The Rise of Skywalker is almost here, and it’s supposedly the conclusion to the Skywalker Saga. So, I’ve decided to attempt a full canon rewatch before it releases, reviewing each chapter as I go. That’s all the movies, as well as the Clone Wars, Rebels, and Resistance TV series. We continue today with Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
I really do love this movie. It’s just beautiful. It’s fun, it’s moving, it’s Star Wars, and I love it. I’m particularly glad to say that because I haven’t had the best track record over the years when it comes to loving Star Wars movies. In my younger days, it was really easy for my fandom of things to blind me to their faults. It happened with a lot of video games, and it happened with Star Wars. Fortunately, in time I was able to separate my blind fanaticism from my rational thought and actually see things for what they were instead of what I wanted to believe they were. It’s why I can look back now and say I believe Episode I is better than II and III. It’s why I can look at Return of the Jedi and say it’s got some real problems, but it’s still great. It’s also what makes me nervous when I go a while without watching The Force Awakens because I used to genuinely believe in my mind that the Star Wars prequels were good, and they’re not. So it gives me no small amount of pleasure to say that a few years on, and a very critical viewing later, I still love The Force Awakens.
I also really respect it. Making this movie was not an easy prospect, and I think JJ Abrams and Disney handled it about as well as anyone possibly could.
What a lot of folks seem to forget is just where Star Wars as a franchise was before this movie came out. Before hating Star Wars became the cool thing for the cool kids to do, the brand had been seriously compromised by the prequels. I was in the minority defending those dumpster fires. People hated those movies (rightfully so) and they now made up over 50% of the active canon. For as good as The Clone Wars animated series was, Star Wars now meant Jar Jar Binks, bad CG, and awful acting just as much as it meant Darth Vader, Han Solo, and groundbreaking practical effects. Star Wars was still a powerhouse, but there was more than a little carbon scoring on its armor.
It was also finished.
Return of the Jedi capped off the story pretty neatly. The Empire had been defeated, Anakin’s redemption was complete, Luke was a Jedi, Han and Leia were together, the galaxy was at peace. Story over.
Then Disney bought the brand, and the fabled VII, VIII, and IX that George Lucas said he had ideas for in the past, were officially given the go ahead. Ready or not, more Star Wars was on the way. And who could blame them? Of course Disney wanted there to be more Star Wars movies. The story having concluded was irrelevant. People want more Star Wars movies, and Disney wants a return on their investment. New movies were inevitable.
So right out of the gate, Episode VII needed to win the fans back over. It had to be familiar enough to make the old fans feel at home, but new enough to excite new fans. If Episode VII turned out like the prequels did, the Star Wars brand likely never would have recovered even a fraction of its former glory. So they looked at what made Star Wars good. Practical effects wherever possible. Characters who are fun to watch. Silly dialogue acted with care. Adventure. Excitement. Fun. But they also had to create a story that justified its own existence. Where do you go after Return of the Jedi? If Han and Leia lived happily ever after, where’s the story in that? If Luke became an all-powerful Jedi master, where’s the story in that? If the Emperor is dead, Vader is dead, and all the protagonists’ stories are accounted for, how could a new trilogy with new characters possibly be related enough to be called Episodes VII, VII, and IX?
Apparently, you just do horrible things to the returning characters. You don’t have Han and Leia live happily ever after. You don’t make Luke the Star Wars universe equivalent of Superman. Yes, it’s hard to see the characters you love not wind up with the happy endings they deserve, but that’s what makes them worth watching again. Making these new movies the way they have to this point was a much bigger risk than people give them credit for, and a very vocal sect of the fanbase hasn’t exactly been subtle with their distaste for it.
So let’s see if we can address some of the biggest concerns leveled at The Force Awakens before getting to the review proper.
The laziest criticism I saw after this movie’s release was that it’s just a remake of A New Hope. It’s basically the same movie. A droid gets important information and winds up on a desert planet. The main character meets an old mentor who gets killed. The bad guys make a giant round battle station that can blow up planets. It’s the same movie.
Neat. Let’s try it this way.
