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Thursday, January 7, 2016

Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

I have officially joined the ranks of those who have seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I feel that fact has to be announced, as currently the world's population is divided into those who have and those who haven't seen it, and the worst crime anyone can commit is deliberately giving anything away.
Suffice to say, this review contains SPOILERS. And it's huge. Seriously, don't start reading this if you've got something on the stove. 
With the exception of a few minor details, I went into the theatre with no preconceptions about what the film involved, which definitely worked to my advantage. As I've said in earlier posts, I'm about a seven out of ten when it comes to Star Wars, which is to say that I was invested enough to avoid all spoilers, but wouldn't have been particularly devastated if it was a flop. I enjoy the original trilogy, but have no strong feelings on the prequels (just a vague sense of disappointment that they weren't anywhere near as good as they could have been).
After this, I'm sitting at a nine – and am very happy that Daisy Ridley and John Boyega have been in a hit movie. They deserve all the good things.
So here we go, The Force Awakens...

Having browsed reviews across the internet, there are two main criticisms that keep popping up. I'll tackle them one at a time. First of all:
1. Is Rey a Mary Sue?
No.
Second of all:
2. This is just a retread of A New Hope.
This holds more weight for me, and so deserves more discussion. There's no argument that the plot of The Force Awakens follows many of the same beats as its original trilogy's counterpart: from a droid with important information hiding on a desert planet, to a group of X-Wings trying to blow up a Death Star (only bigger!)
Having brought the Star Wars franchise for an obscene amount of money, it's understandable that Disney would want to play things safe with its new investment, focusing on giving people what they want rather than taking any big risks. With the exception of the casting for Rey and Finn, and That Character Death, there's little here that feels truly innovative or daring.
And yet you could also make a case for the story being a deliberate remake of A New Hope, all the better to invert, subvert and deconstruct expectations; to create echoes and reflections that resonant across the length of the film.
So was The Force Awakens a safe bet, or a deliberate attempt to hit the same beats as its predecessor? Copycat or homage? We'll never know, but there are pros and cons to having so many overt similarities between the two films.
Possibly my biggest problem was that the structuring of the film's conflict brings nothing new to the table. The Empire is now called the First Order and the Rebellion is now the Resistance. Different names, same setup. Apparently the New Republic is still around, but a) a scene involving Leia sending one of her envoys to the Senate (which could have shed some extra light on the nuances of the political landscape) was cut, and b) the planet on which the Republic is based gets blown up, sending everything back to square one.
Now on one hand, I can appreciate the Reality Ensues aspect of this decision. You don't get rid of an evil dictator and expect his entire establishment to crumble in the space of a day. I can also understand why the writers would be reluctant to give up the "underdog" nature of our heroes by pitting them against a larger, better equipped military force.
But it also renders much of the events of the original trilogy futile. Our beloved characters shed blood, sweat and tears for the duration of those three movies, only to find themselves in exactly the same position 30+ years later. I realize there was no avoiding some tragedy if there's to be any sort of story at all (I'm referring to the Solo family drama, obviously) but I don't think it should have been spread to the political arena – not if there was to be some degree of satisfaction derived from the conclusion of The Return of the Jedi.
Why not portray the New Republic as having widespread control over the galaxy, and the First Order as a fringe terrorist network dedicated to undermining it? It would have brought a different flavour to the conflict; possibly something more relevant and insidious than yet another super powered Death Star fired by Space Nazis.
Basically, the First Order needed to be less Third Reich and more Daesh.
But then we get to the deliberate New Hope/Force Awakens parallels on a more personal level; namely the similarities between Luke, Leia, Han and Vader versus Rey, Finn, Poe and Kylo – and I have to admit, I found this stuff fascinating.
The Star Wars series in its entirety (yes, I'm including the prequels) have patterns and motifs strewn throughout all seven films. To paraphrase George Lucas himself, they're like recurring stanzas of poetry – and though I realize these words are far more beautiful in sentiment than what the finished product delivered, it's The Force Awakens that finally captures what Lucas was talking about. The echoes are everywhere.
In Rey, Finn and Poe we see bits and pieces of Luke, Leia and Han – though it's a futile business trying to match them up definitively; each of them carries something of the other three in personality, situation and narrative purpose.
Like Luke, Rey begins the film scratching out a livelihood on a desert planet, but unlike Luke, she has no thirst for adventure – her only goal is to stay where she is and wait for her long-lost family. A deliberate parallel is made, then subverted.
In The Force Awakens Han takes on the role of Obi-Wan Kenobi, not only as a mentor to the younger would-be Jedis, but as the character who dies in the third act. And yet in Han's confrontation with Ben Solo there are also reflections of past interactions between Luke and Vader: there the Son tried to draw the Father back into the Light and succeeded; now the Father attempts to save the Son from the Dark – and fails.
But perhaps my favourite echo (on account of how chilling it is) comes at the film's climax, in which Kylo tells Finn and Rey: "it's just us now – Han Solo can't save you." It's a loaded phrase on so many levels; not only commentary on the fact that the torch has been passed to the next generation, but also a reminder that it was at approximately this point in A New Hope that Han Solo did in fact swoop in to save the day.
Our new Yoda is Maz Kanata, thousands of years old and with preternatural knowledge of the Force.  The new Emperor is Supreme Leader Snoke, seen only as a large hologram which may or may not camouflage his true size and appearance. Instead of the iconic: "there's been a disturbance in the Force" we get: "there's been an awakening." And of course, Kylo's entire arc revolves around his attempt to follow in Vader's footsteps – but I'll have more on him below.
There are also deliberate parallels within the film itself, such as how Finn and Kylo are each traitors in their own way – Finn to his training and former comrades, and Kylo to his family. (Which leads me to conclude that the real trio of this trilogy is not Finn/Rey/Poe, but Finn/Rey/Kylo, especially since Rey/Poe never actually met during the course of this film – but that's another debate altogether).
