Ok, I saw The Force Awakens 7 times in 3 days, and thought about it a lot, and talked about it a lot, and now I’m gonna rant about it a lot.
I genuinely, absolutely rank this movie right up in the OT level. I’m not sure how controversial this opinion will be, but right now my list of favourite Star Wars movies (in order) is:
1: Empire Strikes Back (obviously);
2: The Force Awakens;
3: A New Hope;
4: Return of the Jedi;
5: Revenge of the Sith;
6: The Phantom Menace; and
7: Attack of the Clones.
… So yeah. That’s my deal.
Now I’m gonna go through all the reasons I believe this movie deserves that place in my list.
***SPOILERS AHEAD, OBVIOUSLY – PLEASE DON’T READ THIS IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE MOVIE***
-The Opening Crawl
Holy shit, you guys. Just… Wow. I was lucky enough to get to see the Sydney Darling Harbour IMAX midnight release of TFA, and it is an experience that I will remember for the rest of my life. We were ushered into the cinema, climbed the insanely tall staircase (the screen, and therefore the cinema, is about 8 stories tall), and sat down at about 11:58. Really close to go time. There was a bit of an introduction from one of the staff members, talking about how Sydney IMAX is the largest screen in the world and one of a very lucky few who were able to obtain a rare special 2D IMAX print of the film (only 20 were produced, and the Sydney one I saw was the only one in Australia). Then, with no previews or advertisements or anything other than the staff member saying “… Enjoy!”, the lights went down, everyone cheered, and the Lucasfilm logo appeared on the largest cinema screen in the world. Everyone cheered again. Then, the greatest words for any Star Wars fan to read on a cinema screen: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” were met by another cheer. Then, the words “STAR WARS” smashed onto the screen with the familiar John Williams overture, and the opening crawl was finally revealed for the first time in 10 years. I am not at all embarrassed to admit that from the first second the Lucasfilm logo appeared, I was crying silently (other than the cheers) in my seat with a gigantic grin on my face, and when I read the first line (“Luke Skywalker has vanished.”), I actually let out an audible sob of unrestrained emotion.
This is a HUGE point for me, especially lately. This is a huge deal even for movies outside of Star Wars, but seeing all the practical effects in this film really highlights the difference they make to the effectiveness of storytelling within the Star Wars universe. The coolest and most immediately noticeable example of this is the very first character seen on screen in the movie: BB-8. The droid is an obvious call-back to R2 in the original trilogy when he was built from the ground up, and all the movements and attitude were a real, tangible character that actually moved around the set and actually interacted with the cast. And BB-8 was really, physically there, and it makes a massive difference. Then there’s also the other creatures, the explosions, the ships (the Falcon was recreated, and real X-Wing sets were built), the props, the stunts… All so real. There was obviously CGI used, but aside from a few characters, it was used the way it is supposed to be used in film: Sparingly, and to augment what was already on camera. JJ Abrams knows this, and he nailed it.
Now I’m not a film snob. I don’t know much about the technical details involved in cinematography. But as the saying goes, “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like”; so I can confidently say that I adore the cinematography in this movie. There are literally countless shots that could be transferred onto canvas and used as a gorgeous work of art completely on their own merit. The long shot of Rey slipping down her rope into the belly of the star destroyer; The shot of Rey sledding down the sand dune; The shot of Rey’s crashed AT-AT home. Kylo and Han on the catwalk with a ray of light illuminating them from the doorway where Rey and Finn are standing. Kylo standing in the shadows underneath the gigantic Supreme Leader Snoke, looking up in awe. Kylo looking out the triangular windows of his shuttle as the Starkiller Base’s massive multi-planet killing beam races across his field of view into space. TIE fighters flying through the atmosphere with a setting sun in the background, turning them into blurred, menacing silhouettes. The reveal of Starkiller Base. Several shots during the battle between Kylo and Rey were super visually amazing. The explosion of Starkiller Base, just as the escaping Resistance fighters come into view. Luke and Rey standing on the precipice of his mountain home, wordlessly conveying their hope, desperation, and questions to each other. That’s just a handful of moments in a movie packed with epic battles, glorious landscapes and moving moments.
