Decades after the defeat of Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine at Endor, the Republic has been restored but is still terrorized by remnants of the Empire now known as the First Order, led by General Hux and Kylo Ren, a self-styled but temperamental disciple of the dark side of the Force. A resistance movement has arisen to combat the First Order, and one of the Resistance’s best pilots, Poe Dameron, has gone to the planet Jakku to search for clues to the whereabouts of missing Jedi Knight Luke Skywalker. Poe gets the information he came for, but he has been followed by the First Order. Poe seals the secrets inside his trusty droid, BB-8, and sends it away for safety; Poe himself is captured, and is tortured by Kylo Ren. Poe finds an unlikely ally in a stormtrooper who wants to escape and defect from the First Order, so they steal a TIE Fighter and blast their way out of a Star Destroyer’s hangar, only to be shot down over Jakku. The former stormtrooper, given the name “Finn” by his new comrade, ejects from the fighter, but finds no sign that Poe survived. He heads for the nearest settlement he can find on foot, where he meets a young scavenger named Rey, who has befriended BB-8. Finn tries to help Rey out of a scrape with some other scavengers trying to take the droid off her hands, but quickly discovers that she’s actually more capable than Finn is at fighting her way out of the situation. But the arrival of First Order forces is more than either of them can handle, and they try to make their escape in a dilapidated Corellian freighter that hasn’t taken off in years. Rey manages to get it flying – barely – and with Finn manning the guns, they’re able to fight their way into space, where the neglected, cannibalized ship promptly breaks down, leaving it helpless as a larger freighter takes it on board. Finn, Rey and BB-8 prepare to mount a last-ditch defense when their newly-acquired ship is boarded by its former owner, Han Solo. With Chewbacca beside him, Han is delighted to take back his old ship, the Millennium Falcon, but is more than a little annoyed to find two young people and a plucky droid aboard. At the first mention of BB-8’s mission to take vital information to the Resistance, Han is once again being pulled into saving the galaxy, whether he likes it or not. Taking the controls of the Falcon and abandoning his smuggling life again, Han takes Rey and Finn to a watering hole on another planet, intending to hand them over to his friend, Maz, who has with ties to the Resistance. But Maz is able to pick up on other things as well: she knows Finn is a coward on the run, and not the hero he claims to be, and she has a gift for Rey – a Jedi lightsaber that once belonged to Anakin Skywalker and was then passed on to his son. Even touching the saber fills Rey’s head with unfamiliar visions and a few painful memories of her own childhood, such as being left on Jakku by her parents. Rey races outside, and when Han, Chewie and Finn try to find her, they witness a terrifying sight: a vast beam of energy streaking across the sky, the superweapon of the First Order’s planet-sized Starkiller Base firing at the seat of the New Republic government and destroying every planet in its solar system. The First Order storms in, and Kylo Ren kidnaps Rey because he can sense that Rey has seen BB-8’s partial map to Luke’s whereabouts. Resistance X-Wing fighters arrive, and as Han and Chewie blast their way through legions of stormtroopers, Finn takes the First Order in with the lightsaber that Rey rejected, only to find he doesn’t have the skill to fight with it properly. The Falcon follows the Resistance fleet back to its base, which is Starkiller Base’s next target. Han is reunited with Leia, and tells her that he has seen their son – who happens to have taken the name Kylo Ren. The Resistance prepares an audacious attack on Starkiller Base itself, but Finn wants to do something even more outlandish: he wants to go there and rescue Rey. Leia wants Han to go with Finn and bring back the son they lost to the dark side of the Force when he rejected Luke’s training. As Starkiller Base charges its weapon to wipe out the Resistance, the Resistance makes a last desperate play to relieve the First Order of its seat of power…and it’s a mission from which not everyone will return.
