Do not read this if you have not seen the film. I will be freely mentioning plot points, surprises and other things which are widely and rightly considered to be major spoilers and I don’t want you blaming me for it when I put this warning right at the top.
You heard me, person at the back who hasn’t seen the film yet. Go on. Out with you.
Right. Let’s get on with the spoilers – but first a disclaimer. This is all my opinion, and you’re free to disagree with it. I do not necessarily represent the views of any other Bureau 42 author.
This film has been described as the Star Wars film that the fans of the original trilogy really wanted to be made. I’d say that’s an accurate assessment. It feels like the original trilogy, not like the prequels. Yes it’s thirty years later, but they haven’t, as we quickly discover, been peaceful years by any means.
The other reason why it feels like the original trilogy of course is because it parallels A New Hope so strongly. I don’t believe that’s a bad thing. Back in that film, Star Wars itself had to be established, along with a hero in the form of Luke, a number of allies, and of course a suitably dastardly villain to defeat – and the death of a wise mentor. It’s the hero’s journey, with some extra parallels because we see a plucky little droid who can’t speak Basic carrying the vital data, a giant superweapon which the good guys need to destroy, and the destruction of a planet. The reasons and links between these things may be different, and there’s a very knowing echo of Return of the Jedi in Han, Chewie and Finn going to Starkiller Base to take down the shields before the Resistance’s X-wings arrive, but fundamentally the plot is the same.
So of course they decide to throw us a curveball and give us two brand new shiny heroes for this film.
Rey has to be the most interesting character to talk about. After all the trailers and posters everyone was quite sure that Finn was going to desert from the First Order and become a Jedi. I’m extremely impressed at Disney for managing to keep it under wraps that the Jedi was actually going to be Rey, and that for the first time we have a female Jedi in the primary cast. Obviously she has a long way to go, but she’s a powerful Force user and could go far with the right training. She’s also an orphan, left by her family on Jakku when she was very young, yet with absolute faith as a young adult that they were going to return. Possibly a delusion she clings to in order to stay sane, but it drives a lot of her early decisions in the film.
So the question we must ask is, who is Rey? Who are her family? Is she another Skywalker?
I rather hope she isn’t, because we can’t have all the Force-sensitive main characters end up being related, but it’s an obvious possibility. Luke could have had a daughter, started to train her up, but when she was very young Ben Solo went to the dark side and Luke fled, deciding to abandon his daughter on a desert planet (hey, he was fine on his!) rather than take her with him. It’s a terrible thing to do, but he might have felt that it was the only option to protect her. Later on, she turns up on his nice remote island holding Anakin Skywalker’s old lightsaber and giving off waves of Force potential having survived a duel with his old student… you can imagine his next chat with Obi-wan’s ghost is going to be quite interesting.
She could also of course be Han and Leia’s daughter, but that would probably have required Luke to wipe their memories of her, because there’s no way they wouldn’t have mentioned if they’d had a daughter as well as a son who turned to the dark side and murdered a load of trainee Jedi. Plus Ben would presumably have known, and I doubt a skilled Force user of any stripe can stand in front of their Force-potential sister and not recognise the connection. Luke didn’t take long to realise who his sister was once he knew he had one, and he was far less experienced than Ben is by the time of this film.
Finn is initially just motivated by fear. Get away from this terrible place, something that he only realises he has to do after he also manages to develop a conscience during his very first slaughtering of innocent villagers – an activity I assume is quite common for the First Order, judging by how casual they are about it.
But then he falls in love with Rey (given their histories I’d say it’s fairly likely that she is at least not his sister), and things change. He’s introduced to the wider galaxy and the motivations that people have when they’re not being indoctrinated as stormtroopers, and eventually his lie to Poe about rescuing him “because it’s the right thing to do” (where did he even learn about that concept?) becomes the truth. In this sense Finn is a strong parallel to Han. And speaking of which…
Oh poor Han. Not only did he manage to lose the Falcon, his wife and his son, he no sooner gets the Falcon back and reunites with Leia than his son’s sticking a lightsaber through his chest.
Obviously on the hero’s journey a mentor has to die, and of course one of the original trilogy characters also had to die to help pass the baton on to the next generation, but goodness me. What a scene. I also thought his line “I used to have a larger crew” was one of the best in the entire film.
