Movies & TV / Columns

Star Wars: The Force Awakens Six Months Later (Part 3)

July 8, 2016 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard
Star Wars: The Force Awakens - Millennium Falcon

Continued from Part 1 and Part 2, and concluded today. Part 1 takes a look at the history of the Star Wars franchise and J.J. Abrams’ directing style, while Part 2 takes a look at Finn and Rey.

Shadows of the Past: Living with Legacy

As part of probably the most culturally impacting movie series of all time, The Force Awakens can’t help but have a meta-narrative surrounding it. The original trilogy of films and its concepts and characters is imbedded into the collective pop culture that it’s almost impossible not to know a few things about Star Wars even if you’ve never actually seen any of them. That’s one hell of a legacy to live up to, especially when the subsequent prequel trilogy failed so spectacularly. So not only does The Force Awakens have to deal with an older brother that accomplished more than can be reasonably expected from any movie franchise, it also has to live with a disappointing middle child and try to restore some honor to the family name.

That’s a tough task for any movie. And yet, somehow one of the most endearing things about The Force Awakens (for me anyway) is how it turns the meta-narrative of the film into the actual narrative of the film. The reason that Luke Skywalker appears at the end and Darth Vader’s helmet shows up and Han Solo and Chewbacca are main recurring characters is simple. J.J. Abrams, Disney, and everyone involved with this film knows one simple fact; there would be no desire for anyone to see a new Star Wars film if the goodwill of the original movies wasn’t so strong that it left an impact that has lasted for close to four decades now. So the reason all of our favorites (except Lando?) show up to assure us all that “Yes, this really is Star Wars the way you remember it, everything is going to be okay, sit back and enjoy the ride.”

But it also creates a rather interesting theme for the film; Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia and Darth Vader are legendary characters to the audience, but they are also legendary to the characters of The Force Awakens. Luke Skywalker is the last Jedi and everyone wants to find him, Leia is a general who protects the new Republic, Han Solo’s reputation precedes him. Is it too meta? I don’t really think so. When people save the galaxy from tyranny, people are going to hear about it, and those stories are going to grow and change, and instead of being entirely factual, they are going to become legendary. Perhaps even mythic, difficult to believe. I mean, if you were a little child stuck in a desert with no family, you’d love the idea of a magic old man who saved the galaxy from oppression with his glowing sword, but you probably wouldn’t believe in him.

The original Star Wars films always had a mythical quality to them; the Jedi were knights, they fought in the presumably epic Clone War, the Force was this thing that existed and bound the galaxy together but we could never really understand it. But this film takes the mythology factor and dials it up. The Force is more of a spiritual concept again, with Rey realizing the power inside of herself than because some old guy taught her magic tricks. The very last scene of the movie deliberately invokes a religious experience, with someone making a difficult climb on a remote island to see the wise teacher. The implicit notion here is that while the new characters have their own stories to tell, they are tied to the originals and are also continuing their story, making sure that new audiences will keep talking about them in the future.

Most of the original characters are background characters: Luke appears for less than a minute and says nothing, R2-D2 has one scene of consequence, C-3PO… exists, I guess? I think I mentioned last time that BB-8 is so perfect in his role that I really didn’t notice the original droids were gone until they showed up on screen. Leia has a meatier role as the general, and I enjoyed seeing Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford bring those characters back to life again. Their chemistry was still there (helping to carry some of the film’s poorest dialogue), and I am looking forward to seeing Leia in Episode VIII, where she can hopefully interact with Luke again as well as Kylo Ren. After all, they must have left her alive for a reason.

Going Out in Style: Han Solo

While Luke and Leia don’t get enough credit for being great characters, I don’t think it’s controversial to say that the favorite hero of a good majority of Star Wars fans is Han Solo. Harrison Ford’s scruffy lookin’ nerf herder is every bit as iconic as Darth Vader and Yoda. And with all due respect to the writers who continued Han Solo’s story in Expanded Universe books, it was never going to be the same as seeing Ford playing Han. Seeing that actor play that character again was magic. He was older, he was wiser, but he was still Han. And unlike Return of the Jedi, he actually felt like he had a vital role to play, and a logical conclusion to his story. While the execution of Han’s final scene was a bit iffy, Ford’s performance was excellent and he’s consistently one of the most entertaining aspects of the movie. I also found that this movie really utilized Chewbacca well, and I came out of it liking him more than I ever did.

