In going through my reviews recently, I was surprised to find that this Catholic reviewer, huge Star Wars fan to boot, has not covered Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (2015). Perhaps some of this has to do with the fact that I seem to be part of the minority that likes the new films. Because of this, I tend to shy away from standing out and inviting criticism. For those who may think I am blinded by my love of the franchise, I would point out my stated distaste for the prequels. Like any other installment, I dutifully spent the day watching all of the prequels on repeat, only exiting the theater between showings. There was always something about them that I could not put my finger on until I saw the Plinkett Reviews from Red Letter Media. Then it made sense that they made no sense. Regardless, I had high hopes for the new episodes because they were the movies I thought George Lucas should have made instead of the first three episodes. After I had gained my understanding of how thoroughly botched are the second trilogy of Star Wars films to be released, I was pleased when it came out that Lucas would not be involved in any thorough way with the new productions. Instead, the director’s position was given to J. J. Abrams. Fine. Great. Now, I will be the first to admit that there are a number of similarities between Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977), the grandaddy of all Star Warsmovies, and Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens. For somebody who prizes originality, this aspect is slightly disappointing. However, I do purposely mean “slightly.” I found all the new trilogies films enjoyable in different ways, and let me share with you about this one today.
As I have done with all my reviews of Star Wars films, I am going to change my usual format. Given how familiar most everyone is with these films, I do not feel I need to go over Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awaken’s plot in any real detail. Instead, I will approach it thematically. First, let us get the bad stuff out of the way, and that is what I indicated in the last paragraph about it being close to the original. You could swap out Rey (Daisy Ridley) for Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), and you would have virtually the same movie either way. Both are idealistic, have an affinity for piloting, are powerful (though untrained) Force users, and come from desert planets. I could go on, but these are the main character traits that are similar between them. The events that they experience throughout the film are a mixed bag of parallels and differences. Luke and Rey leave the worlds on which they grew up via the classic spaceship the Millennium Falcon, though I would say that Rey had the more adventurous departure. I would also not call her fellow evacuee, the escaped stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), a Han Solo (Harrison Ford) stand-in. Still, they meet up with the famous captain and pilot of the Millennium Falcon shortly after they make it off Jakku. This also brings us to some more sameness. In Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, our heroes, attempting to rescue Princess Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) from her captivity aboard the Death Star, have to contend with a monster in a trash compactor. Finn and Rey have a run in with a much larger, though still tentacled beast that Han and his first mate and best friend Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) are transporting aboard their new ship. They are in different points in the plot between the two movies, but the idea is the same. Speaking of sameness, The Force Awakens also has a Death Star equivalent. This time, it is called Starkiller base, and it is able to fire across the galaxy rather than having to be in the same system to destroy a planet. I guess they had to do something to up the stakes a little? Still, its destruction, with the other possible Han Solo facsimile Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) at the controls of a Resistance X-Wing, is complete with a trench run.
As near as Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens is to a copy of Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, there are some important variances. They start differently, for example, with The Force Awakens featuring Poe being captured by the First Order, the new Empire, after obtaining a piece of a map that leads to Luke Skywalker. As it states in the opening crawl of the film, the one time last of the Jedi is missing. When Finn and Rey meet Han, they show him the piece of the map that Finn obtained from Poe’s astromech droid. They had met on the Star Destroyer, by the way, where Poe is taken after being nabbed by the First Order, and Finn helps the Resistance pilot escape. This sequence is a bit more action packed than its predecessor, and while it does not explain how Poe gets away from their crashed TIE fighter and separated, it nonetheless works. At any rate, as Han confirms, Luke is the guy everyone wants. Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) believes the aged Jedi Master is the only one who can defeat him, while the Resistance would like to find him and bring him back to give them a morale boost. There is not an equivalent theme in the previous film. Another place the two are at odds is in how the newer one handles the relationship between Rey and Kylo Ren. Here again, you could say that Kylo Ren is basically Darth Vader (David Prowse, voiced by James Earl Jones). However, in A New Hope, it is Obi-Wan Kenobi (Sir Alec Guinness) who faces the main villain, not Luke Skywalker. Our Luke Skywalker in The Force Awakens, Rey, has several run-ins with Kylo Ren, and eventually triumphs over her adversary as she begins to, ahem, awaken her Force powers. There is also more emotional weight to the clash between Rey and Kylo Ren. Now, keep in mind that before we had the prequels, Star Wars: The Clone Wars animated series (2008-2020), or a whole host of other related material, all we had to go on as to the relationship between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker-come-Darth Vader is the former saying that the latter was a “good friend.” We also do not know at that point that Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader. In The Force Awakens, we see a fatherly bond form between Han and Rey, particularly over the piloting of the Millennium Falcon. When Kylo Ren murders Han, who is also his father with Leia as his mother, with Rey looking on, it fuels her desire to confront her enemy. I would be so bold as to say this helps us understand why this confrontation is taking place at a deeper level than the duel between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader in A New Hope.
Of course, I would be remiss if I did not add my Catholic take to this review of Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens. While I do not like to make comparisons between the Force and Faith, there are some interesting parallels in conceptualizing each of them. One of the things that I am drawn to in this film in particular, and it provides character growth for Rey, is the idea of trusting in the Force. Rey had grown up on a planet where she worked as a scavenger, picking over parts from wrecked spaceships of a titanic struggle that apparently once took place in the skies above Jakku. What this means is that she had spent most her life surviving on her own wits, and not really aware of the bigger galaxy that was out there beyond the sky. More specifically, she had never heard of the Force. She does know about Luke Skywalker by legend, but it does not appear that who or what the Jedi are or were is something widely understood. What she does have is a feeling inside of her that there is something bigger than herself. This is the kind of notion that has led many a person to God. It reminds me of what the former Abbess of Mount St. Mary’s Abbey in Wrentham, Massachusetts, once said about choosing to live the cloistered religious life, by choosing to live a life all for God. She referred to it as jumping off a cliff. You do not know where you will land, or even if you will survive. All you have is a trust that God will provide for you as He wills. In the climactic moment of the duel between Kylo Ren and Rey, you can see her give herself over to trusting in that power that is bigger than herself. It completes a journey for her in the film that brings her first steps in becoming a Jedi. She did not know what the Force was until that moment, but she knew it would be a part of her for the rest of her life. If only we could all entrust ourselves to God in the same way. What a world that would be.
Again, yes, there are a lot of similarities between Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope and Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens. Might it have been better if they had gone in a more original direction? Perhaps, but I did not hate the experience. The problem with Star Wars is not necessarily in the way the movies are done, and I will confess that this holds true for the prequels as well. The issue is with the original trilogy. They are so beloved by millions across the globe that anything you subsequently do with the franchise is going to be criticized and picked over. In other words, there is no way you are going to satisfy everyone. As such, I feel like these movies work better if you pretend that they are the only Star Wars movies ever made. They are not, of course, and they borrow heavily from their predecessors. My only desire in saying this is that they get judged on their own merits, which seems impossible for many.