Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hours 15 min.
Our content ratings (1-10); Violence 3; Language 1; Sex /Nudity 1.
Our star rating (1-5): 4.5
I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the Lord do all these things.
Those who walk righteously and speak uprightly, who despise the gain of oppression, who wave away a bribe instead of accepting it, who stop their ears from hearing of bloodshed and shut their eyes from looking on evil…
Director J.J. Abrams and his co-writer Lawrence Kasdan have injected new life and vigor into the Star Wars franchise. Old and new fans have eagerly awaited the opening of The Force Awakens, and virtually all who have seen the film agree that their hopes for a worthy addition to the original trilogy have been fulfilled. For the early Monday morning screening I attended the theater was almost full (instead of the usual 5 or 10 early viewers), and as soon as the familiar title and receding text appeared, accompanied by John Williams’ familiar fanfare, the audience applauded. By the end of the two hours we were smiling and applauding again.
The filmmakers have made some adjustments in New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back by changing names and making plot additions, the result being a quest story. It has been three decades since our heroes defeated the evil Galactic Empire. Luke Skywalker has disappeared after a remnant of the Empire, known as The First Order, has arisen with a super powerful weapon far greater than that of the old Death Star. Led by Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) and his General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), a specially bred race of humans have donned the white armor of the old storm troopers, going forth to destroy the Republic. In this new film Darth Vader has been replaced by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), whose youthful face is not scarred, but who still prefers to wear a similar black mask. He turns out to be the son of a major character, so we again have the theme of a father-son conflict, though this time it is the father who prefers the Light Side of the Force and the son who has turned to the Dark Side. Both parties of the conflict, though for very different reasons, want to find Luke, the last of the Jedis who gave up a training program for future Jedis and fled into exile.
The desert planet Jakku where the story begins could be the sister planet of Tatooine. The young scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley) is a great replacement for Luke, combining his piloting skills with the scrappiness of his sister Leia. While selling equipment salvaged from wrecked spaceships she comes across a droid even perkier (and smaller) than R2-D2, dubbed BB-8, a head mounted somehow over a ball of a base that whirls around like a kicked soccer ball. Two additional heroes are Finn (John Boyega), a Stormtrooper. He may have been genetically bred like his fellow troopers, but he still has a conscience. He becomes so sickened when his unit massacres a whole village that later on he sets free and teams up with hotshot Republic pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac). The latter had been captured and tortured for information concerning Luke’s whereabouts.
Han Solo and Princess, now General, Leia are reunited briefly in a heart-warming scene for fans. Solo’s sidekick Chewbacca and the rust bucket of a ship the Millennium Falcon are back, as are the droids C-3PO and R2-D2. Also, true to the original films, are aerial dogfight scenes involving the Republic’s X-wing fighters and the First Order fighters during the attack to destroy the monster weapon as it is being fired up to destroy the planets of the Republic. And yes, it involves some of our heroes having to fly through a trench on the surface of the weapon in order to hit the weak spot in its defenses. Again, this will remind viewers of the old World War Two films with cheery bomber gunners firing away at their attackers.
The theme of fascism is invoked more this time in a scene in which General Hux addresses a huge assembly of storm troopers about to be sent out to war. Standing on a large podium, banners and flags waving overhead, the speaker facing the massive assemblage, the scene resembling those from Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary on the Nazi’s Nuremberg Rally Triumph of the Will. Like other fascist leaders the General is a strong believer in order. His speech is as triumphal as those of Hitler, ending with the assurance, “All remaining systems will bow to the First Order and will remember this as the last day of the Republic!”
There is plenty of action and humor, and even a surprising jolt that touches the heart when a major character is killed. (There were audible gasps, and I suspect a tear or two at this point.) The filmmakers know how to stage the thrilling action scenes, but they also know that the movie’s fans care about the characters and their relationships. This affection easily extends to include the new characters—and it is worth noting that the coupling of the feisty white Rey with the black Finn probably could not have happened in 1977, but seems so natural today. Differences in skin color seem so irrelevant in the Star Wars universe, with its delightful cantina denizens coming in all shapes, sizes, and numbers of limbs and tentacles.
Another similarity between this last trilogy and the first is that both feature a great British actor, Alec Guinness playing Obi-Wan Kenobi, and now Max von Sydow featured as Lor San Tekka, the brave possessor of the map fragment. When captured by Kylo Ren, he bravely and defiantly withstands the pain of torture during his interrogation.
I was always interested in the way that George Lucas showed that there was a spiritual Power permeating the universe, though not a personalistic God as in the three Abrahamic faiths. His mixing of Eastern and Western religious concepts went beyond the stark materialistic view of the universe of so many science fiction writers at the time. The film’s title shows that this is continued in, though perhaps not emphasized quite as much. The religion of the Jedi is sort of a dualistic one, very different from the monotheistic faith of the writers of the book of Isaiah in which the prophet declares that an all-powerful Deity creates both light and darkness, good and evil. But the Jedi faith is different too from such religions as Manichaeism that taught that Light and Darkness were two equally balanced powers locked in eternal conflict. The Force consists of two sides, with those rare persons attuned to “it” (not He or She) free to choose either the Light or the Dark Side. However despite the lack of a personal God, Maz Kanata tells Rey, “The Force, it’s calling to you. Just let it in.” Shortly after this, when Rey touches Luke’s light saber that Maz Kanata has kept in a trunk, she hears Obi-Wan Kenobi saying to her, “Rey these are your first steps.”*
Thus we are indebted to J.J. Abrams and his co-writer Lawrence Kasdan (director of one of my favorite films, Grand Canyon) for bringing the Star Wars series back to the screen brimming with the thrills and renewed vigor of the original. And to think, we have the second in the series to look forward to in 2017! May the Force be with this new project!
*More on the religion of the Jedis in the discussion questions that will accompany this review in the Jan. 2016 issue of Visual Parables.