So to sum up: I don't really have a problem with the similarities between A New Hope and The Force Awakens, as many of them seem deliberately designed to evoke comparisons. It would have been nice if the plot had been restructured a little to differentiate itself from its predecessor (especially since I could just about handle the personal tragedy of the Solo/Skywalker family if this hadn't demonstrated they failed politically as well), but in terms of the character beats, it all worked brilliantly.
Rey
We're discussing her first, as for the first time ever in this franchise, our protagonist is female. She's capable and quick-witted, intelligent and caring, resourceful and brave. She's allowed to get scared and have doubts just as often as she demonstrates resolution and self-assurance. She's never damselled or sexualized in any way. She's the character who follows the steps of Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey, and gets the kickass Only the Chosen May Wield moment with Luke's lightsaber.
She's also fending off accusations of Mary Suedom and being shipped with the man who tries to torture and kill her, but I suppose that's only to be expected. Personally I don't think I've ever felt such a powerful affinity with a fictional character since first seeing Belle in Beauty and the Beast back in 1991.
People have been trying to pinpoint a defining moment that epitomizes her character, and I'd have to go with the scene in which Finn is nabbed by a rathtar, only for Rey to rescue him by tampering with nearby controls and shutting a door at exactly the right moment. He gasps about how the door closed right in the nick of time, and she simply replies: "that was lucky" before hurrying him along.
There's a lot to absorb when it comes to her character, and the debate is on as to who her family is and why she was abandoned on Jakku as a child, but the film is best when it spotlights the two most important things about her: her kindness and her loneliness. It's these very qualities that draw her into the adventure, first in rescuing BB8 from another scavenger, then in refusing to sell the droid for extra food.
The big reveal though, the one that was cleverly hidden by trailers and promotional material depicting Finn brandishing a lightsaber, is that she's going to be our next Jedi-in-training, one who gradually learns about the Force over the course of her experiences, and begins to wield it effectively in her own defence. That moment when she calls Luke's lightsaber to her hand and proceeds to beat the shit out of Kylo with it ... my God. That was a religious experience.
But there are some minor caveats, and although I reject the Mary Sue moniker utterly (has everyone forgotten that Anakin Skywalker won a major military space battle when he was NINE years old??) I do think that some of the ways in which Rey's abilities were conveyed to the audience were a little – not clumsy exactly, but opaque. Many of the people insisting she's a Mary Sue are probably just sexist nitpickers, but there remains some confusion in my mind over whether Rey's capabilities are due to pre-existing knowledge, or Force-sensitivity.  
For an example of setup/payoff that did work well in terms of Rey's established abilities, I'd point to the early portrayal of her spelunking talent; a prerequisite for her scavenger lifestyle that comes in handy when she starts scaling the sheer walls of the Starkiller Base. I also loved the fact that when she finally uses Luke's lightsaber in combat, she wields it like a staff, with lots of blocking and lunging instead of any fancy techniques – just as we saw her do on Jakku when she defends herself from attackers.
But I was left a little more confused about her piloting skills and expertise in fixing things. Both are reminiscent of Luke and Anakin's Force-sensitive abilities, but they could also be the result of her upbringing on Jakku. To be an effective scavenger, she would have to know the ins and outs of all kinds of space vessels – though that doesn't necessarily translate to knowing how to fly them.
Then there was her familiarity with the Millennium Falcon – was it because she had been inside the ship before (while it was in the junkyard), because of her natural skill at piloting spacecraft, or because of her innate Force abilities? There is a scene after she "bypasses the compressor" (or whatever) in which Han gives her a long, intense look – one so pointed we actually get Rey's reaction to it.
So is it an indication that Han is simply impressed by her, or that there's something else about her that's caught his attention? The fact that he almost immediately offers her a job suggests the former theory, the fact that it's followed by a scene in which Maz Kanata's question to Han ("who is that girl?") gets answered off-screen suggests the latter.
Then there's the speed with which she learns to use the Force: specifically mind probing, persuasion and telekinesis – something that's been ridiculed by some as being "too much, too soon." But there is some in-story justification for this – if you watch closely.
What's interesting is that she achieves all these things after watching Kylo Ren do them. She never gets imaginative with the Force, only copies what he shows her is possible. In the now infamous interrogation scene, it's obvious that once she realizes he's invading her mind, she manages to put up a mental block and turn the ability back on him. (It ties in nicely with Kylo later telling her she needs a teacher, and Maz's earlier line that the Force is all around her, she just needs to "let it in.")
It's also pretty apparent that everything about Rey screams someone who has received training as a very young child and since forgotten it. Her super-secret past, the flashback sequence she has in Maz's citadel, how her encounters with Kylo seemed to trigger dormant memories (and abilities), the way she unnerved everyone from Kylo to Han to Luke with her power, the fact that Luke's lightsaber flew straight to her hand, heck – even some of Daisy Ridley's acting choices: it all points to a young Jedi whose training was cut short.
Basically, I loved this sublimely sarcastic comment in the PreviouslyTV thread:
Gee, it's almost like she was in some kind of training facility so that she could develop these skills and powers she had, then had her memory wiped after a traumatic event, and now those latent skills are re-emerging after contact with the instigator of the trauma.
Yet despite all these clues, the root of her abilities still remain a mystery – and I'm not sure that was the right call. Future films will almost certainly justify the speed with which she mastered things like the Jedi Mind Trick, but within the parameters of this movie, a little more foreshadowing for her affinity with the Force would have gone a long way in prepping us for what she does later in the film (even if it was just her experimenting with minor telekinesis in her AT-AT home on Jakku).
So the problem isn't that she's a Mary Sue (she's not), but that we simply don't know enough about her to fully grasp her as a character. It's a similar problem that arises with Kylo Ren (and to a lesser extent Finn). Most of Rey's background is kept ambiguous in a way that Luke's simply wasn't. His parentage notwithstanding, Luke's introduction informs us that his life is dull, that he yearns for more than his current existence, and that we can hardly blame him for it. It was his father who was the mystery, not him.
That's not the case with Rey. Why is she so compelled to remain and wait for her family to return to Jakku? So much so that even after a telling shot of her looking at a weathered old fellow scavenger, she's later willing to reject Han's job offer and go back? Does she feel she has no other choice, or is there an actual tangible reason for her to think someone will return for her?
