Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (J. J. Abrams, 2015)

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 efforts to ones that do stand on their own. 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. However, The Force Awakens ends up taking this notion a little 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 first nine numbered installments 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

25 thoughts on “Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (J. J. Abrams, 2015)

  1. This lines up pretty well with how I felt about the movie when it came out. I liked it, and though everyone could see how much it imitated A New Hope nobody seemed to care at the time — it was enough to see a Star Wars movie that wasn’t a piece of shit (not that Revenge of the Sith was completely bad, but as you said, after two miserable films in a trilogy, it’s not enough for the third one to be just okay.)

    Following the critic and audience reactions to each of these new Star Wars movies has been more interesting than the movies’ plots to me. The Game of Thrones show runners must be happy that they’re not the most hated guys in entertainment anymore, or at least that they’re out of the spotlight.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Yeah, The Force Awakens definitely benefitted from the fact that its three direct predecessors ranged anywhere from bad to kinda okay. I still think The Force Awakens is a decent film (and I freely admit to grinning like a fool during the opening text crawl), but I have to admit that I ended up being harsh on it because the next film ensured a lot of its plot threads went nowhere.

      And you’re right in that the various reactions have been more interesting than the films themselves, which is beyond tragic. I can imagine Weiss and Benioff are glad they’re not currently the butt of every other joke, though they’re still the first search result for “bad writers” (as well as “horrible writers” and “terrible writers”). A lot of articles were written about it, basically doing half of the work for the irate fans. I never got around to seeing Game of Thrones, but they must’ve screwed up big time – even the commenters on IndieWire weren’t sympathetic, and they’re some of the most stereotypical hipsters out there.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve not seen the new one yet, but I had no problems with the other two. I just see them as good fun, daft entertainment. What’s just as entertaining are the many, MANY YouTubers out there ripping the first two to shreds.

    Mauler is a personal favourite, he’s already had a 12 hour live stream ripping the new one to bits. I don’t take Star Wars that seriously.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yeah, The Force Awakens is good for what it is, but I can’t ignore that it’s ultimately more fanservice than anything else. While it certainly gave fans what they wanted, it did have that “we need this film to be good” factor that, once excluded from my judgement, revealed some pretty big flaws.

      It’s really sad that the videos made about the films are more entertaining than the films themselves. I actually did end up listening to that 5-hour review of The Last Jedi. I don’t agree with the political views of the most visible detractors, but I cannot ignore that they were making much sounder arguments. Supporters, on the other hand, tend to spend more time discrediting the detractors than addressing the very real, serious issues with the films. I saw at least one who just flat-out said that long critique is not good critique. That point isn’t inherently wrong, but it’s clear he wanted his audience to not hear the detractors out. Another claimed that plot holes don’t matter, which seems like an invitation to promote weak writing.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Some critics are using it as a chance to have a dig at SJWs and feminism as they see Rey as a “Mary Sue” (the Critical Drinker being one).

        I didn’t note any gender politics in the films. There’s just a female protagonist. Not that I think Daisy Ridley’s performance is of note, though, she’s a bit weak. Maybe it picks up in this last one.

        Anyway! Looking forward to watching it and seeing what you’ve got to say. My prediction? -1/10.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Oh no, I can’t deny that many of the film’s detractors hated it for that exact purpose, and I remain completely unsympathetic to them. It reminds me a lot of the Gone Home situation six years ago wherein the backlash against it was partly fueled by homophobia. Sadly, just like Gone Home, it’s difficult to claim to dislike The Last Jedi without being lumped in with those terrible people. This is pretty bad because both works have crippling flaws and don’t push the envelope as much as fans say they do, and by defending them, bad writing flourishes.

          I don’t think there were any real gender politics in The Force Awakens, but they did seem to be at work in The Last Jedi, though I’ll explain more when I get there.

          Liked by 2 people

    • I liked it when I first saw it as well. I stand by my conclusion that it hasn’t held up so well, but I won’t deny that I have good memories of seeing it for the first time. Regardless of what I think of it now, I still consider it to be a major improvement over any of the prequel films – even if one could argue they had more originality.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Force Awakens is still one of my favorite Star Wars films. Sad to see you give it only a 6/10, but I’ll assume you bumped it down merely because Rian Johnson decided to halt everything TFA started. For me though, for that one beautiful moment in 2015, Star Wars was magical again. It’s kind of sad how the new trilogy ended up after such a strong opening act. Also, Daisy Ridley is impossibly charming.

    I need to get back to my Star Wars reviews.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Sorry, but I just couldn’t ignore the fact that The Force Awakens is a token sequel – even if it had more of an excuse to be one than most cases. Rian Johnson going off the rails certainly didn’t help, but there is a possibility I would’ve given The Force Awakens a 6/10 even if the next two films were improvements. It’s difficult to say for certain.

