After thirty years of waiting, and three years of hype, the latest chapter in the Star Wars saga, The Force Awakens, is here. As expected, the movie’s making all of the money in the world (already past one billion dollars worldwide), but perhaps unexpectedly, it has also been met with widespread critical acclaim.
So what is it about the J.J. Abrams version of George Lucas’s vision that has so transported even the most cynical of critics to that galaxy far, far away with a childhood sense of wonder? In the conclusion of our year-long Star Wars Discussion Series, Matthew Guerruckey, Donald McCarthy, and Lawrence Von Haelstrom are joined by Gabriel Ricard, Ryan Roach, and Taras D. Butrej for a king-sized group discussion of the latest installment in the Adventures of Luke Skywalker (wherever he is).
Be warned, we will be discussing the movie in detail, so spoilers will follow!
Matthew Guerruckey, Editor-in-chief: The first thing that I want to mention about The Force Awakens is how glad I am that the film itself, for all of its weaknesses, rises to meet the hype that surrounds it. One of the reasons that The Phantom Menace was met with such disdain was that it felt so unimportant. The stakes in Phantom Menace never feel particularly high, and there are only a few moments in which the drama or the visuals approach the grandeur that we associate with Star Wars. The Force Awakens is steeped in that grandeur, and has been made by people, from the writers, to the actors, to the director -- giant Star Wars fan J.J. Abrams -- who treat these films, specifically the original trilogy films with actual reverence. Abrams has not done here what he did with his 2009 reboot of Star Trek, which is to give us a by-the-numbers hero’s journey tale and slap on a coat of Trek paint.
But what the movie misses is the emotion of Star Wars. The action is so loud, both aurally and visually, that it’s hard to remain connected to what’s happening on screen long enough to absorb the impact of each moment on the characters. As a result, we’re consistently entertained, but only fitfully engaged. The film presents us a world that we’re intimately familiar with, and characters that we’re primed to like, but moves so fast that it seems like we’ll have to wait until their stories are in more sturdy hands to really care where they’re going next.
In A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, that emotion was carried by the score, but here the sound effects drown out the Williams score, which is, admittedly, one of his weakest of the series. It says a lot that one of the most effective sequences of the film is when Rey climbs the long, winding stairs to meet with Luke Skywalker. The scene begins with Rey’s theme, the only piece of new music to have a spirit all its own, and then reaches a more ominous pitch, before settling into the lonely french horn of the force theme, linking us back always to that moment when this grizzled old man was an idealistic desert kid, just like this girl in front of him.
Moments like that will always be Star Wars for me, and there are plenty of those moments in this movie. I just wish I knew, as Rey offers Luke his father’s lightsaber, exactly what the significance of their meeting was, where Luke’s been, and what they’ll be doing after he takes (or refuses?) the saber. And I’m very frustrated to have to wait until 2017 to know those answers.
How about you guys? What were your own initial impressions of the movie?
Gabriel Ricard, Film Editor: I was pretty pleased, for the most part. I believe Matthew said it best, when he referred to Abrams as a hack. It’s true. He is. At the end of the day, there is very little originality to be found in Episode VII.
However, at this point, I’m willing to believe that we didn’t really need originality for The Force Awakens. We needed something that would emphasize the good things about this franchise. We needed something that would get us started on the right foot. I think Episode VII achieved that. It wasn’t unique, but it was something the prequels largely weren’t: fun.
Ryan Roach, Film Critic: I think it was fantastic. Just a helluva lot of fun all the way through. Did it crib maybe a bit too much from A New Hope? Yeah, sure. But, you know, if it ain’t broke…I think Abrams needed to do that, to reassure everyone that we weren’t headed for a prequel debacle. I think Episode VIII can now go off in its own new direction (we see hints of where it might be going here) now that Abrams has proven himself worthy. If Episode VIII turns out to be largely cribbed from Empire, then I will call foul. But I don’t think that’s happening.
Taras D. Butrej, Film Critic: I’ll be honest. I loved it, but I don’t know if I loved-loved it, you know? I need to see it again because I missed a lot of details. That’s what happens when you’re too busy letting your inner eight-year-old squeal with excitement.
Still, it was a fantastic film. It met my expectations and after another viewing or three or four more times, there’s a good chance it will exceed them.
Lawrence Von Haelstrom, Contributing Editor: The first thing I want to say is, I like this movie. It has the best, most interesting acting of the whole series. it's the wittiest and most (intentionally) funny of all the Star Wars films. There's a lot of charm in the movie. It's a solid thumbs-up. HOWEVER, there was a lot that put me off. When Disney took over from George Lucas, I figured we would be losing his imagination and artistic determination. In exchange we would get getting better acting and better coherency. And we got better acting. Look at all those “5/10/30 questions we have about the Force Awakens” articles that have appeared everywhere from USA Today to Wired. There is a lot of unresolved, half-baked stuff in this movie. (Why did Poe leave Jakku and abandon BB8? Why does Leia hug Rey when they’ve never met before? How is Rey so powerful with the force? Why is there a map to someone who doesn’t want to be found?) Certainly there are various fan-theories (mostly explaining things away with “because the Force.”) But there has not been a Star Wars movie with this much simply missing from it. It’s very frustrating.