Although we get a good understanding of the type of person she is now, there's still a significant chunk of missing backstory that makes it impossible to get the complete picture. Naturally this will be rectified with the completion of the trilogy, but for now at least there's a significant portion of the story that's deliberately left unresolved – and it's difficult to commit yourself too deeply to someone this shrouded in mystery (case in point: there are already theories that Rey was the one who slaughtered the rest of the Jedi students and had to be mind-wiped and taken away for her own safety – hugely unlikely, but the fact someone could come up with an idea like this in the first place speaks volumes).
But the more I write about this, the more I realize it's just a quibble. A part of me feels as though any given story should have a self-contained beginning, middle and end (which is why I hate this new tendency to draw out franchises by splitting the last book of any given series into two parts) but Star Wars has always been about trifold storytelling. It's just a little more obvious this time around.
Finn
Much like Rey, the character suffers a little from a lack of context to his backstory (and unlike Rey and Kylo, I doubt we'll get any answers in the subsequent films). FN-2187 is a Stormtrooper, taken from his family as a child and raised as a loyal follower of the First Order – only to find he's incapable of taking part in a village massacre and so escaping with the help of Resistance prisoner Poe Dameron.
That's a great setup, especially in the way it finally humanizes the hordes of faceless Mooks that defined so much of the original trilogy. But questions arise. How come the Stormtrooper who soon adopts the name Finn was able to shrug off his life-long conditioning while his cohorts could not? What's so special about him that he alone is clear-headed enough to reject his training? Later we find out he was relegated to sanitation duty, which only leads to more questions. If he was a little more than a janitor, why was he part of the ground forces Kylo led into the Jakku village?
(And don't tell me the answers are in supplementary material. If it's not in the film, it can't be part of a review about the film).
It's a little frustrating, though once the story gets rolling John Boyega's on-screen presence obliterates most of the problems. He's a ball of charisma and energy, reminding me a little of Nux in Mad Max: Fury Road: a guy on the wrong side of a war who only needs a touch of kindness to become utterly devoted to the new people in his life.
His arc is clear: he starts not as a villain, but not as a hero either; his preoccupation not to defeat the First Order, but to get as far away from it as he can. Though he recognizes that saving Poe is "the right thing to do," his only motivation during the assault on Starkiller Base (as he spells out explicitly to Han) is not to help the Resistance but save Rey. Throughout the course of the film, all his decisions are entirely personal ones.
The Shipping Wars are already in full swing, but I think it's safe to assume Rey/Finn will be this trilogy's endgame. Disney will greenlight an interracial romance long before it does a gay relationship in a franchise this massive (sorry Finn/Poe shippers) and there's no way our heroine is going to end up with the trilogy's villain (please be sensible Rey/Kylo fans). But in the case of Rey/Finn it's not simply a matter of ruling out the unlikely and taking what's left. 
There is definite romantic chemistry between the two of them, more on Finn's side than Rey's at the moment (asking if she has a boyfriend, imploring her to go with him to the Outer Rim) and for all the gushing that's currently going on about Kylo's Bridal Carry of Rey (after knocking her out with the Force, but y'know, details) the most romantically-charged moment of the film is when Finn drops his weapon so he can run faster after the kidnapped Rey, without any sort of plan for what he's going to do if he actually catches up with Kylo's ship.
There are more subtle signs too, from the visual linkage between Finn putting on his helmet cutting directly to the masked-and-goggled Rey, to the off-screen You Must Be Cold moment that no doubt precluded Rey wearing Finn's jacket at Starkiller Base. As I've said in previous posts, there's nothing tricky or subversive about the use of Ship Tease in visual media. Such hints and suggestions are inserted for a reason, and (unless something truly drastic happens behind-the-scenes) it's to prep you for future development between two characters.  
But after carrying so much of the film's first half, it's a strange creative decision to have Finn end the movie in a coma. I have to admit I can't quite grasp the purpose of it. To demonstrate the torch has been passed to Rey? To make us anticipate their reunion all the more?
Because now I'm imagining Finn waking up at the start of the next movie and immediately commandeering a space-craft to go after her, eventually landing on Ahch-To and excitedly racing up the steps of the mountain to where he can see her waiting for him – but as he approaches he sees that she's dressed in the robes of a Jedi, suddenly looking very distant and regal and aloof. He slows down, coming to a complete stop just a step away from her – and that's when she smiles and reaches out to embrace him.
Ahem. Sorry. Got a little carried away there.
Poe Dameron
So here's my unpopular opinion: I'm not quite feeling the Poe Dameron love.
It's not that I dislike the guy – in fact I enjoyed his sass, his friendliness and way his piloting skills were so clearly wrapped up in his love of flying and dare-devilry, but the character didn't quite endear himself to me in the way the others did.
A part of this is because he's missing for the entire middle stretch of the film (it doesn't surprise me in the least that the original plan was to have him killed off early) and another is that he doesn't have much of a rapport with any other character besides Finn. After all the assumptions made that he would be part of the next big trio with Rey and Finn (just as Luke/Leia/Han were in the previous films) it turns out that he doesn't share a single scene with Rey at all.
Plus his name conjures up visions of Teletubbies and Kung-Fu Pandas.
I know the logical rebuttal to all this is "he'll be explored more in the next two films" – but honestly, he left so little impression on me that the thought only makes me anxious that he'll leech time away from the characters that did captivate me.
But there's nothing here to complain about for any length of time. Poe is the easiest character to enjoy because he's the most straightforward: loyal to the Resistance, a great fighter pilot, and capable of making wisecracks while strapped to a torture gurney. In a Star Wars movie, sometimes that's all you have to be.
Legacy Characters
This appears to be the term we're using to describe Han, Luke and Leia. First of all, it's obvious why Mark Hamill did so little promotion for the film – he's only in it for approximately three seconds at the very end and has no lines. Still, he turns his cameo into a One Scene Wonder, for once he sets eyes on Rey his expression alone could fill several discussion threads worth of speculation.
Leia clocks in second place when it comes to run-time, still as a political mover-and-shaker, but now addressed as General rather than Princess. The switch interests me; on the one hand it's a much more military-based rank (as well as gender-neutral), and yet there's also the sense that perhaps a woman of her age can no longer be seriously regarded as a "princess".  Max von Sydow's early line about how "she'll always be a princess to me" seemed to deliberately lampshade this.
