WARNING: The following contains minor spoilers from Disney’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
You may find it odd that ThinkProgress asked its religion reporter to review Disney/Lucasfilm’s new blockbuster Star Wars: The Force Awakens, directed by J.J. Abrams. To be honest, it’s largely because I’m probably the biggest Star Wars fan in the building — my desk is covered with X-Wing decals, my tea infuser is a Death Star, and I have a small Christmas tree at home festooned with Star Wars-themed ornaments (my favorite is a talking Darth Vader). And don’t even get me started on the R2-D2 Halloween costume I used to wear as a child.
But experience with religion is actually a good foundation from which to assess any addition to the Star Wars universe, whose fans express such rabid devotion that “Jediism” is literally a religion in some parts of the world (usually jokingly…usually). Star Wars nuts like myself bring an intimidating level of scrutiny to any new fable in the galaxy far, far away, which makes the task set before Abrams — to satisfy devotees so zealous they effectively excommunicated Star Wars creator George Lucas when his early 2000s-era prequels didn’t meet expectations — a challenge of galactic proportions.
With that in mind, I’m happy to say that the yarn Abrams spins in Awakens will delight Star Wars fans and newcomers alike — albeit with more than a few tradeoffs that won’t exactly disappoint, but that may change Star Wars forever.
The Light: Awakens “rhymes” a lot, but in a good way, and it also sings amazing new songs
Some critics have already expressed frustration with the fact that Abrams’ Awakens “rhymes,” essentially repeating story beats from the original Star Wars films. The movie does, in fact, replicate several aspects of the old trilogy, but it works amazingly well early on: The first third of Awakens wowed and delighted me in a way I haven’t felt in a theater in years — maybe since I saw the re-release of A New Hope. The characters make the audience laugh and gasp while soaring through a universe that is unmistakably Star Wars, complete with the droid beeps, lightsaber hums, and Wookie growls we’ve come to know and love. It’s a testament to both Abrams’ talent as a director and his clear adoration for Lucas’ creation; even if you’re just a causal fan of the originals, the plethora of nostalgia-ridden references will have you pumping your fist in celebration. (The rhyming game is also true to the original trilogy, which, lest we forget, intentionally repeats lines of dialogue several times and blows up the Death Star twice.)
This isn’t to say there’s nothing new here. Without giving too much away, the story includes several of your old favorites (Harrison Ford, Peter Mayhew, and Carrie Fischer reprise their roles as Han Solo, Chewbacca, and General Leia), but focuses primarily on two very new, deeply compelling characters who triumph in the face of impossible odds: Finn (John Boyega), an ex-Stormtrooper looking to escape his past, and the Luke Skywalker stand-in Rey (Daisy Ridley), who has trouble embracing her future. Both young actors shine in their budding roles, bringing a double-punch of much-needed diversity to the lead Star Wars cast (it even passes the Bechdel test “with flying colors”) while carving out their respective spaces as the future of the franchise. They have different strengths, but they mesh well: Boyega is hilarious as the giddy and often overeager Finn, and Ridley’s earnestness makes you want to root for Rey really, really hard. Meanwhile, Oscar Isaac’s performance as the crack Resistance pilot Poe Dameron is equal parts charming and dashing, so much so that you wish the film spent more time in his cockpit.
The most captivating addition to the saga, however, is Kylo Ren, a new villain portrayed admirably by Adam Driver. Ren is a special kind of evil, one arguably more menacing than the monster he clearly aspires to emulate — Darth Vader. Whereas Vader and the Emperor were expressions of a focused, concentrated darkness, Ren is something closer to raw, chaotic rage. He doesn’t respond to failure by biding his time and waiting for the right moment to strike, but instead tends to furiously swing his unstable-looking lightsaber in frustration until nearby objects are reduced to cinders. His lightsaber, by the way, is a none-too-subtle visual metaphor for his mental state: Ren is unhinged, a man whose internal struggles make him a threat to everyone around him, especially those he loves. A note to parents: This is a villain that will undoubtedly frighten children — heck, he terrified me.
Abrams’ work also feels different. Unlike the relatively static camerawork of the original trilogy, the new film is as kinetic as Abrams himself, bouncing rapidly from one brilliant action sequence to another, barely letting the audience breathe. It’s also literally more kinetic than any previous Star Wars film: blaster bolts throw people across rooms, explosions toss Stormtroopers like rag dolls, and the aging Millennium Falcon seems suddenly capable of taking way more punishment than it used to.
In truth, the action eventually becomes a bit much, and the second half of the film crosses the line into overstimulation several times, generally valuing combat over much-needed exposition. Though a regular viewer of Abrams’ films will be used this sort of overwhelming action, original trilogy purists may find it off-putting. Still, this newfound energy is partly what makes the film’s unlikely rockstar — the spherical droid/wonderball/cuteness explosion known as BB-8 — work so well, and what will keep audiences coming back to see him and the rest of the characters bounce around spaceships in future installments.
Well, that, and a bunch of jaw-dropping revelations that I won’t spoil for you here.
