We barely have over a week before the release of Episode VIII. You better have your theories airtight and ready to be proven right or wrong come Dec. 15th. Having been working tirelessly on these rankings, I’ve had no time to create theories of my own other than of course my “Snoke is an amalgamation of Force Ghost Anakin, Mace Windu, and Rey’s parents” but I’m still iffy on the details. What I’m not iffy on are the details of my number 3 choice and why it’s here on the list. #3: Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens
When The Force Awakens was first released, everybody saw it once, then again five times after. “Star Wars is back!” read the headlines. Then, as weeks went by it became popular to be dismissive of the film, saying it capitalized too heavily on nostalgia. Now we live in a world where claims of it being A New Hope 2.0 are the norm. Not here, though. I’m here to set the record straight on Episode VII being a legitimately fantastic film that earned all of its initial praise. Surely the internet will listen to me.
The characters are undeniably one of the most celebrated aspects of Star Wars. Creating a new trilogy would undoubtedly put a casting director under seemingly insurmountable pressure, yet things couldn’t have worked out more perfectly here. Taking up the mantle as leads are Rey and Finn, played by Daisy Ridley and John Boyega respectively. With the character of Rey, Ridley was able to bring to life a person who almost embodies goodness. She is effortlessly charming and likeable. Asking the audience to root for your protagonist has never been easier. However, Abrams, Kasdan, and Ridley are all able to work together to keep this from being a one note character. Rey is obviously being called by the force into a universe that is much bigger than she could’ve imagined, yet Rey wants nothing to do with it. Whether it’s Han Solo offering her a position on the Falcon, or the force using a lightsaber to show her visions of the past, Rey attempts to thwart any attempt to bring her away from her home on Jakku.
A testament to Ridley’s acting ability is that we know these attempts to bring Rey from Jakku are operating off of a desire she herself has to leave, despite there never being dialogue explicitly stating as much. The excitement in her voice and smile as Han offers her a job, the wonder and delight in her eyes at seeing more green than she had thought existed, or her tear drenched sorrow upon being confronted by Maz with the reality that she knows her parents aren’t coming back and that there’s nothing for her on Jakku. Without a word, we are informed purely by the performance that this is a character who wants to leave home but is too afraid to, and that is noteworthy.
As Finn, Boyega is also able to bring the same measure of charm, charisma, and general likeability as Rey. Much of the humor of the film comes by way of his character, and Boyega completely delivers. Whether it’s his trepidation of escaping from the First Order with a prisoner, convincing a voiceless droid not to blow his cover, or insisting that they can use the force to improvise, Boyega is always dialed in 100 percent to his character so every delivery lands.
Fortunately, Boyega is also a great dramatic actor and commits in equal measures when the plot gets more serious. Within the films opening scene, Boyega, wearing a helmet that obscures his face entirely, without a word of dialogue convinces us this is someone not committed to the First Order, to say the least, using only body language. As he pleads with Rey to join him in running from the impending conflict, his delivery and facial expressions convince us just as much as the words from the page do that he has seen what evil is capable of and is not prepared to see it again. It’s an incredibly well rounded performance, and proves that, if there is justice in the world, Boyega is on his way to superstardom.
Despite my love for Rey and Finn, my favorite character of this newest episodic entry comes in the form of Ben Solo, most often referred to as Kylo Ren, played by Adam Driver. The character is oft maligned for appearing as whiny and prone to tantrums. This is unfortunate, as Kylo is undoubtedly one of the most complex and well written and performed character the series has seen to date.
In many ways, he’s the opposite of Anakin, someone who desires to do good but is aggressively called by the dark side of the force. Kylo ultimately desires to live up to the standard he perceives to have been set by his grandfather, Darth Vader, but is being as he describes “torn apart” due to his being called by the light. In many ways he is exactly, but to a lesser extent, what people claim he is. He is an emotionally unstable youth, prone to uncontrollable fits of rage. A youth, lashing out in rebellion, living under a shadow instead of up to it. Behind the mask and voice modulation, he’s an incredibly menacing presence. Yet, unlike Vader, this serves no functional purpose for him, instead existing to create a persona.
This is where the true brilliance of the character comes in. In many ways, the writing of his character is incredibly meta. It’s as if the writers understand that no Star Wars villain will ever usurp Vader from his villainess throne as fan favorite. Any attempt to do so, admirable as it may be, will fall short and just be another villain in a scary mask with a deep voice. So they wrote that into his character. This is a young man consumed by his desire to be like his grandfather. His ultimate goal is to be perceived as the great Darth Vader was, yet is unable to when unassisted due to his boyish appearance and lack of confidence when not under a guise. Because of this, he wears a mask and disguises his voice.
Every decision he makes, from wardrobe to physical action, comes from a desire to exist as the villain Vader once was, and the anger, frustration and confusion he displays when unable to attain that when stripped to his normal self is perfectly captured by Driver’s performance. As a character, his greatness isn’t just contained in his emotional complexity. Combining this persona he’s created for himself with his “raw, untamed” power creates a genuinely imposing figure. Ren is able to stop laser blasts and hold them in place for minutes on end, immobilize a person, fixing them completely in one position, as well as use the force to infiltrate the mind, probing it for information.
