Movies & TV / Columns

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

July 1, 2016 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard

The following analysis contains opinions of the writer, and is not meant to change anyone’s view of the quality (or lack thereof) of The Force Awakens. While the author enjoys the movie, he also recognizes it is flawed and could have been better.

Continued from Part I.

To briefly sum up last week; Star Wars, as well as its sequels and prequels, has archetypal characters and plots, resembling a classic “fantasy” novel in tone. The story of the original trilogy resonates with audiences because a strong emotional connection is built with the characters. We know who they are, where they come from, what they want, why they want it and what stands in their way. There’s a sense of camaraderie, a feeling that we are on a journey with these people who feel real. The prequels, while failing on many other levels, largely fail because the characters don’t connect with the audience. Characters are the most important part of Star Wars; more important than spaceships, lightsabers, aliens, or even The Force.

So do the characters in The Force Awakens hold the film up?

Humanizing Stormtroopers: Finn
Stormtroopers are one of the most iconic aspects of the original Star Wars, the faceless army that enforces the Galactic Empire’s tyranny. They are so ingrained in the DNA of Star Wars that George Lucas brought them back for the prequels, and it’s only natural that J.J. Abrams would bring them back for the new trilogy. The First Order’s Stormtroopers are a new breed though; they work as a cohesive and driven team, a threat to the heroes whether individually (like FN-2199, the Stormtrooper who battles Finn with an insanely cool weapon) or en masse. If the Stormtroopers of the Empire were supposed to remind the audience of Nazi soldiers, the Stormtroopers of the First Order are meant to remind us of a fanatic terrorist militia; a new threat for a new generation of viewers.

But more than making the Stormtroopers a threat, The Force Awakens succeeded in making them human. We see how one reacts when one of his comrades is killed in combat, we see the fear and the remorse of that trooper as he refuses to follow orders. That Stormtrooper is FN-2187, or as Poe Dameron names him shortly thereafter, Finn. Finn’s character, his inciting incident and defining traits, are shown to us very early, and are presented so effectively that we don’t even need dialogue to understand him. I imagine that the image of Finn’s bloodstained helmet is going to be one of the truly iconic images in the history of the series.

Finn’s character is cut from whole cloth as far as Star Wars films go; someone who was part of the evil side is now on the run. He clearly has a moral compass and the drive to desert The First Order, but he also spends most of the movie in urgent fear of being recaptured. He has two major moments of change; the opening scene where he decides to run from the First Order, and his reaction to Rey being captured by Kylo Ren. Finn realizes that he has people that are worth fighting for, and possibly dying for. He goes from running from his fears to confronting them, even if he’s afraid and perhaps ill-suited to the job.

Finn is vulnerable to his enemies and transparent to the audience. He’s likable, but clearly has weaknesses that he has to work on. He’s funny, but largely because he’s so desperate to not be found out. We get the sense that he’s never had friends or much social interaction at all; he invades personal space, lies poorly about who he is, but ultimately realizes that his friends matter more to him than himself. He’s human, and I don’t think enough people talk about him, considering he’s just as much a part of the story as Rey.

Speaking of which…

Rey and the Trouble with “Action Girls”
The primary theme of Rey’s story is self-discovery, reaching down to discover power she never knew that she had. Rey is independent and supremely capable, but doesn’t really know how to use her power. Though more stone-faced than Finn, she clearly is afraid of doing anything for herself until she’s forced into it. She could fly off of Jakku, but is still waiting for her family. She could take Anakin’s lightsaber and embrace the responsibility that she has, but she is afraid of her power. The dramatic shift comes at the end, where Rey is backed into a corner with no way out, and finds the power within her to escape and eventually fight Kylo Ren. Rey realizes that her new friends are her family, and that her power isn’t something she has to be afraid of.

Yet. There are a few key moments in The Force Awakens that lead me to believe that Rey will be tempted by The Dark Side. She shows a clear aggressive streak when fighting back against Kylo at the end of the film; who knows what would have happened if she had a chance to finish the job? Snoke and Kylo Ren allude to training her, and Luke’s body language at the end of the film definitely has a hint of fear. She has great power, but she’s unrefined, and that’s potentially dangerous. While she’s been a compassionate, humble and generally good person to this point, what will she do now that she realizes (and clearly enjoys) the power her connection to The Force grants her?

Rey as a character is something of a mixed bag for me. I really enjoy her personality; the tough exterior that hides both compassion and abandonment issues, the childlike belief in heroes and the awe she has in meeting them, her frustration with Finn’s lack of tact or mechanical knowledge. Daisy Ridley has natural charisma and shines in scenes where Rey has little dialogue (all the actors are really good, honestly). I personally don’t have a problem with her being supremely capable; after all, I like characters like Superman, Captain America and Indiana Jones. Power fantasy is juvenile, yes, but Star Wars is juvenile.

However, and this is big, Rey very rarely has moments of true peril or vulnerability. There is one very effective scene where Kylo Ren chases her down, freezes her and takes her out, which is terrifying and Ridley really nails the character’s fear in this scene. But I don’t think it’s enough. I’m fine with her being the hero of her own story, but if we don’t feel like she can lose, her story loses a lot of the drama that should be there. To use a comparison, Indiana Jones always solves his own problems, but he takes a beating in the process and always feels like he might die in the process. Rey lacks that vulnerability. It doesn’t feel like she overcomes adversity so much as it feels like she just gets all the cool stuff for free, which makes her somewhat unsympathetic.

