THIS POST CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS FOR STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS. SERIOUSLY. IT WILL RUIN THE MOVIE FOR YOU IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN IT. DO NOT GIVE INTO TEMPTATION IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN IT.
It goes without saying that The Force Awakens was a return to form for Star Wars. It has 95% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and most fans agree that it was a solidly entertaining, wonderfully nostalgic movie. But there are a lot of naysayers too – people who think it’s a total clone ripoff of A New Hope. I couldn’t disagree more, and I have ten points as to why:
Finn is the most original new character. While Rey harkens back to Luke Skywalker’s origins, and Poe is a snarky foil to Han Solo, we have never been inside the head of a storm trooper. Watching Finn during his first battle, shell-shocked and disturbed by his comrades dying around him, was moving. Through Finn, we get a better perspective of who storm troopers are, what they go through to become obedient soldiers, where they come from, etc. It added a layer of humanism beneath the helmet, and a protagonist from “the other side” who was wholly original to The Force Awakens.
2. Realistic Violence
When a fallen storm trooper smeared a handprint of blood across Finn’s helmet, I realized it was the first time I’d seen blood in a Star Wars movie. Star Wars violence has always been bloodless and cauterized. But that scene, and when Kylo Ren bleeds from his blaster wound all over the snow, raised the stakes of the Star Wars universe for me.
And then were are the battles. I liked the fight choreography in the prequels, but many people complained that it was “dance-like”. I’ll admit, the prequel battles were too choreographed and practiced. On the other end, lightsaber fights in the original trilogy were understated and somewhat idle. But between the choreography in The Force Awakens and the sound/VFX design of the lightsabers, I actually felt danger during the vicious duels between Kylo Ren and Rey/Finn. You could almost feel the heat off the swords. You could feel that the characters were fighting for their lives. Let’s be real – Obi-Wan may say that a lightsaber is an elegant weapon, but it’s a sword made of plasma. So I loved how Kylo and Rey were soaked with sweat and beaten/burned by the end of their fight. It’s a more realistic representation of what a that sort of fight would look like.
3. Entirely Different Dynamic Between The Bad Guys and The Good
In A New Hope, the Empire was the galactic government. It was reasonable to assume that the Empire funded the Death Star through taxes, had the means to create a galactic military, and were able to keep their iron grip on the universe because they were judge, jury, and executioner.
Not so is the dynamic between the New Republic and The First Order. Unfortunately, the film glosses over how the Republic actually functions, how the Resistance serves them, and how far the Republic reaches. But from what we gather, The First Order operates more like the rebels in this film, bombarding a government they believe is unjust.
It is still unclear how they get their funding and resources, but I found The First Order to be a timely analogy to fringe organizations like ISIS which can fester and grow in a volatile, vacuum of power. They are not an empire so much as a terrorist group. While the original six movies may have showed us the Fall of Rome, these new movies seem to echo a more modern political climate.
It was fabulous seeing an excellently acted, non-sexualized female character as an exceptional pilot and future Jedi. And while this film was super feminist, it took the Mad Max route of understated feminism. Rey never needs saving – but this is never a big deal. It never seems like the writers are asking for a golden star for creating a capable woman. Finn and Han are also wonderful male allies, who do not argue with her agency or her abilities.
And of course, John Boyega’s Finn adds a well-rounded black character to the galaxy who isn’t a 70’s Blaxploitation cliché (sorry Lando…love you, but it’s true). Leia abandoned her Princess title in favor of General. The imposing Captain Phasma was a woman, although sorely underused. There were other female stormtroopers throughout and plenty of women at the rebel base and in X-Wings (including women of color with speaking roles). And again, none of this seemed like the producers were trying too hard.
5. A Capable Imperial Army
While The First Order may be a fringe group, they seemed to recognize what made the original Empire flawed. Gone are stormtroopers who are useless, disposable, and terrible at shooting. The 501st actually has characters to be proud of here. General Hux is the most wonderfully insane disciplinarian. Multiple Force users are present in the Knights of Ren, not just one Sith leader. And that anti-lightsaber electric blade that a stormtrooper used to fight Finn? Awesome. Seeing as their last Empire was destroyed by Jedi, it makes sense that The First Order would prepare themselves to fight lightsabers and other Force users this time around.
6. An Unbalanced Force…and No Sith
Without getting into too much detail about what the Force being “in balance” means, it was very clear that Kylo Ren and Rey both have crazy amounts of power flowing through them. I found this really interesting, because it perhaps implies that the Force’s balance has less to do with the scales of good and evil, and more to do with the dispersion of it’s power amongst a number of people. If you only have a couple of Force users, do they “hog” the Force? Even more head-scratching is the fact that Kylo Ren is not a Sith – he is a dark Force user of a different order. We’ve always been told that there must be two Sith to keep balance to the Force, so I wonder if a lack of Sith has thrown off the cosmos. Certainly none of these questions arose in A New Hope, and none of the Force users were nearly this powerful. And I suspect that continual analysis of this “balance” will be a key plot arc throughout the entire trilogy.
