Monday, December 21, 2015

A New Hope Awakens: A Review of 'Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens' [Contributor: Lynnie Purcell]



In 1977, Star Wars: A New Hope opened in theaters. It created stars out of its leads characters, has been seen by millions of people around the world, has had books, comics, games, and animated shows done in its name, and is one of those iconic films that everyone has heard of at least once in their lives.

Now it is back with a new installment that is blowing everyone’s minds.

The Force Awakens opens with a pilot, who gives off Han Solo sass vibes, named Poe (Oscar Isaac). He is looking for a super-secret map on the desert planet Jakku — a map that will show the Resistance where Luke Skywalker is hiding out. Leia is tracking him down to chide him for forgetting their birthday. Or she needs him to stop the rising threat that is The First Order. ... probably the second one.

Darkness never dies. It simply sleeps for a little while, giving us the illusion of safety in the light. The force surrounds us all — that does not preclude the guys with big blowy-uppy planets and a fondness for the color red. The dark forces — led by a guy in a Vader-light mask named Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) — track down Poe as he is given a gris-gris bag filled with an old-timey USB drive that holds the key to Luke’s location, and the plot point that carries the heroes throughout the film.

Trying his hand at playing Princess Leia, Poe sends his faithful robot R2— er, BB-8 into the desert to hide from the First Order. Poe is then captured and taken to Kylo’s torture dungeon, where he then gives away the secret of BB and the USB drive. But not before an entire village is murdered and a Storm Trooper shows the first real bit of emotion outside of Luke seeing his sister for the first time.

The Storm Trooper FN-2187 (John Boyega), in a surprising display of humanity, is given a circumstance that should not bother him. He is thrust into battle, where his friend dies and his comrades then murder an entire unarmed village. Yet he does not fire. He cannot be the robot drone that the First Order wants him to be. There are two awakenings in this film. The first is this Storm Trooper, without whom the entire movie would end with the First Order capturing the BB-8 and blowing up all the galaxies — because blowing up a single planet was just so three decades ago.

The Stormtrooper decides to escape, knowing that he cannot keep up the charade. He is unwilling to go through reprogramming because he wants to live. The only problem is that he needs a pilot for this escape to work. Enter Poe, who is wasting away in the torture dungeon. The Stormtrooper saves him and, together, they escape, leaving lots of banter and a bromance for the ages in their wake — only to crash land back on Jakku. In the fire and flame, FN-2187 is reborn as Finn, and a hero begins his journey. The ship carrying Finn and Poe crashes, and with Poe presumed dead, Finn begins his journey across the desert planet.

The greatest thing the film did with Finn was give him a mixture of fear, doubt, and sass. They allowed him to be running, to be terrified of the First Order, to lie just so he could escape Jakku and get as far from his old ship as possible. He’s not perfect, nor does he want to be a hero, but he cares. His heart shines through in every scene.

Rey (Daisy Ridley) is a scavenger. She finds parts on old Imperial Cruisers and sells them to a space douche for food and water. It is clear from Rey’s opening scenes that she is a survivor — resourceful, strong, and willing to do whatever she can to stay alive. It is also clear that she is waiting on someone. Even after years of abandonment, she holds out hope that the family who abandoned her on the planet is coming back. Unlike Luke in A New Hope, she does not want to leave her planet for fear she will miss her family when they return for her. She is certain her family is coming back, and she marks the days on the haul of a wrecked AT-AT Walker. She cannot help but do what she can for BB-8, though, refusing to sell him, even though she would receive an enormous amount of food rations. Because despite Rey's reluctance to leave, her heart is full of love and compassion. Being abandoned did not harden her — it made her more willing to see the good in others and to help those who are alone and in need of a friendly face.

In the tiny settlement that Rey has called home, she encounters Finn, whom she immediately chases down and beats up with a stick, because she is all sorts of fierce. The fear on Finn’s face when he sees her chasing him is perfect. In fact, all of Finn’s comedic moments are perfect. They are a highlight of the film. Rey and Finn play off each other very well, exuding a natural chemistry that cannot be taught. They play, they argue, they do both at the same time, and it becomes clear very quickly that Finn imprints on Rey. Moreover, they seem to genuinely care about each other fast. I take this as a reflection of the fact that both have large hearts and a light that cannot be dimmed no matter how much the dark side tries to assert dominance.

The moment that had everyone cheering was when Rey and Finn are in desperate need of a ride off Jakku and stumble upon a garbage ship that turns out to be the Millennium Falcon. It’s even more of a piece of crap than it was when Han owned it, but, like always, it gets the job done –— right up until they are locked down and the ship is pulled into a First Order ship.

All seems lost until Han Solo (a more delightful than ever Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) appear. Han is back to his old ways — smuggling, lying, and cheating, and Chewbacca doesn’t look a day over thirty. (He must moisturize.) Han and Chewbacca kick-start a running field of emotions, nostalgia, and incredibly funny moments. Chewbacca is funnier in this film than he was the previous ones, and he plays off Finn and Han very well.

Together, they decide to try to return BB-8, pure Star Wars cuteness and genius, to the Alliance. They go to pirate Maz Kanata's (Lupita Nyong'o) droid-friendly cantina for her help in getting BB-8 back, and Finn and Rey get more from her than what they were expecting. Finn decides to get on a pirate ship off the planet to the outer rim. It is then that the second awakening of the film happens, this time to Rey. In a cool dream-like sequence, it becomes clear that she has powers outside of the normal. The Force is drawing her to Luke, guiding her steps towards the light side.

Then, in true Star Wars fashion, the temple is attacked and utter chaos ensues. Finn ends up fighting with Luke’s lightsaber — a first for a non-Force user — and Rey is taken captive by Kylo. Finn finds his bravery and determination. He was willing to run when it was only his life on the line, but now it’s Rey’s and he will do whatever he can to get her back. He has someone to fight for.

