The latest installment of the Star Wars movies comes more than 30 years after the last good Star Wars movie (Episode V), and more than a decade after the prequel trilogy that is widely, and rightly, despised. Now under the control of Disney and JJ Abrams, this film takes Star Wars in a new direction while also managing to take the franchise in a ne direction.
We begin with a new character, Finn, a storm trooper with a rapidly developing conscience and no name until he is given one by Poe. Finn goes through the largest range of character development since he starts from literally nothing more than a serial number and becomes one of our heroes. Finn is played by John Boyega (Attack the Block), and brings to the character a complex patchwork of emoticons and motivations that makes him quite unlike any other Star Wars character.
Next, we meet Rey, played by newcomer Daisy Ridley (and where did they find her, she’s amazing). Rey is a loner, eaking out an existence scavenging parts from the wrecks of a large battle that took place on her planet years before. She has no apparent friends, not much in the way of social skills, but demonstrates early on a strong moral character.
Poe Dameron fills out the trifecta of our new heroes, and is the only one to get a last name. He is played by Osacr Isaac, nearly unrecognizable as Nathan in Ex Machina. Poe is a fighter pilot, and it is tempting to try to put him into the role of “new Han Solo” but despite his youth and exuberance and wit in the face of adversity, he is nothing like Han.
The interplay between these three characters is masterfully managed, both by the actors themselves but also by the story. Rey and Finn have an immediate understanding and rapport (You need a pilot. I need a pilot.) and despite being together for a short period of time, are obviously instant friends. Finn and Rey have a slightly more complicated relationship, some of which is hampered by the fact that Rey simply doesn’t understand Finn at all. When he starts to run from the stormtroopers hunting them he grabs her hand. her reaction is to be affronted, “I know how to run without you holding my hand.” When Finn is knocked to the ground by an explosion she rushes over to him and he asks her if she’s OK. Her reaction is confusion. Of course she is OK, he’s the one lying flat on his back.
Some of this, of course, is the script turning the whole “damsel in distress” ass-over-teakettle since at this point Finn is the damsel, Rey is the one rescuing him, but Finn is still playing by the old stereotypes. They have a bonding moment once they escape, but there relationship doesn’t really come full circle until Finn shows up to rescue her again, this time at great risk to himself. Of course, Rey has already rescued herself at that point, but the connection is made (escape now, hug later).
Through all of this, and linking everything together much as R2-D2 an C-3PO did in the originals, is the droid BB-8, another wonderfully complex robot character with no intelligible dialog. BB-8 is given a huge range of emotions for something with no face, arms, or expressions. BB-8 is the anti Jar Jar, a fun and cute character that everyone will like instead of a hot-mess of CGI that tries desperately to be fun and cute and everyone loathes.
On the heroes’ side we have Han Solo and Chewbacca who fill the middle of the movie and help guide Rey and Finn along their story line and to the conclusion of Han’s story. We also get a few moments with Han and Leia who did not get the happy ending we expected at the end of Episode VI.
Which brings us to Ben “Kylo Ren” Organa Solo, our main villain. Ren, strong in the force, has been corrupted to the Dark Side and is trying, desperately, to emulate his grandfather, Darth Vader. Ren is a complicated character as well, because he is rash and petulant and prone to temper-tantrums and is wrestling with his choices, only not in the sense you expect. Ren is aware that the light side is still within him and struggling to assert itself, but he is committed to the Dark Side. While his uncle, Luke, refused to kill his father, Ren has little hesitation in killing his. Han knows this and goes to Ren willingly. I suspect that this, specifically, will be important as the story resolves. Ren is very much unlike his grandather, and lacks the sense of control and calculation that Vader had. Ren is rash, emotional, and uncontrolled. I suspect this is why his lightsabre looks like it does.
We also have a hologram of Ren’s mentor, played via motion-capture by Andy Serkis. It seems obvious to me that this is the Emperor, survivor of the Battle of Endor somehow, though I don’t see anyone else making this connection. Maybe I am missing something, but he certainly looks damaged enough to believe he could be Palpatine.
There are precious few things I would have changed in this movie (replace “You still make me crazy” with “You’re still a scoundrel” and eliminate the helicopter shot at the last 5 seconds or so of the movie). Sure, some of the ‘science’ doesn’t make even a little bit of sense, but then Star Wars has never been a SciFi story, it is a medieval sword and sorcery story set in space.
I’ve seen it several times, and I will see it many more times. Each time I see it I like Rey more, and she is fast approaching the point where she may replace Han Solo as my favorite of the Star Wars characters. There is a depth and complexity to her that is unique in the. Previous movies; I am fascinated by her story and I want to know more about her.
Sticking my neck out, there is a scene near the end of the movie that I think will be looked back on as Rey’s defining moment. When she is fighting Ren, and barely holding her own against a badly wounded Ren, there is a moment when Ren offers to train her. She does her look of disbelief, but then she closes her eyes, we get a little bit of ‘use the force’ music, and she seems to draw something out of Ren. At this point, she takes control of the fight and beats Ren back, and ends up subduing him. Before this point, she is barely holding him off and he is pushing her back and back as she gives ground. After this, she’s totally in control of the fight. It seems to me that, much like their confrontation early in the film, Rey takes something from Ren.
Granted, Ren is bleeding from a wound in his side and has take a saber poke to his left arm.
One last thing, this movie is funny. Ther are many moments of humor, more so that even in the original trilogy. There are also a lot of call-backs to the original trilogy as well (is there a grabage chute? Or a trash compactor?) but none of them feel forced.
Initially I was rating the movie as a solid 8/10, but after discarding any concerns with the explanation of the scientitian plot points: I rate it 9/10, just as good as Empire, a touch better than Star Wars, and well ahead of Jedi with its mini-bears.