Just to be clear, I am writing this as a review purely from the perspective of a lifelong Star Wars fan. I was born the year A New Hope was released and grew up with Star Wars. I waited in line for 24 hours just to buy tickets for Episode I in 1999 (and saw it five times on opening day). I collected vintage Star Wars toys. I played the Star Wars card game. I ate Star Wars breakfast cereals. Like many other Star Wars purists, I found myself overwhelmingly disappointed by the special editions and the prequels, but I went to see them nonetheless…and bought the DVD’s. In short, I am a Star Wars fan, and this review is purely from that perspective. So if you are looking for a psychoanalysis of the themes of Light and Dark, or a theology of eastern religion as seen in the Force, this is not the review for you. And lastly, this review is filled with spoilers, and as such this is more for those who have seen the film. If you haven’t seen it and don’t want your first viewing absolutely ruined, then shut this down right now and read no further.
… OK, you have been warned. On to my review.
After a decade of waiting since the last Star Wars film, J. J. Abrams brings us Episode VII: The Force Awakens. This is the first Star Wars film not written and produced by George Lucas, and the first in 32 years not directed by Lucas. Yet Abrams stays true Lucas’ universe throughout and brings Star Wars back to its roots. Overall, Episode VII fits perfectly within the Star Wars universe and delivers generously in every category important to a Star Wars film: epic battles, starships, blasters, lightsabers, droids, and of course the Force.
Surprisingly the overall plot points of Episode VII seem like a collage of rehashed elements common to Episode IV from way back in 1977: a powerful Galactic Empire (the First Order) is ruthlessly oppressing the galaxy with a planet-destroying superweapon (Starkiller Base) while simultaneously skirmishing against a small, overmatched Rebellion (the Resistance), who eventually comes up with a plan to destroy the superweapon with a handful of X-wings. Finally, the primary villain (Kylo Ren) wields terrifying power over the Dark Side of the Force while struggling with an inner pull to the Light in the face of a close familial connection with other main characters. The similarities don’t end here, and more can be said about the unassuming farmer (or scavenger) marooned on a desert planet by unknown parents with a latent, undeveloped penchant for the Force while dreaming of escape and adventure, and finding exactly that after the intervention of a small droid with stolen data (in this case, a map) that holds the key to the Empire’s defeat. Though some may decry this as a boring replay of previously-played plot points, it is better taken as a gracious nod to the authority of the earlier films while also adding significant distinctions along the way. Oddly enough, for me these parallels truly served the film’s own distinctiveness and helped to establish Episode VII as the rightful successor to the original trilogy. It also makes the key differences truly stand out, such as the scintillating introduction of a handful of new characters who will serve as the focus of the new trilogy.
Just as the original trilogy gave us a trio of heroes in Luke, Han, and Leia, Episode VII introduces its own trio with Poe, Finn, and Rey. Oscar Isaac’s Poe is an ace pilot for the Resistance on a mission to deliver the critical “map to Skywalker” to his superiors. John Boyega’s Finn is a disillusioned stromtrooper who decides to abandon his cruel conditioning in a desperate attempt to escape and save his own skin. Daisy Ridley’s Rey is a desert scavenger who pines for scraps to get food and stay alive. Of these three new faces, Finn and Rey enjoy the greatest amount of screen time, and as such their characters are the most well-developed and interesting new additions to the franchise. Rey discovers the inner pull of the Force and learns to use its power and influence at critical moments in the film’s climactic scenes. Her character has the most dramatic arc from introduction to conclusion, and she is set up to be the central heroine throughout the new trilogy, mirroring Luke’s role in the originals (as further evidenced by her taking up Luke’s old lightsaber, and her introduction to Luke in the final scene).
My favorite of the new faces, however, is Finn. His character begins as entirely self-motivated, and he takes actions at others’ expense early in the film only to save his own skin. He becomes enamored with Rey and gradually his motives change as he starts to risk more of his own safety for her sake. Perhaps most appealing is Boyega’s comedic quality, as Finn frequently brings a lighthearted humor to what would otherwise have been a heavy-handed, intense film. In his climactic moment, Finn takes up the lightsaber in defense of Rey and is defeated by Kylo Ren—completing his own arc from self-preserving fear to other-focused courage and bravery.
The classic characters of the original Star Wars films also take a prominent place. The entire plotline is driven by the missing Luke Skywalker, who once more is the “only hope” to save the Resistance from the evil First Order (sound familiar?). General Leia is calling the shots as a leader in the Resistance. Han Solo and Chewbacca are back to their smuggling ways. And even C3PO and R2D2 make brief appearances to round out the original cast. Most prominent in this film, however, is Han Solo, who enjoys the most dramatic character arc of all the original cast.