A young man loses his family, so he joins up with a band of rebels to take down a tyrannical government. There, Star Wars is just a remake of Robin Hood.
This argument is absurd and insultingly reductive. One of the main themes of The Force Awakens is the cyclical nature of history. The similarities to A New Hope are mostly just the surface level stuff, and very much intentional. Luke and Rey both come from desert planets, but their lives are pretty different. Rey grew up alone. She had parents, but they abandoned her when she was a little kid. She was left all alone with Unkar Plutt, a complete bastard who made her work as a scavenger for food. She is a loner, doesn’t have any friends, and dreams of leaving Jakku someday, except she refuses to do so because she has convinced herself her parents are going to come back for her. This stuff is all shown, not told. Because it doesn’t have to be.
On the other hand, Luke grew up with a family. He never knew his parents, but he had a loving aunt and uncle who raised him and clearly just wanted to keep him safe. He also had friends. Beru mentions that most of his friends have gone, and Luke even brings up Biggs and Tank by name. He dreams of joining the rebellion like his buddies, and acts like any kid who feels trapped by his relatively eventless and safe life would at that age.
Back to Rey, the movie establishes early on that she is a capable fighter, very good with machines, and is a natural pilot. Jakku is a mean place, so she learned to fight by defending herself growing up. She also seems to have a fascination with the Rebel Alliance and Jedi of old. She spends all her time scavenging for parts, so she probably picked up more than a little know-how over the years. She takes apart spaceships for parts all day every day. She’s probably got a pretty good head about how they fit together. This also applies to piloting.
Luke, though, was a farmer, and as such also has a pretty good head for machines. At the very least he knows the basics of how droids work. We don’t know anything about his fighting abilities because he doesn’t seem to live in a very violent world. He knows enough to keep his distance from the Sandpeople, but he probably hasn’t had much of a need to learn how to fight them because unlike Rey, he’s never been on his own before. He is, however, a very gifted pilot. Even Biggs recognizes that Luke is the best bush pilot in the Outer Rim when his commander is asking if he can handle an X-Wing. Luke is also an excellent marksman, bulls eyeing womprats in his T-16, a feat that’s apparently nearly impossible, even for a computer.
These two characters are both gifted with the Force, they both come from desert planets, and they both think the rebels/resistance are pretty cool. Outside of that, they have very little in common. They have similarities, which is again, the whole freaking point, but they aren’t the same.
So yeah, of course the First Order made a bigger better Death Star. That’s what the First Order is. They exist to recapture the magic of the Empire, except do it bigger and better this time. It’s the cyclical nature of history. The point is that even after everything that happened in the original trilogy, toppling the man at the top didn’t erase evil ambition from the galaxy. This Snoke dude clearly thinks he’s the new Emperor. Kylo Ren wants to be Darth Vader. Skykiller Base is a bigger better Death Star. That’s. The. Point.
Han Solo isn’t Obi-Wan Kenobi. He doesn’t convince Rey to come with him to save the galaxy, he wants his ship back and is reluctantly forced to get involved again. Obi-Wan wasn’t dealing with his ex and the loss of his son. Obi-Wan became one with the Force. Han is murdered forever. Luke wanted to learn from Obi-Wan. Rey saw a potential father figure in Han. Their stories are completely different. They’re both old white dudes. The similarities pretty much end there.
And speaking of Han, who is the Han character in this remake scenario? Poe? Finn? Neither of them have much in common with Han from a personality or narrative stance. Meanwhile, Kylo Ren is actively trying to drive the Light out of himself. Vader didn’t seem to have any trouble giving himself over to the Dark Side. Luke didn’t face off against Vader in a New Hope, and blowing up Starkiller Base wasn’t the focal point of the end of The Force Awakens. The similarities are the point, but it doesn’t tell the same story. The characters don’t go on the same adventure. By no definition is The Force Awakens a remake of A New Hope. Basically or otherwise. This criticism is weak, lazy, and just plain false.
Okay fine. But Rey is a Mary Sue. She never fails at anything and is automatically a master of the Force with no training. She even beats Kylo Ren in a lightsaber battle.
