(JD Hancock July 24, 2011)
Editor’s Note: the following in-depth review of the new Star Wars movie contains extensive spoilers.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens is everything that the unwatchable Star Wars Prequel Trilogy could have been but was not.
There is an endless corpus of online literature explaining in excruciating detail the severe problems of plot, character development (or lack thereof), tone, cinematography, structure and script from which the Prequels suffered, with almost no redeeming features of which to speak.
It seems highly likely that Force Awakens director J.J. Abrams was familiar with this damning body of opinion, as every directorial decision he has made feels like a direct response to those arguments, from the emphasis on character rather than special effects to the use of real sets and detailed models rather than computer-generated environments that fail to deceive the eye. The lesson has been learnt that less is more—Abrams has virtually said so in interviews—and this is a wholly good thing.
The non-omnipotent Mr Lucas
It must be said that a chief advantage from which The Force Awakens has benefited has been the absence of creative input by George Lucas. Re-examination of the original Star Wars Trilogy, which has now achieved mythological status in Western culture in a similar way to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, reveals that many of the successes were owed to others involved in the filmmaking process standing up to the then non-omnipotent Lucas to challenge his terrible ideas (such as Luke Skywalker being a robot and C-3PO having the personality of a spiv).
The more clunky and cringeworthy dialogue was strategically cut in the editing process, and the entire series of films takes on a new celestial feel with the epic (in the true sense of the word) score of John Williams. This pattern can be seen in the Indiana Jones series, too: the best sequences of The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull can clearly be attributed to Spielberg’s creative input, while the more eye-rolling ideas such as the presence of aliens (something Spielberg strongly resisted) clearly bear Lucas’ fingerprints.
In a sense, then, the original Star Wars Trilogy was saved from being a bad Flash Gordon-style B-movie imitation, which was Lucas’s original artistic concept, by intervening angelic forces which transformed and transfigured it into something far grander and more powerful.
It is no surprise, then, that Lucas’ story ideas were not taken on by Disney. Here I will make my main criticism of The Force Awakens: the story structure is arguably a carbon-copy of A New Hope. Sure, the events take place after the fall of the Galactic Empire and the triumph of the heroic Rebellion, the planets are (apparently) new planets, we are introduced to fresh protagonists in the form of Rey and Finn, and crucially we have a new super-villain, the tortured and conflicted cult recruit Kylo Ren.
However, the planets of Jakku, Takodana and Starkiller Base (themes: desert, forest, Arctic tundra, respectively) are almost identical to the original Trilogy worlds of Tatooine, Yavin IV and Hoth. A small-town nobody (Rey) must leave her desolate home planet and get a stolen map (as opposed to stolen plans) to the Resistance, after stopping off at a cantina populated by strange aliens, travelling in the Millennium Falcon with Han and Chewie. The Resistance must destroy Starkiller Base, a superweapon larger than the Death Star which annihilates entire planets.
They are successful in blowing up the base, the villains are wounded but not defeated, and hence our heroes have won the battle but not yet the war. Meanwhile, the more important character story plays out whilst the wider space battle is ongoing, as in the final scenes of Return of the Jedi.
Abrams has his reasons for this conservatism. He is attempting to make fans of the original trilogy feel as though they are returning to the galaxy far, far away which they know and love, after a long Babylonian exile in a CGI Prequel universe of forgettable characters, cardboard cut-out heroes, expressionless protagonists, and meaningless, visually exhausting space battles between armies they don’t care about.
Galactic politics are out, and fun adventures in space through exciting and strange worlds are back in, and the Force Awakens universe feels like we are back home. Indeed, the spine-tingling “Chewie, we’re home” line from the tantalising trailer is clearly intended to be pregnant and multi-layered: as well as loveable characters from the originals returning to our screens, we have also been returned home to the real Star Wars universe following horrible let-down after horrible let-down.
However, the sense of nostalgia that Abrams is aiming for does lead to a certain lack of creativity, and critics who say that the structure and storyline are too derivative from A New Hope do have a point. Lucas is much ridiculed for his insertion of unnecessary signposts and call-backs to the originals in his Prequel Trilogy (“It’s like poetry: they rhyme”), but Abrams is not entirely innocent of this either.
Character development 101
The real strength of The Force Awakens lies in its focus on character development and on the stories of those individual characters. The space politics of the Prequels did not resonate as there were no characters that we cared about who were affected personally by those events; for example, there is a war raging during Episode III, but we see no impact of this on the home planet of our supposed protagonists.
