As the date of its release approached, The Force Awakens assumed a towering significance.
I wasn’t looking for a good movie to watch, or a fun way to divert a couple of hours. No. The Force Awakens represented a promise that all of the harm and wrong from an entire ten years’ worth of terrible prequels would be overwritten.
I realize, by the way, that that was a ridiculous and hyperbolic thing to think. At this point in the review, most reviewers would cover their ass by saying that “The Force Awakens is by no means a perfect movie…” Then they’d go on to say the biggest criticism of the movie to date: That this movie is too slavishly a rehash of Episode IV, or Episodes IV-VI, or that it simply attempts to recreate too many story touchstones from the original trilogy.
Nonsense, The Force Awakens didn’t simply replicate these moments, it bettered them. The Force Awakens is better by any objective measurement than Star Wars: A New Hope. Come at me, haters.
Here’s my reasoning: (AND WE ARE GETTING INTO SPOILER TERRITORY HERE, SO WATCH IT)
Remember the duel between Darth Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi during the first Star Wars? How it is very clearly a man in a restrictive costume trying not to hit an extremely tired Alec Guinness too hard with his prop sword?
The Force Awakens fixes that. Instead, you have two incredibly angry twenty-somethings hacking away at each other with weapons that it’s clear they barely know how to use. You get the sense that they could just as easily cut off their own limbs by accident, but that doesn’t stop them from the reckless attempt to hurt one another. The swordfight is as vicious and purposeful as a bar brawl, without any of the useless floaty backflips of the prequels, and there is a marvelous sense of tension.
This is true in every action sequence. The fights move along beautifully–more present and immediate than in the original trilogy, with more presence and emotional resonance than in the prequels. Even at their worst (such as in the inevitably-rehashed trench run), I just found myself having so much more fun.
Remember how in Star Wars, Luke Skywalker is a relentlessly whiny teenager, Han Solo is entirely sexist, and Leia, no matter how awesomely she was embodied by Carrie Fisher, was still remorselessly backgrounded by George Lucas? Remember how Obi-Wan is the most useless mentor-figure ever?
The Force Awakens fixes that. Daisy Ridley’s Rey is a more compelling protagonist than Luke Skywalker ever was. By the end of Star Wars, Luke has an X-Wing, a lightsaber, and a supernaturally powerful mentor, but he’s given these things, and when you view the first Star Wars in a critical lens, it doesn’t actually make much sense for him to have them. You don’t give an untried farmboy a fantastically expensive starfighter and let him take a shot at the galaxy’s most deadly death machine, even if he did luck into rescuing a princess. Even if we’re given an in-universe explanation for this (“Luke’s the best bush pilot in the Outer Rim”), we’re told rather than shown.
By contrast, at the end of The Force Awakens, Rey has pretty much everything that Luke had, but we see her earn and fight for all of them. Instead of being given an X-Wing, she has to steal the Millennium Falcon, and learn to fly it. Instead of being given Anakin Skywalker’s lightsaber, she has to find it–and she initially rejects it, because she can sense the immense freight of anguish and conflict that the weapon carries with it (it was once used to kill children, after all). Instead of having her supernatural mentor literally be her next-door-neighbor, her hunt for Luke Skywalker literally forms the core of the film’s plot.
All of the other characters are balls-out fantastic. John Boyega is by turns cocky and fearful as the ex-stormtrooper Finn. Oscar Isaac is under-utilized as Poe Dameron, which is sad because he’s also hilarious. Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren is as sad, menacing, and vulnerable as the Anakin Skywalker we should have seen in the prequels. Harrison Ford’s Han Solo takes over Ben Kenobi’s role as guide to the backstory of the fictional universe, and it looks like he’s come alive again. He’s obviously more interested and engaged in the material then he has been since the 80’s, and he perfectly recaptures Han Solo’s gruff swagger. I was overjoyed every second he was onscreen.
(As to the Big Secret? Some troll managed to spoil it for me. I still cried when I saw it in the theater.)
Anyway: as to the huge, unsupportable claim I made at the beginning of this review.
At twelve years old, I was a giant Star Wars fan. I could point at every droid in the background of every scene from the first Star Wars, and tell you its name. I owned no fewer than three reference books, plus the visual guides, plus innumerable Legos, plus Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire trilogy and a whole shelf full of lesser Expanded Universe novels.
When I walked out of the theater in 1999, that part of me died a little. I tried to rationalize The Phantom Menace to myself, that George Lucas hadn’t made a movie in a while, that he was just getting warmed up. I knew I was wrong, even then. The future would look the same as the present, ad infinitum. It’s probably not too far-fetched to imagine that what I felt, on that day, was the first onset of adult cynicism.
When I left The Force Awakens on Thursday night, there was a spring in my step. What I’d seen wasn’t just a good film–it was a redemption and a transformation of the material that came before it. I don’t have to worry about whether the next two films will be good, or brainwash myself into liking a film that was difficult to like. For the first time in a long while, all I can feel is hope.