A New Chapter: J.J. Abrams Introduces the Next Generation to Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Finn (John Boyega), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), and Han Solo (Harrison Ford, from left to right) are in the hands of the Stormtroopers once again.
Finn (John Boyega), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), and Han Solo (Harrison Ford, from left to right) are in the hands of the Stormtroopers once again.

‘Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away…’ Every part of the Star Wars franchise begins with that fairy tale opening and John Williams’s trademark fanfare, and each time, the diehard fans have been passionate about it. A decade after George Lucas’s final film in the series, the latest installment, Episode VII: The Force Awakens, has smashed all previous box-office records with J.J. Abrams, Hollywood’s current favorite wunderkind to be handed over the reins for classic franchises, at the controls for the first time.

In his 2009 Star Trek debut, the director all but incurred the wrath of the fanboys by demolishing the time-space continuum so painstakingly created by Gene Roddenberry and company over decades. Expectations for The Force Awakens have been even more immane. Will the much-awaited sequel by Disney fare any better after the lukewarm previous trilogy by George Lucas or will the new Star Wars movie suffer from the same issues that made a big chunk of the loyal Trekkies become disenchanted with Abrams’s reboot of their beloved franchise?

Thirty years after the Empire was defeated, not all is well. The last remaining Jedi, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hammill), is missing, and a new sinister movement, the First Order commanded by the ruthless Sith Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), tries to seize power over the Galaxy and destroy the Jedi Knights once and for all. The new dark faction, however, is not the only political group interested in finding out about Skywalker’s whereabouts. His sister, Resistance general Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), attempts to locate him as well.

Meanwhile, her old companion Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and his first mate Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) run into some novel friends. A defected Stormtrooper named Finn (John Boyega) and Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger from the desert planet of Jakku, have stumbled across a map of Luke’s location inside a BB-8 rolling droid. Can the unexpected gang descry Skywalker’s new haunt and defeat the unholy alliance of Ren, his master, the Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), and their First Order that is apparently superior in every sense?

If what you’ve just read sounds utterly familiar, look no further than Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope – for that’s essentially what The Force Awakens is. Some may call it a glorious homage to an all-time classic; others may refer to it as a sketchy cash-in. As usual, the truth lies somewhere in between. It goes without saying that Disney is interested in regaining parts of their multi-billion dollar investment in Lucasfilm and the rights to the Star Wars franchise, but as far as The Force Awakens is concerned, the needle probably points more in the direction of a nice remake.

Many of the elements sound familiar: a Jedi-master-turned-hermit because his most promising student converted to the dark side; a wasteland where unlikely heroes are to be found; rebels being pit against a much stronger sinister empire; droids that contain a crucial secret; the Millennium Falcon; waterholes with shady characters; a father-son conflict; Stormtroopers; a Sith villain hiding behind a black mask guided by an even more powerful hologram; and a death star to boot. J.J. Abrams has wasted no time to bring back a lot of the ingredients that defined the original three movies.

In terms of atmosphere, The Force Awakens is much more classic Star Wars than the previous trilogy chronicling the journey of Anakin Skywalker. There are no truly horrible characters like Jar Jar Binks or unnecessarily stretched-out segments such as the pod race in The Phantom Menace, either. Having the majority of the original cast star in Episode VII helps as well. Harrison Ford, in particular, still possesses a commanding presence, even at 73, while perennial Oscars snub Andy Serkis and the legendary Max von Sydow are welcome additions to the world of Star Wars.

These veterans are flanked by newcomers Daisy Ridley and John Boyega, whose characters can be filed under ‘reluctant heroes.’ Similar to Luke Skywalker at the beginning of A New Hope, who claims that he must help his aunt and uncle, neither of them accepts ‘the call’ at first. The scavenger Rey initially prefers to stay on her home planet of Jakku, while Finn would rather get away from the First Order as quickly as possible after having escaped from the clutches of their tyranny. This is just one of the many ways in which J.J. Abrams’s The Force Awakens mirrors George Lucas’s earlier Episode IV.[1]

One of the differences between A New Hope and the new Star Wars movie, however, lies in the depiction of Rey. She’s basically a ‘Mary Sue’ type.[2] This means that Rey is ‘exceptionally talented in an implausibly wide variety of areas, and may possess skills that are rare or nonexistent in the canon setting. On top of that, she ‘also lacks any realistic, or at least story-relevant, character flaws — either that or her “flaws” are obviously meant to be endearing.’[3] In The Force Awakens, she rarely faces any proper challenges and seems to be a whiz with pretty much everything.

