Discussion: Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens

Now that this film has been out for a bit and everyone who wanted to see it right away has presumably done so, I’m posting this, with some thoughts about the plot and so forth – otherwise known as spoilers.  So if you haven’t seen it yet and you care about these things, stop reading now.  I wrote a brief outline shortly after waking up the morning after I saw it, and have spent some time since editing it.

The film is set some twenty to thirty years after Return of the Jedi.  This is long enough for a number of dramatic changes to occur, but short enough to provide some continuity.  Long enough for Luke’s first attempt to refound the Jedi order to have come and gone, but short enough that Luke is still around.  Long enough for the Imperial forces to have been clearly all-but defeated, but then reorganized under a new commander.  Long enough for Han and Leia to have a grown son, but short enough that both are still around.  And, long enough for political machinations in the new Republic to have left only a “Resistance” on the front lines against the new threat.

As a plot element, the “Resistance” provides a good way to set up the (relatively) small-scale confrontations in this film, but its status is a problem that will need to be resolved.  What is their relationship to the Republic’s capital, exactly?  They seem to be made up of (or at least commanded by) some of the “old guard” from the Rebellion era.  This gives three plausible situations.  From most to least official: first, they might be a front-line “commando” unit, with a name supposed to have historical connotations.  (In this case, the squadrons we see could easily be only a few of a larger group.)  Second, they could be an unofficially official force, with orders from Fleet but not Senate (or possibly, less plausibly, vice versa) to confront a threat the politicians won’t recognize.  Or third, they could be a militia force cobbled together by governments (or organizations – the Star Wars galaxy is littered with armed NGOs).  I suspect the second is going to prove correct as I think it fits closest with Abrams’ general storytelling tendencies.

In coming films, the actual Republic fleet and government are going to have to be dealt with; how this is done will be interesting, as the First Order destroyed the seat of government and (according to the panicked Resistance pilots) at least some of the Fleet.  (Almost certainly not all of it – even a Pearl Harbor analogue would leave the various garrison forces, patrols, and so forth.)  Leia may turn out to be the ranking military commander at this point, which would solve that problem neatly, but not the political one.  Abrams may not tackle that directly but he will at least have to figure out what background events our protagonists must refer to.

And, ah, those protagonists.  Clearly there’s some backstory to fill in.  That Darth Vader’s grandson is a powerful Force user with Dark side temptation is not really news.  How he managed to get in a position to sabotage or destroy Luke’s Jedi training needs a little bit more explanation than we’ve gotten.  “Spoiled kid flips at not being treated nice” would seem to be the clubhouse leader, but that’s still going to require more detail.  The new Sith (?) Snoke, and his briefly-mentioned “Knights of Ren”, will likely make an appearance, and probably have something to do with it.  (Though, where are these “knights” now?)

I was initially fairly unhappy with how Han and Leia’s relationship had apparently broken down; on the other hand it’s not really implausible (especially given what we know of Han) and the reconciliation was touching.  Han’s ensuing death was maybe telegraphed a little bit, but the manner was a surprise – and the acting sold it.  That arc was well-done.

On the other side, it’s not clear what exactly the “First Order” is.  Some kind of Imperial remnant, with new funding and a new backbone in the form of two commanders – one Sith (I’m going to use this as a convenient shorthand for any Dark-oriented Force user, though the “Darth” title seems to have been dropped) and one fanatic, whose name escapes me.  (I thought the actor did a phenomenal job selling the “military dictator” role; I also thought a couple times he was modeled perhaps a bit on Putin, but there’s nothing solid enough to really make a convincing case there.)  That tension will be interesting; of course in the original trilogy Tarkin’s role was completely gone after he got blown up, but in this case the military commander will likely be in charge for at least one film while Kylo Ren works out whatever final training is in store.

On that military end, it’s a bit odd that after 30-some years, TIEs (admittedly an updated version) and X-wings (similarly with some changes) are still apparently front-line starfighters.  On the other hand, we do have an updated shuttle.  I thought having landing craft for the stormtroopers was a good touch (their aim seems to have improved as well).  While it makes sense that the Star Destroyers are still the First Orders capitals, I’ll be disappointed if the Republic Fleet doesn’t have purpose-built ships whenever we finally see them, as the Star Cruisers are canonically conversions.

My biggest complaint about the movie was the ending.  R2’s activation isn’t really explained, which bothered me, but with good work in sequels could be justified; the map bit doesn’t really make sense to me.  With BB-8, R2’s portion of the map shouldn’t really be necessary at all in a near-galaxy-wide civilization.  I can’t remember if they threw in anything about “uncharted”; if they did, then that helps plausibility, but R2’s section of the map becomes more curious, in that he apparently got back from wherever without being able to give directions.  Odd all around.  So this seems like a weak link in the plot to me.

But the weaker bit of storytelling was, in my opinion, to include finding Luke right at the end.  Obviously, there’s the desire to please fans by bringing the whole original trio into the film; but that Luke didn’t do anything, making it rather a flat discovery.  It also causes, I think, problems with the sequel.  If we had ended with Rey leaving (compare Lando leaving at the end of Empire) the next one opened with Rey reaching Luke, we would have a clear beginning to work from; or even if the next one opened in the middle of training, we’d have a clear parallel with Snoke’s manipulation of Kylo.  Alternatively, the map could have been only a starting point for a continued quest.  As it was actually done, apart from the potential for silly jokes about the Cliffs of Insanity, we didn’t really get anything to work with at this end, and I think it will be harder to pick up in the next film.

Thematically, The Force Awakens borrows heavily from both The Empire Strikes Back and from A New Hope.  The plot is more closely parallel to the latter on rough outline: new to-be-Jedi, big fancy threat, mentor dies, blow up the thing, yay.  The overall feeling is more like Empire, though: Abrams clearly knew he was picking up a continuing story, and the tone tends tragic rather than triumphant.  The idea of defecting Imperial troops had been thoroughly explored in the previous EU, and it’s not surprising Abrams brought that in: it also is a story element that seems to fit his personal themes well.  To me,  the biggest question is how Kylo/Ben will play out as a villain.  He could get a redemption arc (though I suspect that’s been all-but quashed); he could become the main villain; but I suspect he’ll get a treatment as some kind of lesser evil to Snoke – whether this means he challenges Snoke and dies, or what, I’m not sure.

Obviously more could be said, but these are some of my more or less preliminary thoughts.

Review: Star Wars Episode VII

The Force Awakens is the newest installment in the Star Wars film series – and significantly more satisfying than the last few to be released.  In terms of plot and structure it takes a lot of cues from the first two films made.  The plot is well-organized and not too complicated to communicate.  Visually it is very cleanly filmed, and the aesthetic fits in well with the expected “Star Wars” look.  Perhaps most impressive is that the trailers played up the hype without giving away the plot twists.

It’s not really a film that could stand on its own.  Coming in, it might  work for a completely new viewer, though all of the references and a lot of the drama would get lost.  Going out, it has set up many questions and answers very few of them, as well as outlining the main tensions for the next couple films, so it is not a finished story.  With that understood, overall I’d give it about a B+.

In a week or so I will be posting a longer bit to discuss some of my thoughts about the plot and background, but for now I am steering well clear of even possibilities of spoilers.