So yeah I saw a Star War and I have a lot of thoughts, I know you're shocked. (No spoilers till the cut.) My more reserved reaction the first time around was of relief and satisfaction, but after repeated viewings I think this is probably my third favorite Star Wars movie. I'm not going to bother talking much about the plot, which really plays it safe (though personally I found it kind of charming in its simplicity/familiarity) and is handled like an afterthought compared to the real work there was to do here, which was getting us to accept the new characters.
And the more I digest TFA, the more I think the things in it that work and are good are really, really good, for the most part. This has new characters who have overnight become some of my favorite original film characters, a general look and feel that is just right, and I think some of the best music John Williams has done for the series since 1980. This and Mad Max: Fury Road were two things I saw this year that made me hopeful that people in the industry may be starting to learn/remember how to make the kind of movies I love really well, not just serviceably. And it's super exciting that a generation of kids are now going to grow up with a version of the Wars that has a woman and two men of color as its main heroes.
Sure, this movie has flaws and some of the unavoidable baggage of what movies have become today (largely because of Star Wars, ironically). But those classic ones that I had to accept these new ones could never live up to also have flaws. Though it's weird to credit the success of a cultural phenomenon to something so seemingly subjective, I think the impact of these movies has always mostly lied in simply the way it makes people feel to watch them. And watching The Force Awakens made me feel a lot of the kind of joy that's missing from so much of pop culture these days. It was no religious experience, but I'd say the movie does somehow unthinkably manage to transcend the commercialism of the money-sucking empire this franchise is, and just does its thing. This is Star Wars. Thank God.
THE SILVER TRIO (+ THAT RILO KILEY GUY)
One thing I hoped going into this movie is that the new heroes wouldn't feel too much like new versions of Luke, Han, and Leia (fans certainly had a lot of speculation about who was supposed to be like who). Thankfully there are clear similarities but overall they don't, they're really wonderful characters that stand on their own.
I especially love how Rey, Finn, and Poe are all just so lovable and non-jaded. The original trio had the fun mix of Luke's purity, Leia's tenacity, and Han's swagger; even if Rey can be a bit tough and guarded, by comparison these new three are just sugar and spice and everything nice. I adore Finn's relationships with Rey and Poe and it's refreshing that these dynamics don't cheaply rely on Whedon-style banter and a competition of egos.
Instead these guys help, encourage and motivate each other, and rather than feeling hokey this gives a grounded believability to their acts of heroism in a movie that is largely about people having to find the nerve to do things (which actually applies to Ren's horrible acts, too). Poe giving Finn a name and his jacket, the only article of clothing Finn wears in this movie that wasn't provided to him by the First Order, helps him start to build his own identity and it means everything. And as much as I hate to appear to be unfavorably comparing Han/Leia to any couple, there is a warmth to the Finn/Rey relationship that was rarely seen in the Tracy-and-Hepburn-ish scenes of belligerent sexual tension between Leia and Han.
I was really bothered to read an article claiming that the film serves its black hero really badly by making Finn so anodyne in expressing any romantic interest in Rey, and basically talking like the fact that Finn doesn't "get the girl" at the end shows a clear fear of going there with an interracial pair and makes him just a sidekick and a joke. Hello?? It's only the first movie? (Not to mention this idea that the hero should get the girl reinforces rape culture and white male entitlement, I mean WTF is this writer doing...) The hints of a romance between Finn and Rey are subtle and restrained, but I enjoyed that. It seems right given the kind of sheltered/limited life experience they have both had in their own way at this point (Rey can't be used to anyone asking her "Are you okay?" or "Did he hurt you?!" much less anyone wanting to hold her hand). The way it was handled makes me think of something my favorite filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki has said about how he prefers to approach romance:
"I’ve become skeptical of the unwritten rule that just because a boy and girl appear in the same feature, a romance must ensue. Rather, I want to portray a slightly different kind of relationship, one where the two mutually inspire each other to live. If I’m able to, then perhaps I’ll be closer to portraying the true nature of love."
(He and George Miller would get along so well.♥♥♥♥)
I will stop screwing around and show my cards though, Poe Dameron is my fave of the new characters. I love how his appreciative and encouraging treatment of people seems to come very naturally to him as a leader and an older character. I really want to know his backstory, how far back he goes with Leia's family, and how close a relationship he has with her. (The opening scene suggests he's part of Leia's most trusted circle of allies who understand that, like Maz says, the fight that really matters is against the dark side and therefore finding Luke is everything. Probably because his parentage gives him a reliable perspective of what is and isn't myth about the war against the Empire.) Lots of people are just dismissing him as this cocky ace pilot cliche, but I immediately found him to be a refreshing and even subtly subversive take on character types we've seen before in SW. This article describes the whole appeal of the character so perfectly in this bit:
"Poe Dameron is introduced as the best pilot in the Resistance, implicitly trusted by Leia, tasked with finding Luke, and he immediately proves himself to be highly skilled, full of chutzpah, and very defiant of the First Order’s authority, even when captured and tortured. He’s got a mouth on him, especially when it comes to Kylo Ren (a man he very likely grew up with, given his canonical off-screen backstory). He’s unquestionably the space cowboy of this piece. In the past, a guy like this would display all the trappings of typical male posturing — just look at Han Solo. He’s pretty much the blueprint from which characters like this have been copied for the last 40 years.
