'The Force Awakens': My Initial Examination

This review contains spoilers. Reading beyond this paragraph means you’ve either seen the movie and care to read insights into the plot of The Force Awakens, or you simply want to ruin a possibly phenomenal movie-going experience for yourself. You’ve been warned.

“This will begin to make things right.” - Lor San Tekka

At 7PM on December 17, 2015 I watched Star Wars: The Force Awakens on a giant screen from the front section of seats. From there, with my neck craned upwards, I witnessed the first theatrical opening crawl since 2005. My heart, along with those of a hundred-or-so others in that theater, leapt and filled with joy. Collectively, with bated breath, we began.


Luke Skywalker has vanished. In his absence, the sinister FIRST ORDER has risen from the ashes of the Empire and will not rest until Skywalker, the last Jedi, has been destroyed.

With the support of the REPUBLIC, General Leia Organa leads a brave RESISTANCE. She is desperate to find her brother Luke and gain his help in restoring peace and justice to the galaxy.

Leia has sent her most daring pilot on a secret mission to Jakku, where an old ally has discovered a clue to Luke’s whereabouts….

As the crawl faded away, stars spun past revealing a massive Star Destroyer with several transport ships departing as silhouettes across the atmospheric glow of the planet below, Jakku. Inside those ships: First Order Stormtroopers ready for action. On the ground of the desert planet: Poe Dameron and his rolling astromech BB–8.

It’s poetic that the beginning of The First Order’s sweep for control begins at the place where The Empire was struck its final blow. The Battle of Jakku was an assault on the Galactic Empire’s largest remaining weapons factory, which resulted in defeat for the dying order. The battle was canonized in Claudia Gray’s Lost Stars and mapped out as a playable level in Battlefront. The aftermath of that bold battle is told in The Force Awakens.

As BB–8 keeps watch on the outskirts of a small Jakku village, Poe Dameron meets with Lor San Tekka, who is played by silver screen legend Max von Sydow. In a dramatic twist of casting speculation, Sydow subverts the preconceived expectation that he is a First Order officer in exchange for a role in the Church of The Force. Not much was told about Lor San Tekka in the movie. As an old ally, his role in the plot was to divulge his knowledge of Luke Skywalker’s whereabouts by way of a map fragment. This was given to Dameron, who bestowed it upon his droid as the First Order arrived to claim the map for their own.

Exposition of the story following Return of the Jedi is laced throughout The Force Awakens, interspersed with character-building and plot movement. J.J. Abrams did well in balancing those three sections, which made up the foundation of the movie. The result was a solid base from which to build the new trilogy. Nostalgia, excitement, and intrigue spring from the story in waves of quality story-telling, writing, and production. As a whole, The Force Awakens was a brilliant success and met any expectation that I had in the years preceding its release.

In comparison to Star Wars trilogies past, The Force Awakens gave us a far more intimate introduction to our new lead characters. This film allowed Poe, Finn, and Rey plenty of solo screen time before their worlds collided, unlike the action-driven characterization of Han and Leia along Luke’s journey or Obi Wan and Padme’s in the life of young Anakin. This was a masterstroke of writing and directorial execution. The most widely bemoaned aspect of the prequels was the sheer lack of personality in the central characters. The individuality and humor each role delivered to the screen was central to the lasting popularity of the original trilogy and the crushing pitfall of the prequels. Abrams and Kasdan must have known this as well. Giving Poe, Finn, and Rey time to show off the reality of their lives made it incredibly easy to relate and grow attached to each of them early on.

It’s natural to attempt a quick typecast in a franchise such as Star Wars, especially when the new film draws so many plot point comparisons to the films that started it all. It’s not that easy, though. While Poe Dameron may have the looks, talent, and charisma of the Han Solo of yore, he’s not the same pilot. Skilled yes, but lightyears beyond Solo in the spirit department. Sure, he can crack wise in the face of near-certain doom, but the heart of Poe Dameron isn’t in his quips—delightful though they are—it’s in his commitment to the Resistance and the end of the First Order’s fascist regime.

Finn is a fascinating character for a plethora of reasons. Apart from knowing that he was a toilet-scrubbing stormtrooper before going AWOL on the First Order, he’s a blank slate. There are moments where questionably inherited gender roles take over his actions [1], but wholly he’s a newborn babe in a much messier world than he is used to. Although the story of The Force Awakens is objectively Rey’s, Finn coming into himself while running from the only thing he knew makes for a fantastic story—a new one and a brave one. What I will find most interesting as Finn’s story continues is where he will find his place in the world. Will he continue to run, or will he dedicate his life to the Resistance’s cause? My bet is that he sticks around—if not just for the girl.

