Review: Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens

Written immediately after my first time seeing this movie…

I need a second viewing to actually watch it as just a movie. My first viewing was so emotionally charged – and, remembering just how high I was riding after my first time watching Episode I, I don’t trust my response: that this, too, was fun.

First thoughts:

– I’d love to run episodes IV and VII side-by-side, just to see how many beats actually line up.

– I had no doubt JJ would do a great job of balancing the unimaginable (and likely incomporable) cultural, narrative and cinematic demands of this movie. Perhaps at times it leans a little too far into overcompensating for the prequels (from how closely it sticks to Episode IV as its template, to the overload of fan service within a movie that was already once big piece of fan service). One critcism I never thought I’d level at this in favour of the prequels: at least the prequels attempted to introduce things we hadn’t seen before – and, though they failed, ironically in this regard they were truer to the spirit of the original trilogy than this movie.

– easter eggs I noticed first time through: the torture scene included the hovering needle ball from Episode IV; Han Solo was standing in the same spot he called the Force ‘Hokey Religion’ in Ep IV when he told Finn & Rey that it was “true. All of it.” This is pretty heavily telegraphed with the hologram chess game and the lightsabre practise ball. The moment, though, that this really hit me was when Han called out to his son, and confirmed with a cry just how deeply touched he’d been by his encounter with the Force and its people; the first time we hear Kylo Ren’s real name: “Ben.”

– JJ’s meta genius: making the new generation of Star Wars characters fanboys of the original trilogy’s events and characters.

– Kylo Ren: I think Adam Driver is amazing. I’ll watch him in anything; and he’s been the standout in everything I’ve seen him in. Every single muscle twitch in his face conveys volumes. Perfect for this character. This character, though, while potentially really interesting, I suspect stems from one of the biggest character flaws in the prequel movies. In Return of the Jedi, the Emperor is all about the idea that anger and hatred are the way to the dark side. This idea then becomes central to Anakin’s character arc in the prequels, and the foundation upon which all three prequel films are based. The problem with this is: in the original trilogy, Darth Vader never shows anger. He’s characterised not by a short temper, but by a chilling more-machine-than-human lethal efficiency. To me, it’s one of the reasons why the Anakin of the prequels does not match up with the Darth Vader of the original trilogy. I vaguely remember Obi Wan telling Luke, perhaps as far back as A New Hope, that anger and hate are just some of the emotions within the dark side spectrum. Yet from the moment Yoda utters that line in Episode I (“fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate” etc), it seems to have been retconned that anger alone is the path to the dark side – and that that must be how all Sith, particularly Anakin, arrive at it. Perhaps I’m remembering Obi Wan wrong. Regardless: the anger is the thing now, and so it seems that Kylo Ren needs to be angry to be dark(ish). That said: they take it in interesting places, particularly his temper tantrums, which are not only something new in this universe, but help to show just how far short of Darth Vader (though, crucially, not Anakin Skywalker) young Ben Solo falls.

– Rey: I like the idea of this character, but I felt she grew too quickly in confidence and power, and without training or even guidance. Luke took three movies to achieve what she masters in half of one. That’s not so bad in the context of our history with this universe (why stretch out the predictable or inevitable), but not only does this kind of break the rules established by six previous films, I also fear it leaves little room for her to grow beyond this first film (unless she evolves into something we’ve not yet seen in this universe – like a being of pure energy or something – which could be good). At times, I felt Daisy Ridley was too inexperienced an actor – there were moments she didn’t really convey anything to me. She has the physicality for the role, but her scenes opposite Adam Driver highlight just how far she has to go. I hope Rey turns out to not be related to anyone (where did all this child-of stuff come from anyway? Boba Fett did not need a dad, his character was a bounty hunter, not on a vendetta… ugh, ok, I should stay away from prequel commentary here. Or anywhere).

– Finn: charming as I find John Boyega, I think this character’s going to come to annoy me even more than Rey suddenly being the Best Pilot Ever As Well As Everything Else. His goofyness doesn’t seem to make sense, given his trauma and his anti-social upbringing. The same dude who actually says “Droid please!” also gave us the darkest storm trooper image yet – the bloody fingerprints on his helmet – and took part in the darkest scene since Anakin’s child-slaughter in Revenge of the Sith: the film’s opening, which features storm troopers invading, slaughtering and burning an entire, helpless village. To be fair, I’m maybe holding this to a higher critical standard than any of the original trilogy – which I’m sure contain many emotionally-disjointed character beats – but I fear this was one of those “I’ll reserve judgement for now to see where this goes” decisions I made with the prequels: good faith which, sadly, was ultimately neither justified nor made good upon.

Pop Culture Detective explores the implications of the “child soldier” phenomenon Finn introduces to the Star Wars universe – and how those “tragic” implications seem largely overlooked by the film makers.