(Of course, I haven't the faintest idea why she had that title in the first place considering her biological mother was an elected Queen and her adoptive father was a Senator, so perhaps it's not worth discussing at all. If there's a fuller understanding of all in the supplementary material, I'm unaware of it).
It's her initiative to find Luke that kick-starts the plot, and she's clearly in charge of the entire operation from start to finish (in the original trilogy, leadership seemed to be delegated among several other male characters + Mon Mothma). Apparently Leia also featured heavily in a deleted scene that had her sending one of her envoys to plead for assistance from the Republic (remember the young woman that the camera seemed to focus on when the planet was destroyed?) so hopefully this will be reinstated in some sort of director's cut.
Although my hopes that we would see her use the Force in some sort of combat situation were dashed, it's clear she's since gained a greater degree of sensitivity to it – were there any dry eyes in the house when she felt Han's death from afar?
Though having said that, it suddenly strikes me that this time around she avoids physical conflict entirely. She never even fires a weapon. Maybe that was simply the way the script panned out, but again I wonder if there was a certain hesitation at putting an older woman in combat situations (much like how Padme Amidala was suddenly removed from any and all fight sequences once she became pregnant).
Compared to Han she has a limited part to play in this film, which on some level is understandable. The franchise has new protagonists now, and because this was Harrison Ford's swansong the Skywalker twins took more of a backseat this time around. However, I'd go out on a limb and say that Episode VIII will focus more heavily on Luke (as Rey's teacher) whilst Leia will come back to the fore in Episode IX (in her capacity as Kylo's mother, a bond that was acknowledged but hardly dwelt on here).
Which is all to say: Leia's turn is yet to come.
So now we come to Han. First a little backstory: it turns out that in the period between Episodes VI and VII, Han and Leia had a child called Ben Solo. For reasons as yet unknown, he succumbed to the Dark Side and became Kylo Ren, slaughtering Luke's Jedi students, joining up with the First Order, and receiving training from Supreme Master Snoke. (Yet perhaps "succumbed" is the wrong word, as Kylo very consciously and deliberately cuts himself loose from his roots over the course of this film – a far cry from the way fear and desperation drove Anakin into the thrall of the Dark Side back in Episode III).  
On Leia's behest, Han approaches Kylo in a bid to draw him back to his family, and though Kylo initially seems tempted (and quite possibly is tempted given some of the "prayers" we've heard him uttering to Vader's helmet earlier in the film) his Ambiguous Syntax in telling Han: "I'm being torn apart. I want to be free of this pain. I know what I have to do, but I don't know if I have the strength to do it. Will you help me?" only translates to him wanting to be free of his inner turmoil by destroying what good remains in him. And he does this by murdering his father.
People have said this speech was deliberately phrased by Kylo as a trap to draw Han in closer – but I think the true horror of the scene lies in the fact that Kylo is genuinely sincere in this moment. He is being torn apart and he does want to be free of his pain and he does want Han's help to do it – but the twist is that these words are coming from the dark place inside him, not the final remnant of light. After all, there is no triumphant "ha-ha, I tricked you" smirk on Kylo's face when he does the deed, just calm resignation.
It was an excruciatingly perfect flip of Vader's first and final act of redemption in The Return of the Jedi, only in this case it marks the beginning of Kylo's full commitment to evil, the moment in which he clinically severs himself from the Light. But I'll talk more about Kylo in a bit; we're still on Han at the moment.
I know there are a lot of people out there who probably don't like the fact that Han died this way – or that he died at all. The Happy Ending Override necessary for the existence of this story means our beloved trio of heroes from the first three movies didn't get the long and peaceful lives they deserved, only more pain, more loss, more sorrow.
And yet I find myself able to take a philosophical approach to it all. Thing is, there's no such thing as a happy ending – only a happy middle (if you're lucky). And the narrative conceit of having a Dark Son to reflect the former trilogy's Dark Father is too perfect an idea to pass up. And Han Solo's character development across the course of the first three films is here brought to its logical conclusion. Though "logical" is far too sterile a word. What I mean to say is that I thought his death was thematically perfect.
When we first meet Han Solo in A New Hope, he's a classic Jerk with a Heart of Gold; dismissive and scornful of mystical mumbo-jumbo such as the Force and Jedi Knights. He's a mercenary and smuggler with one eye always on his own interests, only to get drawn into the conflict between Empire and Rebellion due to his growing fondness for the people involved.
Now, thirty years later – he's a believer.
And after he finds himself a grumpy dad surrogate to two wide-eyed kids, he ends up making Rey the same offer he once gave to Luke: the chance to join his crew. Once he reunites with Leia and the Resistance there's not a shred of hesitation in signing himself back up to destroy the Starkiller Base, and when he sees his son on a rail-less catwalk spanning a bottomless pit – well, the outcome was inevitable.
It's summed up in this article's first comment: "Han, the ultimate cynic and loner goes out with an act of pure faith and love. It was perfection."
I have to agree. The staging of the scene, from the catwalk (reminiscent of Indiana Jones's leap of faith in The Last Crusade), to the colour scheme (dark above, white below), to Chewie, Rey and Finn positioned at prime locations to be witnesses but not participants, was all constructed with what was obviously a great deal of thought. Was the dark/light symbolism (in which darkness falls from above as Kylo makes his choice and Han topples into a pit of pure white light) a bit heavy-handed? Maybe, but I honestly don't care.
And Harrison Ford once again proves his acting prowess in how Han wordlessly touches his son's face in the moments before he dies. Damn.
***
So yeah, all this worked very well for me. Of course, it makes my heart ache when I think about it, but it felt like a character death that had purpose and weight, not something that was just thrown in to be a shocking swerve. It was fitting for the character, had deep ramifications for the rest of the cast, was staged beautifully, and was a gloriously dark reflection of the Luke/Vader confrontation in The Return of the Jedi.
However, there is some room for critique when we examine the scene from within the context of the entire film. The problem is a much more exacerbated version of Finn and Rey's backstories: Han trying to reach out to his only son and draw him back to the Light exists in a void. In fact, the revelation that Kylo is Leia and Han's son in the first place was so understated that I almost missed it, and we're given no indication of how, why, when or where Kylo decided to turn on his family.