My major roadblock for this movie, though, is the style, editing and pacing. There is just so much moving camera, unmotivated camera angles, and arhythmic cuts, I can’t get fully into it. Can I have a damn establishing shot? How about a dialog scene that isn’t just alternating close-ups? Can I have something, anything, that shows me where things are in relation to other things? Can I have any moment where the film isn’t telegraphing exactly what I should be feeling or noticing to let my imagination in. Just one moment. Ultimately, this is what kept me from fully enjoying the movie. I can explain away any narrative inconsistency, (I don’t know, man, the force did it.) but I just can’t love a movie that doesn’t let me have my own headspace in some way.
Donald McCarthy, Features Editor: I left liking it, but with some qualms, many of which decreased over time. I left thinking the film was probably a B-/B but by this point I think I’d give it a B+. My two main issues are thus:
The state of the galaxy is needlessly vague and that could’ve been cleared up with only a sentence or two of dialogue or only a sentence or two more in the opening credits. Because I like the universe the Star Wars saga has given us, this bothered me more than it might others.
The pacing of the film went a bit askew in the second half. The first half was great, not too rushed, but the second half felt a little repetitive once Han, Rey, and Finn reached Takodana. I kept thinking that a lot could have been cut from that sequence. I felt this doubly so when the ending of the film was too fast. I wanted a lot more to the resolution of the search for Luke. What was said before Rey took off? What was the journey like? What was known about the planet? Did they detect anything else on the planet? As is, it felt like we went from the Starkiller Base being destroyed to all of a sudden Luke is found. Felt too easy.
Matthew Guerruckey: One thing you guys mention a lot, and that I’m hearing from practically everyone who has seen this movie (and, judging by the ridiculous box office numbers, practically everyone already has), is how fun it is. And I agree with that, and for me it begins with the characters. And what surprises me the most about the movie is that the characters that I’m most excited to see continue forward are the new folks. Rey, Finn, and Poe are a strong trio of charismatic, interesting characters. But much of that is carried by the actors. Poe, in particular, is sort of a nothing on the page, but is played by Oscar Isaac, maybe the most charismatic and versatile actor working today. He brings an air of confidence and swagger to the role that makes Poe feel like Han Solo as played by a young Al Pacino. And because he’s so good, we forgive the fact that Poe disappears without explanation and then reappears with even less explanation halfway through the movie.
Likewise, the good things about Finn’s character come to us from John Boyega, who is just an adorable, awesome human being, but his character doesn’t necessarily make any sense. How exactly did the First Order’s training fail so miserably with Finn? What is it about his character that makes him recoil from the violence that the other stormtroopers don’t shy away from? Boyega plays it well, and Finn’s conscience makes us like him right away, but it doesn’t all add up. Also, Finn is very much a modern action movie character, a quipy, brash, excitable kid in way over his head. If Boyega wasn’t so instantly likeable, would we give a shit about Finn’s journey, since we’d seen it so many times before?
But the character with the biggest burden to carry is Rey Skywalker. Oh, sorry, we’re not supposed to know that yet. Rey -- just Rey, then. For now. Whoever Rey actually is, she’s definitely the center of this new trilogy, and possibly many more movies going forward, and the actress who plays her, Daisy Ridley had never acted in anything but very small budget films. Thank God she’s good. Three films with another wooden Portman or Christensen would have been a dreadful proposition. But Rey’s awesome: strong, capable, and charming. She’s also something new in the Star Wars universe, a character who desperately wants to return to her sad little home life rather than escape it. Rey is the only character in the film to have a complete arc. She leaves home, tries to run from her destiny, and then embraces it. It’s not complicated, but at least it’s complete.
Is she an over-powered “Mary Sue”? I think we need to reserve judgement on that until we know more about her backstory. Yes, Rey certainly does seem to know everything, and never needs to be rescued, and can do Jedi-Mind Tricks and disable a dark Jedi without any training … but suppose she’s actually had training that we’re not aware of? I think that Rey’s hyper-awesomeness is something that we’re supposed to be questioning. Who exactly is this girl, and how can she do all of this? I think that question will be the engine that drives the story of Episode VIII.
What did you guys think of the new characters? Are you excited to follow Rey’s journey?
Gabriel Ricard: With the exception of Kylo Ren, I’m digging the new characters. Rey is easily my favorite amongst them. Ultimately, I wish we were getting more between her and Solo, but beyond that, I like where she’s going. I like her personality. I like the chemistry she has with the other characters.
Ryan Roach: I’ll just say it; with the exception of Harrison Ford, the new characters are played by uniformly better actors and more fun to watch onscreen than any other characters in the prequels or original movies. And BB8 is funny and cute without being cloying like the Ewoks or repugnant like Jar Jar. Rey’s journey? Well, the mystery of whatever happened to her in the past is compelling, and they’re leaning hard on implying that she is Luke’s progeny, which is great, but I have to agree with some criticisms that she is perhaps too strong too quickly, with little room to grow in the subsequent movies. Is that an over-correction due to well-meaning feminism? I don’t know. It could also be that Rey is a sleeper agent who is already strong in the Force, and has just now been “Awakened”, a la Jason Bourne. Regardless, I love the fact that Rey is clearly the Luke analog and Finn is the Leia, with dashing Poe Dameron as Han. In a more perfect world, the inevitable love triangle would be Finn choosing between the two, but alas. I’m sure it will be Rey struggling with that choice at some point. I only hope that they follow the Hunger Games template and never make the love triangle a focus of the series.