Han Solo enters the film after scanning (and capturing) his old ship, which is once again forced into operation after several years lost in a desert junkheap (likely serving as a direct parallel to Rey’s character). Harrison Ford brings the same witty swagger and bravado that his character is known for, but this time his traditional role as the skeptic is replaced by that of a now-rare ‘true believer’ in the Force. It is revealed that the primary villain (Kylo Ren) is actually his son, and the anguish of his character over his son’s deeds adds important depth to his portrayal as a rogue smuggler with deep regrets and everything to lose. But this film is truly about the new characters, not the old ones, and though Solo plays an important role as the herald for Rey and the conscience for Ren, he is killed in the end to make way for the heroics of a new generation. Like the demise of Obi-wan in Episode IV or Qui-gon in Episode I, Han’s death does not feel forced or tacked-on, but necessary and central to the plot to drive the other main characters to their moments of self-realization and true potential (ultimately for the good of Rey and for the evil of Ren). Apparently the first episode in every Star Wars trilogy requires the shocking death of a prominent mentor character. Who knew?
Finally, a Star Wars film would be incomplete without a red-lightsaber-wielding villain at the helm of an inhuman galactic army, and Episode VII does not disappoint. Among the villains of the film, the First Order serves as a new emulation of the dreaded Empire. Though its origins are still largely unexplained (wasn’t the Empire defeated?), the power and potential of the First Order are immense. The central figure among the First Order appears to be Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren, who is the son of Han and Leia, and the grandson of Darth Vader. He keeps a shrine to Vader’s melted mask and even seems to ‘pray’ to it on occasion, asking for strength to overcome his inner turmoil and fully embrace the Dark Side. This turmoil presents his most fascinating trait and promises to establish Ren as truly interesting and memorable Star Wars villain on par with Vader himself.
At a critical climactic moment in the film, Ren struggles with the call of the Light and the call of the Dark—between father and grandfather—and is faced with a choice to either abandon his pursuit of Vader and return home with Han, or kill his own father and complete his journey to the Dark Side. Not surprisingly, he chooses the latter and Han meets his end in a shockingly emotional moment, cementing Ren as the primary villain of the new trilogy. The identification of the primary hero of the new trilogy follows shortly thereafter as Finn and Rey face off with Kylo Ren, and Rey takes up the mantle of her Jedi calling and defeats Ren with the aide of the Force (and Luke’s old lightsaber—the one that was sent tumbling into the depths of Cloud City with Luke’s severed hand). What is most intriguing and successful about Kylo Ren is the poignant depth of his character. As distinct from Darth Vader, he is not introduced as a supremely powerful, ruthless Dark Jedi, but rather a youth still learning his craft and struggling with the call of two worlds—the Light and the Dark. He desires the Dark, but can’t fully shake off the good still lingering within him. Even as he slays his father in the climactic moment for his character, the viewer is left wondering if that inner struggle is still within him and will play a critical role in future films.
Apart from Kylo Ren, the other villains of the film are notably lackluster. Andy Serkis’s Supreme Leader Snoke feels more like a poor CGI throwback to the Wizard of Oz, and also a lame copy of Ian McDiarmid’s Emperor Palpatine from the previous films. As such, this character is the one that feels the closest in resemblance to the CGI-dominated prequels, and perhaps this is why this villain is so unsatisfying in the end. Also, Domhnall Gleeson’s General Hux serves as the “Grand Moff Tarkin” of this film, but without the command and gravitas of Peter Cushing. General Hux manages to come across more as a snooty, petulant youth than a ruthless, accomplished general of the First Order. His shining moment is an emotionally-charged speech to his troops where his Hitler-esque hatred and vitriol spews masterfully from his youthful stature, but it is not enough to fully establish him as the cold, calculated villain he aspires to be. He seems more tacked-on than truly necessary in the film, though perhaps his significance will be fully seen as the trilogy progresses.
All in all, I deeply enjoyed this latest addition to the Star Wars saga. Episode VII fits perfectly into the Star Wars sequence and promises to set up what looks to be a new trilogy stuffed with bold action, fascinating characters, and a captivating story.
On an individual note, one of the most surprising realizations after my first viewing is that the change in focus from the characters of the original trilogy to the new faces that will drive these new films appears to have worked on me. As I went in to Episode VII, I was mainly curious about the original characters from the previous films and what has happened to them over the years—they are the ones I most wanted to see. But after the movie, as I now anticipate Episode VIII, I find myself mostly concerned about the new characters, and ready to see what they do next and how the events of Episode VII have changed them—they are the ones I now want to see! Don’t get me wrong, the brief cameo of Luke at the end of the film leaves open the highly likely possibility that he will be a central figure in Episode VIII, and my appetite for Luke’s role in the new saga was not abated in the least by his brief cameo in Episode VII, but there is a whole slate of new characters, and for me they are now fully a part of the Star Wars universe. I can’t wait to see what happens to Rey, Finn, Poe, BB-8, and of course Kylo Ren. They are the heroes of the new Star Wars generation, and J. J. Abrams masterfully managed to turn my eyes to them. It will be up to the next two films to fully develop and conclude each of their stories—something I am now very eager to see. As always, thanks to Star Wars, I can look past the stresses and responsibilities of adulthood for a couple of hours and once more find myself like a little boy gazing eagerly into the future to see what lies ahead in that galaxy far, far away!