They go to the Rebel base (where no one seems all that upset about four planets blowing up) and we finally get to see C3PO (Anthony Daniels) and General Leia (Carrie Fisher). Leia is still the boss of all the galaxies, the tension between her and Han is as strong as it ever was, and their history together is fuller and richer, but marked by sorrow.

Also, Poe’s not dead, and he just sort of pops up with a one line explanation of how he’s not dead — shrug emoji implied. This does not in any way keep Poe from being awesome. With General Leia, he comes up with a plan to destroy Death Star 5.0 and has a brotherly bonding moment with Finn when they are reunited.

It is revealed throughout the narrative that Kylo is really Ben Solo, Han and Leia’s son. He was seduced to the dark side by the evil lip-sewing god, Supreme Leader Sudoku... Snoke (Andy Serkis, once again hitting that motion capture). Luke — like the dramatic, responsible adult he is — abandoned the Alliance to Snoke and Kylo after his failure at keeping Kylo from the dark side. Luke then went into hiding. The Alliance is in a tailspin, and Han and Leia are marked by the figurative death of their son.

Hope is not dead, however, because Rey lives. In a great scene that reveals Rey’s power, strength, and is a continuation of her determination to survive, Kylo and Rey have a confrontation in Kylo’s torture dungeon. Kylo starts extracting information from Rey using the Force. He’s peeling away all of her layers.

Until Rey decides to fight back. She is a novice, completely untrained, but she still manages to break through to Kylo’s mind and get to the root of his fear. He wants to be like his grandfather. (He’s doing a really good job of being the whiny youthful version.)

I appreciate that the writers allowed Kylo to have a backstory that is not hidden, to give him moments of humanity and doubt. They kept him from being a faceless monster. This is great in a narrative sense, but it did feel like Kylo was less of a threat than he could have been. What was menacing was that scene. You know the scene. It was the one that plucked out our hearts, set them on fire, and left us gasping for air.

It’s official. Han Solo is dead. He was struck down in Oedipus fashion — the son murdering the father. Kylo’s reasoning was that Han was keeping him tied to the light. And maybe he was right. All I know is that you don’t kill Han Solo without there being a reckoning.

And he gets one in the short term, delivered to him by the very person he thought he could control.

Another great thing about Rey is that she is fully formed in her fighting ability. She does not need the training Luke needed to wield the lightsaber. She fought on the mean streets of Jakku to survive. The fight between her and Kylo is cinematic — pure movie magic — dramatic, full of sorrow and rage, and a culmination of all of Kylo’s evil and Rey’s growing heroism and burgeoning leadership. She manages to use the Force to draw the lightsaber to her instead of Kylo. And then she summarily hands him his pride on a platter. She beats him. She uses the Force to center herself, in a way that the rage-burdened Kylo cannot.

And she wins. It’s unclear if she would have killed him for killing Han — the only father figure who has ever showed her irascible kindness, respect, and pride — because the ground splits open and they are separated. Chewie rescues Rey and an injured Finn from the Death Star 5.0 and they return to the alliance as heroes, weighted with their friend’s death and determined to find Luke once for all.

Then, miraculously, the droid we’ve all been looking for wakes from his droid nap and the map to Luke is revealed. R2D2, BB-8, and C3PO have a scene together and it is magic. I know they have offshoots planned, but I would take a movie of C3PO getting offended and exasperated by BB-8’s and R2D2’s continued insults and misadventures. Hear me, J.J., for I have spoken.

Rey leaves the Alliance, promising Finn she’ll see him again, and goes off to a planet she has dreamed about more than once in order to find Luke. The movie ends with the woman who managed to do everything by herself — to be resourceful and a loner throughout her life — reaching her hand out to Luke. She offers him the lightsaber that was the source of her awakening; she reaches out her hand in acknowledgement of who she is and who she is becoming. She silently askes Luke for help and Luke hesitates, his failure with Kylo on his face.

The Force Awakens had great moments — the humor was always spot-on, the sound and practical effects blew my mind, the pacing by J.J. Abrams was solid, and though the writing felt as if it had too much attention to the past, creating scenes that had already been done, everything kept moving forward in a way that did not feel tiresome or boring. It left this Star Wars fan feeling giddy and eager for the next installment.

Stray Thoughts
  • Rey is the hero we all deserve. (Chelsea is planning her proposal to Daisy Ridley at this very moment.)
  • Finn trying to go to Rey’s aid when first he sees her, only for her to kick butt and then look at him like she wants to do the same and he takes off running? That is a first for any film I’ve ever seen, and it was perfect.
  • Finn’s humanity in the wake of complete evil is AWESOME.
  • Finn and Poe's cute escape and banter though.
  • Chewbacca being completely unimpressed with Han Solo being a war hero is the best.
  • There was more attention paid to making the characters feel real and their worlds lived-in.
  • The humor was also very real and very important to the narrative, breaking up the drama in a way that made everything so much better. This film is practically half comedy.
  • When Kylo is temper tantrum-ing and the Stormtroopers back away slowly in a total, “Nope,” moment I laughed. I knew it was coming and I still loved it.
  • “Why do you keep doing that? Gesturing with your chin? What is that?”
  • Rey rescuing herself and being the entire reason everything gets done is what I’m here for.
  • “You’re cold?”
  • Rey and Finn bickering, pushing on each other, being scared together, and Finn taking Rey’s hand and her being irritated by it and shouting at him. I hope the hand thing turns into a running gag, because it is super cute.
  • That fight scene was perfection and I will defend it to the end.
  • BB-8 and R2D2 are the droids we deserve to be honest.
  • Luke’s beard must stay floofy by the power of the Force, because I didn’t see a shower on that secret island.


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