This is possibly even dumber than the remake argument.
Rey, even after working on the ship in the past, assumes the Millennium Falcon is garbage. An assumption she quickly learns is, you guessed it, wrong. Rey meant to close the blast doors but instead accidentally lets the Rathtars loose, almost killing Finn in the process. Rey is overconfident, which is why Han gives her the blaster. If she hadn’t taken it, she would have been defenseless in the woods. Speaking of which, when Kylo Ren shows up in the woods he completely wrecks her, effortlessly knocks her out, and takes her away. And I know it’s not until The Last Jedi, but Rey leaves Luke’s training to go “save” Kylo Ren, which results in Ren killing Snoke, becoming the new head of the First Order, decidedly NOT joining Rey on the Light Side, and generally making everything worse. She makes plenty of mistakes. Her being too perfect isn’t your problem with her because she isn’t too perfect. So if that’s not your problem, what is?
Now let’s talk training.
There isn’t any official timeline written anywhere (publicly, at least) but from what people have gathered from books and whatnot, the entire original trilogy takes place over the course of maybe 3-4 years, possibly less. Empire Strikes Back supposedly takes place about 2 years after they blow up the Death Star in A New Hope. It’s a little weird that Obi-Wan would take that long to tell Luke to go train with Yoda, but sure. Let’s just say Luke was busy with the Rebellion or something. Then between Empire and Jedi, there’s at most another 6 months. So between A New Hope and Empire Strikes back, Luke hasn’t had any Jedi Masters training him on how to use the Force. More importantly, in the few months tops between Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, Luke’s only Jedi training would have come from himself. He didn’t’ go back to see Yoda until midway through Return of the Jedi, and there isn’t exactly anyone else alive to be teaching him the ways of the Force.
Now, he did get some training from Obi-Wan in A New Hope. Maybe a couple of hours. Luke had never even heard of a lightsaber before this little adventure. His first time training with one doesn’t feature him off balance or anything. The lightsaber itself isn’t a hard weapon to wrap your head around. It’s a laser sword that, surprise, works like a sword. It doesn’t take any sort of special skill to simply hold it and wave it around, just like a sword. I bring this up because I’ve seen some folks out there pretty angry about the fact that Finn was able to fight with a lightsaber, which is absurd. I could fight with a lightsaber. Not well, and I’d likely chop my own head off, but I could pick it up and swing it around. And Finn is a Stormtrooper. He has combat training. Anyway, how did Rey learn to use a lightsaber? I don’t know. How did Luke? In a matter of moments he goes from this
This isn’t a problem because the movie explains it. “It controls your actions?” “Partially, but it also obeys your commands.”
So when the internet asks “HoW cAn ReY uSe a LiGhTsAbEr WiTh nO tRaInInG?” It’s easy. She’s using the Force. That isn’t some sort of stretch or me going out of my way to rationalize bad writing. That’s just me literally paying attention to what the movie is telling me.
How did Rey stand up to Kylo Ren? Same way Luke stood up to Vader. There isn’t anything broken here. Luke didn’t have any sort of extensive Jedi training. At most, the time he spent with Yoda on Dagobah just got him physically in the same league as Rey at the beginning of The Force Awakens after a life of defending herself. The Force tricks? He taught himself. Same as Rey. It’s not an issue. Rey isn’t a Mary Sue. She’s talented and unusually powerful, something that has been addressed when discussing who she is in the movies. Kylo Ren does tell her her parents were nobody In The Last Jedi, but there does seem to be more to it than that, which is fine because we have a whole third movie to get to.
There’s also the application of their abilities. When Luke is shown learning, he and his friends aren’t in direct mortal peril. Luke shows his most impressive fighting against Vader when he believes his friends are going to die. But when he’s trying to lift the X-Wing, it was because Yoda told him to, and it sucked to see it at the bottom of a lake. Nobody was dying, there was no real urgency. It just sucked. Rey, on the other hand, lifts those rocks at the end of The Last Jedi because if she doesn’t, everyone she knows and loves will die. I’ll get to the lightsaber fight later.