7. An X-Wing Fight in the Middle, and a Lightsaber Fight at the End
Getting into some more specific plot beats, a side-by-side analysis proves that The Force Awakens does not really resemble A New Hope. In A New Hope, our middle act is primarily occupied by Luke, Han, Chewie, and Obi-Wan heading to the Death Star on a rescue mission to save Princess Leia. The middle act of A Force Awakens doesn’t really resemble a rescue mission at all – unless you count Finn and Han going to save Rey, but not actually needing to. Instead, our new second act primarily concerns the heroes trying to return BB-8 to his home base so the Resistance can locate Luke Skywalker.
If The Force Awakens did use the same plot, what we would have seen is Rey encountering Luke Skywalker on Jakku, leaving with him to rescue Poe Dameron from the First Order based on BB-8’s intel, Luke dying at the hands of Kylo Ren during the rescue mission, and then Poe/Rey destroying the Star Killer Base with X-Wings. Finn wouldn’t be there, Luke would have had a presence as a mentor Jedi, and we wouldn’t have seen the Resistance til the last 30 minutes. Luke and Vader did not have a lightsaber fight at the climax of A New Hope….but Kylo Ren and Rey/Finn did. The Rebels did not swoop in to help the heroes save Leia from the Death Star…but the Resistance helped the heroes escape from Maz Kanata’s planet.
Of course, there were some similarities, such as the Star Killer Base destroying planets a la the Death Star blowing up Alderaan. But every similarity was either remixed in some way or shown to us as a mirror of what originally happened. Such as…
MORE MAJOR SPOILERS. LAST CHANCE TO TURN BACK. SERIOUSLY.
8. The Son Killing the Father
One may immediately draw similarity between Kylo Ren killing Han Solo to Vader killing Obi-Wan in A New Hope. You even had Rey screaming “No!” from afar as Luke did when he saw his mentor cut down. However, I found that scene far more reminiscent of the Empire Strikes Back Cloud City scene between Vader and Luke. Vader, his hand outstretched to his son, with a hope that his son will join him. And Luke, rejecting his father, and choosing to fall to his assumed death rather than to darkness.
Han, a good man, tries to bring his dark son home, mirroring a dark father trying to bring his light son to evil. Both Luke and Kylo Ren choose death over joining their fathers…except Luke selflessly chooses death for himself, and Kylo Ren kills his father because Han is an obstacle. This is the type of “rhyming” I hoped JJ Abrams would go for in The Force Awakens. Poignant, similar, but different.
One thing always baffled me about Star Wars: a lack of emotional depth. For a franchise so famous, you would think Lucas wove in heart-wrenching stuff that girls on Tumblr cry over and write fanfiction about. But rarely has Star War prompted me to cry “My Feels!” It has action and humor and likeable characters and myth. And in many ways, good writing. But between the hammy dialogue and the wooden acting that has plagued all six prior movies, I seldom felt emotionally moved.
I’m glad to say that The Force Awakens perfects the recipe. The actors are strong, the dialogue was more realistic, the writing hit good emotional beats, and there’s a sense that JJ Abrams actually directed his actors. George Lucas is a visionary and a good storyteller, but I don’t think he ever tried to pull good performances out of his actors. Whatever the reason, The Force Awakens has a beating heart that appealed to my inner fangirl on a level greater than just nostalgia.
10. Shades of Grey
There is not much of a middle ground in A New Hope. You’re either good or bad. Han Solo is the closest thing we get to morally grey, but he’s obviously still a good person at heart. We never doubt for a moment that he is a hero.
But The Force Awakens deals with a storm trooper turned Resistance fighter who has been on both sides of the war. Kylo Ren is torn between the light and the dark. Rey has a wild amount of power that she cannot control, as well as anger towards the family who abandoned her. And in a universe where The First Order are now the rebellion, perhaps we have to question if the Republic is actually a good system. We now operate in a gray area instead of black and white. And I have to give some credit to the prequels here, because the story of Anakin Skywalker was the original kernel for questionable morality on the part of the Jedi, and Separatists like Nute Gunray were almost on the right side of history.
While The Force Awakens certainly holds a mirror to A New Hope, and reflects its elements in opposite ways, it stands alone as its own film and does not hit almost any of the same beats. And even though the movie was indeed self-referential, I think it achieved at its primary goal: regaining trust of the audience. So here’s to Episode 8, which will surely be a more daring and surprising film built on the wonderful foundation that JJ Abrams and Disney-Lucasfilm have laid.