Let me come right out of the gate saying this: I am going to spoil this movie. Spoiler warning out of the way, let’s proceed.
I remember the first time I saw Star Wars. I was six years old and was with family at my uncle’s house. For whatever reason my uncle decided to introduce me to what would become my unabashedly beloved fandom of twenty years now. From the moment the original-edition VHS of Star Wars: A New Hope finished rewinding and started playing, I was hooked. Eventually his VHS copy of the trilogy was handed down to me, and the rest is history.
Fast forward a few years, I was sitting with my grandfather at a movie theater in Attica, Indiana seeing the first of the prequels, the beginning of a trilogy of Star Wars movies for my generation. Except that 15 years later, they don’t exactly hold up. I won’t take much more time out of this review to talk about the past, particularly not for prequel-bashing. Suffice to say, something was left to be desired.
Enter my trepidation when in 2012 we learned that Disney had purchased Lucasfilm, and with it the entire Star Wars franchise. Three years later, after much anticipation, I saw the first in a new lineage of Star Wars films just less than a week ago. It was in my opinion very, very good. The Force Awakens is unabashedly a call-back to the iconic scenes, characters, and themes of the original trilogy, A New Hope in particular. And that made it fantastic.
From it’s start, the setting calls back to the beginning of Episode IV, with the young protagonists of the new generation being introduced in their own special way. Poe Dameron’s mission to get a map of Luke Skywalker’s whereabouts to General Leia lands him in the hands of clearly-evil main villain Kylo Ren and the First Order (the new film’s analogue of the Imperial Remnant of the now-Legacy expanded universe).
While in the interrogation chair aboard Ren’s Star Destroyer, he crosses paths with deserting Stormtrooper FN-2187’s attempt to flee the First Order Eventually FN-2187—renamed Finn by Dameron—crossing paths with the young scavenger Rey following Dameron’s disappearance in the crash of the tie fighter they escaped in.
And of course, what would this be without the lovable droid character, BB-8. He provides no less character and is just as endearing as any of the human characters, despite being a source of some comic relief in the first act and throughout the film. Take note, George Lucas: this is how you could have done non-human characters with comical qualities.
The introduction of these characters perfectly set up the arc of their purpose in the film, and their qualities and traits make them quickly endearing. They feel familiar within the space of the first act of the film, which makes me optimistic about their carrying the franchise forward. But what would this film—itself no less an enacting of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey than Episode IV—be without the introduction of the sage older mentor? “Chewie, we’re home!”
Following a harrowing escape from Jakku in the liberated Millennium Falcon and the introduction of Han Solo and Chewbacca, and the second act follows their interactions with the new characters, their quest’s challenges and temptations (I’m borrowing a lot from Campbell in this review, I know) takes place in the castle of Maz Kanata, with Rey drawn to the power of the force in the form of Luke and Anakin’s famed lightsaber, and eventually her capture by Ren and the First Order, just before the intervention of the Resistance, led by Leia Organa herself.
Second acts of these types of heroic movies can often be slow-at-best. They often fill the role of further fleshing-out the traits that make up the main characters, setting up their great quest, and building the world around that quest. Not so with the Force Awakens. The second act adds conflict and depth to the main characters, brings literal conflict into the setting, and leaves the audience at the edge of their seats as Rey is captured and the New Republic capital and fleet is presumed destroyed by the First Order’s super weapon, the Starkiller Base.
Not to mention, the setting of Maz Kanata’s Castle is beautiful, yet largely presumed world-building. The scene in her pub harkens to the cantina scene of Episode IV, and in the same way the unfamiliarity and strangeness of the characters within echo the unease the young lead characters would experience with something so unfamiliar. Yet in the same sense, it is as familiar to us as it is to Han and Chewie, because like them, we’ve seen it before.
The third act draws us into the final battle to destroy Starkiller base. And with the reveal that Kylo Ren is Ben Solo (son of Han and Leia), Han sets out to redeem his son from the dark side. The Falcon spearheads an assault on Starkiller base, the protagonists hoping to disable the base’s shield’s before Poe Dameron and his fleet of Resistance X-wings arrive. And in the depths of that battle, a scene occurs that will no doubt go down as one of the most iconic and infamous in film history. Han Solo, in a confrontation with his son and an attempt to redeem him, is killed. Kylo Ren thrusts his lightsaber into Han Solo’s chest and he falls into the abyss of the Starkiller base.
This felt like getting the wind knocked out of me. Han Solo has been and will likely always be my favorite character in all of fiction. And in this film, to show the true evil that had overcome his son, he had to die.
Following a lightsaber battle in the snow-covered surface of the base, Rey bests Kylo Ren and escapes with the seriously injured Finn and Chewbacca aboard the Falcon. Just in the nick of time, Poe Dameron and his beleaguered squadron of fighters lands a mortal blow against Starkiller base and the remaining ships flee with the falcon to the Resistance base just before Starkiller base explodes.
As the Resistance celebrates, the protagonists mourn the death of Han. R2D2, having been in self-imposed low power mode for years since his master’s disappearance, suddenly reactivates, calling up the missing pieces of the map to find Luke Skywalker. With Finn comatose but safe in the hands of Leia and the Resistance, Rey and Chewbacca set out to find Luke. Just before the credits roll, Rey hikes to the top of a mountainous island, and a mysterious figure turns around, pulling down his robe and revealing his identity before her: Luke Skywalker.
This film does what the prequels couldn’t. It gave us new, endearing characters. It reintroduced the older characters as the mentors and guides to the new characters in their quest. It subsisted on mystery and the unknown. And in the end, while wrenching our gut with the death of Han Solo, it set up a future we can look forward to with tremendous, perhaps impatient anticipation.
This was the film that many of us, the first and second generation of Star Wars fans longed for. It was the movie that succeeded in the spirit of Episodes IV, V, and VI. It is the film that truly carries Star Wars into a new generation. I can’t wait to see what comes next.