The Force Awakens is a strange beast. A fan-service heavy retread of the Original Trilogy, but one carried by new and exciting characters that make the whole thing worthwhile. And while it has enough logical lapses and missing information to be mistaken for a Chicago police report, its bombastic, mile-a-minute éclat, among other factors that might not immediately stick out, renders all of that secondary. It’s a Star Wars movie through-and-through, but make no mistake, this is J.J. Abrams territory. We’ve crossed the moats that were his Spielberg imitation (Super 8) and his intellectually vapid yet viscerally exciting Star Trek films, and we’ve finally arrived at his high castle. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the culmination of his many years as both a fan and a filmmaker, for better or for worse, and I wouldn’t hesitate to call it the definitive puzzle piece of his oeuvre. The most interesting part of it however, the likes that neither he nor Star Wars have ever had before, is Kylo Ren, who happens to be the perfect encapsulation of the film itself.
Masked, clad in black, and obsessed with Darth Vader’s legacy, Ren fashions his villainous persona out of familiar iconography, and is, for all intents and purposes, the Vader parallel in this new Star Wars. However, Vader he is not. He wears a mask out of choice rather than necessity, but no booming commands come through it. He is petty. He is angry. He is insecure. He’s at his scariest when he says nothing, and his very first exchange involves Poe Dameron making fun of his demeanor, and his obfuscated voice. Where Vader once stood unmoved, resolute, striking fear in the hearts of his subordinates with little more than the wave of a hand, Ren throws temper tantrums with his lightsaber, slashing at control panels until there’s nothing left to lash out at. Even Stormtroopers, the druids of the new Empire, know full well that he needs to be left alone when he’s throwing a fit. How do you make a new Star Wars villain that lives up to Darth Vader? You don’t. You make him Anakin Skywalker instead, not the mythical Anakin whom Alec Guinness calls the best pilot in the galaxy, but the Anakin of the Prequel Trilogy who fails to live up to Darth Vader entirely, and you make him aware of it.
Make no mistake, Ren’s control over the Force is unparalleled. He’s cultivated a skill set that even the Emperor would be jealous of, breaking people’s will through Force-induced interrogation, and knocking them unconscious without so much as a touch. He stops laser-fire in mid air, and his command over his powers seems almost effortless. It’s that same effortlessness with which Abrams directs his kinetic action, and slips into ‘Star Wars-mode’ in terms of how his characters interact and how their viewpoints and philosophies are immediately at odds with the plot. His failure however is also Ren’s, in that he’s too drawn towards his own instincts. Ren, like Abrams, shoulders the responsibility of living up to a legacy, but if the film suffers, it’s from a clear internal conflict between wanting to be Star Wars, and wanting to out-do Star Wars without first letting the cement dry.
The film’s biggest strength however, an extension of Abrams’ own approach to filmmaking, is that no matter which direction these new characters are pulled, their central conflicts stem from their innate empathy. This is where a 1:1 comparison between Ren and the film might seem to break down, since he sees his empathy as a weakness of person, but like the other new players on the Star Wars chessboard, it’s his biggest strength as a written character. Where Abrams prior space-set films lack the kind of storytelling intellect that would make them whole, they’re driven by characters and performances at constant emotional odds with their environment. While Star Trek Into Darkness was both a re-tread of the plot of Wrath of Khan and the character arcs in his own Star Trek, its failures are not in its forward momentum. Abrams has the ability to imbue his scenes with the kind of visual energy that earned his Trek films the label of his first two Star Wars attempts, which given the comparative contexts of the two series can be seen as a derision, but that’s hardly the case when he applies the same visual language to an actual Star Wars film. Where his storytelling abilities are lacking ‘intellectually’ – the film’s structural failings require one unearned coincidence too many to propel the plot forward – he makes up for it by employing the same kineticisim of action and character he’s known for. He atones for his weaknesses by doing what he’s always done, only here its effect is doubled, because it involves employing a visual language perfectly suited to Star Wars from the outset. That’s where Abrams’ smarts lie, and success of The Force Awakens as a cinematic experience rests completely on the fact that the ‘intellectual’ elements of his wheelhouse have always been filtered through a lens from a galaxy far, far away.
Kylo Ren is a crystallization of The Force Awakens. He’s built himself from the language of Star Wars, imitating Darth Vader’s appearance while, ironically, espousing elements of his own lineage he’s unaware of - implicit elements of Anakin that George Lucas wasn’t able to capitalize on in Episode III. (He also has Anakin’s hair, and even a facial scar at the end!). He’s fluent in the language of the Force, but his biggest moment of hubris comes in the form of deciding he no longer needs the map contained within BB-8. It’s a straightforward, technical solution that would solve a lot of problems, but his confidence in his control over the Force leads him to skip a step or two. He kidnaps Rey instead, hoping to extract the information from her, but he comes up against a brick wall. You can probably see where I’m going with this.
