The year was 1999. I was 14 years old sitting in the biggest theater of my city ready to watch a brand new Star Wars movie. I’ll never forget the clapping. The 20th Century Fox logo. The Lucasfilm insignia. “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” All of it was met with uproarious applause. Then, the movie started. And for a few brief moments, it was ecstasy. Until…it wasn’t. Somewhere around Jar Jar Binks, all the excitement drained away and a piece of my childhood died forever. The Phantom Menace was a horrible film, and Star Wars fans have never forgotten that feeling.
Perhaps this is why the reaction to The Force Awakens has been so over the top. Sites I trust have given out perfect scores to the film. Others have declared it the “best of the seven.” It’s time to take a collective deep breath. Look, I understand. We all wanted this movie to be everything Menace wasn’t. I know I did. In fact, I was secretly hoping this would be the best film of the year, skyrocketing to #1 on my top ten, and sweeping the Oscars with fantasy glory like Return of the King in 2004.
But Awakens is not that movie. And after re-watching the original trilogy, I can safely say it does not top any of those films. However, we can all rejoice in one thing: Awakens is a good movie. This is what we were expecting in 1999. Here at last is a worthy successor to the most beloved trilogy of all time.
The Light Side
When anticipation is this high, no one likes spoilers. If you’re like me and want to go in knowing nothing, consider this your SPOILER ALERT.
The best thing I can say about Awakens is that it feels like a Star Wars movie. The originals presented a world so real you could live there. This was mostly due to the lack of computer technology in the 70’s and a minimal budget. George Lucas was forced to use practical effects, which drenched the films in authenticity. The visual palette of the original trilogy compared to the prequel trilogy is night and day. Lucas finally had limitless technology and money at his disposal, and the end product felt like a videogame.
Awakens regains the lived-in feel of the original trilogy. There’s more of a dependence on practical sets and props, which makes it feel like the Star Wars of our youth. Not only that, but numerous connections exist linking Awakens to the older films. The original cast is back, and their characters’ legacy is known throughout the galaxy. Remnants of machines and ships from the originals are sprinkled throughout. There are even direct references to events from the past.
But this isn’t just a nostalgia trip. There are new human characters, and all of them are dynamite. Oscar Isaac is a fighter pilot named Poe. John Boyega is a conflicted ex-stormtrooper called Finn. Adam Driver is the primary villain, Kylo Ren. And Daisy Ridley is a mystery woman named Rey. All of these are welcome additions to the Star Wars Universe. They feel right at home, as if they’ve always been there. My favorite is Rey. She’s like a softer Furiosa from Fury Road – just as strong, but more charming. Rey doesn’t need your hand, but you might want to take hers. She’s the cherry on top of an exceptional cast.
The first quarter of Awakens is absolute perfection. We meet new characters and reunite with old ones. The pacing is great, drifting seamlessly from exposition to action. And we’re treated to a fantastic chase sequence through the desert landscape of Jakku. If only the rest of the film could have maintained that momentum.
The Dark Side
Unfortunately, after a glorious slice of Star Wars heaven, Awakens falls back to earth. Plot holes and contradictions abound. A character picks up a light saber for the first time and goes toe-to-toe with a Jedi Knight. Another wields mind-control powers with no previous training in the Force. I have no doubt some of this will be “explained” by future installments, but that’s a cop-out. Every film in the original trilogy stands on its own. Yes, the surrounding films deepened our understanding of the characters and the galaxy, but nothing left us scratching our heads. The rules were established and the characters followed them. Not so with Awakens.
Furthermore, the two biggest moments are botched by poor execution. The first I can’t risk spoiling here (you’ll know it when you see it). The second concerns the major battle toward the end of the movie. One of the characters actually makes a reference to the formulaic nature of Star Wars campaigns. This leads us to believe that director J.J. Abrams is going to turn the formula on its head and give us something new. How disappointing, then, when things turn out exactly as expected.
Finally, there’s Kylo Ren. Abrams makes a distinct choice to veer away from the Darth Vader archetype and introduce internal conflict early on. Ren feels torn between the light and dark side of the Force. This makes for an interesting character, but not a great villain. Vader was an imposing, impenetrable giant throughout the original trilogy. Only toward the end, did conflict emerge. Starting the conflict this early makes Ren too vulnerable to be scary. Without that fear, the struggle against him lacks tension.
The Battle Within
Ren’s inner struggle may not make a scary villain, but it does allow for a sobering reflection on the human condition. From A New Hope on, the central theme of Star Wars has been the battle between the light side and the dark side. This ultimately manifests itself in The Republic vs. The Empire (or in this case The Resistance vs. The First Order). But really, the battle isn’t between two groups. The battle is within.
Think back to Yoda’s training in Empire. Yoda teaches Luke that he will always be vulnerable to the seductive power of the dark side. Luke goes into a cave and faces Vader, only to discover that Vader is himself. There are constantly two paths before Luke. His choices – moment by moment, day by day – will determine his fate.
The same is true for us on planet earth. There has been a lot of debate throughout Church history about whether a Christian can lose their salvation. I believe we can – not through sin, but unbelief. If faith is the door to salvation, then unbelief is the way back out. This isn’t a sudden change – it’s a hardening of the heart over years. What does this journey from the light side to the dark side look like?
I think C.S. Lewis captures it best. He says: “Hell begins with a grumbling mood, always complaining, always blaming others…but you are still distinct from it. You may even criticize it in yourself and wish you could stop it. But there may come a day when you can no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticize the mood or even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself, going on forever like a machine. It is not a question of God “sending us” to hell. In each of us there is something growing, which will be hell unless it is nipped in the bud. ”
Ren is at a crossroads in this struggle. Many of us are too. The anchor is Jesus – the light of the world.
The Best Is Yet To Come
When Han Solo is released from carbonite at the beginning of Return of the Jedi, he can’t believe the comments from his friends. He says “I’m out of it for a little while and everyone gets delusions of grandeur.” I think Star Wars has been gone from our lives for so long that we’ve become delusional too. Awakens is not a masterpiece or the best Star Wars movie of all time. It’s a good film that will rank just beneath the original trilogy once the dust settles.
Still, there is so much to be excited about. George Lucas harnessed the light in the 70’s and 80’s with episodes IV, V, and VI. Then, seduced by the dark side, he tampered with the originals and gave us three awful prequels. But that era is over, and a new one has begun. A sequel to Awakens is on the way in 2017 from a brand new writer/director. Each new visionary at the helm will offer a fresh perspective and an opportunity to take this franchise to greater heights.
I’m thankful for what J.J. Abrams accomplished with Awakens. He gave us a film that renewed our trust in Star Wars again, he provided a solid foundation to a build on, and he opened the door for a new crop of storytellers to rise up and leave their mark on this incredible universe.
Star Wars has awakened, and the best is yet to come.