Obviously answers are forthcoming in subsequent films, but I'm not entirely sure a moment as big as this one should be so mysterious. Of course, the original trilogy didn't explain how Vader went bad, but that's because once the familial relationship between him and Luke is revealed, the focus is on what happens next. The reasons behind Vader's turn to the Dark Side weren't important, only Luke's response to that information. (And then he got an entire prequel trilogy to explain how he went bad).
Yet in The Force Awakens Rey and Kylo's backgrounds are crucial to understanding what exactly is happening in this movie – and by the end we're left with more questions than answers. Luke, Han and Leia aren't the main characters anymore, but their ongoing family drama causes the crux of the plot, and since Finn and Rey are only on the periphery of this family drama (and Poe not at all), it feels like a half-formed plot within a plot that either should have been the entire focus or not there at all.
I've no doubt the next two films will fill in the gaps, but if we're judging The Force Awakens as a self-contained story (as A New Hope was) then there's simply too much wondering "how did this happen?" to fully appreciate what does in fact happen.
Kylo Ren
Okay, let's talk about Kylo Ren, a.k.a. Ben Solo. I'm truly fascinated by the reception of this character, and how wide the chasm is between those who love him and those who hate him (for entirely the wrong reasons). Here are two quotes I plucked from the internet:
He went from staggeringly intimidating bad ass in the opening scenes to whiny incapable dickbag amazingly fast in that movie.
He is so close to the light that he needs to hit himself repeatedly to draw from the dark because he can’t find it within himself anymore. This redemption arc will be epic.
Both opinions profoundly miss the point of this character ... but both hold enough truth to make each reading difficult to dismiss. (And at the risk of making assumptions about gender, there's no getting around the fact that the first opinion is largely held by male viewers, while the second comes from a female demographic. Just sayin').  
So what is Kylo Ren? A whiny and disappointing wannabe-Vader who isn't the least bit intimidating or a misunderstood woobie on the brink of redemption who only needs the love of a good woman to set him straight?
Here's my take on the character: Kylo is a terrible Watsonian villain – and he's a brilliant Doylistic villain. And it's going to be a real pain-in-the-ass to be a fan of this character, as it'll take constant clarification of your views to distance yourself from those who hold the above opinions.
Kylo is a character built on deliberate reflections, echoes and subversions. He's the son of Han and Leia, the nephew of Luke and the grandson of Anakin and Padme, but as Han says of him: "there's too much Vader in him", which can't be anything but a deliberate nod to Beru's line in A New Hope: "[Luke] has too much of his father in him."
Anakin and Luke were Jedi Knights tempted by the Dark Side; conversely Kylo wants to follow in the footsteps of his grandfather, but is still drawn toward the Light because of his family. Anakin was seduced to the Dark Side (in part) through the manipulations of a Sith Lord, and it's pretty clear that on some level the same thing happened between Kylo and Supreme Leader Snoke. In the original trilogy Luke saves his Dark Father, while here Han tries to save his Dark Son.
But as this review points out, Fathers are scarier than Sons. There was really no point in trying to design a second Vader – he's too iconic, too intimidating. Whilst simultaneously making room for contrasts/comparisons with the previous films by having a fallen Ben Solo as this instalment's antagonist, the creative team also needed to come up with something completely different in order to demonstrate they weren't just trying to recapture the power of Vader.
So how do you make a Son scary? The answer is: you don't.    
And so there are two Kylo-related twists that occur over the course of the film. The first is that despite first impressions, in which he stops a blaster bolt in mid-air and orders the massacre of an entire village, he's really just a boy in a mask. (I've no idea what the character's real age is, but actor Adam Driver is clearly playing younger than thirty-two).
Rey's surprise mirrors our own when he reveals his face to her, and like many boys (especially – one suspects – those sitting in the audience), it's clear Kylo is desperate to emulate the object of his fannish devotion.
But the second twist on his character is that Kylo is nowhere near as cool or controlled as Vader. His emotions run amuck. He loses his temper and smashes up consoles on a regular basis. It's explicitly stated by Snoke that he has yet to complete his training. The beam of his lightsaber is a perfect visual metaphor for his internal state: unstable and erratic.
But the important thing here is that the film itself invites us to mock him for this. Many have complained that Kylo's behaviour robs him of any real menace, and that the writers inadvertently failed to make him an effective villain. But there's no way you include a scene of Stormtroopers casually backing away from one of his tantrums if you don't intend the audience to find Kylo – at least on some level – as mildly ridiculous.
He's deliberately pitiful and entitled and over-dramatic, ascribing to the same banality of evil that's characteristic of many young men who think it's their right to walk into public places with a shotgun and open fire.
But it's this that exemplifies what's truly terrifying about Kylo. An enraged brat with a shotgun still has a shotgun, and though Anakin became Vader out of desperation to save his family, Kylo consciously and deliberately destroys the good parts of himself so he can better embrace the Dark Side. I can easily imagine Daesh recruits and domestic lone-wolf terrorists alike putting themselves through a similar self-dehumanizing process in order to better achieve their fanatical goals.
And so Kylo goes through with murdering Han, inexorably ridding himself of Ben Solo. The Kylo Ren that confronts Finn and Rey in the forest is yet another incarnation of his character, quite separate from the fake badass of the film's first act and the conflicted son of its second. From this point on he's committed to his role as a Sith – only it's clear not only in his crazed demeanour but in his visible shock at seeing his grandfather's lightsaber fly to Rey's hand that it's not entirely what he envisioned it would be.
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So the question currently raging throughout fandom is – can Kylo Ren be redeemed?
Pretty much everything about his arc as it was presented in this film tells us that the answer is a resounding no. Kylo reaches the point of no return, and intentionally choses the Dark Side. His mind is clear and his eyes are open as he makes that choice. There's no flailing desperation, no overt manipulation from a devil-on-his-shoulder, no misguided sense of righteousness clouding his judgment: just a clear-cut decision that he alone makes.
It doesn't get much more unambiguous than that.
And yet...
He's the son of Han and Leia. Leia spoke of her belief that there's still good in him. In his final moments, Han wordlessly forgives him. And as much as I hate to encourage the shipping of Rey/Kylo in any way, shape or form, there's no getting around the fact that a connection was forged between them, one that will inevitably form a significant part of the next two films (though whether it will led to severed limbs, familial revelations or complete destruction for one or both of them remains to be seen).