written by Lawrence Kasdan & J.J. Abrams and Michael Arndt
directed by J.J. Abrams
music by John Williams
Cast: Harrison Ford (Han Solo), Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker), Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia), Adam Driver (Kylo Ren), Daisy Ridley (Rey), John Boyega (Finn), Oscar Isaac (Poe Dameron), Lupita Nyong’o (Maz Kanata), Andy Serkis (Supreme Leader Snoke), Domhnall Gleeson (General Hux), Anthony Daniels (C-3PO), Max von Sydow (Lor San Tekka), Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca), Gwendoline Christie (Captain Phasma), Joonas Suotamo (Chewbacca Double), Pip Andersen (Lead Stormtrooper), Simon Pegg (Unkar Plutt), Kiran Shah (Teedo), Sasha Frost (Jakku Villager), Pip Torrens (Colonel Kaplan), Andrew Jack (Major Ematt), Rocky Marshall (Colonel Datoo), Greg Grunberg (Snap Wexley), Emun Elliott (Brance), Brian Vernel (Bala-Tik), Yayan Ruhian (Tasu Leech), Sebastian Armesto (Lieutenant Mitaka), Maisie Richardson-Sellers (Korr Sella), Warwick Davis (Wollivan), Cailey Fleming (Young Rey), Mark Stanley (Knight of Ren), Ken Leung (Admiral Statura), Iko Uwais (Razoo Quin-Fee), Anna Brewster (Bazine Netal), Harriet Walter (Dr. Kalonia), Tim Rose (Admiral Ackbar), Erik Bauersfeld (Admiral Ackbar), Mike Quinn (Nien Nunb), Kipsang Rotich (Nien Nunb), Michael Giacchino (FN-3181), Nigel Godrich (FN-9330), Judah Friedlander (Bar Patron), Victor McGuire (Bar Patron), Miltos Yerolemou (Bar Patron), Francesca Longrigg (Bar Patron), D.C. Barnes (Bar Patron), Matt Johnson (Bar Patron), Billie Lourd (Lieutenant Connix), Leanne Best (Min Sakul), Crystal Clarke (Ensign Goode), Jeffery Kissoon (Rear Admiral Guich), Claudia Sermbezis (Lema Eelyak), Gerry Abrams (Captain Cypress, Jim McGrath (Vice Admiral Resdox), Philicia Saunders (Tabala Zo), Morgan Dameron (Commodore Meta), Jessica Henwick (Jess Testor), Tosin Cole (Lieutenant Bastian), James McArdle (Niv Lek), Stefan Grube (Yolo Ziff), Dixie Arnold (Resistance Soldier), Hannah John-Kamen (First Order Officer), Tom Edden (First Order Officer), Kate Fleetwood (First Order Officer), Richard Riddell (First Order Officer), Jefferson Hall (First Order Officer), Thomas Brodie-Sangster (First Order Officer), Jack Laskey (First Order Officer)
LogBook entry and review by Earl Green
Review: J.J. Abrams, having rebooted Star Trek, was hand-picked by George Lucas and Kathleen Kennedy to do the same for Star Wars, and the reaction to the first non-Lucas-directed Star Wars film since 1983 seems to be almost universally positive, though one wonders if this is simply by virtue of the movie being directed and plotted by someone other than Lucas, seemingly a signal to the universe that Star Wars is taking a decisive step away from the much-derided prequel trilogy. The “received wisdom” of fandom – not one of this reviewer’s favorite things – has heaped more scorn upon Episodes I-III than anyone but maybe Ed Wood could survive. But The Force Awakens, though it’s hugely entertaining and engrossing, has a lot in common, structurally, with the prequels – more than anyone is daring to allow themselves to imagine.
Overwhelmingly, it’s hard not to have a positive first reaction. With, perhaps, more emotionally adroit direction than Lucas’ infamous “more intense!” directing style, the new lead characters introduced in The Force Awakens are truly the stars of the show, despite the movie posters giving the original trilogy stars top billing. Speaking of the movie’s massive marketing push, it was also a masterpiece of misdirection, carefully avoiding the temptation to reveal Luke and pulling a great bait-and-switch on which character audiences expected to pick up and carry the Jedi torch. The Major Character Death we’d all heard about does, in fact, happen, but the buildup to it – and the ridiculously hazardous setting for it – is so languid and inevitable that the big moment is bleeding shock value from every pore before it ever happens. (I was frankly more shocked and concerned when Chewie took a hit early in the movie; the major character exit had been presaged by decades of the actor talking about how he thought the character should’ve died in the previous movie. If you didn’t see it coming, you really, really weren’t paying attention.)