Taras D. Butrej: What’s not to like? Four ‘good’ characters consisting of a woman, a black man, a robot and a Latino guy. It was nice to see such a diverse cast of characters but the funny part, for me, was the fact that I didn’t notice or care about the gender or race (or humanity) of any of them until I saw people whining about it online.
Guys, it’s a movie. It’s going to be fine. You’re going to be fine. The acting was great, I actually sympathized and empathized with them. What more could you ask for?
Lawrence Von Haelstrom: The new characters are great. What I don’t get is all the praise The Force Awakens has gotten for its “diverse” casting. The movie does not break any new ground here. Has everyone forgotten that we’ve had Katniss Everdeen show us what a complex, young female action hero can look like? Or that the Fast and the Furious series has shown what an organically diverse ensemble cast can look like? (And what diversity behind the camera can look like as well.) It's great that The Force Awakens has consciously diversified the world of Star Wars, but it is certainly not trailblazing stuff, and in the wake of Hunger Games and Fast and the Furious, it still looks retrograde. (And how about a director who isn't a 40-something, straight, white male?) But, whatever, Daisy Ridley and John Boyega are great. I wish Finn had more to do. (And, wait, last we saw him, he was being rushed to medical care. Is he going to be all right?) His character is more interesting in concept than execution. He's such a sweet guy for someone who was abducted from his family as a baby and raised to be a stormtrooper. Rey also is more potential than actual. How is she so gifted with the force? We overlook a lot simply because the actors are so charming.
Donald McCarthy: The new good guys were fine, but I can’t say I was blown away by them. Finn seemed a little ancillary and I’m not sure how he’ll fit in going forward. I didn’t dislike him, but if he wasn’t in the next movie I wouldn’t be heartbroken.
Rey was a better character, and very well acted, but I can’t say that she grabbed me in a way any of the original three did back in Star Wars, although that could also just be an age aspect; if I was 7 again I might be saying something different. I do think having her as a scavenger is a great backstory; I have a feeling we’ll see a novel about that down the road.
If she turns out to be Luke’s daughter, they’re going to have to work overtime to make that feel anything other than silly.
Matthew Guerruckey: Let me echo something that Gabe said: Kylo Ren didn’t entirely work for me. In the early going, he’s got a good screen presence, and I love what Driver does with his voice performance. It’s similar in approach to Tom Hardy’s Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, taking a calm approach to a sinister character, a voice that soothes and intimidates at the same time. But Bane, ultimately, just sounded silly and pompous -- Driver keeps Kylo Ren compelling right up until the moment that he takes his mask off. Then Kylo, or Ben Solo, comes off like a petulant child. Which, actually, is his role in this story. But is that good enough for the major villain of this trilogy? Or, is Kylo not the villain, but the hero that will need to be redeemed? His “call to the light” seems to indicate that.
But if Kylo isn’t the main villain of this series, then the trilogy is in trouble, because the bad guys presented here are the weakest part of the movie. Darth Vader and the Emperor are tough acts to live up to, and it’s hard to build up new villains that don’t lean too much on the iconography of the past, but Supreme Leader Snoke, General Hux, and Captain Phasma are all major bores. Snoke, in particular, is poorly designed and rendered, and his backstory is confusing -- all a part of this missing thirty years that by the end of the movie we still don’t understand. Hux is a standard-issue movie Nazi, and Phasma is the Boba Fett of this new trilogy: brilliant design and tough swagger underserviced by a small role.
So that leaves us with little Ben Solo. And while we’re on the topic of that name -- why exactly would Han Solo and Princess Leia name their child after Obi-Wan Kenobi? In the old Expanded Universe, before Disney’s corporate overlords took their own personal Starkiller weapon to it, Luke had a child named Ben Skywalker. And that made sense! Luke knew Ben all of his life, and it was Ben who first introduced Luke to the force, which would shape the rest of his life. But all Kenobi ever was to Solo was a “crazy old wizard”, and he was only ever a legend to Leia -- who never even speaks to him in A New Hope. “Ben Solo” is one of the worst examples of fan service in The Force Awakens, an arbitrary reference that serves no story purpose.
That gripe aside, I think that Driver as an actor can do some remarkable, and surprising, things with Kylo Ren, even if he’s presented here as a brooding emo dickweed. Was Kylo Ren a strong enough villain for you? Was he compelling and intimidating in the way that Darth Vader was?
Gabriel Ricard: This is one of the few areas in which I was fairly disappointed. No question, Kylo Ren came out swinging. It just happened to go straight to shit, the moment he took off that mask. I guess I’m a hard-sell on bad guys with daddy issues. At this point, it’s an extremely oversaturated concept. So far, Kylo is far too whiny to be a truly interesting, frightening villain. Episode VIII has an uphill battle in that regard.
I also think it was a mistake to reveal his true identity.
Ryan Roach: No, he was not a strong villain. No, he is not even remotely intimidating. But yes, he is compelling. I think he’s one of the best parts of the new series. I think Abrams and company new that trying to out-Vader Vader was a fool’s game, so they went the other way. It’s true this movie did crib too much from A New Hope, as I said earlier, but this is one of the ways that Abrams put a fresh spin on it. Ren is the inverse of Luke. He is not being tempted by the Dark Side, he’s being tempted by the Light Side. This trilogy is very much a Villain’s Journey, which is a fantastic twist on it. I suspect by Episode IX all the “Emo Kylo Ren” jokes will be gone and we’ll be looking at a formidable, nasty villain, easily rivaling Vader.