There's also the fact that we have no idea of his backstory at this point, or why (besides his general dickishness and some ill-defined daddy issues) he's chosen to embrace the Dark Side. And of course, the moral underpinnings of the Star Wars franchise as a whole is really fucking messed up to say the least.
Darth Vader strangles his pregnant wife, slaughters a bunch of children, tortures his daughter, is complicit in the destruction of an entire planet, and is responsible for countless wartime atrocities – yet because he has a last-second change of heart and saves his son's life (which is at least partly a selfish act, since there's no way Vader would have given two shits if the person appealing to his good side had been a perfect stranger) he gets to hang out with Obi-Wan and Yoda in Jedi-heaven.
Okay, so it's pointless to even try to analysis Anakin's arc in the prequels, as the writing was so miserable that it defies any and all attempts to unpack it, and in watching the original trilogy there's a point where I just have to shrug my shoulders and accept Vader's redemption in the spirit with which it's portrayed – but I'm not entirely sure we can judge Kylo by the same standards.
This film seemed more thoughtful, more considered in its depiction of right and wrong, and the choices between them that the characters make. If Finn can throw off years of conditioning and recognize the First Order for what it truly is, then how on earth are we meant to pardon Kylo for making the exact opposite decision, despite coming from a loving family and a life of privilege?
The only way I can conceive a redemption arc for Kylo is if he pulls a Vader and dies in the act of finally doing the right thing. It's already been set up, what with Han telling Kylo that Snoke is only interested in him for his power and will dispatch him as soon as his usefulness runs out (just as the Emperor was prepared to throw over Vader for Luke when the latter defeated the former).
Yet I can't imagine this new trilogy following the exact same trajectory of its predecessor, especially when it's already gone to such lengths to differentiate the type of evil inherent in the motivations between Vader and Kylo, with the latter's being far less understandable than the former's.
Yet a son who dies unatoned is too terrible a fate for Leia to be subjected to, or for Han to have died for. Yet this film already seems to have depicted Kylo's point of no return. Yet is any soul ever truly lost, especially in a franchise that's built on themes of salvation and forgiveness?
This argument is going to be raging for the next three years, so you may as well get comfortable.
My final word on the subject of Kylo Ren (at least for now, as I've a whole other post about the woobification process currently going on in fandom) is that he's loathsome as a person, but fascinating as a villain. I love the idea of our main antagonist being a Vader wannabe, that a harsh light has been shone on the quintessentially pathetic nature of evil born out of entitlement, machoism and aggrandizing self-importance, and of the fact that he is so easily ridiculed with things like the Emo Kylo Ren twitter account (which is of course the very best way to deal with people like Kylo – the devil hates to be mocked after all).
Miscellaneous Observations:
Yup, still going. Don't worry, I'm on the homestretch now.
Perhaps one of the best features of the film is the sheer amount of women who are just there. Not only do we get a female protagonist and three important supporting female characters, but dozens of women in bit parts. There's a woman X-Wing fighter. There are women at consoles and running around airfields on both sides of the conflict. The first person we seeing pointing a gun at Kylo's approaching vessel at the very start of the film is a woman (blink and you'll miss her). I can't remember ever seeing a minor female character involved in a movie scene like that before. Usually they're instructed to run away in terror or huddle in a corner with the children.
It's not perfect – there are very few WOC faces, most notably in the fact that Lupita Nyong'o's character is rendered in CGI (and I wasn't a huge fan of Maz Kanata's grapefruit-like design anyway). Apparently Nyong'o is on record saying: “there was liberation in being able to play in a medium where my body was not the thing in question,” (especially on the heels of 12 Years a Slave) but I was still frustrated that someone as gorgeous as she is had to be hidden behind motion-capture.
Another faceless character is Captain Plasma (Gwendoline Christie) who keeps her helmet on at all times. I can understand this creative choice to retain the anonymity of the Stormtroopers and the mysteriousness of the character, but she also ends up being a bit of a disappointment as a bad guy – achieving little beyond acquiescing to Finn's demands and lowering the shields. I've honestly no idea why they didn't make her the Stormtrooper that Finn fought in the rubble of Maz Kanata's citadel.
Then there was Supreme Leader Snoke; a name that's difficult to say without thinking of Harry Potter, and a character that is not nearly as interesting or intimidating as the similarly short glimpse we got of Ian McDiarmid's Emperor back in The Empire Strikes Back. Instead Snoke looked exactly like he was: a CGI monster. (And I don't know whether to dread or look forward to the inevitable Man Behind the Curtain reveal, when it turns out he's only two inches tall).
Even the fact that it was Andy Serkis in yet another motion-capture role feels clichéd – and then I hear that Snoke was originally meant to be a woman that looked like a marble statue which was all corroded on the inside, and I'm twice as disappointed with what we got.
So it's interesting that for a film that otherwise leaned so heavily on practical effects, it was the two CGI creations made the least impact on me.
Hey, it's Maxwell von Syndow. Didn't know he'd be turning up. (See how unspoiled I was?) Greg Grunberg and Ken Leung on the other hand pulled me right out of the scene. I know they're favourites of JJ Abrams, but that only led to me recognizing them as his favourites rather than characters.
C3PO and R2D2 were mercifully kept to a minimum. It's not that I don't like 'em, but as the two characters that have so far appeared in all the Star Wars films, it's time to cut down on their screen-time. Also, a little goes a long way when it comes to C3PO.
It struck me that our three main characters are first introduced with masks on – not just for the sake of dramatic unveilings, but to suggest their loss of identity. Finn, Rey and Kylo are all wearing helmets or masks for their introductory scenes.
I told my friend before going into the theatre that I would cry if Leia used the Force. So ... I didn't cry. But there are still two more movies to see her in action, and all I ask is that she at some point uses telekinesis to take out some Stormtroopers. That's all!
Rey's vision in Maz Kanata's will certainly keep people theorizing for some time (which is of course the entire point of it, though it connects back to my early criticism that there's too much mystery; not enough straightforward character-building throughout the film). But in any case I was watching closely the second time around and the most interesting bits are when she's confronted with Kylo.
