I’ve had dreams where I dream a movie I’m going to see. So, for example, if I see a trailer for a hypothetical Sandman movie, some months before opening day I may dream an entire Sandman movie in my head for a night. This happened with Age of Ultron. For some reason, this happened with Green Lantern and Transformers. And, six times in the past year, it happened for Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. Usually, these dreams are absorbing, but nonsensical and awful. So if I say Episode VII is “better than I dreamed it,” that’s not high praise. But it is better than I thought it would be. I came in expecting a Marvel movie. I reasoned that Disney wants a big safe moneymaker, so they chose the safest director they could find and planned to make a fanservicey retread that’ll keep us happy, but not particularly enrich us. And sometimes, it feels like that is what happened. But for what this movie could have been, it’s better than we dreamed.
I’m a little nervous about giving out a positive opinion. The early reviews for The Phantom Menace were positive too, after all. Am I not one of those fanboys that blabbed on Star Wars on this blog for several posts? I would say yes, yes I am. And I would say the writers of this film were too, and that this film is a metaphor for fans of the originals stepping into the world of Lucas’ devising.
There will be spoilers from this point out. Most of them.
Let’s start with the villain, who I think is the most interesting aspect of the new movie. Kylo Ren’s backstory is essentially the story of all the prequels. He goes into a Jedi Academy (Luke’s, in this case), goes lustful for power, becomes obsessed with Darth Vader, gets seduced by a Dark Side Master, betrays Luke, and goes on to lead The First Order (the replacement Empire in this movie). Kylo Ren is essentially Anakin of the prequels combined with Anakin in the originals. Anakin’s childishness and seeking of approval meets with Vader’s dangerousness and cold heart (at least, when he has his mask on). He’s a Star Wars fanboy out of control, worshipping Vader and acting possessive when someone tries to ruin his “ideal” galaxy. When Kylo Ren throws one of his temper tantrums, it’s easy to imagine him going all “GEORGE LUCAS RAPED MY CHILDHOOD,” before logging onto 4chan to call Mon Mothma a hag. Deep down, he’s just a scared little kid. And I’m so glad the creators didn’t go for a grimdark “Let’s outVader Darth Vader” approach. Instead, Kylo Ren’s a rip-off of Darth Vader because he’s trying to be. That’s pretty clever.
But who are the good fanboys? Those would be Rey and Finn, our protagonists. They’ve heard of Luke Skywalker in legend, and have awe-filled respect for him. When they meet Han and Leia, our new heroes have similar reverence towards those two as well. If Kylo Ren’s a child at his worst, then Finn and Rey are children at their best. Their personalities (strong and easy to identify) are on their sleeves, and they take on every challenge with a sense of innocence. They’re also in way over their heads, as the First Order and The Resistance fight and scheme, skirmishes and plans that our new heroes get swept into. It’s easy to imagine Abrams in a study, asking out loud, “I’m way in over my head! I was just a child when these movies came out! Now what do I write about?”
For god’s sake, just look at Jakku, the planet where the new movie spends the first act. It’s filled with crashed Star Destroyers and other such icons. Our new heroes are playing in the ruins of a once mighty force. How much more symbolic can you get?
Still not convinced? Consider Luke’s story, which is the overarching one. He goes into exile after he gets betrayed and loses faith (almost like a fan that deserts the franchise after the prequels happen). At the end of the movie, Rey finds him. The Force (or, the plot) took Luke’s hopelessness and responded by leading Rey to him. When they lock eyes, Rey’s posture is all about “Accept me!” That’s what the new creators want: for Lucas, their Jedi Master, to accept their creation and deem their continuing training worthy.
But this meta story doesn’t interfere with what’s going on. I mentioned how the new main characters remind me of children, and that’s something sorely missing from the saga until now. Star Wars is not a series for children; it’s for everybody. Its gift lies in making you feel like a child and then talking up to you, not down. They give you characters as vehicles for your wildest imagination. And these characters, who wouldn’t play out much different if they were kids in a schoolyard, are just right for this.
Now, with that said, there is a distressing lack of imagination on display. My worst fear was that Disney goes and rips off A New Hope and stops working from there. And, in parts, that’s what happens. Oh, they rearrange plot points and switch around character roles, but let’s recap. This movie starts with a battle where Stormtroopers decimate the good guys, leading to a high-ranking Rebel giving a droid secret info. The droid stumbles into a desert planet’s local, a local that goes on an adventure with Han Solo and Chewbacca to a strange bar and a planet-destroying weapon. And goddammit, the Empire never learns, because they built a new Death Star.
“Oh we did not!” the film says. “It’s called a Starkiller! This one’s bigger, and it’s got more lasers, and it… it, hey, look over there, it’s Admiral Akbar!” Don’t be fooled, this really is another Death Star. And the planet this Death Star ends up destroying is mentioned once, if at all. That planet’s death hardly affects anyone outside of people saying “Well that sucks.” There is a climactic battle to destroy Starkiller, but it happens to the side of the truly interesting conflict (Kylo vs. Rey and Finn). It’s probably the least interesting space battle in Star Wars history.
And for all of these callbacks, some plot holes occur as a result. The heroes get Anakin’s lightsaber back. As in, the one that got lost in Cloud City. When asked how a character obtained this, said character literally says, “That’s a story for another time,” and drops it. No, mam, we’d really like to know. An Imperial makes a throwaway comment about how they’re not using clones anymore. But why? I know out of universe that this movie regards the prequels as the weird uncle who is best ignored when he rants about midichlorians infiltrating the government. But in this universe, clones still seem like a decent deal. “If we have clones, we can’t have a hero in Stormtrooper gear be a walking reference to Episode IV, and we can’t have that, now can we?”
There’s also a subtler, but more damaging effect that comes from this movie being written by fanboys. Han and Leia’s relationship splintered due to events in between movies; they haven’t seen each other in a long time. That’s a setup for conflict if I’ve ever written one. But when the two reunite, they have nothing bad to say to each other. They instantly know what caused their fracturing, and speak of how they love each other so much. Which is fine by itself— I like to see that they made it. But it’s not what should result from the setup, and least not right away.
So I’d say the meta plot is more interesting that the actual plot. Is this meta plot worth recommending the movie over, if it mostly comes from speculation on my part? There are other good things- action, character, worlds, lines. It’s a really good Star Wars story, if not a great one. But this meta story makes this whole endeavor feel more human, feel like someone is communicating to me. This is a movie made by fans, about fans, for fans. And I am in that number. I was 6, 9, and 12 when Episodes I, II, and III came out— I was the perfect age for those movies. As not-good as they are, I can’t hate them, because in a way I feel like they were made for me. And this movie was also made for me, a creator who feels like he has big shoes to fill and not trip in. Not bad for a giant corporation that’s only interested in your money. The love of the fans came through on this one. The creators put a lot of themselves into this story, and I think that’s one of the best, most personal gifts you can receive. I hope the next movie does that too.