Taras D. Butrej: Kylo Ren was an actual, real-deal complex character. In the Star Wars movie universe. That’s like finding a $100 bill lying on the street. The fact that he’s not all there mentally or emotionally makes him far scarier than Vader. This is a man who is so busy fighting his own mind that he’s unpredictable. With Vader, you knew what you were going to get: a flawless automaton bent on doing his master’s will.
With Ren? There are so many question marks about his sanity that to me, he’s a much scarier villain.
Lawrence Von Haelstrom: Kylo Ren is really interesting. Philosophically, I have trouble with the idea of a bad guy struggling to hold back his good instincts. Staying "good" is a struggle because being bad, or more exactly, uncaring, is often the easiest way to accomplish something. That’s why stories from Achilles to Jesus Christ to Huck Finn to Luke Skywalker are so resonant. We recognize the strength and courage it takes to do the right thing rather than the easy thing. Archetypally, it doesn’t quite work the other way around.
Every bad guy has psychological issues, but it’s rare to see one whose internal motivations and inadequacies are so apparent. He doesn’t hide the fact the he really wants to be just like Darth Vader. He has shameless temper tantrums. (Most bad guys never have a display of anger which they don’t play off as perfectly calculated.) He and General Hux don’t pretend they’re not competing for the favor of Snoke. Kylo is so childish, but still very powerful. Where he is in the next movie will be very interesting. (If the filmmakers allow themselves to be interesting.)
Donald McCarthy: Kylo Ren is probably one of my all-time favorite Star Wars characters. Many Star Wars characters are fun, but few feel like they’re actual human beings. Kylo Ren feels real. His conflict is ugly and tugs at his soul. Adam Driver’s performance is excellent because he doesn’t try and act tough, he doesn’t ham it up, he just approaches the part in a human way, giving Ren life.
From his lightsaber fits to his broken face as he decides whether or not to kill Han, Kylo Ren had my undivided attention every time he was on screen.
Matthew Guerruckey: Look, enough of these new people, fun and dreamy as they may be, let’s get to what we’ve been waiting for since 1983: the continuing journeys of Han Solo, Princess Leia, and Luke Skywalker. I’ve referenced the now-defunct Expanded Universe before, but I bring it up again to point out that long-time Star Wars fans have been through this before. Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn Trilogy, beginning with Heir to the Empire, was our first glimpse of what happened to the big three after their celebration on Endor, and it was … fine? Or maybe it’s more fair to call it a product of its times. The Thrawn Trilogy is almost irredeemably goofy in retrospect, but at the time it was very exciting. And, in most ways, it felt very much like Star Wars. Certainly, at least, the main characters all acted in ways that were true to their behavior in the films.
But now, with The Force Awakens, we have another official continuation of the story, and I’m not sure that it feels any more official than Heir to the Empire did back then. The chief difference, and it’s a considerable one, is that these characters are once again played by the actual living human beings who played them almost forty years ago. So it feels far more official to have Harrison Ford creaking around the Millennium Falcon at age seventy, even if the sight is more than a bit jarring. Ford doesn’t quite fit into that jacket and pants in the same way, but he’s recognizably Han Solo here. In the disastrous fourth Indiana Jones movie Ford was playing a variation of the same stock action hero he’s been playing for the past few decades, but here he brings all of the same growly gravitas that he did in the originals.
Speaking of growly, Carrie Fisher’s years of hard living, through addiction and bipolar disorder, lend her a world-weariness as now General Leia Organa. That character change is a smart move, as it’s much easier to accept Fisher as someone transformed by a lifetime of warfare than as royalty. Fisher’s voice is far different than her clipped, regal (occasionally British) tones of the original trilogy, and while that took a few scenes to get used to, I actually liked her quite a bit in this movie. I didn’t have any of the problems with her performance that other people did.
But my big question going into this movie was Where is Luke Skywalker? And that question, as it turns out, is what drives the story of The Force Awakens itself. It’s right in the opening crawl: “Luke Skywalker has vanished”. And when we finally find Luke, at the very end of the movie, he is, significantly, clad in grey robes, rather than the pure white he wore in A New Hope, or the tempted-by-the-dark-side black of Return of the Jedi. Since Luke has no lines, all that we can know of his history is what we pick up from other characters. So we know that Luke set up a new Jedi order of some sort, only to be betrayed by young Ben Solo, who was corrupted, in turn, by Snoke. Luke responds to this betrayal by … running away?
That doesn’t sound anything like the self-sacrificing Luke Skywalker of the original trilogy, so there had better be an excellent reason for his self-imposed exile, especially if it includes the abandonment of a child (if Rey truly is his daughter). His majestic silver mullet may make him look a bit like a member of Whitesnake, but Mark Hamill’s wordless performance tells us that Luke has been deeply tormented for the past thirty years, and leaves Luke as still the mystery going into Episode VIII that he was going into Episode VII. Personally, I find that frustrating, but that’s also just how movies are made in 2015.
How did you guys feel seeing the big three on-screen again? How do you feel the movie handled the original trilogy characters?
Gabriel Ricard: More or less fine. With the exception of his death, everything about the handling of Han Solo was spot-on. I was extremely pleased with the way in which both Solo and Chewbacca were depicted on screen. With the other characters, I don’t think they were honestly around enough for an opinion on how they were handled. Leia seemed a little weak. Luke was obviously barely there. The other familiar faces who showed up were handled nicely.