Daisy Ridley, John Boyega and Adam Driver are real revelations here, as much as the original players were back in 1977. Ridley, as Rey, is no one’s damsel in distress – she’s a new space hero for girls who are too young to have made the acquaintance of Zoe Washburn, Sarah Connor, or Xena. I personally look forward to the heads of the last few doggedly sexist baby boomers imploding as their granddaughters decide they want to fly spaceships, be friends with robots, and save hapless guys who are in trouble. Boyega brings enthusiasm and a zest for life to Finn, enough of a zest for life that you can read what’s going on in his head when he can’t bring himself to fire on the people of Jakku. Finn reminds me a lot of Vila from Blake’s 7 – great wisecracks, quite a bit braver when things are going his way, and when they aren’t…well, he has very well-developed self-preservation instincts. But not so much so that he won’t confront evil (him telling Kylo Ren to “come and get it!” when Ren tries to claim Anakin’s/Luke’s old lightsaber as his own is a high point of the movie). And Kylo Ren, in the person of Adam Driver, is a far more complicated villain than we’ve gotten in a while; his background – particularly his training with Luke – desperately needs to be fleshed out in Episode VIII, but in this movie alone he’s already more complicated than the prequels’ presentation of Anakin.
The seemingly throwaway piece of dialogue hinting that Kylo Ren (real name: Ben Solo) was “sent away” to train with Luke is disturbing, in light of the prequels. The prequels make a big deal of the Jedi’s abandonment of emotional attachment, but the downfall of the Jedi arrives in the form of Anakin, who can’t let go of such attachments. Luke, who was brought up virtually to adulthood by his aunt and uncle, and who rushes into mortal danger when he receives a Force vision of his friends suffering, ultimately prevails because of his emotional investments; they make him a nobler, more compassionate person, one incapable of killing Darth Vader. But it appears that this lesson is lost on whatever new generation of Jedi that Luke hoped to establish: Ben Solo is separated from his family, suffering through the emotional turmoil that entails, and it may have left him vulnerable to the dark side influence of Supreme Leader Snoke (of whom more in a moment). And what’s with Jedi Masters going into hiding when they fail to stop a resurgence of the dark side? Why not stay and work to remedy the problem instead of going into exile and allowing the dark side to run riot? This may seem obvious to an audience watching all the movies, but in-universe, it would appear that the lack of “ground truth” in the remaining historical record surrounding the fall of the Jedi means that the same mistakes will continue to be made, possibly in cycles. Bringing balance to the Force seems to bring trouble down upon everyone in the immediate vicinity of those who hold the secrets of its power.
Supreme Leader Snoke, a CGI creation voiced by Andy Serkis, is a total enigma. He’s never physically present in the movie, simply projected as a giant hologram; one suspects that the real Snoke is either big enough to fill the dais upon which his hologram is projected, or he’s a tiny, Yoda-sized thing with delusions of grandeur. In any case, he has enough of a hold over Kylo Ren that the boy can’t bring himself to extinguish all Snoking materials, and yet that grip is tenuous enough that there is concern. Snoke also speaks directly to the fanatical General Hux (a positively scary Domnhall Gleeson), indicating that, unlike Palpatine, Snoke is working both ends of the equation: both dabbling directly in the dark side with Ren, and coordinating the First Order’s military operations via Hux. Where Snoke came from and what he ultimately wants is unknown, so it’s hard to figure out if he’s anything more than “the new trilogy’s Emperor”.
The Force Awakens is at its best when it turns fan expectations on their ear by using the original trilogy characters and iconography in unexpected ways: the Falcon as an abandoned pile of scrap, Artoo unable to help us all, Darth Vader’s scorched, melted helmet being all but worshipped by Kylo Ren, and – perhaps most effectively of all – Han and Leia not necessarily having a “happily ever after”. These things that veer far and wide of what was expected (and completely away from the widely-accepted storylines established by Lucasfilm’s publishing program in the decades before Lucasfilm was bought by Disney).
