Saturday, December 19, 2015

A Hero is Reborn: A Review of 'Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens' [Contributor: Lynnie Purcell]



If I could describe Star Wars: The Force Awakens in one word I would say: nostalgia.

If I could describe it in two words I would say: nostalgia better.

It’s hard to face the past with grace. This is a dual theme with the franchise that kicked off an entire generation of people striving to be the next Han Solo and Princess Leia. The original series is embedded in the collective consciousness of those of us to whom the movies meant so much. The sequel to Return of the Jedi had big shoes to fill. It was an uphill battle against a story that is deeply cherished by so many and a franchise that was treated ill in the past.

Boy, did they deliver.

The past that the franchise was tasked with respecting was the same that the writers paid homage to in-depth. The two-hour movie was a love story to the originals, while managing to expand upon this already rich Star Wars universe. It was equal parts funny, moving, epic, and human. There were scenes that had the audience cheering and others that had us in stunned silence. Some shots were taken directly from A New Hope; others were treated with humor and fun as the characters referenced what happened to them in the previous stories. The mixture of old and new was balanced on a precipice that could have tilted either way, but was managed well by a strong mixture of solid delivery from the lead actors and strong pacing from the director.

But enough about the past. Let’s talk about some of the things that The Force Awakens got right and some of the things it didn’t.

The first thing that I noticed, that was different from the original movies, was that there was less of a focus on making the moments, the technology, and the world feel grand and more of a focus on the pauses that centered the characters and grounded them into the human depth that a good story needs in order to move forward. Rey, Finn, and even the BB-8 are introduced as beings that exists in the galaxies they inhabit. Their worlds are lived in — they are tired, tested, and ultimately enduring as all of us do. They make food, are forged in the chaos of war, and lose people they care about to the realities and brutalities of the fight they face.


Daisy Ridley’s Rey is everything you want in a hero. She is a survivor; she was forged in the heat and brutal sun of Jakku. A scavenger by trade, she wants nothing more than just to endure just another day so that they family who left her behind will find her once more. She keeps a wall of days that count down how long it’s been since they left her on a planet where she has to scavenge for the basic necessities of food and water. Rey is longing for a different world, not out of selfishness or delusions of grandeur, but because she hopes for a family. She doesn’t want anything more than to have a home with the people who left her. She has a light that even Luke did not in that regard — one not measured by the need for greatness, but rather the hope of love. Being a survivor has not dimmed her love or determination to believe in people. Rey sees beyond what is in front of her and dreams.

Ridley plays Rey with equal parts determination, strength, and humor. Rey jumps off the screen. From the moment her face appears in its entirety, you know you are looking at a hero. You know she is a force of light — one that will remain undimmed in the face of the dark side. The film gave her so many epic, wonderful moments that proved her resourcefulness, intelligence, strength, compassion, and love. The most subversive thing is that they managed to do it mostly quietly, without a lot of fanfare or dramatic shouting. She gets the job done. She is the most useful person in the entire movie. Her loner nature, the fact that she survived so long without anyone to help when times were rough, means that she storms her way from situation to situation without pausing to wait for someone to help her out of the jam. She has learned that people don’t always come back. She has realized that she is all she has.

Rey does also not need to be held by the hand throughout the movie the way Luke did. She figures things out that took him months to manage, necessity guiding her strength to practical application that inevitably ends up with her solving problems she did not know she needed to solve. She is a fully-formed hero by the movie’s beginning, it simply takes rescuing a BB-8 unit to show her why. Her arc beautifully ends with her extending her hand for help, acknowledging that while she can do it alone, she does not have to. There is a new family to be made, and she makes the choice to dedicate herself to that family no matter the cost.


Finn surprised me more than any other character. For the first time in the franchise, they show that the forces of darkness are human and subjected to the same horrors that the innocents. They are human beings taken from their homes and their families and recondition to behave in a manner befitting the empire. Finn is just such an example. He finds a light within himself that should not be there. Against all odds, he finds right and wrong in the middle of a bloody battlefield. The world is not a simple thing, but he sees in the flash of a blaster and the death of the innocent that the side he is on is unequivocally wrong. He reacts in fear. He flees. He tries to continue fleeing until an attack makes him realize what is important. His journey begins with fear and ends with bravery, facing the thing he is scared of the most. Returning to the place he hates more than anything, he digs deep and he triumphs, though not without consequences that are sure to haunt him in the sequel. I absolutely loved that they wrote him not as a simple farm boy, but as a character who should have been evil. He is the enemy all the previous films spent countless hours killing. Yet there was good in him — proof that everyone is redeemable.

He was also insanely funny. He had most of the best lines in the film and John Boyega carried them with great timing and comic poise. (I am also really happy that I can safely squeal over Finn and Rey’s chemistry as I am mostly certain that they are not brother and sister.)

The Force Awakens also did a really good job of being inclusive in a way the previous films were not. It showed people of color and women in leading roles around the universe. This representation matters and paints a realistic picture of the world as it is today, though I will say that there were very few women of color who had actual speaking lines, and the one that did was an alien.

Now, unfortunately, for the bad.

Nostalgia is wonderful and has its place. I do, however, think that in some ways the film went a little overboard. Some of the throwaway lines, references, and certainly seeing the familiar faces was glorious and perfect. What perhaps wasn’t as perfect was that the dedication to pay homage meant that there were several scenes where I thought, “I’ve seen this before. I know what happens.” What kept this from being a problem for me was the dialogue and the interactions between the actors. The visuals and sound effects were also stunning.

I liked that this film didn’t keep the bad guy hidden. The dedication to making the world feel real was showing the audience that evil doesn’t only live behind a mask. It looks like our sons and our daughters, our friends and our heroes. The film shows us Kylo’s face. This, in turn, allow the beats of humanity and the confliction he feels to bleed through. My concern though is that he hovers in the whining territory inhabited by pre-hero Luke and — dare I say it — Anakin. The turmoil Kylo has plays well, but something kept me from being totally overwhelmed by his villainy.

Maybe it was the fact that they allowed him those beats of humanity — or maybe it was the temper tantrums. He’s still growing, still a child, and that allowed for some funny moments but also took away from the menace that never truly fully blossomed. I am cautiously optimistic this is part of his arc and will course correct itself in time.

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens is one of those epic movies that every movie tries to be. It is beautiful, visually stunning, truly funny, deeply sad in parts. It is safe enough for kids to watch and become inspired by Ridley and Boyega, too. And it is also a great leaping off point for a franchise that is sure to last until "a long time ago." is not so long ago after all.

J.J. Abrams and his team just rebooted Star Wars with respect to the heartbeat and character interactions that made the originals so great and I could not be happier.


  1. I've decided that whining is carried on the male chromosome in the Skywalker family.

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