So no, I don’t get it. I don’t see why Rey being good at flying, fixing machines, and fighting is a problem. Anakin built a functional protocol droid at age 9. He was also podracing. Luke blew up the Death Star the first time he ever flew in an X-Wing. And don’t give me any of that “chosen one” garbage. Yoda wasn’t a chosen one but he sure seemed like he would have been able to take down Vader with his eyes closed if he wanted to. These characters were able to do these amazing things because they used the Force, no more, no less. They didn’t do it because someone taught them how, they did it because the Force was strong with them. It’s about feeling.
So then, as the internet claims these movies establish, Jedi training doesn’t matter, right? Well, let’s think about that. Why do you think they start training Jedi so young? It isn’t about lifting rocks and stuff, it’s about not turning to the Dark Side. It’s about learning to control their powers, not to use them in the first place. Being force sensitive has always struck me as a lot like being a mutant. In X-Men, mutants just develop their abilities naturally. When they go to the Xavier Institute, he doesn’t necessarily teach them how to use their powers, he teaches them how to control them. That’s the Jedi. If Rey grew up learning to fight, tinker, and fly, those abilities are only augmented by her natural ability to use the Force. She has powers, but she doesn’t know how to control them. She’s in constant danger of turning to the dark side (which The Last Jedi touches on many times) or hurting herself and others. Jedi training would have taught her how to control what she can do, and how to avoid the Dark Side, but her being able to do what she can do by using the Force not only makes sense, but is clearly shown and explained in the movies.
And I’m done. I hate how The Fandom Menace has tainted this amazingly wonderful movie. Whenever I watch it I can’t stop seeing all the answers to the stupid arguments floating around the internet getting hundreds and thousands of likes and views, and it always ever so slightly takes me out of the experience. Bad Star Wars exists, but this ain’t it. This is fantastic.
Alright. Lets’ talk about why I love this movie.
I love how it starts out with a bunch of live action stormtroopers. Right off the bat this movie is showing you just how different it is from the prequels. The clones were all CG and they look terrible. These are dudes in suits, and they look so much better it hurts.
Kylo Ren’s introduction is stunning. He’s just as imposing as Vader, but in a very different way. The way he stops that laster fire in mid air? Come on, that’s AMAZING. And that little comedy bit with Poe where he asks who talks first is freaking gold.
Finn is also great. Having a Stormtropper suddenly grow a conscience is pretty original and adds to the mythology in a great and subtle way. Stormtroopers aren’t just some army, they’re groomed since childhood to be loyal and ruthless. Neat.
But he and Poe together are fantastic. Seriously, these guys have some major chemistry, and together they are intensely fun to watch.
Then we have Rey, who I fell in love with instantly. Her theme music is gorgeous, and watching a day in her life basically in silence is just really good filmmaking. We see that she puts herself in danger for her work. We see that she is completely alone when she doesn’t speak a word to another living being for an entire day. We see that her world sits in the aftermath of some big battles and the scavenging she does is in the wreckage of that battle. We see home made dolls of Rebel pilots. She eats her meager dinner wearing an old Rebel helmet. We get everything we need to know about her without her speaking a word, and it’s technically and practically wonderful.
Seeing Han and Chewie take back the Falcon is another treasure I can’t thank this movie enough for. Grumpy old Han is great, and his estranged relationship with Leia is as perfect as it is heartbreaking. And when we find out about Kylo Ren’s past, well, there’s the real heartbreak right there. Picturing Han Solo as a parent is kind of fun. Imagining Han entrusting his son to his best friend, then having him turn into a murdering monster is, well, I can’t imagine it. It’s horrible.
And its culmination is as beautiful as it is awful. As soon as Han walked out on that platform I knew what was coming. But up until he ignited his lightsaber, I kept hoping it wouldn’t. Nobody wanted Han to die. Well, Harrison Ford did, and for as hard as this scene is to watch, he was right. Han wasn’t just a silly nostalgia play, he served a purpose. His death advanced Kylo Ren’s story. It’s a huge step in him being the dangerous, unhinged villain he is. I hate that scene, but I also love it. But I hate it. It’s so good, but so was Wash in Serenity. I love it. But I hate it.