But this is important; while The Force Awakens uses the original cast, they are in the movie to pass the torch to the new generation. And at least one of them took it by force.

Kylo Ren: The New Face of Evil

Nobody was ever going to live up to Darth Vader. It was very smart of everyone involved to make this the defining character trait of our new villain. Kylo Ren is the son of Han and Leia, the grandson of Darth Vader, and feels torn between the light and dark sides of the Force. He’s my favorite new character by a wide margin, and while I respect anyone who finds him annoying or ineffectual, I will also respectfully disagree. I find Kylo Ren to be about as fully fleshed out as a villain can be in a two hour movie. We know where he comes from, where he wants to go, and what’s standing in his way. He’s powerful and intimidating, but also human and vulnerable.

I loved Kylo Ren before I even got into theaters, and it’s because of genius costume and prop design. There was a big hullabaloo about the crossguards on his lightsaber, but I was more apprehensive about the frenetic quality of the beam than anything. Was that just how lightsabers were going to look? Thankfully, no. This means that Kylo’s saber was unique to him; unstable, poorly constructed, and radical in its design. Kylo’s mask is obviously an homage to Darth Vader’s mask (and possibly Darth Revan, at least in real life), but it also gets across the idea that 1) Kylo is hiding something, and 2) has an obsession with collecting Sith artifacts. His clothes emulate a Dark Jedi, but if you compare the outfit to say, Darth Maul’s neat and tidy robe, it looks more like bad cosplay of a Sith Lord than an actual Sith Lord.

Huh, it’s almost like they were trying to give us a ton of information about who this character is. Frankly, I love the idea of a young would-be-villain who hasn’t quite come into his own yet; watching him grow should be a highlight of the sequels.

Kylo Ren also serves as an interesting contrast to Rey; both are very powerful, unrefined pieces of coal that are going to be the next diamonds. But Kylo knows where he came from. Instead of waiting for people to arrive, he already has people around him and chooses to actively break those ties. Rey is just learning about her force abilities, while Kylo has had instruction from Luke Skywalker and Snoke. Interestingly, Rey seems to have immediate success, while Kylo, for all his hard work, sees his plans fall apart around him. It’s an interesting dichotomy, and one I look forward to exploring in the future.

Unfortunately, while I love Kylo Ren, I think that his fellow villains leave quite a bit to be desired. I love the First Order’s stormtroopers, who are threatening and effective, but felt incredibly let down by Captain Phasma and Supreme Leader Snoke. Phasma is sadly little more than a cool costume (and Christie’s own imposing presence), and Snoke is probably the worst thing about the movie. I hate the way he looks and I hate his vocal inflections. General Hux is fun, and I like that he’s not intimidated by Kylo Ren, but I feel like one-out-of-three isn’t a good batting average for these secondary villains.

Final Thoughts

The Force Awakens is flawed. Sometimes it’s little things like bad dialogue or minor characters misfiring. Sometimes it’s big things like Starkiller Base or Rey’s seeming inability to fail at anything. It pays tribute to the original films, but too often references the old to the detriment of the new.

But, ultimately, I still think it’s a good movie. Not great, but good. The actors elevate their largely likable characters, practical and CGI effects blend to bring the world to life, and the script brings humor, camaraderie and drama when it needs to bring them. Most importantly, it has the sense of getting swept up into something bigger, a grand adventure with epic states and a Force that we can’t understand.

It doesn’t succeed on every level, but it succeeded on the two most important things: I enjoy watching it over and over, and I want to see the sequel. The new characters are already established and it’s got a better director in Rian Johnson (Looper and a few key Breaking Bad episodes) who will hopefully have the confidence to let his work stand on its own instead of relying on the legacy of the original films. In my opinion, Episode VIII will determine whether The Force Awakens was just a fun nostalgia trip, or vindicate it as the start of something special in its own right.