Ah, Rey… The true star of the show and the biggest mystery hanging in the air outside of your local cinema this December. Of all the character exposition in this movie, Rey’s is far and away my favorite. Pulling us immediately into her world—or more specifically a fallen star destroyer—gives us an immediate sense of her resourcefulness, savvy, and current purpose. Rey is a scavenger looking for scraps, but waiting on something more—her family.

The question we all want answers to is exactly who Rey is. Her name, her heritage, and the possibility of her powers burn in my brain. That’s a post-TFA thought. It took a full movie to prepare me for those questions and rightly so. Rey is complex beyond her years. She’s essentially a hermit scrapping by at the mercy of her ration portioning junk dealer. The way her first several shots show just how much she wants to leave and explore is subtle and beautifully done. Daisy Ridley’s character is precisely the protagonist the world needs.

If there is one Jedi I care for less than Attack of the Clones-era Anakin, it’s is his grandson Ben Solo or, as he chooses to be addressed, Kylo Ren. While Anakin had true demons plaguing his dreams and a sinister senator warping his waking mind, eventually turning him to the Dark Side, Kylo Ren is a temper tantrum throwing poser—a childish wanna-be. Our new villain is portrayed excellently by Adam Driver, but with his backstory summarized so well in the first of this trilogy, there is no mystery left to excite or interest me much. My desire for information lies more with his new teacher, Supreme Leader Snoke, than his motivations to fulfill his grandfather’s destiny or collect relics of his family’s dark past. Futhermore, where are the force ghosts Luke has been in contact with since Endor? Did Anakin not return alongside his former master Obi-Wan as a redeemed Jedi, readily available to clarify the state of things to his budding Jedi grandson? I’m not optimistic at any conceivable idea of how young Ben could become so misguided apart from some true acts of deceit from Snoke, the shadowy figure behind the resurrected Imperial movement.

These early vignettes show a level of character building that we’ve not seen in a Star Wars film before. I found this not only welcome, but crucial to how I felt watching any further. Similar sentiments can be said for our returning cast, which played vital roles in the story—a pleasant surprise. While Han Solo’s strenuous activity and bountiful screen-time nearly spoiled his on-screen demise, a guess in that direction wouldn’t have been out of the question before the Lucasfilm logo ever returned to the big screen. This was bound to be the end of Han Solo and by golly, they squeezed every bit that they could out of Harrison Ford’s last ride. Flipping his outlook on the Force from Star Wars to The Force Awakens was inspired. Once a scrappy smuggler with no belief in something beyond himself or a case full of credits, Han Solo became the old man he dismissed 30-odd years ago; our new Obi-Wan. He even met his end at the hand of his first pupil on a gigantic weapon determined to destroy the ones he cared about most. Again, the parallels between the tried and true are given new life in Disney’s continuation of the saga.

Leia, no longer a princess but a general in the Resistance, continues her role as a military leader and ace tactician. It’s wonderful to see that her character was taken along the path set out by her traits and abilities, rather than a predetermined life in the New Republic as a senator or posh New Republic royality. Even through personal strife, her resolve holds fast to destroy oppression in the galaxy. It’s wonderful to see realism trump idealism in character building, especially in a character that has been established for so long.

Minor reoccurring characters like C–3PO, R2-D2, and Chewbacca provide nostalgic levity and newfound shocks of despair throughout the story. More heartbreaking than Han and Leia’s ubiquitous woes are the immediate cries of a heart-torn Chewie on Starkiller Base as he watches his partner fall to the abyss below. And although I dislike the convenience of R2-D2’s sudden awakening and delivery of the map they needed the whole time, I again felt a pang of sadness when 3-PO explained to BB–8 the older astromech’s lasting grief left by it’s abandonment by master Luke. Who said robots can’t feel?

