We, the faithful, have waited. We waited through the Apocrypha of Episodes I&II, the better than worse Episode III. We had misgivings about Lucas’ selling of all Star Wars rights to Disney until the MCU demonstrated it knew how to handle a film franchise. Even then, hearing news of an Episode VII gave birth to more misgivings until we realized who was in charge of it all. JJ Abrams. Here was the guy who rebooted the Star Trek franchise into a hip, happening film series with excellent casting and a lovely mix of old and new. He is a wizard in geek circles. Only Nixon could go to China, only Kirk could negotiate peace between Klingons and the Federation, and only Abrams could bring balance to the Force and allow it to awaken.
I’m very happy to say that the effort is mostly successful. One of the striking problems of the Star Wars prequel trilogy was that there was nothing particularly interesting to distract us from the main story of Anakin Skywalker’s inevitable turn to the Dark Side. In the original trilogy, we had the Imperial search for droids, a love triangle (at first, anyway), and Luke’s journey to the way of the Force guided physically and spiritually in turn by the great Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan Kenobi and Frank Oz voicing Yoda. It was bursting with creativity and we saw great unexplained windows into the creative unknown with unsubtitled alien and droid language leaving us pleasantly in the lurch. Greatest of all the distractions was Han Solo, whose laconic, no nonsense ways were proto-Mad Maxian in his disinterest in becoming a hero. He comes into the picture only caring about himself, his comrade in arms Chewbacca, and his beloved “piece of junk” the Millennium Falcon. The OT was as much a journey of character for Han as it was for Luke. There was no Han in Episodes I, II, or III. We knew Obi-Wan couldn’t die nor could Anakin. There was Senator Palpatine’s sneaky rise to power, a Clone army and Jango Fett’s “relationship” with Boba. In short, there wasn’t an Everyman or Everywoman for us to identify with.
Here, in Episode VII, we get two solid characters straight off the bat with Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac, whose hairstyle and demeanor is redolent of Wedge/Young Luke somewhat) an excellent pilot sent to the desert planet (in keeping with the One Planet, One Environment tradition of Star Wars films) of Jakku to retrieve important data, which ends up being handed off to a new droid, the cute and mobile BB-8, an orange half sphere balanced in a permanently precarious position on a soccer ball shaped body with a single black lens for an eye. Like his predecessor before him, BB-8 is able to express all matter of emotions with a series of beeps and whines which are more zippy than beepy this time around. The ability to move his head to a jaunty, diagonal angle is a welcome improvement. Soon after we see Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), whose deep, creepy tones are matched by his sleek, black flat topped, scarlet centered ship with folding wings. He proves to be just as ruthless as his predecessor Darth Vader, whom he has come to see as his spiritual mentor, having grafted a piece of the former Sith Lord’s helmet onto his face plate. The Dark Side of the Force is strong with this one, as he quickly demonstrates, utilizing the Force in a way we’ve not seen before. He is joined by a battalion of Stormtroopers who have a landing which seems to have been inspired by the landing at Normandy in Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. One Stormtrooper seems to be way in over his head. Another, large and in charge with chrome armor and a big gun is Captain Phasma, played to my delight by the great Gwendoline Christie of Game of Thrones fame. Unfortunately, she’s very underused here but apparently we’ll set to see more of her in Episode VIII. She’s a sort of matron for the Stormtroopers, who, these days, are brainwashed from birth and psychologically conditioned to be perfect killing machines. This tiny glimpse into Stormtrooper culture is tantalizingly brief but intriguing all the same. They are the pride of General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), the slimy successor to Admiral Piet of the First Order (which is what the Imperials call themselves these days). It is a captivating and eerie performance. He doesn’t set much store by the Force and Kylo Ren doesn’t have as much pull as did Vader back in the day, so the two are rivals for the favor of Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis forever portraying CGI characters with his excellent trademark voice and facial talents).
Into this situation tumbles FN-2187 (John Boyega), a conscientious objector to conflict scarred by his first experience in battle with his fellow troopers mercilessly slaughtering villagers much like their mean ancestors who similarly slaughtered Jawas and Luke’s Aunt and Uncle back in the day. He joins Poe Dameron who rechristens him Finn in a thrilling escape via Tie Fighter to Jakku where we meet our final major new character Rey (Daisy Ridley). Rey is a scavenger. She shoots all over the desert wasteland attired like a Tusken Raider gutting the carcasses of downed Star Destroyers and AT-AT’s. She collects the items, cleans them, and sells them to a CGI character with a dour, baritone voice and a Watto-like cheapskate demeanor who offers her a pittance of rations for her findings. It’s a relief to see real rust, age, dirt, sweat, dents, and broken things after the shining and brand new CGI brazen prequel trilogy. Rey is a quiet girl with many wheels turning behind her hardworking, determined face. There’s longing there as we see her scratch in another mark for another day’s work completed in a wall of countless marks and look to the sky at a ship flying away.
This all leads to the meeting of paths of Finn, Rey, and some old familiar faces. The dialogue is crisp, funny, and reminiscent of earlier films. There’s just so much to love in this movie that I’m willing to forgive the parts which don’t quite work for the bigger picture, which hopefully will be made clearer in Episode VIII. There’s one part towards the end which I still haven’t reconciled myself to as it just doesn’t make sense although I see its place in the pattern of repetition and reflection all over the movie. The breathless final moments filmed in beautiful Skellig Michael in Ireland provide more than enough anticipation for the 18 months we’ll have to wait for the release of Episode VIII.