None of this have we seen from characters in any film prior, and when he does things that we are more familiar with, such as deflecting blasts and using the force to move objects, he does them with proficiency. Any person who is able to force pull you from your feet from 20 feet across the room and into a choke hold in a matter of seconds is worth fearing. His ability to hold his own against Rey is also a testament to his might, not something that undermines it as many suggest. In dueling the character the film has emphasized is innately and unnaturally strong with the force, Kylo is able to bring the fight to a draw, despite the fact that he was hit with a bow caster, whose strength the film has gone out of the way to prove and remind us of, and under orders not to kill but subdue. He is an incredibly strong character, both in physical prowess and in writing.
There are many other noteworthy characters making their big screen debut here as well, first of which is Poe Dameron, played to perfection by Oscar Isaac. Isaac is endlessly suave, while equally humble and charming. In one scene, he and Boyega create an incredibly fun, believable, and meaningful friendship, all amidst an action heavy escape sequence.
Domhnall Gleeson creates with the character of General Hux the quintessential Star Wars bureaucrat, committed entirely to the cause. Every line of dialogue is delivered with either unbridled pride, biting contempt, or a brilliant mixture of both. Lastly, BB-8 is introduced as the new droid sidekick. What’s amazing with this character is how expressive the creators were able make him, in spite of him being a ball that rolls. What could’ve just been a replacement R2-D2 ended up being an impossibly adorable little companion that earned his way into pop culture.
Abrams has continued to prove that he is one of the most talented working directors and showed to the world why Spielberg championed him to be the first director in this new trilogy. His action scenes always carry a near tangible sense of forward momentum, and he shoots every sequence in exciting and dynamic ways. Never content to coast off of the innate coolness of what’s happening on screen, Abrams is always moving the camera in unique ways, highlighting and underscoring the action instead of undermining it. He also keeps the audience from action fatigue by grounding every action beat in its characters. We never go too long without cutting to a principle character, visualizing how this action affects our leads and what will happen next because of it.
He also maintains dialogue in his action often, and by doing so moves his story forward at all times. As a director, he’s fantastic outside of just the in the moment action scenes as well. The way he cuts his films is quite similar to his isolated action scenes. It’s always being pushed forward at a pace just short of breakneck, even during dialogue exclusive scenes. We rarely just sit and do nothing. If we’re not physically seeing the plot move forward, we’re talking about it, and Abrams’ ability to do this whilst giving us fantastic dialogue and character development is worthy of applause. Structurally, this film is nigh perfect. It moves as efficiently as its predecessor A New Hope, never wasteful but always character driven.
Lastly, I would be remiss if I failed to mention in a review of this film how good it looks, from its design and aesthetics, to it’s actual effects. This film looks lived in and that’s the spirit the original trilogy was created with. Like the original trilogy, this film begins on the heels of previous events an the visuals tell of that. Everything looks rusty and used. Jakku is littered with the debris of a war already waged. Maz Kanata’s palace looks worn by history, through its dirt coated walls and flags, as well as its old, weathered patrons. All of this is underlined by being juxtaposed with the shiny and sleek design adorned by the First Order, created by cleaning and refurbishing the materials of a war gone by.
The effectiveness of these designs are improved by Abrams insistence of blending the practical with the computer generated. As often as he could, Abrams used practical sets and creature effects, keeping the film much more in line with the original trilogy. It all works to the films benefit, though, as these creatures all look like they occupy the same reality and space as our actual leads. Even when the film employs a heavy usage of cgi, ILM brought their A-game. Scenes like the escape from the Star Destroyer or the attack on Starkiller Base all look and feel like there’s a physical reality to them. The attention to detail the effects crew brought to the texture and movement of these fully computer generated objects keep them from standing in stark contrast to the physical elements of the film.
Now, onto the shortest negative portion of any of these articles.
What doesn’t work:
While I already spent time singing the praises of the sense of pace Abrams brought to the film, there is a scene in particular where he puts it in in mild jeopardy. Immediately following Han and Chewbacca’s triumphant return, we move into a scene ripe with clichés. Upon releasing wild Rathtars, bland Hollywood looking creatures that are nothing more than blobs with tentacles, a chase ensues between them, our heroes, and pirates looking to get their money back from Han. The film is cinematically holding your nose to the distinction between who’s expendable and who’s not. If you are expendable, the Rathtars are quick to kill you and move on. If you’re a lead like Finn, you will be conveniently carried for the length of time it takes to be rescued. It’s a decently shot sequence, but is entirely unnecessary and a bit bland. It drags too long and the boring creature design doesn’t make it’s inconsequential inclusion worth it, unlike scenes like Luke’s duel with a Rancor.
Lastly, while I love the new characters and think claims of unoriginality in story are unfounded, there is inarguably little new in lore here. Walking out of this film, we know almost nothing more about the world of Star Wars than we did before. Part of this is how the film introduces, or rather doesn’t, to the state of the new galaxy. We know of things like the First Order and the Resistance, but know very little about their inception or the balance of power. What does the hierarchy of either look like? What are the politics like in this new era? Abrams may have been hesitant to get too political due to prequel backlash, but he went to the extreme in avoiding it. I’m not asking for lengthy political hearings, but to know whether planets are predominantly Republic occupied, First Order occupied, or neutral is helpful information that’s necessary for me to be invested in this story beyond just the characters.
While it shares a noteworthy amount of similarities with the story beats of A New Hope, this film is very much its own. The characters rival the best from the series due to the committed performances from every actor, and the excellence in character creation and development brought to them by Abrams and Kasdan. The sense of pace is near perfection, and the film looks visually stunning on all accounts. This was the return to form Star Wars needed.
Six down, two to go, and it is the two we all most expected to see anyway. There is a reason for the high regard they’re held in, so stay tuned to see which I find to be the more perfect of the two.