By now, everyone who’s wanted to see the newest Star Wars entry should have already. For those who’ve not had the time or have been living under a rock, the seventh entry into the Star Wars film franchise was released on December 18th and has smashed pretty much every box office record there is to smash. Spoilers will be abundant from here on out.
The two biggest criticisms that can be lobbed at the film are the sweeping under the rug of political details and of the many, many parallels to A New Hope. Personally, I think these are easy to overlook when you consider several key points.
- A huge pitfall of the prequels was the emphasis on politics– and boring, unbelievable politics at that. The Force Awakens (hereafter TFA) could definitely have used more details than the barebones outlined by the opening crawl, but I find it likely the creative team wanted to avoid any aspect that echoed the prequels too closely. Revenge of the Sith, the last of the prequels, may have been released ten years ago, but the damage done has been irreversible. Unless, of course, you create the illusion that they were merely highly-budgeted George Lucas fanfiction. Sorry, not sorry.
- A New Hope itself is a conglomeration of many different films. Of note to our home, Kurosawa’s 1958 The Hidden Fortress provided a ton of inspiration. It has so many similarities to Dune that the creator considered suing.
- Strip away the sci-fi setting, and you essentially are left with a pretty typical fairy tale or fantasy story. If you lay out the barebones plot points of most media, they will fall into one of only a few narrative types.
- Nostalgia is a very powerful tool. Most of the callbacks to the original trilogy were effective in procuring that 懐かしい Granted, Starkiller Base was excessive and the movie would have been stronger without it, though I do think it is a more interesting rehash of the Death Star than was done in Return of the Jedi. Your mileage may vary. Additionally, this is Disney’s first entry into their revival of the series, so the success of the rest of the franchise rested pretty heavily on the fate of this film in the box office. Erring on the side of having too many similarities appears to have been a financially wise decision.
Ultimately, what makes the (good) Star Wars films enjoyable are the characters and the emotions they elicit in the audience. In this regard, I found TFA to be exceptional. Arguably, the characters are more sympathetic and the emotional response is heightened, both in the audience and the Star Wars galaxy’s residents.
In one of the very first scenes, Finn holds his dying comrade and spends a large portion of his screen time dealing with the fallout of that experience, perhaps even showing signs of PTSD. Rey is far more alone than her protagonist forbearers (and potential family members): following Kylo and his Knights of Ren’s massacre of Luke’s Jedi school, she is shipped off to the remote Jakku and left with vague promises of a return. The attack is seemingly so traumatic that she’s forgotten her time there, and that Luke Skywalker is more than just a myth. And, of course, there’s the gut punch of Han’s murder. Obi Wan may be one of my favorite characters, but the emotional attachment viewers have to him having only watched A New Hope is insignificant compared to the decades-spanning love for Han. He’s easily one of the franchise’s most beloved characters (before the film premiered, I asked one faction of my immediate family who their top three characters are; Han was the only one they all shared). RIP Han.
Even unnamed characters have more emotional depth than in the other movies. Whereas in A New Hope, we only see Leia’s reaction to the genocide of Alderaan (which, as much as I love Leia, is probably not nearly as severe a reaction as a real person would have [what were you thinking, writers?!]; and people think Luke is the stronger of the two…), TFA shows us both our main characters looking on in horror, and the Senators who see their imminent destruction and realize there’s not a damn thing they can do.
Perhaps one of my favorite aspects of TFA is the diversity of the cast. No longer are we in the days where there’s one female character (Aunt Beru hardly counts) and one (uncredited) black actor, whom we don’t even see (but, man, that voice!). Actually, black voice actors being cast in primarily antagonist roles in cartoons is a really, really terrible thing. It builds an association between black people and bad people. What an awful thing to subliminally instill in children (it doesn’t really matter that that’s not the intent). Shout out to Steven Universe for having POC voice all sorts of characters, including a majority of the protagonists. Back on topic, seeing people who look different from the leading roles of pretty much every other action film fill the roles of the new heroic trio is a wonderful thing to see, as is having supporting characters of many races on both sides of the conflict.
Overall, while The Force Awakens has its flaws, it is nevertheless an incredibly enjoyable cinematic experience. Hopefully its success inspires the writers of Episode VIII to veer in a more creative direction that will give us a more unique experience. Perhaps Han’s death served as a metaphorical severing of the umbilical cord to the old plot, and hopefully the rewrites of the script point to a more divergent future.