Ryan Roach: Just perfectly. Each and every character got a “hold for applause while Fonzie enters the room” moment in their introduction, and it was extremely welcome. It was the perfect decision to make Han and Leia a presumably divorced couple, not because they stopped being in love, but because of the pain of losing Ren to the Dark Side. It added a divine level of pathos to their relationship. We didn’t see much of Luke, but he looked great. Other characters like C-3P0, R2D2, and Chewbacca got to shine as well. Hell, we even get a cameo from the most tertiary of characters, Admiral Ackbar. All I want for Christmas is to see Force Ghosts Obi Wan and Yoda next time around. And Harrison Ford…he came to play. Probably it was just because he got his wish and finally Han died, but man. This is his best performance since…what? The Fugitive? He fell back into Han so effortlessly it was like he never left. Carrie Fisher? Well…bless her heart. She was there, too. And she didn’t Sofia Coppola it, so that’s good enough for me.
Lawrence Von Haelstrom: For the most part, this was good. Maybe, just maybe, there was a little too much Han Solo. It was as if Disney and J.J. Abrams went into this thinking, Don’t do anything to piss of Harrison Ford. If he want’s two lines, he gets two lines, if he wants two-thousand, let him have it. A little Han goes a long way. Despite his name, he never was a solo character. He is supporting cast, not lead cast, and I think it was somewhat detrimental to Rey’s character that she was playing second banana to Solo through so much of the movie.
Donald McCarthy: I thought Han was handled really well and I probably enjoyed him in this film more than in any of the original trilogy. He was smart, funny, and had clearly grown from who he was in Return of the Jedi. There was real emotion when he called out his son’s name. I’m not a huge Harrison Ford fan, but Ford did a phenomenal job in this film.
I wish Leia played into the story more and I want her in the next films. I always hoped she’d become a Jedi, but the decision to make her a general isn’t a bad one, just not the direction I preferred.
Not much to say about Luke yet …
Matthew Guerruckey: We can’t talk about the big three without mentioning that, going forward, they will now just be the big two. Yes, Han Solo dies in this film. In a sense, that was inevitable. Harrison Ford has been vocal about his distaste for the character, and the series in general. He famously thought, perhaps correctly, that Solo should have died a hero’s death in Return of the Jedi, so it seemed likely that part of the stipulation of his return was that he would get his wish this time around. So as soon as Solo calls out to his son, we know this encounter will not end well for him.
Solo’s death also calls back to the deaths of mentor-figures Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi in the opening chapters of each previous Star Wars trilogies. So there’s a thematic, poetic repetition that links Han, now, to a grand tradition of the Jedi, which is pretty cool for a no-good smuggler.
Quiet, you. We’re not supposed to listen to you anymore.
But is this truly how Han Solo should have gone out? In this telling of the story, it’s how he has to die, because we need to understand just how bad, and far from the light, Kylo Ren has turned. It shows how far Han has come, since he cares enough about someone, his son, to try to save them, in the way that Luke did with his father in the original trilogy. But the scene, in spite of wonderful performances from both Ford and Driver, never transcends the inevitable. That said, Han lightly touching his son’s face as he dies is one of the movie’s rare moments of true emotion.
The saddest thing about Solo’s death is that it means that he will never have another scene with Luke -- that the big three will never be together on-screen again. There is so much unresolved between them: Luke blames himself for Kylo’s fall, but does Han? Now we’ll never know.
But, also I can’t escape the idea that Han should have gone down with the Falcon in a blaze of glory, a captain with his ship. But since that didn’t happen thirty years ago in the second Death Star, it would have been very hard to recapture that moment here.
So Han’s death, while thematically necessary, didn’t completely land with me. Did Han Solo’s death work for you?
Gabriel Ricard: Not really, no. I’ll grant that the movie needed a heavyweight death. I’ll even (reluctantly) agree that it had to be Solo. But even with all of that in mind, his death had this absolutely crushing sense of “afterthought.” Han Solo is an outlaw, no matter what. Those guys generally don’t get the luxury of dying in bed. However, I still believe Abrams and the gang could have given Solo a death worthy of his character. Taking away the fact that watching this icon die is going to be a shock, no matter what, Solo’s death represents one of the few flat elements to the film.
He deserved better.
Ryan Roach: The moment itself worked very well. The long, dreadful walk out onto the bridge. Everyone in the audience was holding their breath, hoping that what was so clearly about to happen wasn’t going to happen. Harrison Ford and Adam Driver killed it in that scene. The touching of Ren’s face was especially heartbreaking. However…the muted reaction afterwards from both Leia and Chewie was extremely unfortunate. Carrie Fisher presumably snorted her tear ducts away decades ago, which is why she merely looked mildly annoyed at his death as opposed to devastated, and Chewie got in a good shot on the little shit with his bowcaster, and then proceeded to…not really seem to care that much, even accompanying Rey on a new mission at the end. Most unforgivable of all was Leia hugging Rey, a girl she doesn’t even know, and ignoring Chewie.
Taras D. Butrej: I joked with friends that this was the only way they were going to get Harrison Ford to come back to the franchise. They had to promise that he would die so convincingly nobody would ever bother him about being in another movie ever again. Yes, it worked. It added emotional depth to a film franchise that has been lacking it for a long time. It fleshed out Kylo Ren, and gave the protagonists something more to motivate them.