Perhaps the biggest surprise about The Force Awakens is that it’s very funny. The movie circulates through a series of wisecracking double-act pairings – Finn and Poe, Finn and Han, Han and Chewie (who seems to have a girl in every port these days – don’t tell Malla), and so on. Even Hux sniping at his subordinates has some humor to it, and of course there’s BB-8, who might as well have been an adorable trouble-making puppy through the whole thing. Sure, BB-8 chews up your best slippers, but you can’t be mad at it, because…awwwww, just look at it! Even though there was plenty of humor in the original trilogy (and at least one or two giggles in each of the perhaps-too-serious prequels), The Force Awakens jumps from one intergalactic buddy cop act to another. This movie is a lot of fun – it sells the characters to you more successfully than the story, but with such a great cast and such well-drawn characters, that’s okay.
If you’re really looking hard at the story, on the other hand, things get slightly problematic. Not catastrophically, just slightly.
Where The Force Awakens is a bit of a letdown is in the “greatest hits” effect – something of which the prequels were also guilty. Luke blew up the Death Star with his innate Force ability? That’s cool, but Anakin had so much more Force ability that he did the same thing to a Trade Federation fleet at the age of eight! The prequels hit us over the head with parallels to the original trilogy, to the point of being completely unsubtle. The Force Awakens is at its weakest when it does the exact same thing. Much like Abrams’ take on Star Trek, we’ve constructed a whole new universe here, so why squander that with slavish callbacks? Desert planet, forest planet, cantina, snow planet with a Death Star inside, a successor to Yavin IV, an Alderaan substitute…I think the only things missing here are Dagobah and Bespin. Great pains are taken to point out how much bigger Starkiller Base is than the Death Star, but the means of taking it out is essentially a shuffle play of Return Of The Jedi (Han and Chewie will take out the shield bunker on foot) and Star Wars (X-Wings will zoom down a trench until they can shoot the thing that makes it all blow up). And why wipe the pre-Disney Expanded Universe off the map when Kylo Ren is essentially Jacen Solo in everything but name?
And if clinging tightly to the plot contours of Star Wars and the original trilogy isn’t enough, there are also the noticeable similarities to Abrams’ Star Trek: the seat of the Republic’s government is a planet close enough to be clearly visible in Takodana’s sky, even in daylight (just as original-timeline Spock was conveniently able to witness the destruction of Vulcan from Delta Vega), and the “recharge cycle” of Starkiller Base is more than just slightly reminiscent of Nero’s planet-drilling ship. That being said, there’s probably more wiggle room for these fantastical lapses of astrophysics in the more fantasy-oriented Star Wars than there is in the more rigidly scientific Star Trek; I’m not really worried about the science aspect as I am about Abrams having used these visual devices in the past few years in a competing franchise.
There are also some almighty leaps of story logic that the script completely glosses over: how Poe managed to escape Jakku, how Anakin Skywalker’s (and later Luke’s) lightsaber survived and found its way into Maz’s hands, and why Artoo suddenly comes out of his movie-spanning slumber just in time to push Rey along to the next square on the board in her quest to find Luke. (I’d propose a workable in-universe solution – that Artoo is passively scanning for someone other than Leia with a significant midichlorian count, and could therefore be Luke’s next protege and therefore needs the rest of the map – but busting out the “M” word is a surefire way to spike Star Wars fans’ blood pressure and start wars.)
But there are all structural concerns that, truly, don’t take away from The Force Awakens‘ sheer sense of fun and wonder. Given how plodding and political and inevitably grim the prequels were, the importance of that incredibly refreshing change can’t be overstated. The Force Awakens is fun, and stands a much better chance of introducing, say, my kids to Star Wars than anything from the prequel era does. But it also has more in common with those prequels than anyone seems to be prepared to admit – perhaps because the fun factor and the wow factor successfully obscure those structural similarities, and perhaps because some of our collective critical ability seems to have been shut off since everyone first heard Harrison Ford say “Chewie, we’re home” in the teaser trailer.
It’s a dazzling movie, it’s much more like what people want when they go to see a movie with the words “Star Wars” in the title, and it also needs to usher in an era of Star Wars films daring enough to veer away from the established structure of the original trilogy. Episode VIII needs to be as different from this as Empire was from Star Wars, but it also needs to be different from Empire.
As with Star Trek, J.J. Abrams has done a remarkable job of giving an old universe a new lease on life. And as with Star Trek, it’s all for naught unless truly new stories are told with that opportunity. Let Star Trek Into Darkness be a cautionary tale: don’t just keep doing the same thing.