In The Force Awakens, in contrast, Rey, our heroine, has a sequence of Thomas Hardy-esque coincidences occur to her, leading to her being introduced to our beloved original heroes Han Solo, Chewbacca and Princess (now General) Leia. She leaves a tedious existence on her backwater home world and is swept up into events that are bigger and wider than her previous horizons.
Her accomplice, the new character of Finn, is conscripted by the fascistic First Order as a child and forced to commit atrocities but feels a pang of conscience in the heat of battle and decides to escape and side with the good guys, and we follow his and Rey’s friendship as it evolves and develops through adversity (compare this with Obi-Wan and Anakin discussing past adventures that we do not get to see in an elevator in Episode II).
When Finn is injured towards the end of the film, we experience relief when it is revealed that he will live, and we experience this through the relief of Rey. We are not simply told that Rey and Finn are friends; we see them become friends. Abrams understands the basic requirement of screenwriting for a protagonist whom the audience follows, usually from a life outside the major plot events to a life within them.
Exposition occurs by means of other characters explaining things to Rey, and hence to the audience. Basic rules of “show, don’t tell” are obeyed. Creative Writing for Beginners has been attended by the writers, and thus already The Force Awakens trumps the Prequels.
Return of the old cast
Recruiting the original cast members Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill was always going to be risky, as The Force Awakens stood every chance of becoming the slower adventures of characters who used to be cool but now are long past it. Thankfully, Abrams has evaded this pitfall, and we are spared excruciating scenes of Harrison Ford being awkwardly cut with a stunt double while he takes on enemies far beyond his physical capacity.
Rather, Ford and Fisher provide a link to the past so that the conflicts of Episodes IV-VI and Episode VII have continuity and flow—this is the same universe with the same characters facing the same challenges. The characters are not over-used and form a background cast to the introduction of new, likeable characters with whom we sympathize.
The dramatis personae does not feel overcrowded, and Finn and Rey feel like characters that audiences will actually become invested in, rather than simply being irritating and less good versions of Han, Luke and Leia. On the subject of characters the fate of Han Solo must be mentioned: when Solo is horrifically murdered by his son, the now fallen Ben Solo (aka Kylo Ren), I recoiled in rejection and disgust in the movie theatre.
However, I quickly came around to this sad and terrible wrench. Ford wanted the character of Han Solo to be killed in Return of the Jedi in order to “give it some bottom”, raise the stakes, and make the ending less unequivocally happy, and was turned down by Lucas. He has now got his wish.
Additionally, Ford would have been VERY old by the time Episode IX is released, and this may have become ridiculous. Finally, the loss of this beloved character, to whom the audience has had just enough time to become re-attached (he features much more in The Force Awakens than Luke or Leia), elevates the evil of the First Order to a new level, and makes the audience feel true sadness, true bitterness, and a true desire to see these fanatics overthrown.
Villains have to do villainous things to people we love in order for there to be real consequences to conflicts, and Abrams has achieved this in the controversial Solo patricide.
A new antagonist
Kylo Ren is one of the most important developments in the Force Awakens universe. Without the presence of arch-villain Darth Vader a new antagonist is needed, and he cannot simply have been a less impressive, less threatening version of Vader, or else the story would have fallen flat. Instead, he is something different.
Some may have raised their eyebrows at the plot reveal of Ren being Han and Leia’s son, but the Star Wars universe has always followed families through the generations, and in this respect there is no real difference between this and the conventions of Greek tragedy.
Family ties are important and make the audience care much more about what happens to the characters. Kylo Ren has been seduced by the Dark Side of the Force, following his grandfather to the ways of evil. Given Anakin Skywalker’s inner darkness it seems unsurprising that Leia’s son would experience the same temptations.
He has been in a sense radicalized by the fanatical First Order, who seek to restore the authoritarian Imperial regime and overthrow the weak Republic. Rejecting his old name in favour of a new pseudonym, adopting violent and totalitarian values, turning against his family, and stalking around the place in dark robes and a mask, there is something of the Jihadi John about Kylo Ren.
It’s unclear as to whether Abrams intended Ren’s story to reflect the tragic theme of radicalization; if so, there is something frustrating about this, as the themes of Star Wars should really transcend the political concerns of one era and rather reflect the fundamental truths and conflicts of the human condition. However, it can be argued that radicalization and son turning against father is not a peculiarity of our age and does in fact reflect universal themes.