For how it fits into the series? We needed something brutal and surprising. I liked the original trilogy because it was fraught with danger and had some emotional heft to it. That was severely lacking in the prequels. Now we have the holy trinity of action films: action, explosions, and emotion.
Lawrence Von Haelstrom: Yes. This was one of the better realized ideas of the movie. Each trilogy’s first film now features the death of a mentor and it was Solo’s time to go. The scene itself is one of the few moments where the film sets aside momentum for visual storytelling. Even if the symbolism is obvious--the sun’s light fades along Kylo Ren’s remaining good--it is shown with care. And Han Solo’s caress of Kylo Ren’s face the moment before he falls is a genuine emotional moment. The scene works. Han Solo has his moment, and now the new players can take charge.
Donald McCarthy: It did and I think it will even more the second time I watch it. It’s an odd death, not one in battle, but one in emotional conflict. The scene is played oddly, almost as if Han is aware of what will happen. Maybe he is. It’s not a hero’s death, but it didn’t need to be.
The last touch he gives Kylo Ren is sublime.
Matthew Guerruckey: Overall, this was definitely a fun film, and I was down with most of what it was giving me, but there are certain things that continue to both me about it. I don’t like that it was a retread of A New Hope, but that didn’t bother me about The Phantom Menace, or even Guardians of the Galaxy, so I suppose I need to give The Force Awakens a chance to reintroduce audiences to this world and this way of telling stories.
What’s harder for me to get used to is the way that J.J. Abrams makes and films his movies, especially his action sequences. There’s not much art to the way he films action. There’s attention paid to what looks cool, but aside from some obviously thematic use of light and shadow, little meaning in each frame, aside from the occasional visual callback to the previous movies.
Characters run around a lot, characters scream a lot. The camera rarely stops. It’s hard to track the flow of movement, because that flow is purposely chaotic. And, in saying that, I am doing little more than echoing critics like Pauline Kael back when they slammed the original Star Wars for being too damn fast. Ah, the circle of life.
This is a new film for a new era, and that era has given us loud, obnoxious blockbusters with muddy composition and non-stop action since the moment that Michael Bay first slithered his vile product across the silver screen. As it is, The Force Awakens retains enough of the spirit of the originals, in its characters, that I can forgive the meaningless action. And, if so much of it seems like it’s not very Star Wars, that’s only because, from this point forward, the idea of what is or is not Star Wars is fluid.
What gives me a little more concern is the storytelling. As I previously mentioned, Rey is really the only character to get a full arc in the movie, and that itself is a rough sketch of an arc. The movie sets up a mystery in the opening crawl, “Luke Skywalker has vanished”, that it never truly resolves. We find Luke, because there he is! But we don’t know the purpose of his disappearance, because Walt Disney wants us to line up again in 2017 for Episode VIII, just as they continue to kick narrative cans down the street in the Marvel series because they want us to know that there are more adventures coming down the pipe.
The only other Star Wars film to end on this much of a cliffhanger was The Empire Strikes Back, and even though we have many, many unresolved questions at the end of that movie, we’ve still seen our characters undergo dramatic transformations. Luke Skywalker’s understanding of the world is completely upended by the end of that movie, and we’ve seen Han Solo go from running from his responsibilities to accepting it. Finn, similarly, goes from running away from danger to standing up to it, but too little of his true character is revealed. Again, that is a story for “another time”, as superfluous CG character Maz Kanata tells us.
Certainly, there are some considerable improvements in acting in this movie, and it’s exciting to think that this cast, matched with the right story and the right director, can deliver the best Star Wars movie yet, but The Force Awakens is not that movie.
Did any of this bother the rest of you? How does this movie fit into the rest of the Star Wars series for you?
Gabriel Ricard: It’s certainly better than the prequels in every possible regard. At the moment, I’m not prepared to say it’s superior to the original trilogy. We’ll see how multiple viewings work to that end.
Ryan Roach: Jedi is a sentimental favorite of mine because it was the first Star Wars movie I ever saw, but objectively I’d have to say this is a better movie. I would rank this third behind Empire and then A New Hope.
Lawrence Von Haelstrom: After sitting on it a few days, I still don’t see it as the “real” story. It’s a story from the What if? universe. (“What if the Jedi didn’t Return?”) While The Force Awakens is certainly a lot more fun, it is no more “authentic” than Timothy Zahn’s sequel novels. I’m not quite sure how to explain this, but, I’ll try. There’s this movie called “Star Wars” that is my favorite movie of all time. That movie had a beginning, middle, and an end, and it stands beautifully on its own. That movie made a whole bunch of money, so they made some sequels. And they’re good. Even though it was counter to what we learned in “Star Wars,” they decided to make Darth Vader Luke’s father. But that worked because it made the stakes more personal and more resonant for the viewers. So then we had a “trilogy.” “Star Wars” became a beginning, with the middle and ending extended out. A while later, George Lucas made the prequel trilogy. Not everyone accepted them as part of the story, but I went with it.
