This first movie in the Star Wars Sequel Trilogy operates on familiar blueprints of the Star Wars original trilogy. There’s a light and dark to this route.
Desert planet, a masked Dark-Side villain with a mysterious past, a plucky protagonist, heroine in this case. There are updates: the Apple-sleek storm trooper suit, more CGIed models than the pre-special edition Original Trilogy though they now co-exist with practical effects. The touches of director J. J. Abrams lend the world a breathtaking largeness that reminds us that Star Wars is a science-fantasy over science-fiction in feeling.
As par the tradition of Star Wars, we’re tossed in medias res of a galactic conflict on a desert planet, Jakku, the not-Tatooine planet. The opening crawl immediately informs us that Luke Skywalker, the Jedi star of the Original Trilogy has vanished. The Resistance leader General Leia’s prized pilot Poe (Oscar Isaac) slips a Macguffin into a little droid-a soccer ball like BB-8 unit before he’s thrown into damsel position as like Princess Leia in A New Hope into an interrogation chamber by the masked Vader-expy, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). The droid befriends the resourceful desert-loner Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger scrounging for scraps for a living, waiting for the return of her family. A Stormtrooper (John Boyega), masked but with repressed humanity inside, resists the orders to commit massacre, and his fear of retribution leads to him allying with Poe and earning the name Finn. Then, separated from Poe, he ultimately encounters Rey. And then they happen to reactivate the iconic ship Millennium Falcon to escape the wrath of the First Order and catch the attention of Star Wars veteran Han Solo (through shreds of emotional wear-and-tear, Harrison Ford captures old charm and melancholy at once), who has reverted to his smuggling ways and separated from his love General Leia (Carrie Fisher). We swallow some of the plot contrivances and swerves as one does when reading a myth or viewing an opera. You can pick and choose which identical story blueprints to bemoan, “They could have pushed better,” or forgive its shortcomings.
Rey and Finn are simple archetypes but are led by convincing performances by Ridley and Boyega. They are backed by backstories and quirks. Finn stalls from the idea of actually becoming a Rebel, only masquerading as one to survive. Finn’s hesitation is understandable, not of any cowardice, but instinct. He spouts the funniest lines but is organic enough to be considered a fleshed-out character rather than reduced to comic relief. Rey clings to a delusion that her long waiting for her family will pay off, a futile humble goal she’s so committed to that the option of greater things is intimidating. With Han Solo as their mentor, they learn to get in touch with their inner strength.
The worst offense is a CGI-ed Supreme villain Palpatine-expy who’s just a wrinklier Gollum figure (he is played by Andy Serkis in motion-capture) as if Gollum decided to gain weight and grew taller (though time would tell whether this is his true appearance as he was a hologram figure with the allusion of largeness).
I also question the addition for the now planet-sized upgraded Death Star, now aptly named the “Starkiller Base” that might as well be dubbed “Death Star 3.0. Special Edition. Now twenty times as larger and with more equipment.” At least it lacks the conveniently vulnerable feature of a singular weak spot like in Episode IV, but it’s one of the examples of over-emulating its predecessor even if the scale of the stakes is magnified.
The exception to my CGI complaint is the motion-puppet character, Maz (performed by Lupita Nyong’o), with eyes that can read souls, immediately reading into the main character’s fear. Maz unfortunately exits out of the plot perhaps to await her stage entrance in the next movie. Likewise, the pilot Poe, our decoy protagonist, slips into a supporting character role after forging a priceless immediate chummy-chum connection with Finn, and veers in and out of the plot.
Although Star Wars is famous for being a simple Good vs. Evil/Light vs. Dark narrative, it always is embodied by a sense of grey that can exist in evil. Here’s a praise I never thought possible: Driver gives a Hayden Christensen performance more realized in the Kylo Ren. Hating any smidge of setbacks, he throws hissy-fits with his lightsaber in attempts to emulate Darth Vader’s you-have-failed-me punishments and even the whining Christensen’s Anakin of the prequels (better than its sounds). There’s the recognizable adolescent-fueled rage within and outside of the mask. There’s a inspired comedic moment where a Stormtrooper escorts another Stormtrooper away from Kylo Ren’s tantrum. He’s a Vader fanboy who takes his idolization of his grandfather too seriously, perhaps one to deny the common knowledge that his grandfather went through redemption struggle. He is no driving force of the First Order he serves, but an unrefined instrument of it. When unmasked anti-climatically of his own accord, he escalates into more of an enigma.
The politics of this universe has not fully emerged. There’s little explanation to why the Universe is in the state it’s in. The dialogue is quite hazy on how First Order rose from the ashes of the Empire when the Rebels successfully destroyed their Death Star 2.0 back in Return of the Jedi.
Star Wars has been a cultural phenomena, its legacy fragile, sodden by the murky reception of George Lucas’s prequels. That’s not to say the original trilogy had its own dents. This is the Second Coming of Star Wars in theater, not an immaculate one, but one that keeps its fans appeased. The fans do deserve better than the old blueprints. But you notice that I regulated my praise on the cast and characters. The characters of the older films just seemed to serve its Lucasian mythos. But here in Abrams’s palm, the characters are served by the mythos.
So while the movie does feel like a setup a-la Hobbit Part 1 with answers reserved for Episode VIII and IX, the cliffhanger is satisfying. We object to the time-tested use of cliffhangers due to boiling dissatisfaction in the audience’s minds. But this ending refuses to fall for the cliffhanger cliche by not flaunting unanswered questions or suspense. The best cliffhangers lets the characters take a deep breath, much like the iconic closure of The Empire Strikes Back when Luke and Leia gaze out into the cosmic as Lando goes to rescue Han. The staging of the said ending gesture is unfinished in a profound sense, like a mythical epilogue.
It reminds you that there’s always more to the mythos.