Kylo Ren is flawed, experiences weakness and frustration, and has temper tantrums that show he is not fully in control. In this sense he is a different beast from the serenely dark and evil Vader; he is a different character entirely and hence an interesting villain who is both pitiable and detestable at the same time.
The themes of the Dark Side and the Light are explored a little, but are clearly set up for greater development in later films. One of the features of the originals that captured the imagination was the spiritual dualism of the Force, a mystical power that binds and governs the universe which can be manipulated by those sensitive to it for either good or evil. The serene, monastic, contemplative and selfless Jedi seek to resist the temptations of the Dark Side, which makes use of human anger, hatred and weakness in order to bestow retributive power that leads to the domination of others.
Comparisons with Buddhism, Taoism and even Zoroastrianism have been made, but it is very clear that many of the themes reflect Christian theological ideas, too. Revenge is embraced as natural by the practitioners of the Dark Side (called “Sith” in the Prequels), but is rejected as destructive by the holier Jedi. Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda, both great spiritual masters, urge Luke in the originals not to give in to hate and to exercise patience, self-restraint, discipline and tolerance of others.
Eventually Luke, Christ-like, refuses to give in to the Satanic temptations of the Emperor who, like Milton’s serpent, tries to get inside Luke’s head and exploit his weaknesses, including his love for his friends, in order to turn him to evil. The Emperor has no palpable goals other than increasing his own power and bringing human misery, and thus embodies an undiluted form of wickedness.
Luke accepts death willingly rather than be turned (although he is eventually spared by his father), and Vader experiences a deathbed conversion away from evil, and is thus restored to the Light Side, joining Obi-Wan and Yoda on the post-death plane of existence that is for those at one with the Force.
These moral themes chime with our innermost feelings, desires and impulses; we experience on a daily basis the trials and conflicts to which Luke is exposed, and hence he comes close to being something of an Everyman.
This is why Luke, and not Han Solo, will always be the hero and protagonist of Star Wars. It is also why Lucas is wrong to say that Star Wars is the story of Darth Vader’s fall and redemption; these are important events, but Star Wars is really about Luke’s journey (of faith, if you will), and his saving of his father.
Star Wars is not really about intra-galactic wars and space ships, but about human characters, families, and transcendent themes of good and evil, love and hatred, corruption and salvation. Through the strange worlds that he encounters and the conflicts he experiences, Luke discovers what is really important.
Star Wars renewed
Abrams has captured something of this original and inspired insight in The Force Awakens. If anything, more could have been made of the Kylo Ren character’s internal conflicts; he is the anti-Luke Skywalker, and so we need to learn as much about him as we did about his uncle. However, the characters of the original Trilogy were not fully developed until The Empire Strikes Back (Episode V), and Abrams has set up the character for greater development in Episode VIII.
Rey has just begun to learn about the Force and succeeded in using it for the first time, much like Luke in A New Hope; although original audiences already know much about the Force, Rey does not, and new audiences will, with her, rediscover it anew. As such The Force Awakens is not only a continuation but a renewal, and I have every faith that the universal themes that made the originals so wonderful will be played out again with new insights in the remainder of this trilogy.
The story is not a new one, the film continues to follow the Skywalker and Solo families, and Darth Vader’s iconic mask has even been essentially redesigned for use by our new villain. Furthermore, the ideals of our heroes and villains (freedom, loyalty, duty and humanity on the one hand, and power, hatred, domination, violence and anger on the other) are identical to those found in Episodes IV-VI; this is because we are in the same universe, both in terms of plot and in terms of tone, feel, emotion and theme, as that in which our original heroes battled against evil.
Tragedy continues to occur, for much the same reason that it always occurs—human failure, temptation, and the eternal conflict between the forces of good and evil—and therefore there is a certain familiarity, even predictability, about the new Star Wars. This is because the human condition is indeed familiar to us, and good and evil, although unpopular terms in the present relativistic age, are deep down concepts that we cannot help but recognize when we see them, even in a culture hostile to transcendent morality.
This is why Star Wars is indeed a mythos, along with Homer, the Arthurian legends, and the stories of Middle-earth. The Force Awakens understands this human need for mythology, while continuing and refreshing this tradition, and this is why it is ultimately a success.