The Dark: The film doesn’t “teach,” and lacks a central moral compass
Ironically, despite the film’s aforementioned proclivity to rhyme, one of its greatest weaknesses is something it doesn’t copy from the originals. A classic hallmark of a Star Wars film is the presence of a wizened master, a moral exemplar who teaches an eager pupil valuable lessons — usually about the Force, but also about life. The original trilogy used the tag-team of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda to steer Luke Skywalker through his adventures and away from the Dark side, and Lucas’ prequel saga offered a hodgepodge of various Jedi masters to bestow wisdom on the viewer, even if the intended subject — Anakin Skywalker — ultimately failed to heed advice.
Awakens, by contrast, virtually abandons this concept. Rey and Finn find kinship with Han and other characters, but not tutelage. With the exception of an all-too-brief encounter with Lupita Nyong’o’s character (a fabulous computer generated figure who I will not name, but who should’ve gotten more screen time), the two newcomers are basically left to figure things out by themselves.
This will no doubt resonate with our “Do It Yourself” generation, fiercely independent Millennials who celebrate home-brews, iPhone jailbreaks, and even handcrafted reworkings of the original Star Wars. And the shift is expressive of characters who thirst for self-reliance: Rey, a scrap-peddling orphan, spent years surviving on her own in the desert of the planet Jakku, and Finn’s story arc sees him desperate to forge an independence long denied to him. Both characters clearly admire the swashbuckling Han, whose primary life tutor is time, experience, and trial and error.
But while Han is arguably the film’s father figure, he doesn’t pretend to be a moral exemplar, and that leaves our characters — and the story — somewhat adrift. Han even seems to acknowledge the absence of a genuine mentor about midway through, when he watches Rey struggle with a blaster before saying, “You have a lot to learn” — but then offers no further instruction. Han doesn’t become Rey’s teacher in any real sense, leaving her to discern life’s secrets — not to mention details about things like the Force — entirely on her own.
This rugged individualism remains true to the spirit of Han, Rey, and Finn. But it also changes the way audiences have historically interacted with Star Wars films. There is no moral compass in Awakens, no hooded figure to offer sagacity in the face of Kylo Ren’s reckless sadism. In fact, Awakens is, quite literally, a quest to find such a teacher. It’s a universe filled with characters, both young and old, who are desperate to mature, but with no one to instruct them as to how. The result is a story swelling with the power of the Force, but none of the wisdom that’s supposed to accompany it.
The Rest: Ultimately, The Force Awakens feels more like a story than a myth — and the difference matters
Much has been written about how Lucas’ original trilogy is emblematic of history’s greatest myths, particularly how it mimics the traits of archetypal heroes and religious figures outlined in scholar Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. George Lucas himself has acknowledged the influence ancient story models (and Campbell’s work) had on the crafting of Star Wars, and many argue that it was the series’ mythic quality — which can also be seen in beloved series such as Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings saga — that made it so successful.
Awakens, however, does not emulate these mythic patterns, which some believe are what makes a tale timeless. Instead, the newest Star Wars feels a bit more like an amazing story that has little interest in being repeated for ages — even if it might be. It’s reminiscent of the now-defunct Star Wars Expanded Universe, a lexicon of stories crafted by authors, artists, and video game producers that added new tales and filled in the gaps that pockmarked Lucas’ otherwise beloved universe — but none of which succeeded in becoming myths unto themselves. Abrams toes a similar line, making his Star Wars characters more “real” by divorcing them from established — but ultimately simplistic — tropes. The movie is strengthened by it, but it will likely cost it some staying power in the long run. As Yoda would put it: a myth, this is not.
In fairness, the lack of legend in Abrams’ work is likely due to the radical shift currently rocking the film industry, where standalone films and even trilogies are being cast aside in favor of mega-moneymakers such as the Marvel franchise, with stories that are told over the course of dozens of films instead of two or three. Disney has already made it clear they intend to do the same with the Star Wars franchise, releasing one every year for as long as they can. This is a different kind of storytelling framework than Lucas’ era, and helps explain why Awakens feels like the first episode of a great series instead of standalone film.
Such is the odd emotional space that Awakens ultimately occupies. Abrams’ creation is no less beautiful, no less fantastic than anything Lucas created. It’s arguably better directed than at least one of the original films (not to mention all of the prequels), and nails the universe-building challenge as well as the obligatory creation of at least one iconic character — BB-8. The acting is superb, the action sequences are Oscar-worthy, and the characters — homo sapien, robot, or otherwise — are in some ways more human than any Star Wars film to date.
But this time, when the film ended and the lights went up, I didn’t want to rush home and write my own fan fiction, explore extra details in Wookieepedia (yes, that’s a thing), or imagine how Jedi wisdom mirrors the words of real-life sages. Instead — for reasons that will be made clear when you see the film — I desperately wanted to click the “next episode” button, as if on a Netflix binge, which is a dramatic departure from how the original Star Wars films made me feel. It’s a distinction between a Lucas myth and the light speed jaunt across the galaxy that Abrams has set in motion, which is less about ancient archetypes and more about creating a series of really, really amazing stories. It’s different, and I will miss Lucas’ embrace of the timeless as I watch the untold number of Star Wars movies, television shows, and virtual reality experiences to come.
But rest assured, Abrams: Thanks to you, I’m going to watch every damn one of them, just as soon as I clear off a space on my desk for BB-8.