A strong performance by Carrie Fisher as the weary General Organa. She’s spent her entire life fighting the Empire, and now the First Order are here to mess things up all over again, and what’s worse her son is deeply involved in it after turning on her brother and, we assume, killing all the other students. And in the process of this she lost her husband and her brother and she’s had to do all this work with only C-3PO for company.
What a nightmare.
That said, she’s come through it with an impressive dignity. Right at the beginning of the movie she’s referred to as a Princess, and certainly if you believe in the ideas of a royal family which puts their duty above all else (as Alderaan’s were supposed to, as per the old expanded universe) then Leia certainly seems to have done that. Unlike Finn’s rather naive declaration that he’s doing the right thing (and actually just trying to facilitate his own escape), Leia really is doing the right thing because it’s the right thing. She may not have learned to use the Force like a Jedi Knight, but to me Leia exemplifies the qualities that a Jedi should have. Rather more than Luke does, to be honest.
Described in the opening crawl as Leia’s “most daring pilot”, he’s certainly good. Implausibly so. Poe’s flying the kind of crazy maneuvers we’ve only really seen before from people like Luke and Anakin – who were cheating. So does he qualify as a badass normal? I’d guess so, because I don’t think the Star Wars universe is likely to acquire a load of low-level specialised Force users or anything like that. Poe’s just a really, really good pilot with a sadly truncated role in the film. He serves a purpose – get the map, get Finn away from the First Order, back Finn up in front of Leia, finish off Starkiller Base – but he doesn’t actually have a character to be. I hope we get to see more of that in Episode VIII, because if he’s just there to fly a spaceship at the right moment he’s going to feel very empty over the entire trilogy. Really the only thing we see of Poe other than “hotshot pilot” is his obvious and deep affection for BB-8, who also clearly is very fond of Poe.
The R2-D2 of the new generation, only far cuter. BB-8 basically does Artoo’s role from A New Hope, carrying the vital data, getting friendly with the local potential Jedi and becoming instrumental in helping them get off their boring desert planet and in to the action. He basically steals every scene in the movie, even the ones he’s not in, and he’s going to be huge as merchandising too.
The glorious thing to me being that he hasn’t been obviously compromised in order to achieve that.
Or rather, Ben Solo. Or Ben Skywalker might be more appropriate, given his retreading of Anakin’s path. Of all the people Kylo Ren could’ve turned out to be I never for a moment considered that he might be Han and Leia’s son. Or even that he might be that young. Suitably menacing, he strikes me as a young man who idolises Darth Vader but is nowhere near the adept that Vader was and he desperately wishes to be. As Rey found out while fighting his mental probe, he’s afraid that he’ll never be as strong as Vader was, and he clearly doesn’t have as much control of his rage as Vader did.
He’s also a pretty awful swordsman. Okay so his fight with Finn and Rey only went how it did because Chewie had shot him in the kidney shortly beforehand, but his bladework is wild, uncontrolled and possibly relying entirely on channelling the rage and the dark side of the Force instead of actual skill. Go look at how Vader fights in the original trilogy, from his duel with Obi-wan which looks so strongly like kendo, to his second duel with Luke where that influence is still very strong (but with more acrobatics from his opponent). Then look again at Kylo Ren’s wild slashes and swings. He’s menacing, he’s powerful, but he doesn’t have the control yet, even if killing his father has helped to cement him further on the path to the dark side.
By the time we see him again in Episode VIII he might have been through Snoke’s final training and become far more powerful… or will he be broken by it, abandoned and possibly drawn back to the light? Rey’s path seems fairly obvious, but I think Kylo Ren’s is a lot less certain, and he’s probably going to be the source of at least one big surprise in the next installment.
Which brings us to Creepy Giant Hologram guy. Clearly a dark side user of considerable power and influence, and clearly in keeping with some other “Knights of Ren” or Kylo wouldn’t be able to be master of them, but where did he come from? Who is he? And why does he seem to have a big hole in one cheek?
Rather like the Emperor in the original trilogy, I think we’ll see more of him later on. And you just know someone’s going to end up fighting him, but right now I’m not sure if it’s going to be Rey or Ben… or Poe, from orbit, with a brace of proton torpedoes.