But Poe isn’t like that. He’s different. In the best possible way, he has nothing to prove, and it makes for a very refreshing change. He’s an action hero without a chip on his shoulder. Poe is fearless, but not reckless. He’s compassionate, he doesn’t feel the need to pretend he doesn’t have feelings, even about his little droid. When he’s not whooping in delight while flying, he speaks softly and kindly. He’s confident about his abilities — 'I can fly anything' — but it never transgresses into cockiness, and he admits when he’s challenged. Rather than swagger, he moves with an old-Hollywood grace: in the moment where he climbs out of his X-Wing at the rebel base after the battle on Takodana, he looks like an aviator from the 1920s — all he needed was the silk scarf. He’s respected as a commander and beloved as a friend. He doesn’t have to be convinced to believe in things, or in people — there is nothing bitter or hardened about him, but there’s also nothing naive...Regardless of sexuality, Poe Dameron is a fantastic, exciting, attractive, atypical portrayal of manhood."
He does seem the most like Han Solo on the surface, but like a lot of other fans I'm pretty in love with the idea that he might particularly be like a son to General Organa, especially now that she's been separated from her whole family. It would be perfect considering...
I had to manage my expectations in preparation for this movie, because the heart of Star Wars to me has always been the classic characters. I am such a cornball about it that seeing everyone reunited for the happy ending at the end of RotJ is always one of the most satisfying scenes in any film for me to watch, like getting to the part in the Return of the King book when the Fellowship is finally back together. And I knew it was just unreasonable to imagine the new characters could ever be that close to my heart. But now that I've seen the movie, I do actually care about the new characters a lot and find them very worthy of this franchise, which for me is saying a lot. I'm already invested in seeing them go on their journeys and (hopefully all) get a happy ending.
I'M FORGETTING ABOUT KYLO REN THOUGH, SHIT. I really like Ren, though I'm more reserved with my feelings about him I guess because he could be made or broken by his further development. Yeah, he's an emo little punk like Anakin, but he exudes all the charisma, intelligence, and general badass-ness that the character destined to become Darth Vader should have had. Obviously the central mystery of the character is how he has trained with Luke as his master yet come to specifically idolize Vader (like, doesn't he know...?) I can imagine ways it could have been really complicated for Ben and messed him up that the two other known Jedi in his family he has to be compared to are Darth Vader, who is probably still remembered as embodying the evil of the Empire, and the great war hero and paragon of virtue that is Luke Skywalker.
And on a meta level it's perfect that Ren's whole issue is he'll never be Darth Vader and he knows it, because there will never be another Star Wars villain that iconic and memorable. It's somehow appropriate that his mask is all for intimidation and inside he's just a volatile, petulant child having a tantrum and that's so uncool, because what's easy to overlook about Vader in the OT is that he's actually a kind of pitiful figure who's not the evil overlord in charge of everything; he isn't taken seriously by other officers in the original movie and is ultimately the Emperor's expendable lackey. And how I especially love the moment the Max von Sydow character faces him and makes a point of undermining the intimidating image he assumes by acting familiar with him in front of everyone.
THE GOLDEN TRIO
Okay, so Han and Leia.
They have to be one of the most universally loved couples in all of pop culture, and I'm sure what this movie did with them didn't sit well with a lot of fans. But I came in pretty much expecting them to have had a troubled relationship after losing their son, which I predicted Kylo Ren would turn out to be (literally the only big surprise for me in this movie was that the desert planet shown in the trailers isn't Tatooine). Han has probably always kind of felt unworthy of Leia and of being a family man and all, and it seems very in-character that he would leave everything behind when it got really difficult and painful. But all this makes it more poignant that he dies confronting what he's been avoiding dealing with, and thinking about how many lousy fanboys might complain that he went out in a "wimpy" way just makes me feel even better about it, LOL.
