WARNING: The very premise of this film contains spoilers for the series thus far.
After the fall of the Galactic Empire, the exploits of Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa, Han Solo, and the rebel forces that brought down the oppressive regime became the talk of legends. Thirty years have passed since then, and a new crisis has emerged. Luke Skywalker has vanished without a trace. In his absence, a faction known as the First Order has risen from the ashes of the Empire. General Leia Organa now leads a resistance movement against the First Order backed by the Republic. Desperate to find her brother, she sends her best pilot on a mission to Planet Jakku. An old ally may have found a clue to Luke’s whereabouts.
With its very premise, The Force Awakens adds a dose of realism to the Star Wars universe. Return of the Jedi ended with Emperor Palpatine being killed along with his right-hand man, Darth Vader. It would appear the only thing left for the heroes to do is ride off into the sunset – or whatever the space-travel equivalent of that trope happens to be. However, the tyrant’s death doesn’t automatically cause every single one of his followers to die with him. There are plenty of people who would want to unite the galaxy under a single, iron-fisted rule, seeing Palpatine and the rest of the imperial soldiers as martyrs to a cause, hence the First Order.
For that matter, the opening text crawl opens with quite the bombshell: “Luke Skywalker has vanished”. The prequel trilogy, which began with The Phantom Menace in 1999 and ended with Revenge of the Sith in 2005. All three were heavily criticized for having dull premises. It didn’t help that two of them didn’t really feature a war of any kind. Revenge of the Sith managed to save some face by featuring a significant internal conflict within the Republic, but even if it was considered the strongest of the prequels, the goodwill had completely burned out by then. Given that the original trilogy featured some of the most beloved characters in fiction, the very thought of one of them vanishing without a trace ensured the average audience member wanted to see the story unfold.
The story begins in earnest when ace resistance pilot Poe Dameron travels to Jakku at the behest of General Leia find a map revealing Luke Skywalker’s location, receiving it from Lor San Tekka. Naturally, it’s not too long before he is accosted by the empire’s iconic legion: the Stormtroopers. Led by the enigmatic Kylo Ren, the Stormtroopers raid the village, easily capturing Poe and killing San Tekka in the process. As a silver lining, Poe’s droid BB-8 manages to escape with the map.
One aspect the audience had been conditioned to accept is the anonymity of the Stormtroopers. They had been fully indoctrinated to the Empire’s cause, and their facelessness ensured that the protagonists could kill them off en masse without the audience questioning the latter’s morality. The Force Awakens then proceeds to openly challenge this notion with the introduction of its next major character. During the village raid, one Stormtrooper is gunned down. With their last breath, they leave bloody handprint on the mask of one of their comrades. This serves to emphasize that despite their robotic appearances, there are living, breathing humans underneath the armor. It’s the kind of scene that, ironically enough, wouldn’t feel out of place among classic anti-war pieces of New Hollywood.
The Stormtrooper with the bloody mask then proceeds to disobey Kylo Ren’s order to gun down the villagers before doing something considered unthinkable in the original trilogy – he takes off his helmet. Having been completely disillusioned with the First Order’s cause, this Stormtrooper frees Poe from captivity. They then proceed to steal a TIE fighter and escape the First Order’s ship. The Stormtrooper was given the dehumanizing codename FN-2187, so it’s only fitting that Poe nickname him Finn to signify his newfound individuality.
Admittedly, as great as this development is, it does have some execution issues. The film had gone out of its way to demonstrate that there are people underneath the Stormtrooper armor. Moreover, Finn reveals that the Stormtroopers consist of kidnapped, brainwashed children. It would be enough to cast the actions of the Resistance in a darker light, yet the narrative doesn’t really go this route. As it is, nobody at any point has any hang-ups about fighting with these facts in mind. Finn himself will eventually show little remorse for gunning down his former comrades by the hundreds alongside the Resistance members – even if his targets are promoting a harmful cause.
While en route to Jakku, Poe and Finn’s TIE fighter is struck down by a Star Destroyer, causing them to crash-land on the planet. Finn survives, assuming Poe is dead when the latter’s jacket is all that remains. At a nearby village, he happens upon BB-8 along with the person who found it: a young woman named Rey. In a manner highly similar to A New Hope – itself inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, The Force Awakens begins with the exploits of several important supporting characters before formally introducing its true lead. Rey is a scavenger who has been left on this planet by her parents. She has been doing the best she can surviving in this harsh environment, waiting for the day they might return. Much like Luke Skywalker before her, this trilogy has greatness come from humble beginnings.