The tone of this film is phenomenal. They balanced humour with heart and intensity, and none of it feels artificial at all. BB-8’s mannerisms and movements make for some great moments. Finn shines as a comedic relief character (but that’s far from all he is). Han Solo, of course, has some great lines delivered as only Harrison Ford can, and when combined with Chewie’s reactions there are some truly hilarious moments.
-An Homage to the Original Trilogy
Now this one’s interesting. A lot of people keep saying that the movie being too similar to A New Hope is a bad thing. But they seem to be the same people who hated the prequels for being too different and the same people who think that A New Hope is the best movie ever made… Do you see the lack of logic there? This is absolutely not a “remake” or “Rip-off” of A New Hope; it’s an homage. And it’s perfectly done. It evokes the same sense of wonder, of hope, of exhilaration. It explores well-conceived characters struggling to achieve the impossible against an overwhelming opponent, all with breathtaking visual design, moving music, and witty dialogue. The pacing is perfect. The cinematography is perfect. The music is beautiful. All of it adds up, the same way it did in the Original Trilogy, to a great, unforgettable film.
-A Complex Villain
Kylo Ren is amazing. I was genuinely confused about Adam Driver being cast, to be completely honest, but now that I’ve seen his performance, there is absolutely no one else who could have pulled this off. And I don’t know about you, but I even found myself wishing that Adam Driver had been around to play Anakin Skywalker in the prequels. I love Kylo because he’s the polar opposite, sort of an inverse mirror-type version of Luke Skywalker. This is what I see as the key points that mirror Luke:
*He is being trained in the dark side, but feels tempted by the light (obviously Luke is the opposite).
*He wants to follow in Vader’s footsteps (where Luke wanted to follow in Anakin’s).
*He is willing to kill his father to achieve greater power in the dark side and complete his training (where Luke refused to kill Vader and threw away his weapon, embracing the light side of the force fully and inspiring Vader to be redeemed as Anakin once again).
*He submits himself completely to Snoke and has complete faith in his master (where Luke refused to bow down to the Emperor’s rule, even after the apparent destruction of the Rebellion and being tortured by the Emperor’s own sith lightning, and even refusing Vader’s constant convincing).
And his journey in the film (and even his journey before the film, from the brief glimpses we get of it) is amazing!
So he is born Ben Solo, and starts training as a Jedi. Then he finds out that his grandfather was Anakin Skywalker, and that he turned into Darth Vader. He is fascinated by Vader and everything he achieved, and begins to obsess over him. He yearns to follow in Vader’s footsteps, but where others see the darkness as a horrible misstep in Anakin’s life, Ben sees the power that can be gained from embracing the dark. The more Ben thinks about it, the more it makes sense to him. And the more Vader’s apparent “redemption” looks like a failure. So Ben realises that his destiny is to finish what Vader started, and that he needs to be stronger than Vader was to guard himself against the light side of the force. So he betrays and murders the Jedi that Luke is training, renames himself Kylo Ren, joins (or possible founds) a group called the Knights of Ren, and goes looking for the remnants of the Empire to bring them under his command. He finds the First Order, the fierce new organisation that has emerged from the ashes of the old Empire. Then, Supreme Leader Snoke, a mysterious dark side force user, takes Kylo under his wing and trains him in the dark side. They strip surviving records from the old Empire that show all information about old Jedi sights and sightings/movements of Luke Skywalker after the battle of Endor. Kylo pursues Luke to achieve what even Vader could not: destroy the last Jedi. The film starts with news of the last piece of the map leading to Luke’s whereabouts which sets both the Resistance and First Order gunning for Jakku. If you’re reading this, you’ve obviously seen the movie, so I won’t go into too much detail; But I do want to mention what I see as the highlights of Kylo’s character in the film: I love that he has insane, uncontrolled fits of rage. I love that he is desperately trying to be a sith lord, and I love that he’s genuinely conflicted about his destiny and his place in the force. I love that he fuels his own pain and rage and emotional confusion to strengthen his connection to the dark side (this is why he hits himself in the wound inflicted by Chewie, and