Despite the bad acting and over-reaching stories, those movies have a lot of the same artistic and formal touches as the original “Star Wars” that I love. The prequels aren’t essential, but if you let them, they turn “Star Wars” from a beginning to a middle. And now there’s this Force Awakens (and an Episode VIII and IX, and a movie about X-wing pilots, and a movie about young Han Solo, and who knows what else.) The Force Awakens pretends that Return of the Jedi was not the ending. In fact, it supposes, not only did things not end, they reverted right back to where they were when everything first started! And I don’t buy it. If the world is right back where it was, that means that no actions in the world matters. While it’s certainly possible for a film to explore the existential meaninglessness of our lives, that’s not what I come to Star Wars for.
Donald McCarthy: Too early to say. The film mostly stands on its own, but it feels like a part of something greater in a way that A New Hope and The Phantom Menace didn’t. In a way, I have to hold out judgment until I see the next film.
Matthew Guerruckey: For all of the problems I have with The Force Awakens, I’ve also seen the damn thing three times already,and I find that I do like it a little more each time that I see it. I wrote up my review between my first and second viewings, but I waited to publish it until after that second watch. Funny enough, the review stayed exactly the same, but the letter grade moved from C+ to B-. Had I reviewed it after that third viewing, I likely would have run with a B, and still not changed anything in the text of the review itself.
By that third time, I was able to focus more on the things that I genuinely love about the movie. The entire first half-hour of the movie, right up until Rey and Finn blast off of Jakku in the Falcon, is exceptional. Not just fun, but brilliant fun. The momentum is stalled by the boring scene with the Rathtars (the giant CG squid creatures) on Han and Chewie’s freighter and the bickering between Snoke, Kylo Ren, and General Hux. And the movie never quite recovers that magic, as the plot kicks in and you realize that what we’re building to is yet another perfunctory run at a planet-sized space station. But on rewatch, those scenes feel less interruptive, and I’ve been able to focus more on what I do like about the rest of the movie, especially Rey’s story.
Have any of you revisited the movie yet? If so, did you have a different take-away with each viewing?
Gabriel Ricard: I have not. I’m planning to. I suspect multiple viewings will most certainly change certain opinions. At the moment, I’ve only seen it through the marathon I took part in. I’m confident in the opinions I have so far, but I also have to keep in mind that I watched it after 16+ hours of six other films. That definitely created a peculiar mindset for Episode VII. I don’t see my initial impressions changing too much, but I know they’ll definitely change in some form or fashion.
I will add that right now, I’m a little more confident in my opinion of the movie, than I was when I wrote that article about the marathon.
Ryan Roach: There are just too many good things out right now, so I haven’t had the time to see it again. But I will make a point of it in early January.
Lawrence Von Haelstrom: I have not seen it a second time yet and I would have liked to have done so before I committed all these thoughts to the eternity that is the internet. But, oh well. I hope to see it at least one more time in the theater, but I also have a feeling that it’s all-momentum/all-close-ups style might play better for me on television.
Matthew Guerruckey: The great strength of The Force Awakens is its characters, and the actors playing them. I’ve said a few times that I’m excited to see what Rian Johnson, who, for my money, is one of the very best directors working today, can do with them. That being said, I have no idea what I want those characters to be doing the next time I see them.
I certainly want more of Luke Skywalker. I want to have a greater understanding of what made him run away from his responsibilities, and if it was part of some master plan. I want the question of Rey’s parentage to be resolved, and I’d like to see her truly tested in a way that she wasn’t in The Force Awakens. In fact, I think that a nice character arc for both her and Kylo Ren would be for Rey to go dark in Episode VIII, and for a redeemed Kylo to be the one who draws her back to the light in the end.
And I suppose that we’ll have to see Luke Skywalker sacrifice himself for his family at some point in this series, but I don’t consider any of the characters in this series right now to be his equals, so I can’t imagine a satisfying scenario for that sacrifice. But I trust in Rian Johnson to prove me wrong.
But, more than all of this, I want to see General Leia Organa use the force.
What do you guys want out of Rian Johnson’s Episode VIII, and are you excited for it, or dreading it, based on what you’ve seen from Episode VII?
Gabriel Ricard: Presently, I’m excited, but it’s certainly a cautious excitement. They’re on the right track. It’s just a question of moving forward, while remembering what people love about this universe in the first place. The Star Wars fandom is not an easy one to please. However, Episode VII has their rapt attention. Most of us are looking forward to the next chapter. Hopefully, they won’t screw that up.
Ryan Roach: Very, very excited. I’m a huge fan of Rian Johnson. Aside from directing the best episode of Breaking Bad, (“Ozymandius”), he’s also responsible for Brick and Looper, two very good and original movies. As to what I want out of it. I have no real explanations, the only thing I don’t want is a “soft reboot/remake” of Empire. If that happens, I will definitely be disappointed. But I have every confidence that won’t be the case. Let’s hope it’s not misplaced.
Taras D. Butrej: I’m excited for it, of course. How could I not be? I want MORE, damnit! I want Luke Skywalker to have a real speaking part. I want to see if this goes full Episode IV on us or if it does what Episode VII just did, by taking an older episode in the series (A New Hope) and expanding it to make it even better. I can’t wait to see what Poe and Finn do next. I’m looking forward to seeing if Ren becomes a jedi in training or if Luke rejects her request at first.
Although, I do kind of want Mark Hamill to do his Joker voice the whole time, but that’s just me.