The first time he's with the other Knights of Ren on what is presumably the night he slaughtered Luke's pupils. And yet there's a moment in which he appears to save Rey's life after he kills a dark figure that knocked her backwards onto the ground. If this is a glimpse of the past, is it possible that he was the one to drop her off on Jakku? Given their interactions later on – especially his reaction to hearing there was an unspecified "girl" involved in the BB8's escape – it seems very likely that they knew each other in their youth. (Cause they're cousins, duh).
When it comes to the irritating Mary Sue accusations, a lot of detractors point to the final battle between Kylo and Rey as proof of their claim: namely, there's no way that Rey should have been able to best Kylo in combat. But to reach this conclusion is to be deliberately obtuse as to what was even going on in that scene. (Like I said earlier, a lot of the viewers who dismiss Kylo as "not badass enough" are male – and I can't help but wonder how much this has to do with the fact he was beaten by a girl).
So let's look at the facts. By the time Kylo confronts Finn and Rey in the forest, we know the following things about him:
1. Having just committed patricide, he's highly emotionally unstable, and not even remotely in control of himself. (Which is another fantastic dig at the whole "men are rational, women are emotional" deal, since the fight turned when Rey was able to tap into her inner calm).
2. He has a terrible wound in his side from a weapon we've already seen knock Stormtroopers off their feet. It's incredible he's actually walking at this point.
3. Although Finn eventually loses their fight, he manages to get in a few significant hits. By the time Rey confronts Kylo, he's already tired from his last battle.
4. Where did anyone get the idea that Kylo was actually good at duelling? He's the only Dark Side character we’ve wielding a lightsaber, suggesting that he's never had any practice against another opponent.
5. Furthermore, if he had a proper teacher in the art of duelling, he wouldn't have a weapon whose blade was erratically spitting and setting off sparks. It's a perfect visual metaphor for Kylo himself, as a shoddy weapon implies a corresponding lack of talent in using it. So on top of everything else, Rey simply had the better lightsaber.
6. The entire film has been at pains to paint Kylo as an undisciplined wannabe. He's undermined at every turn by General Hux and doesn't seem to command much respect from the rest of the First Order either (they obey his orders, but they're all well-aware of his tantrum-throwing). And although I understand the supplementary material has revealed the cross-hilt on his lightsaber has something to do with the cracked crystal inside it (or whatever), I like the alterative theory that it demonstrated his puerile delusions of grandeur – that is, it looks cool, but is immensely impractical.
7. It's explicitly stated (several times!) that his training is incomplete. He's just not as badass as the audience was initially made to believe he was – this was the entire point of his character!
8. Towards the end, it's also clear that he was holding back a little, even offering to train Rey himself. You don't say that to someone you're intending to immediately kill.
To miss all of this and say that it was unrealistic of Rey to beat Kylo in combat is seriously the most idiotic thing I've ever heard anybody say. Under duress I will concede that she picked up the Jedi Mind Trick a little too quickly (even if it did take her three tries) – but this sequence was obviously very considered in terms of what it contained, what it suggested, and how it was set-up. Rey was better. She had the advantage on a number of levels. She beat him. End of story.
Speaking of that scene, I've been enjoying the different interpretations of Kylo pounding his wounds throughout the battle. Was he trying to psyche himself up by increasing his adrenaline? Psychologically alleviate the pain by temporarily making it hurt more before it settled? Feeding on the pain and hatred it made him feel? Hitting it in frustration because it was slowing him down? Maybe we're not meant to know what it was all about: it was dark and creepy and unnatural, and that's all it had to be.
Oh, and one more thing about that lightsaber fight. I loved the duality of the lightsaber itself: the fact that it's previously belonged to both Anakin and Luke, thereby calling its true ownership into question. Kylo thinks it rightfully belongs to him on account of it having belonged to his grandfather (he so obviously wants to add it to his Vader shrine), but it also spent a significant amount of time in Luke's possession. So who does it really belong to?
The answer is made pretty damn clear by whose hand it ended up in, and the clearest indication in the entire film that Rey is a Skywalker. That whole scene was The Sword and the Stone without an actual sword or stone, and a fantastic way of linking this new story with the prequels and the original trilogy.
There's been some contention over the fact that Han and Leia called their son Ben – presumably after Ben Kenobi, which makes very little in-story sense (and wasn't even Obi-Wan's real name!) At a stretch I could imagine them crediting Obi-Wan with introducing the two of them – after all it was he who originally commissioned Han to take them to Alderaan, but I think the real reason is a Doylistic one. The writers clearly wanted Kylo's real name to not only have resonance, but to sound mundane in comparison to his current alias. "Ben" was killing two birds with one stone, and it's the same logic behind surrounding a guy named "Luke" with people called Leia, Lando, Han and Obi-Wan. In terms of their place within the story, each one stands out because they're so normal.
Also strange was that there was no Leia/Chewie scene post-Han's death, even though they were the two most affected by his loss. Instead we get Leia embracing Rey (who at that point – unless there's something we don't know about going on – is a complete stranger to her) while Chewie wanders off into the crowd. And what was up with Chewie and R2D2 staying with the Falcon while Rey went off to find Luke by herself? Again, I think a Doylistic choice is at work: they wanted an uninterrupted Rey/Leia moment, for Rey to make the journey up the mountain path alone. And they probably didn't want R2D2 to tackle those stairs (no doubt hoping you've forgotten he can fly).
Much like the lack of interaction between the older Zuko, Toph and Katara in The Legend of Korra, it seems a loss not have Han, Leia and Luke reunited on-screen together. It may yet happen, but whether it relies on a flashback or a ghostly apparition, it'll inevitably be tinged with bittersweetness.
Okay, I've reached the end of this massive review. So I'll finish by saying: this time last year I watched as Korra and Asami walked into the spirit world hand-in-hand as an official couple. This year I watched as a black guy and young woman emerged as the protagonists of one of the biggest sci-fi franchises ever.
What happens next? Well, the Kylo Rens of the world will continue to maim themselves in pursuit of something that doesn’t exist and isn't worth having anyway, but that's their problem. The rest of us will watch as Rey discovers her past, finds her family, completes her Jedi training and falls in love with Finn – and none of these triumphs will be any less wonderful or beautiful or perfect than the others. What a time to be alive!
P.S. Omg, I can't believe I forgot to talk about BB8.