I feel like Rey is a good character, but that the script does her a disservice by not allowing her to be vulnerable. Perhaps this is just because of J.J. Abrams; the recent Star Trek movies all have ridiculously capable versions of the original characters (Uhura in particular), so it wouldn’t surprise me if that’s just something he has a preference for. Poe Dameron and Kylo Ren also follow this pattern, possessing superhuman abilities in comparison to Luke, Han, Leia and even Vader. But I think the more real truth is that Rey’s gender plays a big role in her being good at everything.

Film is kind of at a crossroads when it comes to female characters; there is a strong demand for strong female leads. Comic book fans have been demanding a Wonder Woman movie for years, and I still believe that the main reason people flocked to The Hunger Games was to see a woman in a role that is traditionally masculine. Mad Max: Fury Road attracted a female demographic by treating all of its female characters as actual characters, and having the definitive female lead of 2015 in Furiosa. And I applaud The Force Awakens for giving us an Action Girl in the biggest franchise in Hollywood.

That said, I think they were afraid to have her show any weakness, lest militant feminists complain that she is “weak”, and I think that’s a shame. George Miller had the confidence to allow Furiosa to be vulnerable, to be beaten up, to fail at times, which only made her successes more thrilling. The Alien franchise got this right, and Star Wars got it right with Leia, who never comes across as weak even though she’s a prisoner of the Empire or Jabba no less than three times. Even Padmé got beat down in Attack of the Clones. Overcoming weakness enforces strength, and this is true regardless of gender. The Force Awakens does Rey and her fans a disservice by babying her, as if we won’t take her seriously as a “strong female character” if she fails even once. As long as female characters aren’t able to suffer and overcome adversity in the same fashion as their male counterparts, there won’t be true gender equality in action films.

Rey isn’t beyond fixing at this point, but I sure hope that Rian Johnson and his team will be willing to let her be more vulnerable and a little more complex in Episode VIII. Fortunately, I think Rian Johnson is better suited to this type of thing than Abrams, so I’m choosing to remain cautiously optimistic. Rey’s story isn’t over, and I hope that by the time it is, the “Mary Sue” problem won’t be a problem.

Poe Dameron, BB-8 and Maz Kanata: The Unsung Heroes
Really quickly, I want to touch on the new minor heroes. Oscar Isaac is a great, charismatic actor and his performance makes Poe Dameron one of the highlights of the film. Funny, warm, self-assured but not cocky, it’s hard not to like Poe at least a little bit. I happen to like him a lot, seeing him as a more honorable version of Han Solo (with a little bit of Leia). However, Poe is also connected to some of the film’s worst moments; the hastily given explanation for him surviving the TIE fighter crash, and the battle with Starkiller base. Oscar almost manages to make those beats tolerable, which is a feat in and of itself.

If there’s one thing that The Force Awakens got perfectly right, it’s BB-8. The new rolling astromech droid is the right amount of cute, the right amount of useful, and has just enough creativity that he fits in with the Star Wars universe while being a totally new creation. He’s also an incredible achievement in practical effects. I love BB-8, and if I’m being honest, I barely noticed that R2-D2 and C-3PO weren’t around for most of the movie. While I love those characters as well, BB-8 is the perfect droid companion for this new series of films.

Finally, I want to talk about a character who I think is overlooked a lot by fans and critics of this movie. Maz Kanata (brought to life through motion capture and Lupita Nyong’o) is a small alien woman who has been running a cantina for at least 1,000 years, and while not a Jedi, she does show the ability to connect with The Force. She helps guide Rey and Finn along their journeys, pushing them away from their unhealthy fears (Finn’s fear of being captured, Rey’s fear of always being alone) and setting them up for the future. Without a doubt, she is a variation on Yoda (and is actually older than him), a wise old teacher who helps guide the heroes, and it’s no coincidence that she’s also an ancient, small humanoid alien.

But the similarities end here; Maz Kanata is a different beast from Yoda. While the venerated Jedi Master was an authority on The Force from the Jedi’s point of view, Maz is more worldly (galactic-y?), preferring to live in the world to being apart from it. While I like the character of Yoda, I’ve always thought it was George Lucas’ intent for us to know that Yoda’s wisdom is limited by his perspective. Luke doesn’t become a Jedi by following Yoda to the letter, but by forging his own path, mixing his practical experience and personal ideals with the spiritual guidance of his teachers. Maz has helpful advice for life, and encourages Rey and Finn to be friends and look out for each other. Instead of a wise old religious figure, we now have a wise old bartender. Though not in the film for very long, she’s one of my favorite characters and one I look forward to seeing more of in the next film.

To Be Concluded…

Man, I really didn’t expect this to be three columns long. Next week I’ll take a look at how the villains of the film, and at how J.J. Abrams incorporated the original cast in this new movie. And I’ll double up a bit by talking about comics again (finally).