Light Side of the Force.
Chewie roars in grief and immediately ignites the bombs effectively shutting down the shielding network for Starkiller Base. The Resistance then attacks and destroys crucial segments of the base causing it to explode and begin falling apart. As the forests of the planet begin to quake and come apart Rey and Finn encounter Kylo Ren for one last time on their way to the Falcon. Finn tries to take him out in lightsaber combat but is easily overcome by Kylo’s superior skills and he is wounded and rendered unconscious. Rey draws upon the Force a second time and Force-pulls the lightsaber to herself. She then fights Kylo Ren in a duel that is both raw and rough demonstrating both of their need for further training. Rey eventually gets the upper hand and slashes upward and strikes her enemy in the face. He survives but is badly injured and she and Chewbacca take Finn back to the Falcon to escape the base that is falling to pieces around them. As they leave Snoke tells General Hux to retrieve Kylo Ren so he can finish his training.
While Chewbacca is aboard the Falcon weeping for his lost friend Rey pilots the Millennium Falcon back to D’Qar. At the base R2 takes the map and adds it to a larger map revealing that Luke Skywalker is on a water planet consisting of small islands called Ahch-To. There Rey takes the Falcon with just herself and R2-D2 and finds the ruins of an old temple. She climbs the steps and after several hours she finds an old man in a Jedi robe standing looking over a cliff. He turns around and looks at her revealing himself to be the long lost Luke Skywalker. Rey opens her pack and takes out his lightsaber. The same lightsaber he lost on Bespin thirty years ago. She holds it out to him with a look that is almost pleading in its intensity and he looks at her with a quizzical and somewhat sad expression as she holds the weapon toward him. Before Luke utters a word the film ends cutting to credits and leaving its audience two years to wait for him to say anything.
Now what did I think of The Force Awakens? Well, I liked it a lot. I think it is a step in the right direction for the Star Wars films which had hitherto degenerated into convoluted plots with little to no character development and an overabundance of CGI and green and blue screen photography. Episode VII uses more practical effects and actual sets, balancing state-of-the-art special effects with old methods that have withstood the test of time.
The story is very reminiscent of the original trilogy and the characters have colour and interesting characteristics unlike the Prequels which tended to ignore the characters in favour of expanding the backstory. Some have complained that The Force Awakens borrowed too heavily from A New Hope and while I can see what they are referring to I never saw it as an issue. The Phantom Menace does the same thing if you really think about it and I think at this point it should be realised that Star Wars is like a musical composition or an epic narrative poem that repeats and rimes themes, motifs, and ideas to form a rhythmic symphony. The echoing and repetition is a part of the natural flow of the narrative.
I do, however, have reservations about Starkiller base. It seems a bit cheap to add another super weapon to the mix. The Death Star II was an unoriginal and unimaginative bit of overkill itself and Starkiller Base is no better. The fact that it is bigger, can destroy more than one planet at a time, and is built inside of a planet is not a major difference to me.
Speaking of Ben Kenobi I find it a bit odd that Han and Leia decided to name their son after him. Leia never knew the man and Han only met him briefly while spending the entire time mocking him for his “hokey religion”. It was Luke who connected with the old man, not Han and Leia. I think the old EU made the smarter choice in having it be Luke who named a child Ben and not Han. They might as well have had Han name his son Owen or something. It just doesn’t make sense.
I also seriously dislike the way Han is killed off. Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with Han Solo’s character dying. Done correctly it would have added a dimension to the story that would have been both meaningful and emotional for the viewers and the characters. But, this is not the case though. There is no real sacrifice and Han seems to achieve no end that benefits his friends. He is simply tricked by a false redemption and killed for it. Han didn’t die saving anyone. He didn’t die doing something that benefited the heroes or the Resistance. He just died. And the revelation that he had not been with Leia at this time also negatively affects the impact this scene could have had. I am not sure why the writers even thought we wanted to see this. Why would they think we, the fans, wanted to find out the love story between Han and Leia fell apart? It would have been better if Han had remained with Leia and stayed with the Resistance. That would have added a stronger meaning to his death and a deeper sense of loss. Han Solo’s death was a missed opportunity and I was disappointed with it.
I am also a bit perturbed by how much use of deus ex machina is in the story. Finn meets Rey and BB-8 by accident because they just happened to be in the same outpost at the time. They steal the Millennium Falcon which just happened to be there. They meet Han and Chewie who just happened to be near enough in the sector to track it. They go to visit Maz who just happens to have Luke’s old lightsaber.
A bunch of pieces fall into place so easily in this movie and I am uncertain if I should just explain it away as the “will of the Force guiding destiny” or lazy writing. Oh wait, this was co-written by the writer and director of Star Trek Into Darkness. OK, so lazy writing it is.
But seriously, for the most part I have had no issues with the story and I found it a welcome addition to the Star Wars saga. I like the characters, new creatures, and space ships; and I like how Kylo Ren contrasts Luke in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. In those films Luke struggled with the temptation to turn to the Dark Side and resisted until he made a final resolution to be a Jedi by tossing his lightsaber aside. Here, Kylo does the opposite. Ben Solo is tempted by the Light Side of the Force and resists its pull. This is a concept we have never seen in Star Wars before and I find it a unique take on an individual’s relationship with the Force. And like Luke he makes a decision to demonstrate his final resolve. In this case, by slaying his own father.
There is another complaint that I have with this film that I also share with Attack of the Clones: The music.
John Williams is a master composer and all of his Star Wars soundtracks are masterpieces. However, some of them are less good than others and Episode II and Episode VII’s soundtracks are sort of the black sheep of the bunch. The music in both of these films are not that memorable and only a few tracks stick out to me.
Also I am not sure if I am the only who noticed this, but the first note that plays when the words STAR WARS appear on the screen doesn’t sound the same way it does in the other six episodes. Listen and compare next time. It’s a little different.
Another thing I have noticed that few others realised is relating to Kylo Ren’s name. When I first heard the announcement that his name was going to be Kylo Ren I was appalled. The reason was because I had watched some of the old 1980’s Droids cartoons when I was a kid and I distinctly remember there being a villain named Kybo Ren. He was a portly, mustache-twirling, midriff-showing pirate who always referred to himself in the third person. In a word, he was ridiculous! The fact that the villain in The Force Awakens is called Kylo Ren cannot be a coincidence and the decision baffles me. That would be like making a movie about a badass action hero and then naming him Dorrest Gump! It’s such an odd thing to do.
If The Force Awakens seems to lack something to the viewer; whether it be the lack of memorable music, unique planets, or a story that expands on the lore in a major way, I understand where you are coming from. I have similar gripes. Episode VII takes too few risks. The planets are mundane and are not much different than anything else we have seen before. The music sounds tame and standard. And the plot feels small and less epic than the last few Star Wars films we have seen. There is a certain characteristic dullness to The Force Awakens’s aesthetic and the more I watch the movie the more I become aware of it. It hasn’t led me to hate the movie or even put it on a par with the Prequels, but I do think it has some lacklustre aspects that did hurt it inevitably.
However, I am truly expecting more from The Last Jedi and I am excited to see where we are taken next in this galaxy far, far away. Despite its imperfections The Force Awakens is a refreshing revival of the Star Wars films and it is an awakening we have all felt. I believe Episode VII is only our first step into a larger world.
Stay tuned Friday for a review of Star Wars Classic Marvel #64: Serphidian Eyes and may the Force be with you.