As the lead character, Rey is excellent. Actress Daisy Ridley has a commanding presence and can easily carry a scene by herself. Coupled with the great chemistry between her and John Boyega as Finn, you get some of the liveliest performances seen in a Star Wars film since the original trilogy. The two of them really sell the sudden change in circumstances both of them undergo with Rey realizing the importance of BB-8’s message while reconciling her desire to stay on Jakku and Finn trying to pass himself off as a Resistance member until he can escape the conflict entirely.
Their method of egress ended up giving fans what they wanted after nearly thirty years of waiting when the ship Rey and Finn escape in happens to be the Millennium Falcon. While many people did enjoy this moment, myself included, I do have to say it comes across as horribly contrived. Admittedly, this isn’t entirely without precedent. After all, A New Hope involved C-3PO and R2-D2 happening upon the Lars homestead by accident and Luke would later meet up with childhood friend Biggs at the Rebel base. These instances could be written off as coincidences needed to speed up the story. It does stretch the suspension of disbelief, but not to the point where it is actively compromised.
The problem with the way The Force Awakens relies on these coincidences is that the writers use them to get the main cast together in the fewest steps possible. The odds of Luke meeting up with Biggs in A New Hope were infinitesimal, but it wasn’t, strictly speaking, necessary for the plot to advance. On top of that, Attack of the Clones went some way in retroactively justifying how R2-D2 knew his way around Tattooine. In The Force Awakens, Just the fact that Finn’s TIE fighter crash-landed near Rey’s community was convoluted enough. They then escape in the Millennium Falcon, which isn’t in a Republic museum or in Han Solo’s possession for some reason, before being picked up by another ship. The occupants of said ship are none other than Han Solo and Chewbacca, who themselves happened to be in the area searching for the Millennium Falcon in the first place.
As this is going on, the audience is then introduced to the primary antagonists of the trilogy. The First Order is led by a powerful Force user known as Supreme Leader Snoke. His immediate subordinates are the aforementioned Kylo Ren and General Hux. Upping the ante from the moonlike Death Star, the First Order has converted an entire planet into the star-powered superweapon Starkiller Base. It demonstrates its sheer power by destroying an entire planetary system, and with it, the New Republic’s capital and senate.
If anyone speculated that the seventh episode of the Star Wars saga to feature children of the original trilogy’s protagonists as the leads, what Snoke has to say puts a clever, if sinister inversion on the expectation when he causally refers to Kylo as Han Solo’s son. The famed bounty hunter’s romance with Leia resulted in the two of them having a son, who, in turn, ended up falling to the dark side. If it’s one thing I’ve always found fascinating about the Star Wars films, it’s that its fantastic nature belies a surprisingly high number of relatable situations. One of the worst things a parent could ever experience is their child joining a cult, criminal organization, or other fanatical group. You do the best you can raising them only for them to become a monster despite your efforts. It doesn’t help that, like the Empire before it, the First Order brings to mind the state of Germany following the conclusion of the First World War.
I also enjoy what J. J. Abrams, along with fellow writers Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt, ended up doing in respect to Darth Vader. Being one of the most popular villains of all time, he naturally inspired a swath of imitators across several mediums. Whether it was Golbez from Final Fantasy IV or the Black Knight from the Fire Emblem installments set on Tellius, if any fantasy franchise ran for a long enough time, you could count on an obvious clone of him to appear almost every time. Part of this could be because Darth Vader himself was a science fiction interpretation of the archetypical black knight from classic folklore, but there is little doubt George Lucas’s character ensured it a permanent place in the mainstream.
However, while Darth Vader remains one of the most recognizable villains in pop culture, his legacy within the Star Wars universe itself was an avenue not yet traveled in the films. It is easy to take for granted that diegetically, Darth Vader wasn’t a man in a costume, but rather a mass-murdering tyrant devoted to keeping order in the galaxy at the expense of individual freedom. The Force Awakens thus explores the ramifications such an influential person would have on the universe through his grandson.