      Otherwise, you’re right in that The Force Awakens did capture that energy of the original trilogy far better than the prequels. Daisy Ridley’s performance is especially admirable. But as you know, with me, it’s not just how you start, but how you finish, and while the sequel trilogy crashing and burning was not Mr. Abrams’s fault, I have to play with the cards I’m dealt.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Having now seen all of this sequel trilogy and have to say that ultimately the Force Awakens is probably the best entry of an enjoyable but flawed set of films. The parallels between Force Awakens and A New Hope makes things a bit uninspired but I suppose it did the job of rekindling some of the magic of the originals after the much derided prequels. I liked J.J. Abrams’ direction and he stages some superb action sequences and the new characters are all likeable but no substitute for our old favourites.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I saw it two times after its release and didn’t really work for me. Production is top-notch but the parts which were meant to be emotional, ended up bland for me. And, well, in the OT we got 2 Death Stars, do we really need a third one? Your review is thoughtful and made me revisit it again, but emotionally speaking (and that’s usually one of the main arguments for supporting it), I felt nothing. Cheers!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, I think the standout moment for me was when Han Solo died. Rather than being shocked, I remember thinking to myself at that exact moment “I hate being right all the time”. And you’re right in that Starkiller Base is basically just the Death Star, but bigger; it’s not especially inspired. The film is well made, but it is a style-over-substance token sequel (though it’s better than its immediate sequel).

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I really liked this film when it first came out but its definitely easier to see the flaws with time. And even here the lost potential. I think even Disney realizes at this point they moved too fast with no real story. Even here I kind of wish they would have started it earlier. There’s a book called Bloodlines that does a much better job of filling in how the First Order came about- and why so many people missed it. Plus Ben’s lack of relationship with anyone in his family (especially his Uncle) before it all went lopsided bugs me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I as well, though now that the novelty has worn off, the flaws have become very difficult to ignore (if not impossible). I see the sequel trilogy as a case study of what happens when the right and left hands actively clash with each other; you just end up creating a half-formed mess that alienates half your audience. That said, I think yours is a valid point as well. With the trilogy progressing too quickly, they didn’t have enough time to think things through, so they either went with what they knew or ended up going off the rails in the dumbest ways imaginable. And you’re also right in that Ben’s limited interactions with his family is a major wasted opportunity.

      Like

  7. I remember being absolutely hyped to see TFA when it came out and how excited I still was coming out of the theater. The initial feeling of “holy shit, it’s Star Wars!!” gave way to thinking “wait a minute….that was essentially a cover version of A New Hope”. I still enjoy the movie(just like the next two), but it became way too obvious how safe Disney and Abrams played TFA because Star Wars desperately needed not even a great, but even just a decent movie after all this time.

    I have plenty to say about the next two movies, I’ll look forward to seeing what you think.
    May the force be with you…

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re not in short company; I was grinning like a fool throughout the opening text crawl. Yeah, even at the time I realized it was basically A New Hope+, but it didn’t matter; it was nice seeing a Star Wars film that wasn’t total garbage. But, as you know from reading my reviews, I am absolutely not a person who gives free passes to things for not being total garbage. I’ll keep those fond memories of The Force Awakens, but I have to look at it objectively, and objectively, there isn’t anything The Force Awakens does that wasn’t done better nearly thirty-eight years prior with A New Hope.

      I’ll save my full thoughts for when I get to them, but I will say that The Last Jedi was a reason why I tend not to look at The Force Awakens so fondly. Here’s hoping the Force is strong with this one…

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I despised this movie. I used to be a huge Star Wars nerd. Followed the books, the video games, wrote horrible self-insert fanfic, all of it. I spent a significant part of my life living in that world. And this movie just absolutely killed my interest in sticking with the series any further. It is so much just A New Hope. The script is exactly the same, just with a bunch of names crossed out and scribbled in here and there. There is nothing good about it that A New Hope did not already do. I was so willing to get into this, and I can’t believe how much this film let me down.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You want to know something? You were probably the most responsible for the grade I awarded The Force Awakens (and will award The Last Jedi). You see, up until that point, I was on the critics’ side, dismissing what the detractors were saying without a second thought. It doesn’t help that a lot of them were… shall we say, an unsavory bunch – a lot of whom were probably responsible for that internet drama back in 2014. However, when you yourself made a comment about the state of the franchise, that made me reconsider my stance. Hearing someone I trust express dislike of the sequel trilogy was enough to make me hear the detractors out. When I did, I realized I’d been had; as odious as some of them were (and are), they made far better arguments than the supporters – many of whom couldn’t come up with a defense more coherent than “you’re watching movies wrong” and “this is a movie about space wizards intended for children”. That doesn’t excuse the detractors’ basest actions such as bullying one of the actresses off of social media, but it’s disingenuous to lump everyone who dislikes the film with those people.

      Personally, I would say that reflection on The Last Jedi was what killed my interest. While I wanted to see it and its direct predecessor on opening weekend, I had no such desire to do the same for Rise of Skywalker. I still intend to see it, but that’s more so I can review the entire trilogy and have the full context to potentially write an editorial I’ve been considering for a while. Otherwise, as for The Force Awakens, you’re absolutely right. I was willing to give it a pass back in 2015 simply because it was nice seeing a Star Wars film that wasn’t total garbage. But at the end of the day, I have to stick with my principles. I’ve criticized Naughty Dog, Ubisoft, and even Nintendo for making token sequels, and I therefore shouldn’t let The Force Awakens off the hook so easily even if it had more of a reason to get complacent than those developers. And of course, by copying so many story beats from A New Hope, the ways in which it falls short can be seen from miles away.

      Also, you wrote a terrible, self-insert fanfiction? Well, we’ve all got to start somewhere, huh?

      Like

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