The Bad Bits
Okay so I had to get to this part. I’ve mused a lot about characters and roles (and thanks for getting this far, those of you who have), and I’ve really liked this film, but there are some bits that I would wish were different. Firstly: scale.
J.J. Abrams has no idea how big space is, and how fast the speed of light is (and isn’t). He demonstrated this ably in Star Trek, for although we could handwave Spock being able to see Vulcan’s destruction as a construct of the vision Spock was sharing in his mind meld, we can’t handwave the bizarre disparities in travel time or the idea that transwarp beaming is really a thing that Scotty invented in the prime timeline and it can land you precisely on a starship that’s travelling at many multiples of the speed of light and has been for quite some time.
And so now in The Force Awakens we have a “hyperlight weapon” which at least lets us assume it’s not just a giant laser this time (and it curves, so it obviously isn’t), but it destroys four planets which all seem to be closer to each other than the Earth is to the Moon, and which are all visible from the surface of whatever planet it is (did it have a name onscreen?) that Maz Kanata set up her bar on.
Quite cross about it. It’s dramatic, and maybe you could say it’s just a visualisation for dramatic effect, and I’d accept that for the space scenes, just about – but the protagonists clearly saw it from Maz’s doorstep, and that’s just not on. Sorry. Likewise, without doing a hyperspace jump the Falcon ends up being caught by Han’s new ship, and Han has no idea they came from Jakku despite that they must be in the same star system (and where the heck’s that First Order star destroyer, eh?). Nothing new to the franchise, as the Falcon previously made the trip from Hoth to Bespin without a hyperdrive, but it’s still annoying. Maybe the Falcon’s sublight engines are actually warp-capable…
Still, Starkiller Base got blown up, so hopefully we won’t have to deal with another one.
And speaking of that, we have an unanswered question – if it consumes a star in order to fire, where did it get another star from? The implication is that Starkiller Base – a converted planet – has hyperdrive. Or it can bring stars to it, which is even crazier. The technology of this universe is pretty insane, when you get down to it. And it’s pretty awesome that everyone just treats it so casually. Oh the First Order have a hyperlight weapon that can blow up several planets at the same time without even being in the same star system. No shock that the technology exists, just a determination to figure out how to blow it up. Kudos, Resistance folks.
What else? Early direction is pretty bad. If Poe’s scene had started a bit earlier, we wouldn’t have needed him to awkwardly restate what the thing he’s holding in his hand is and hold it up for the camera to make sure that we know he’s holding it in his hand. We could also have done without the quick cutaway shot to him pulling the trigger while taking out stormtroopers with his X-wing’s underbelly blaster. I think we can follow that it’s him firing. These annoyed me equally both times I saw the film, although having annoyed me the first time I was probably just waiting to be annoyed by it again.
The other thing that seems kind of bad is how small the Resistance is. They send something like twenty little fighters against the entire Starkiller Base, and their torpedoes don’t appear to be even as powerful as a large bomb available to modern military forces, let alone nuclear armaments. There are also only two TIE fighters trying to take out the Falcon during the escape from Jakku. It’s the kind of scale we saw in A New Hope, but it doesn’t seem quite right that they could ever expect to succeed. There may have been more explanation of this in the script at one point – Threepio does say “without the Republic fleet we’re doomed”, implying perhaps that the fleet didn’t survive the destruction of the Republic capital planets (or is unable to respond due to the destruction of their command structure), but we could’ve done with a bit more on why they had so little stuff.
Which leads me to my last thing.
They have the support of the Republic, apparently, but why aren’t the Republic just fighting the First Order?
The backstory material released so far gives us some clues. The Republic and the Empire did sign a peace treaty. We know that the First Order arose from the Empire’s remnants, so presumably that peace treaty still applies. The Republic, perhaps very worried by the First Order but unwilling to dive into a galactic war, sets up a deniable group and sets them to disrupting the First Order’s plans, with Leia at the helm due to her admirable track record in disrupting the Empire’s. Now the First Order clearly are fully aware of this, so it’s a little bit pointless, but then the part of the First Order on Starkiller Base is clearly not representative of their average citizenry…
We have a lot more to learn about what’s going on here, but basically we seem to be spending the film cheering for the good guys who are an undercover operation engaging in the kind of activity which in the real world people object to very strongly.
And now of course what happens to the Republic, with its capital blown up?
The wait for Episode VIII is going to be a long one.