The most affecting moment involving him occurs when he has captured Rey. Up until this point, he had been wearing a helmet with a voice modification module similar to what his grandfather wore. The parallels are enough to make one conclude that he too must have some kind of deformity. After all, Vader’s armor doubled as a life-support system due to the injuries he sustained fighting Obi-Wan Kenobi in Revenge of the Sith. However, when he finally takes off his mask, he is revealed to have the appearance of someone one might pass by on the street. While Vader was forced into his iconic armor by Palpatine, Kylo wears his voluntarily.
Although he attempts to live up to his grandfather’s legacy, he clearly fails miserably at it. Vader was calm and calculating, barely raising his voice even when Force-choking incompetent subordinates. Kylo, on the other hand, isn’t nearly as stoic. When things don’t go his way, rather than kill the responsible party, he has a tendency to activate his lightsaber and break everything within its reach. Notably, when two Stormtroopers overhear one of his outbursts, they begin walking in the other direction without a word, suggesting he does this quite often. While one could argue this makes him less intimidating than Vader, I feel it was for the best to avoid making The Force Awakens too similar to A New Hope.
Unfortunately, if it’s any flaw of this film that prevents it from being truly good, it is indeed the sheer number of parallels to A New Hope. In broad strokes, the plot is largely the same. There is an oppressive military force in power, and a resistance movement must stop it. Changing the protagonist’s homeworld from Tattooine to Jakku means nothing given that the worlds are practically identical in terms of appearance. It also can’t be ignored that Starkiller Base is essentially the Death Star, but bigger – even being referred to as such by characters in the film. It does throw a curveball in that Poe, who was revealed to have survived the crash, blows up the weapon as opposed to Rey, but it doesn’t change how by-the-numbers the narrative is.
It even has its own obligatory shocking death scene when Kylo Ren, unsure of the path he must take, kills Han Solo. It is a scene that successfully twists one’s emotions – especially given how popular of a character he was. Still, I can’t imagine I was the only one who saw this coming from light years away. Shocking moments tend to lose their impact if the audience knows they will happen before the characters do. It did manage to get people interested in seeing how the rest of the story would pan out, but at the expense of being incredibly transparent.
In a way, I fully understand why the seventh installment of Star Wars would be so risk-adverse. By 2015, the Star Wars films were in a bad way, having not one, but three poorly received entries that served as prequels to the original trilogy. Revenge of the Sith was considered a slight improvement over The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones. However, it was difficult to tell whether it received vindication on its own merits or due to its nigh-endless supply of meme fodder. Either way, it was too little, too late.
Therefore, when the seventh installment was announced, Mr. Abrams and his team knew they had to do something to win back a jaded crowd. While they did largely succeed, it came at the cost of forgoing originality. Again, I do concede that these parallels to A New Hope were, in some capacity, necessary to reinvigorate interest in the franchise. Even so, there is no getting around that if any other franchise had done this, critics and audiences alike would call the writers out for it – and deservedly so.
Sequels aren’t, by their nature, intended to stand on their own. This doesn’t make them inherently inferior standalone efforts, however. If a series has a sufficiently good payoff at the end, audiences will appreciate their investment regardless of whether they followed it every step of the way or powered through it in one sitting. The problem is that The Force Awakens ends up taking this notion too far. The emotional highs it provides are the sharpest to those who had waited for at least part of the thirty-four interim between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens. This was a context with an exceedingly short shelf life – one that expired once it became possible to view the original trilogy, their three prequels, and their three sequels back-to-back.
On some level, I can still respect what this film tried to do. After several decades of being a cornerstone of pop culture, The Force Awakens attempts to pass the torch to a new generation. In that respect, it’s a little like what Star Trek attempted to do with The Next Generation. The key difference is that The Next Generation used its original canon as a springboard to explore new ideas. Callbacks to the original show were present, but they didn’t overshadow the new ideas. Meanwhile, The Force Awakens falls short because it was more interested in wallowing in its past successes. Admittedly, this does mean, unlike any of the prequel trilogy installments, I could see a Star Wars fan enjoying it. However, it is for that very reason The Force Awakens ultimately lacks the timeless quality that allowed A New Hope to transcend generations.
Final Score: 5/10