It also somehow seems consistent with Leia's character that she would deal with what's happened by burying herself in her responsibilities as a leader and almost getting too used to the isolation. It's very sad seeing Leia having been left by everyone. I was reminded of a deleted scene from Empire when Luke has to break it to Leia, who's already frustrated about Han planning to leave the Rebellion once and for all, that he has to go away for a while to Dagobah, and she gets abrasive about it basically saying "Fine, who needs you guys" but is obviously upset that her friends she relies on the most appear to be leaving her to go on with this fight alone. Starting from when her planet got blown up, Leia's a character who has now consistently had to internalize her hurt, disappointment, trauma, and grief to keep on a brave face for everyone else.
I would have liked Leia to have more to do, but I understand why this had to be Han's movie. I loved how he bonded with Rey, and it was honestly a more convincing mentor relationship for the time they had to develop it than Luke ever had with Obi-Wan, so his death worked well as a driving motivation in the last act. It was a bit of a surprise to me that his ship didn't end up perishing along with him somehow because it's soooo old now, LOL. But I love that Chewie got a lot of love from this movie and is going to go on being its co-pilot, and also that he's there at the end ready to interrupt whatever wise old man things Luke will have to say by grabbing him into a very undignified bear hug as soon as he sees him in episode VIII.
Luke is my guy and always has been. He is my favorite film character ever. So I'm certainly glad his absence from most promotional material prepared me for there to be very little of him in VII. And I actually really like that he is this absent mysterious figure that is saved for the very end. When he finally appears it's a truly epic and haunting moment to leave off on, and it left me feeling like as good as this one was, the Star Wars movie I've really been looking forward to seeing is going to be the next one.
There may be a lot that does not seem right about this ending plot-wise (though I have my own ideas about why R2 conveniently woke up then and why Leia would send just Rey and Chewbacca off to follow this map). But regardless of all that, this ending feels so poetically right. Every movie in this saga ends in a scene with no dialogue, and the purely visual storytelling this uses from that last look at the Resistance watching the Millenium Falcon fly away to the looks between Rey and Luke as they silently acknowledge each other...It's all so perfectly, satisfyingly Star Wars.
Is she his daughter? They wisely left a lot to be explained and dealt with in the next movie, but I don't think they're really trying to be coy about the possibility. There are no coincidences in the Star Wars universe. What makes me about 95% sure of there being a relation is that all those in the writers' room thought it worthwhile to bring back the Skywalker heirloom lightsaber, the one Luke lost in Cloud City along with his hand, despite how awkward that will be to explain later.
Also she called the Falcon garbage, hahaha. Like father like daughter.
And assuming that she is a Skywalker and that there's something like a 15-year age difference between her and Ren, it would actually make a lot of sense that Luke, after losing his nephew to the dark side, would feel the need to protect and hide his daughter from Snoke and Ren at any cost while he goes off to find whatever kind of answers he's looking for in this Jedi temple. I sure hope his actions will be more understandable and justified after what we learn in VIII and that there is more to it all than him just running away from his failures for no well-explained reason like Yoda and Obi-Wan pretty much did. I think you could argue that so many of the rehashed ideas from IV that are in this movie are actually kind of an improvement on how they were done before, so I hope the next one doesn't disappoint me in this area.
JOHN MF WILLIAAAAAMS
I can't believe the lukewarm reactions to the score I've been seeing, people don't know what we have with this (and what we DON'T HAVE these days in film music). The original movie came along at a time when movies had become so gritty and lacking in escapist fun, and the traditional symphonic film score was basically dead. In other words, a time kind of like the one we're in now. Bombastic and romantic themes you can hum are depressingly absent from almost everything now, and it's partly because moody bullshit like Man of Steel is too cynical in essence to call for that style.
Listening to a new Star Wars soundtrack by John Williams has honestly made me more emotional than the experience of seeing the film. I am so in love with Rey's theme. It's kind of an easter egg that it's deliberately but subtly similar to the Force theme (often mistakenly thought of as Luke's theme), which has always been my favorite from these soundtracks. There's a very pretty moment near the end of the end credits track where these two themes are laid on top of each other, which you can hear a clip of here...
I admit there's an unfortunate emphasis on action cues on the soundtrack because of the fast pace of the movie. Even in the OT soundtracks, Williams's action cues can be kind of boring to listen to (with some major exceptions like "The Asteroid Field" from ESB). But there's still some gorgeous material, and the last three tracks on the album in particular I can't stop listening to. The one moment in the music I've always taken notice of while actually watching the movie and gotten some chills from is in "Farewell and the Trip," where it uses the main title theme while everyone watches Rey leave in the Falcon and then beautifully transitions into the last iteration of her theme in the movie as she enters hyperspace. All three times I've seen TFA I've sat through all of the end credits just to hear the music blasting in a theatre.
I really hope Williams returns for the rest of the main saga, and if Star Wars In Concert comes to Chicago I know I will be seriously thinking about going.