Out of all the giant megafranchises that rule Hollywood, “Star Wars” holds a special place in my heart. I first saw the original trilogy as a kindergartener during the 1997 rereleases, grew up with the prequels, played several of the video games, read a few of the novels, and generally acquired an embarrassing level of dork knowledge (if you want to talk about the difference between Dathomir and Dantooine, or between the Rodians and the Yuuzhan Vong, I’m your guy). I never thought I’d get to review a Star Wars movie for this blog, and it delights me that I finally have the chance.
As far as this nerd is concerned, “The Force Awakens” is a dream come true. J.J. Abrams now reigns supreme as the king of resurrected classic sci-fi – what he’s made here is light-years ahead of anything in the prequel trilogy, a roaring comeback that even edges out 1983’s “Return of the Jedi.”
At first blush, “The Force Awakens” shares many similarities with “A New Hope.” There’s a desert planet (Jakku), a stargazing young protagonist (Daisy Ridley’s Rey), a droid that interferes with our hero’s peaceful life (the charmingly toyetic BB-8), a masked wielder of the Dark Side of the Force (Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren), legions of stormtroopers, and so on. But on closer examination, the direct parallel breaks down. Rey isn’t a female Luke Skywalker clone – instead of being brash, she’s wary, a Hermione-type in space. Kylo Ren’s motivations are complex. There’s a reluctant stormtrooper who shows up, John Boyega’s Finn.
In short, “The Force Awakens” is the Star Wars equivalent of “Casino Royale” (and I mean that in the most complimentary way possible). Just as “Casino” brought along a few holdovers from an older era of the saga (director Martin Campbell, Judi Dench as M), but put a fresh spin on franchise tropes in service of a younger, savvier, sleeker product, “The Force Awakens” synthesizes elements old and new.(These elements, for those curious, include a lot of thematic DNA from the now-no-longer-canon Expanded Universe.)
And make no mistake, “The Force Awakens” has everything you could possibly want in a Star Wars movie, including the single greatest lightsaber duel the saga has ever put onscreen. It hits every possible emotional chord, including ones I thought I’d outgrown. The last time I felt this jazzed about a movie – this enthusiastic to do something great and epic and heroic – I’d just walked out of 2002’s “Attack of the Clones.”
Vast amounts of ink have been spilled on the philosophy of the Force and of the saga as a whole (I’ve written here and there about such themes). Sociologically speaking, however, “The Force Awakens” throws in a new twist. This is a film tailor-made to the millennial zeitgeist, embracing such themes as family dissolution, “nonbelonging,” the loss of transcendent ideals, and the fear of trans-generational heritage being sacrificed. Here, the dark side is real and terrifying – not as some swirling cluster of deviant midichlorians, but rather as an ideology, a belief in powers and principles beyond the mundane. Accordingly, the psycho-emotional conflicts at the heart of “The Force Awakens” are far more wrenching than any banal “take over the world” nonsense (Marvel Studios, take note).
(Some spoilers in the following discussion)
In 1992, Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History” thesis suggested that the world had fundamentally transformed after the collapse of the Soviet Union. With the destruction of the “Evil Empire,” liberal democracy could flourish unhindered, ushering in an era of peace and prosperity. Peace, however, remains elusive: history clearly has not ended, and the ideological chinks in the armor of liberal democracy are beginning to show. The millennial generation – steeped in a culture of radical autonomy, rejection of perceived authoritarianism, and the devaluation of the sacred – is being gradually forced to take the reins of a society spinning out of control.
The current generation has come of age in a time of uncertainty – a time filled with insurgent threats, ever-present callbacks to past glories, and near-mythic cultural icons (Ronald Reagan, MLK Jr., and many others). Yet for every contemporary figurehead, there are a dozen thinkpieces devoted to dissecting them piece by piece, calling everything from motives to means into question.
“The Force Awakens” brilliantly reflects this millennial zeitgeist, probing the unsettling question of what exactly happens after the “End of History.”
Viewers have traditionally attached their own “End of History” extrapolation to 1983’s “Return of the Jedi.” Audiences assume that with the death of evil Emperor Palpatine and the demolition of the reconstructed Death Star, the galaxy will experience a new period of flourishing. Yet “Return of the Jedi” spends no time weighing the terrible fragility of this peace, instead leaving viewers with a remarkably abrupt conclusion. The fallout from the Empire’s fragmentation is an issue the stars of “The Force Awakens” must confront, just as today’s young people must grapple with an unstable post-Soviet and post-colonial world.
Past wars against Nazi Germany and (to an extent) the Soviet Union are shrouded in historical mystery: today’s young people cannot truly fathom the discipline, order, and courage that were required to overcome such clearly delineated foes. Similarly, “The Force Awakens” is the story of protagonists seeking to fill the very large shoes of their forerunners: Rey and Finn aim to inherit the mantle of the Rebel Alliance, while villainous Kylo Ren desperately tries to find within himself the zealous spiritual convictions of his grandfather Darth Vader.
This feeling of unworthiness to inherit the mantle of the past is grounded, at some level, in brute fact: the unifying ideas and bonds that held together past communities have steadily eroded. This too is captured in “The Force Awakens.” In an age when family structures have split and shifted, onscreen Rey’s driving passion is to be reunited with her lost family. In a time when military conflicts often appear purposeless or misguided, onscreen Finn refuses to participate in an act of mass murder. In a culture where transcendent morality is written off as a sham, onscreen the mystical Force has been reduced to mere legend.
Ultimately, many of the “unoriginality” criticisms leveled at “The Force Awakens” ignore the ways in which the film reflects its contemporary reality (just as 1977’s “A New Hope” mingled classic tropes with the themes of its own era). Of course the film evokes the original trilogy: the same conflicts (whether in the Middle East or in the streets of New York) tend to recur. Of course the film leans hard on nostalgia: millennial culture does (just take a trip through BuzzFeed’s “500 Things You Remember As A 90s Kid” or one of the innumerable knockoffs). Of course the Force awakens and acts without explanation: so too do the forces of religion, ideology, and belief in a culture stripped of the sacred.
But “The Force Awakens” takes a step beyond mere identification of the problem. For one thing, the film drives home a powerful argument that family bonds and self-sacrifice still matter, even at the cost of one’s own life. Moreover, it dramatically shows that the transcendent exists and is powerful, and that objective morality exists in the world.
In short, “The Force Awakens” is not only the movie fans deserve, it is the movie our generation needs.
In some ways, reviewing the first new “Star Wars” movie in a decade is a pointless project: everyone and their mother is going to see it, probably more than once. But if, by chance, you were on the fence – or if you, like me, were seriously miffed at the demise of decades’ worth of Star Wars lore – “The Force Awakens” is a breathtaking, effervescent adventure that more than meets one’s highest expectations.
Go see it. Every dollar this movie makes, it deserves.
I haven’t felt this sense of joy and wonder after a movie since I was ten. It’s good to be back.
Normalized Score: 9.2