why he has the rage induced freakouts, and why he kills his father). I love the line in his intro scene where Lor San Tekka says “You cannot deny the truth that is your family” and Kylo replies “you’re so right”, before striking him down. Lor San Tekka is obviously referring to Han and Leia and Luke, but Kylo is turning it around and referring to Vader as his family. Such an awesome moment, and very indicative of Kylo’s personality and story arch. I love that Kylo offers to teach Rey in the ways of the force, trying to lure her the way Vader tried to lure Luke. And then there’s the character design… Oh, that voice! The robes are hand-made and rough, and reminiscent of a sort of Medieval monk and also the ancient Sith. The helmet is an obvious call-back to Vader himself, and a huge insight into the level of admiration and obsession that Kylo has for the late Sith Lord. The lightsaber… Oh my god, I love this saber. The hilt is hand-made by Kylo, meant to emulate the designs of the ancient Sith lords who built over-powered blades and had to incorporate power vents for excess energy to redirect from the main blade. The blade itself is violent, unhinged and barely controlled, just like Kylo, as the result of a cracked and imperfect crystal (my theory here is that Vader’s saber was somehow salvaged from the remains of the second death star and Kylo is using the damaged crystal as a physical embodiment of carrying on Vader’s legacy… God I hope that turns out to be true. I wouldn’t put it past Snoke to somehow be able to obtain artefacts like that… After all, Luke’s saber was recovered from Bespin and Vader’s helmet was recovered from the forests of the moon of Endor).
I really really love that this film wasn’t afraid to leave loose ends and have little sentences, characters and places that hinted at a larger galaxy than what we get to see. That was one of the absolute best things about the originals. We saw Boba Fett just chillin’ in the background and we were like “damn, that armour is SICK! Who IS that guy?!” We heard Obi-Wan say something about the Clone Wars, and we were like “Woah, what is that? What would a clone war even look like?” The Emperor wasn’t revealed for ages, we didn’t see the lightsaber in action until the very end of the film… So much mystery, and The Force Awakens emulates that perfectly. We don’t know much about Maz or Snoke, we don’t know how Luke’s lightsaber was collected from Bespin. We don’t know how Poe survived the TIE crash or how Kylo got Vader’s helmet (although it stands to reason that Luke may have kept it as a reminder of the danger of the dark side at whatever site he used to train the new generation of Jedi, and that might be how Ben first found out about Vader’s legacy. Either that, or Snoke knew where Vader’s pyre was and told Kylo after he’d already abandoned the Jedi). There are just so many questions and so many jumping off points for episodes 8 and 9, but at the same time, enough questions were answered as to not leave the audience frustrated. It also sets up a few characters for future reveals/exploration, such as Snoke, Phasma, Luke, and even Kylo.
-That “Lived In” Feel
One of the things that gave this movie an immediate and noticeable connection to the original trilogy is the fact that the visual design and make-up/painting effects gave the characters, props, vehicles and settings the same old lived in feel. The galaxy feels old again, and larger than what we get to see. There’s a visual history behind everything, and all the little details that show up hint at a story so far untold. The greatest example of this is the visual design of Rey. Her arm wraps are medical gauze, obviously scavenged from a crashed star destroyer’s medbay. Her goggles are stormtrooper helmet lenses. Her staff is cobbled together from engine parts, and her home is a crashed AT-AT. That’s so awesome! Her intro scene, without any dialogue, shows us exactly who she is. We know almost everything about her before we even hear her speak, just because of the amazing mix of visual design, music, and tone. One of the biggest problems with the prequels was that everything was so shiny and CGI’d and unreal that it felt completely alien to the grounded, complex, personal feeling that the OT inspired in its audience. But with The Force Awakens, we get to experience that same amazing feeling and tone, and see brand new characters in an old familiar galaxy.
So I guess what I’m trying to say is that this, finally, is a real Star Wars movie. After more than 30 years of waiting, this is more than worth the wait. The Force Awakens is a return to proper film-making, artistic storytelling, and the furthering of a mythos for a new generation without excluding the generation before.
I’m So Keen For It!