Star Wars: JJ Abrams Gets It

December 18th, 2015

I just watched The Force Awakens, and I'm going to get my thoughts out while it's fresh on my mind.

First off, it's good.  Not "good," as in, "well, maybe it wasn't a total trainwreck."  No, it's "good" as in, "tons of kids are going to emulate the new characters like my generation did with Luke and Han" good.

The visuals are impeccable.  Abrams doesn't feel the need to clutter every inch of screen real estate, so the creature and building designs really stand out.  The dogfight sequences are kinetic and exhilarating.  Poe Dameron is absolutely the man.

Which brings us to the dialogue.  The earliest comedic beat in the movie comes from his back-and-forth with Finn (actually, "FN-2187").  It the kind of dialogue at which Joss Whedon excels, and a minute worth of witty banter sets up their characters perfectly.

The humor?  There are no fart jokes or awkward mascot characters.  This is old-school Star Wars humor, and it comes off naturally.  The only real "cute" character is the droid BB-8, and she comes across as charming rather than slapstick.

John Williams' score continues to be an integral part of the films.  If you never noticed, every character has their own theme.  Rey's theme is a meditative one that feels like Ralph Vaughan Williams, while Kylo Ren's theme has an undercurrent of Wagnerian violence with just a touch of the Imperial March in the brass.  There was one spot in the climax (something big blows up) when the music felt a bit generic, but it's otherwise spot on.

The characters returning from the original trilogy all have good plot reasons for being there, and the Leia/Han dynamic…well, it's heartbreaking.  How much so?  Well, I'm going to spoil it from here.

Seriously, there are big spoilers here.  

Leia and Han had a son named Ben.  Luke Skywalker decided to start up a new Jedi order, and Ben was part of that.  A guy named Snoke manipulated Ben, who renamed himself Kylo Ren and wiped out the rest of the Jedi.  Following that, Luke walked away.  Leia and Han broke up over it, with Leia becoming a general for the Republic while Han went back to smuggling because it was "the only thing [he] did right."

Ren isn't a George Lucas villain.  If that were the case, he would be confident and one-dimensional.  He is, to put it simply, a mess.  He wants to be bad, but the "light" calls to him.  He worships the memory of his grandfather and wants to live up to it.  He has temper tantrums that lead him to slashing things up with his lightsaber (to comedic effect in one scene–watch the stormtroopers react).  He's not in control of his feelings, and he's frankly not all that good at using a lightsaber.

The acrobatic twirly stuff from the prequels is absent here.  Ren swings his sword like a club.  He has little form or grace.  He can deflect blaster bolts, but that's about it.  Finn has no connection to the force, but he's able to use a lightsaber to hold Ren off for a bit.  That doesn't go well, so Rey grabs it and beats Ren to a pulp.

(Yep.  The title seems to refer to Rey's awakening force abilities.)

Speaking of which, the violence in this film is visceral.  People bleed when the get cut.  They scream when they get shot.  Stormtrooper armor is made of some kind of ceramic, which becomes evident when Chewie blasts one into a wall and the armor shatters.

Chewie's great.  So is Han, though the exasperated old guy bit wears just a bit thin at times.  There's genuine emotion between him and Leia (and folks in the theater teared up at their reunion and goodbye), and his closing scene with his son…

Well, here it is:  Han confronts Ren and asks him to relent.  Ren confesses that he's torn in two by his feelings.  There's a moment in which he appears to consider, then he cuts Han down.  There were audible gasps in the theater, and as if to mirror the rage of the audience, Chewbacca loses it, blasting Ren and everyone else in sight.  His howl of dismay may actually be the most heartbreaking thing about the scene.

And it is.  It feels genuine and inevitable.  There's nothing about it that feels like it was done for shock value or to get a character out of the way.  Han's death is pivotal, and Abrams gave it the gravity and respect it deserves.

Rey is the centerpiece character, and Daisy Ridley was the perfect actress for the role.  She's not eager to embrace the force or become a Jedi.  In fact, the Jedi are all but a myth to her generation.

Luke's lightsaber was recovered at some point, and it's in the possession of an alien named Maz Kanata.  Maz is CGI, but real work was put into the motion capture.  Her facial expressions are the most vivid and realistic I've seen.

Rey comes across the sword, and when she touches it, she has flashbacks.  Maz remarks that the force is calling to her, but Rey runs from it.  When the chips are down, she's able to control a stormtrooper's mind, and as I mentioned, she holds her own against Ren.

At the end, she finds the planet on which Skywalker is hiding.  Apparently, it's the "first Jedi temple."  When she arrives (now flying the Millenium Falcon with Chewbacca), she finds Luke and holds the lightsaber out to him.

I'm not sure what to make of the scene.  Luke says nothing.  He just stares at it, and his expression changes from one of recognition to sheer anguish and loss.  The movie closes with that.

As for the politics, they're barely mentioned.  Apparently, a new Republic was formed after the events of Return of the Jedi, and it's in existence at the start of this movie.  The First Order is a remnant of the Empire, and they're opposed by the Resistance.  Apparently, this is a regional conflict.

In any case, the First Order has a planet-killing weapon (the one thing I really dislike about the new movie), and they blow up the central solar system of the Republic.  It's implied that this ruins the Republic.  Did they only exist in one place?

The First Order themselves are darned creepy.  The Nazi parallels, in both their demeanor and uniforms, are unmistakable.  Their stormtroopers are raised and conditioned from birth.  They're lead by a guy called Supreme Leader Snoke, a deformed guy who only appears in holograms.  He's also Ren's mentor.

It's not made clear who Snoke is.  Han knows his name, and there appears to be some history.  We also don't know who the Knights of Ren are.  I suppose we'll see these questions answered in subsequent movies.

And if Disney keeps the level of quality this high, I can't wait to see them.


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