Lawrence Von Haelstrom: If I had any confidence that anyone knew where the story was going, I would be more excited. I just read the interview with Lawrence Kasdan in Vanity Fair where he explains how he and J.J. Abrams intentionally left so much unresolved so the next crew could have options. But what that means is, they have no better clue who Rey's parents are than we do. And that's very frustrating. Setting up a mystery is so much easier than coming up with a satisfying payoff. Will the Rian Johnson crew actually provide answers or will they just pass the box of mysteries on to the Episode IX crew? That’s the most vital question. While I have no opinion about Rian Johnson, Jurassic World was so abhorrent, I have no confidence in Colin Trevorrow’s ability to finish up the trilogy.
Donald McCarthy: I’m very excited for it and have high hopes considering Johnson’s Breaking Bad background. I’m trying not to set specific expectations, but I’ll say this: in terms of plot, I want to learn more about Snoke, where he came from, and how he and Ren did such damage to the new Jedi Order that Luke flew off to regions unknown. Other than what I mentioned above, more universe building and more Leia and Luke, I just want a smart, awesome film. I do think Johnson can deliver on that.
Matthew Guerruckey: Now that we’ve come to the end of this year-long series, I honestly feel like I could start it all over again and have completely different takes on each movie we’ve covered. This series was an indulgence, there’s no question about it (there’s no way, Donald, that this was what you had in mind when you innocently asked me “are we doing anything for Star Wars this year?”), and I want to sincerely thank any of our readers who have stuck with us the whole way, who have waded through these pages and pages of theorizing and kvetching and geekery.
Star Wars, as I find myself saying so often these days, has always existed for me. As far as I know, I was born a Star Wars fan, and I remain one, of the new Star Wars, of the original Star Wars, and even of those rickety, silly prequel movies. And no matter what the series has in store, I’ll be there to theorize, kvetch, and geek out.
This series has, most of all, helped me to appreciate George Lucas more as a filmmaker and as a producer. Certain, even many, of Lucas’s decisions were driven by money and product, but ever since the prequels he’s been disregarded as a storyteller, and I think that’s a shame. But time will smooth that out. It’s appropriate, in a way, that the company founded by Walt Disney will be responsible for carrying forward the Lucas legacy. Disney was, like Lucas, a creative turned into a mogul, and a man whose ego often got the better of him. But, ultimately, what Disney left behind has been a source of entertainment and wonder for generations of filmgoers. We who are the first generation of filmgoers to experience Star Wars now know what those Depression-era fans of the early Mickey Mouse shorts must have felt like as the company expanded.
On a personal level, I want to thank those of you who have participated in this series. It’s been a challenge to keep it on schedule at times, but you’ve all taken time from your busy schedules to chime in, and each one of you have provided opinions that have helped to expand my understanding of the movies, or of yourselves. It’s been a particular pleasure to get to know you all better through our mutual appreciation of this sometimes silly science-fantasy soap opera.
And I want to single out Donald and Lawrence, who have been with me for every discussion. It’s been an unexpectedly emotional journey, and I want to thank you guys for staying open to this experience. It just so happens that we were talking about Star Wars, but it could have been anything. We were really just talking about ourselves, and Star Wars has been, for all of us, a blank canvas for us to project our dreams onto. I’m honored to know you both better through this process, and I can’t wait to discuss Episode VIII with you both. Wherever our lives find us at that point, I know we’ll make time.
Donald, Lawrence, what do you take away from this article series? Even though you’ve both been into Star Wars your whole lives, has this experience changed the way you view it, at all?
Lawrence Von Haelstrom: This series has been great fun. It's been great having this continued, long dialog about these movies. I don't know how many people actually read through the entirety of some of our longer discussions, but for those who did, I hope they got something out of it. In a way, this is the ultimate indulgence--let's get together and write words upon words about Star Wars and put it on the internet. But I do I think we managed to be interesting without getting too caught up in nerdly esoteria. I hope that some film studies student finds these discussion and uses them. If Lawrence von Haelstrom ends up on even one college freshman's works cited page, I will be thrilled. The best movies, the best anythings, offer something new each time you see them. I think we could go through this whole thing again, and still find new things to say. (Except for maybe Return of the Jedi. That one was hard to do.)
I feel I've learned to articulate my thoughts better, not just about Star Wars, but movies in general. Even though I’ve always appreciated the prequels in their own way, (and thank you, Donald, for being an ally in their defense) this series has helped me see the six movies as a complete whole in a way I had not before. The six movies were made over the course of thirty years. Through those thirty years, George Lucas’ perception of the world and position in it changed dramatically. (So did mine, for that matter.) But, with ten years’ perspective on the last installment, it became apparent to me how cohesive the whole thing is. Despite abundant flaws, these films have a fundamental draw on our imagination and they stand as a complete body of work. It’s a remarkable thing. I’m proud to have been a part of this discussion.
Donald McCarthy: The rewatch and discussion series has been a blast. It’s definitely made me think about the films in new ways. Reading what Lawrence thought about the prequels was a revelation, for instance. Getting to break down the series each month did show how much thought and care went into the films, even the lesser ones, compared to your average blockbuster. For me, the George Lucas films will always be a little more “real” Star Wars than the Disney ones and I’m glad I got to enjoy them all one last time before the new universe began. The new films will change my perception of the old ones, even if only a little, so, should the series go down the drain, I’ll always think back to how I felt like a little kid again while participating in this series.
Thank you for reading this series over the course of the year. We'll see you in 2017 for Episode VIII, but until then, the force will be with you ... always.