6 comments:

  1. Re: why Leia is referred to as Princess, I *think* the prequels established that her adoptive mother was a Queen?

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    1. Oh, I didn't know that. I get that in the early stages of creating the original trilogy, she was probably a Princess for Doylist reasons (that is, Lucas was simply following the fairy tale motif of a princess in distress) but my memories of the prequels (which sought to justify/explain a lot of things on a Watsonian level) are a little fuzzy. I actually did a little digging, and Bail Organa is referred to as a prince, so it would seem Leia had a legit royal connection one way or the other.

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    2. I believe that Alderaan is matriarchal - Breha Organa is Queen, and Bail is Viceroy and Prince Consort.

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    3. Ah, well that makes sense. I was thinking of Naboo (elected queen) and not Alderaan.

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  2. A great review! One misstep in the film is leaving *too* much to interpretation. I know there was a concerted effort to avoid exposition and drop us into the world much like ANH did, and yet there is a difference between letting the viewer use their imagination about the Clone Wars and not appropriately conveying the New Republic-First Order-Resistance politics.

    As you said: "Why not portray the New Republic as having widespread control over the galaxy, and the First Order as a fringe terrorist network dedicated to undermining it?"

    According to the supplementary materials, this is exactly the case, but hardly made clear in the film - that scene with Kor Sella (Leia's envoy) was very much needed!

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    1. Yeah, I can imagine they really wanted to scale back on the politics after the complaints over trading embargoes in The Phantom Menace, but there did need to be SOME clarification of these political powers.

      It surprises me to learn that the First Order WAS apparently on the fringe of things - it certainly seemed to have more firepower than anything the Republic/Resistance was capable of. They perhaps also went a bit overboard on the Nazi imagery, which naturally brings to mind a large and powerful organization.

      I'm looking forward to seeing the Leia/Kor deleted scene; it probably will shed a bit more light on things.

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