Alright, let’s tackle the dreaded lightsaber battle, and I can’t believe I have to explain this. People love to complain about how Rey was able to beat Kylo Ren, and it infuriates me to no end because all you have to do is look at the darn movie. In the previous scene, Kylo Ren gets gut shot by Chewbacca’s bowcaster, a weapon shown to pack a heck of a punch multiple times throughout the movie. They even go so far as to show Kylo Ren bleeding all over the place before any actual fighting begins. Kylo Ren is ridiculously powerful in the force, but he’s angry, unfocused, and physically injured. He just murdered his father in cold blood and got shot by Uncle Chewbacca. He’s having a really bad day.
He takes Rey out pretty quickly (guess her Mary Sue Force powers were on the fritz or something. I thought she never lost…) so Finn picks up the lightsaber. I mentioned before that I’ve also seen folks complain about how Finn is able to stand up to Ren here. “He DoEsN’t hAvE FoRcE PoWeRs, HoW cAn hE WiElD a LiGhTsAbEr?” First of all, it doesn’t require the force to turn the darn thing on, and second use your eyeballs and watch the movie. Ren is playing with him. This isn’t an assumption. This isn’t me rationalizing. The movie literally shows us this. Ren’s expression is basically “Oh? You want to see how to use a lightsaber? Fine.” Finn is on defense the entire fight, and not exactly holding his own. He’s constantly being pushed further and further back. But at a certain point, what with Kylo Ren still being an angry bleeding mess, Finn lands a lucky shot. As soon as that happens, Ren takes the fight seriously and ends it in a matter of seconds. Then he slices open Finn’s back, and he’s down for the count. That’s it for Finn for the rest of the movie. He’s done.
Ren tries to force grab the lightsaber he knocked out of Finn’s hand and it flies right past him into Rey’s hands and I swear I want to stand up and cheer every time I see that happen. She has no idea what she’s going to do, but she knows she has to stop Kylo Ren or Finn is going to die (if he isn’t dead already) and she wouldn’t be far behind him.
So let’s recap, because apparently this wasn’t obvious enough. Kylo Ren is an emotional mess who is very seriously injured, and Rey is a pretty capable fighter who is literally fighting for her life. They start fighting and Rey is absolutely no match for Ren. She, like Finn, is mostly on the defensive. We then find out Ren isn’t actually trying to kill her. He’s impressed by her. He wants her to join him. “You need a teacher” he says. Ren, again, emotionally destroyed and physically beat to crap, is in complete control of this battle. Until Rey realizes she can use the Force to help her fight. You know, that energy field that partially controls your actions? Kylo Ren is again surprised by her ability and is caught off guard. Rey wins the fight the same way Goku wins most of his. She taps into a deep well of power and finds a way to overcome impossible odds. It’s a fantastic action sequence, and having a lightsaber battle in a snowy forest was a gorgeous idea.
This has already gone on for way too long so I think I’m going to just wrap it up. There really aren’t any scenes in the movie I don’t enjoy. It hit all the notes I wanted a new Star Wars movie to, and no matter how many times I watch it, I still love it. I love it as much as I love the originals, which is something I never thought I’d be able to say again, especially after the prequels. I love The Phantom Menace despite its many MANY flaws. I hate Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith because they are genuinely bad movies. The Force Awakens is in another league entirely because it’s actual Star Wars right to its very core, and I couldn’t possibly love it more. The action is great, it sets up characters I care about, and tells a story I can’t wait to see conclude. I will never understand the hate this movie gets, and I hope with all my heart that once the trilogy and a few more years are behind us, it’s looked back on as the awesome film it is.
And that just leaves The Last Jedi. Man, people hate this movie, and while I can understand not liking parts of it, I don’t get the level of ire it caught from fans. It’s been a little while since I’ve watched it in full, so I guess we’ll see if it’s as good as I remember, or if it really is worse than the prequels.
Spoiler: It’s not. The Prequels are trash.