Whereas Luke Skywalker had obvious shortcomings, sometimes to the degree that he couldn’t do anything and needed to be saved, Rey never requires any help at all. She’s an expert at close combat who can compete with a rather powerful Sith without ever having been trained, a skilled mechanic, masterfully pilots the Millennium Falcon even though she had never flown such a vessel before, and gets out of The Force Awakens completely unharmed. That’s why Rey is a rather bland, boring, and unrealistic character. She’s never truly challenged or has anything at stake that’s worth fighting for.

As Landis correctly points out, a strong female doesn’t necessarily have to be ‘physically strong.’ He refers to Princess Leia in the old trilogy as an example of a believable tough woman because she (re)acts with vigor.[4] Both Luke and his twin sister are round characters. They develop in the course of and even within each of the three movies. Neither Finn nor the aforementioned heroine make such progress in The Force Awakens. If anything, the speaking name ‘Rey,’ as in Spanish for ‘King,’ should signal from the start what to expect from the exotic scavenger even without knowing her background.

While J.J. Abrams and his co-writer Lawrence Kasdan (who was also responsible for the screenplays to The Empire Strikes Back and Return Of The Jedi) are able to recreate the vibe of the old Star Wars movies, this is where the writing of The Force Awakens is fairly weak. It’s not just that they recycle certain plot elements, for you can easily argue that George Lucas’s script for A New Hope wasn’t that creative, either: he used every step of Joseph Campbell’s scheme from his seminal book The Hero With a Thousand Faces as a blueprint.[5] The new characters in The Force Awakens are irksome as well.

In essence, the prodigal son angle between Han Solo and Kylo Ren is but a reversal of the conflict between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader in Episode IV to VI, only that the offspring occasionally seems to be annoyingly unable to decide which side he wants to be on. The patricide, then, is basically the killing of Obi-Wan Kenobi reenacted, whereas Luke follows his master’s footsteps by going into exile after having lost his most promising student to the dark side. When Rey finally seeks him out, we’re taken straight back to Yoda’s refuge on the ice planet of Hoth in Episode V.

Similarly, the First Order looks and behaves just like the old Empire. They possess Stormtroopers and even a Death Star, which is called ‘Starkiller Base’ this time. Their mass gatherings in The Force Awakens, however, are even closer to the erstwhile Nuremberg Rallies by the Nazis or what you would imagine modern North Korea to be like. Yet one dissident escaping the system is a pleasant novelty. It’s a shame that Abrams and Kasdan let the opportunity go to waste to make Stormtrooper FN-2187 (aka Finn) a more interesting character with a different agenda than escaping his abductors.

Despite being a flawed sequel, The Force Awakens is not a bad movie as such. On audiovisual terms, it’s what you would anticipate from a blockbuster. Episode VII looks and sounds fantastic. The 3D effects alone make attending the film in a theater a worthwhile experience and put it on par with Avatar and Hugo in that category. It’s a joyride for longtime Star Wars fans because it finally brings back the vibe and spirit sorely missing in the Anakin trilogy. You simply shouldn’t expect too many surprising twists and turns; otherwise you might leave the cinema a little unsatisfied.

Seen at Kinopolis, Sulzbach am Taunus, Germany, on 21 December, 2015.

 

[1] cf. Kristen Brennan (1999-2006): Star Wars: Origins. http://www.moongadget.com/origins/myth.html (retrieved on 25 December, 2015).

[2] cf. Max Landis (2015): “Star Wars The Force Awakens: Max Landis is sexist and Rey is a Mary Sue *spoilers*.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cpS6TlqgLIQ&feature=youtu.be (retrieved on 23 December, 2015).

[3] TV Tropes (ed.): “Mary Sue.” http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/MarySue (retrieved on 25 December, 2015).

[4] Max Landis (2015): “Star Wars The Force Awakens: Max Landis is sexist and Rey is a Mary Sue *spoilers*.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cpS6TlqgLIQ&feature=youtu.be (retrieved on 23 December, 2015). Playing time 02:09-02:43.

[5] cf. Joseph Cambell (2004): The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Princeton: Princeton UP, p. 45-233; Christine Etherington-Wright & Ruth Doughty (2011): Understanding Film Theory. Houndsmills et al.: Palgrave Macmillan, p. 55-56.

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