The Millennium Falcon just happens to be on Jakku, which just happens to be where the map to Luke Skywalker is, and Han and Chewie just happen to be floating around the planet when Finn and Rey steal the Falcon, and Han just happens to take them to where Luke’s lightsaber is, and so on and so forth. I don’t have a problem with any of these individual elements, but the compounded impact of them could’ve easily been avoided with just a little more thought. Similarly, R2-D2 springing back to life right after the Resistance has destroyed Starkiller Base is a convenience without real reason, and providing one within the context of the film would’ve done it wonders. These elements of the film are little battles between the intellectual and the visceral, and they can risk getting to a point where the latter outweighs the former so greatly that it ceases to make sense, and it’s not like audiences don’t notice these shortcuts either. In fact, I’d argue that they matter quite a bit in a film where every other moment of plot progression is dictated entirely by character decisions. It’s a matter of “Oh, okay, I guess that happens” versus “Oh, this makes complete sense from a story and character standpoint” and while the former isn’t necessarily a deal breaker, even in two, three or four instances, it does act as an anchor that weighs the film down at times.
That being said, when the plot does move in a motivated way, it stems from characters making decisions that are all tied to each of their internal conflicts. While Kylo Ren attempts to bury his empathy, a pull towards the light that he wants to purge from his very being, empathy is the force that awakens in Finn, one of the many Stormtroopers conditioned to kill from an early age. Finn is an incredible character, and a brazen metaphor for the kind of military industrial complex that touts war as a primary necessity. He’s the face of youth breaking through the barriers of nationalist brainwashing, and his strength, much like Kylo’s self-perceived weakness (something that could very well be a strenght in the long run), is his innate ability to care. Rey’s empathy even extends to artifical intelligence, and protecting BB-8 is what gets her entangled in the plot in the first place. She’s reluctant to leave Jakku, believing that her family will someday come back for her, but a big reason she isn’t able to change that outlook is that no one’s ever really cared enough about her. That is until Finn, who’s never been allowed to care about anyone until now. He goes on a risky rescue mission to get her out of trouble, and while she doesn’t need his help to escape, she does need it to recognize that she needn’t be a slave to a phantom family who doesn’t care for her. When she comes face to face with Finn at Starkiller Base, her reaction is that of surprise, but it’s also a moment that’s absolutely vital to her development.
“You came back for me.”
This is when she realizes that these people, this strange Stormtrooper, this old smuggler and this giant Wookie, are more of a family to her than her real family ever was. Her eyes even light up when Han offers her a job! She might be able to save herself in the short run, but she needs to be reminded that she can also save her own future, and leave Jakku behind if she needs to.
The discovery of empathy is what drives Finn, and it’s the empathy of the people around Rey, like Finn and Han Solo, that helps her realize she needn’t be alone in the universe. The rejection of empathy is what drives Kylo Ren, but its pull is so strong that it leaves him in agony. Even Han, who thought his son to be gone forever, finally tries to believe there’s still good in him. Even though he fails to bring him home, he dies believing that Ben is still his son deep down, or else he wouldn’t have sacrificed himself to ease his suffering.
While I would’ve liked to have seen a 150 minute cut that filled in some of the blanks – from the rise of the First Order to the origins of Kylo Ren – Abrams' shortcuts and missed opportunities are counteracted quite nicely by his visual panache and his penchant for character-centric humor. Ultimately though, it’s the good in these characters that matters the most. The film is simply good to its core. That’s less of a qualitative statement and more about just how much effort Abrams & co. put into making us care about these characters. Even Poe Dameron, whose entire ethos can be summed up as ‘broad strokes good guy’, is likable to a fault, and the reason for that is simple. He cares about everyone around him. He cares about Finn, a Stormtrooper who he has every reason to hate, and he even cares about BB-8, a droid that would’ve been little more than a mechanical sidekick for anybody else. So while Abrams may have given in to his impatient impulses as a filmmaker, finding unsatisfactory excuses to get characters from one point to the next, the film is bound by its own force that penetrates and surrounds the characters, only this time it’s one that we’re capable of controlling ourselves.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens is as messy as its villain’s psyche, as they’re torn between their own impulses and eager to skip to the big payoff, but ultimately it’s the light shining at their very center, one that refuses to be put out, that’ll determine their place in the long run. And that light is oh so human.