FYI: SPOILER ALERT! Rachael returns to review Star Wars: The Force Awakens for us–and also make me cry, but that could be my residual feels from watching the film. I hope you enjoy Rachael’s nuanced review–it gave me a lot more to think about than my impulse “WOO HOO YAY SO HAPPY” reaction and the fact that I, like most kids in the 1970s, could do nothing for the entire weekend before Christmas except ask my mom over and over if we could go and see it again. –Karen Bovenmyer, Nonfiction Editor
A New Hope
by Rachael Acks
Great news, everyone—Star Wars: The Force Awakens doesn’t suck! In fact, it’s pretty damn fun. This is a difficult movie to review objectively because the prequel trilogy was just so soul-destroyingly bad. They set the bar so low that the new film just had to not spit in our collective popcorn to pass with flying colors. But not only was there no Bantha saliva in my snacks, I came out of the theater feeling excited and hopeful for the next film.
In The Force Awakens, the Empire, which is now run by Gollum (actually named Snoke, played by Andy Serkis) has (sort of?) been replaced by the First Order. Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a Sith Lord with both daddy and impulse-control issues, leads the First Order in the hunt for Luke Skywalker. The Resistance, which is kind of the Republic but somehow not and is basically a rebranded Rebel Alliance, is also looking for Luke. General Leia Organa (I will never get tired of typing that) sends her best pilot Poe (Oscar Isaac) to the planet Jakku. There he picks up a Storm Trooper named Finn (John Boyega) who wants to escape the civilian-murdering life. Finn allies with Rey (Daisy Ridley) to get Poe’s droid, BB-8—who is impossibly even more adorable than R2-D2—to the Resistance. They escape Jakku in the Millennium Falcon, inevitably reunite the old girl with Han and Chewie, and the film rolls on from there, with spaceship battles, lightsabers, and an even bigger planet-destroying weapon because apparently the Empire—sorry, the First Order—only has one idea.
The Force Awakens is at its best when it trusts in its feelings and lets go of the original trilogy long enough to be its own story. The cast is excellent. The actors from the original trilogy—Fisher, Ford, Mayhew and the little you get to see of Mark Hamill—are everything you could have hoped. Leia and Han bicker like an old married couple and deftly invite us into their unfortunately no-longer-private heartbreak. Ridley, Boyega, and Isaac as Rey, Finn, and Poe make an even more compelling trio than Luke, Leia, and Han did. Driver plays a convincing villain who is terrifying because he’s anything but suave and in control; he’s flailing for legitimacy and about to go the full Caligula, though with (I fervently hope) less incest and more lightsaber. BB-8 represents the droid contingent solidly, taking a place as one of the most empathetic characters in the movie. The cast plays in a colorful world that’s chock full of practical effects, puppets, and background actors in full creature makeup rather than the eye-gouging CGI that characterized episodes I-III.
It’s when the plot and the slavish devotion to the original trilogy get in the way of these larger-than-life characters that The Force Awakens hits the rocks. This film is tied strongly to episodes IV, V, and VI, and that’s both blessing and curse. When you see the little details, like the shot of Finn going down into the gun well of the Millennium Falcon and you can feel the echo of Luke doing the same? It’s wonderful. When the Empire’s plan to rule the galaxy is literally the same fucking plan that they had in the last three movies, it’s a lot less charming. I can only surmise that there’s some engineer living in Emperor Gollum’s closet, whose only function is to pop out and say yes sir, but what about an even bigger laser that can blow up a whole galaxy? What about time itself? And then presumably J. J. Abrams pulls off his mask and reveals he was Russell T. Davies all along.
There are also some profound issues during the second act, when the movie attempts to pull all the disparate plot elements together for the third act climactic battle. Rey runs off not because it meets any kind of narrative logic, but because she needs to be alone in order for the next plot point to occur. The Death Star Supreme With Extra Cheese destroys several planets we’ve never heard of for…reasons, presumably. And these planets are conveniently located in such a place that the heroes can witness the destruction because. Uh. Other reasons.
These plot issues and the regurgitation of the original trilogy into a new film fill me with concern more than hope. J. J. Abrams’s previous science fiction effort, the new Star Trek, had many of the same problems in its first installment. I came out hoping that it would make a clean break and come into its own in the next film, Star Trek Into Darkness. I’m sure if you’ve seen that movie, you’re shaking your head, or possibly throwing something across the room. So while I have hope for Episode VIII and its strong cast, I’m also worried.
What struck me the hardest in The Force Awakens, though, were the casting decisions. The Force Awakens gives us General Leia Organa (still not tired of typing that), and Rey as the obvious inheritor of the Jedi tradition. But women also undeniably exist in secondary spaces, not as slaves and eye candy, but presented as if they belong there of course. Captain Phasma runs her division without needing boob armor, thank you very much. A female X-wing pilot, Jess Testor, exists and doesn’t die, but is seen celebrating with the rest of her squadron later. Finn, a man of color, has the best character arc in the film and exemplifies the quality of loyalty. Poe, played by a Latino, is the best pilot of the Resistance. These details may seem small, but they aren’t. The galaxy far, far away is bigger than ever before, and more welcoming. On the way out of my viewing of the movie, I saw one little girl dressed as Princess Leia, and another as Rey.
And that’s the real reason I came out of this movie feeling hope.
Rachael Acks is a writer, geologist, and sharp-dressed sir. In addition to a steampunk mystery novella series, she’s had short stories in Strange Horizons, Crossed Genres, Shimmer, Daily Science Fiction, Lightspeed, and more. She’s also written six episodes for Six to Start’s Superhero Workout game. Rachael lives in Houston (where she bikes, drinks tea, and twirls her ever so dapper mustache) with her two furry little bastards. For more information, see her website (http://www.rachaelacks.com) or watch her tweet (@katsudonburi) way too often.