Rounding out the cast are some contrasting characters, light and dark. Captain Phasma wasn’t a disappointment, her role was. Including high-ranking female officers on the opposing team is a growing trend in canonical Star Wars media, and Phasma looked to be the most impressive of them all. Alas, I don’t expect we will see the true nature of her character until Episode VIII, providing she survived the trash compactor and subsequent destruction of her battle-station after bringing down the base’s shields amidst an attack. This was a surprising show of weakness. General Hux, on the other hand, is a commanding presence to his troops and an unlikely opponent to Kylo Ren, seeks dominance at all costs. He is a true embodiment of the First Order—young, but strong. His failure at Starkiller base didn’t seem to phase Supreme Leader Snoke, whose colossal hologram created an imposing effect on the story. This leads me to believe there is something bigger than a galactic power struggle at play, an unexpected evil resting in the dark. Perhaps Snoke is simply using the First Order as leverage to lure Luke out of hiding. Maybe the inverse is true and the intention is to hide Luke away forever. That would certainly make training Kylo Ren an easier task. In any case, his apparent ancient presence and knowledge of the Dark Side is mysterious and intimidating—prime theory fodder. Maz Kanata is the flip side of this coin, ambiguously old and wise enough to back it up. I thoroughly enjoyed Lupita Nyongo’s performance as the lighthearted cantina proprietor. Thus far, Maz serves as a plot device—a means to fill in the blanks explicitly in order to move the story along. I foresee this continuing as she may very well have the most to say on the aged powers lurking behind the scenes.

There’s a lot we only know a little about. The Knights of Ren, Lor San Tekka’s Church Of The Force, what exactly happened at the new Jedi Academy, Luke’s meditation and intentions to return—or to train another Jedi. What we are more familiar with is the overarching parallels to Star Wars, the film that started it all and has been the focal point of comparison for every movie since. It’s almost clever, in a way, that J.J. Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan tucked so much of that movie away in their new one. From one angle, familiar plot points induce abundant nostalgia. From another, they spell out “reboot” in nasty scarlet letters. Either way, they successfully protected their work from those menacing fanatics that would tear a film such as this apart for the story by echoing the one everyone invested in this universe unanimously loves. Cheeky. Personally, I find the familiarities welcome and abundantly necessary. In order to move the fanbase forward with the plot while picking up a new generation along the way, there has to be a balance of the old things we love and the new things we will love. The Force Awakens did a bang-up job of that. The lines between reference and plot theft are blurred, but make for a familiar and compelling narrative—all done with keeping things fresh with new techniques and magnificent camera work.

Establishing shots play a vital role in Star Wars history. Abrams played with methods used in the original trilogy and made them bigger, more grand and impressive. One of the finest shots in the movie made it into the first trailer. Rey speeding along the desert landscape of Jakku brings remnants of the pivotal battle that took place there 3 decades before slowly into view. That vast expanse of sand and wreckage was mirrored in contrast with closeup shots of the First Order cruisers hovering just above the planet, taking up the entirety of the shot—echoing the power and present danger carried by the reformed Empire.

Pretty shots don’t make up the entire movie, however. There were a number of scenes that went on a beat too long. Both involved Rey and a number of exchanged glances. The first between Rey and Kylo Ren in the interrogation chamber. The point of this scene was for Rey’s Force powers to awaken, if only to the audience. Still, the exchange felt forced after the third shot of a sweaty Kylo Ren struggling to extract the information passed on screen. The second instance of this is perhaps the least forgivable because of it’s place in the film—the end. Surely The Force Awakens could have ended with Luke simply turning around to face Rey. The effect would remain the same. The questions rattling in the audience’s brain would not have differed in the slightest once credits rolled. “Who is Rey? Does she recognize Luke? Does Luke recognize her?” This, paired with a helicopter shot that John Siracusa vehemently despises, doesn’t ruin the film, but does make for an off-putting cliffhanger—something Star Wars hasn’t done successfully since Han went into Carbon at the end of Empire.

Going in, I hoped then what I know now—that Star Wars has returned in a satisfying and exciting way. [2] It pleases me to know that there will be a new Star Wars movie every year for the foreseeable future and possibly the rest of my life. What terrifies me now is that there will very likely be Star Wars movies that arrive after I’m long gone—Star Wars movies I’ll never see… Until then, I’m going to enjoy them. Some might be pretty bad. Others will be really great. So far, Disney is nailing it. The Force Awakens is a fun and exciting adventure that felt true to the universe and to its fans. I don’t think I could have possibly asked for more.

If Finn was brought up by the First Order after being taken as a small boy, why does he think women need saving in such a way that he ran towards Rey in the Jakku junk market? Did Phasma teach a class on chivalry at the academy? I doubt it.

Exciting enough that I caught the movie twice that Thursday opening night.