My Review of Star Wars Episode VII The Force Awakes with only one minor sorta kinda spoiler that doesn’t really give anything away… I think. So read on if you dare and I really do try to keep all spoilers out.
Anyways, I want to make a point here to say that Episode VII is not the best star wars movie to date. That would suggest that the movie could stand on its own (without the previous six movies) and still be an excellent movie. That is not true. The only movie for which that is true is Episode IV. In fact, without the previous six movies, Episode VII goes from “excellent” to “pretty good.” You see it’s actually pretty simple: the story telling makes Episode VII good, while the way in which it sets itself in the larger story of the universe is what makes it excellent.
Now by storytelling, I don’t just mean the plot. The plot is good as far as it goes, but what really makes this movie tick is the way in which the plot and the individual character arcs are presented to the audience. That’s what I mean by storytelling. While the plot will not surprise most Star Wars fans, the storytelling (especially non-verbal storytelling) is breathtaking. Examples:
- The blood on Finn’s helmet literally forces Finn to look at all the blood that the first order sheds in a way that was clearly theoretical before.
- Ray scratching days on the wall of her home indicating a level of determination and desperation not usually seen in the Star Wars Universe.
- The Silent battle of the force – just plain AWESOME! If you’ve seen the movie you know what I’m talking about, if not trust me, it is incredibly revealing.
- Kylo Ren’s turmoil about every decision he has to make reveals his youth AND his desire to leave his mark.
- R2D2’s silence says so much especially considering how vocal he normally is in the films.
- Rey and Leia’s embrace speaks volumes, although I think some are reading a little too much into it.
The list could go on, but I’ll stop there. The main point that I’m trying to make is that the storytelling that made episodes IV-VI so wonderful apart from its basic good vs evil plot, is back and it is very good.
What makes the movie excellent however, is the way it plays off of the longer story arc of the Star Wars universe (as presented in the movies. Disney is ignoring the Expanded Universe so it doesn’t make much sense to talk about it in context of the movie.) Some critics have complained that Episode VII just recycles a lot of the same old plot points with new faces and better use of CG. While it is true that a lot of plot points are recycled, it is also true that a lot of very significant pieces of the Star Wars Cycle are ignored or changed. It is those pieces that DON’T fit the larger cycle that make the movie so good, especially in light of the way they don’t fit the mold. Specifically I’m talking about the Characters.
In previous Star Wars trilogies, the principal characters can be identified by using Shakespearean archetypes.
- Queen Amidala is The Tragic Princess ala Ophelia from Hamlet or Juliet from Romeo and Juliet. Her tragic death at the end of the trilogy, the doomed love affair with Anakin, and even her early strength and spirit are all consistent with the Tragic Princess.
- Anakin Skywalker is alternately the tragic lover (Romeo from Romeo and Juliet) or the fallen prince (title characters Macbeth or Othello).
- Obi-Won Kenobi presents The Officer of Order seen in Don Pedro (Much Ado about Nothing), The Prince (Romeo and Juliet), or Oberon (Midsummer-Night’s Dream)
- Even Jar Jar Binks in his annoying form takes on the role of the comic clown seen in the Watch (Much Ado about Nothing), or Polonius (Hamlet)
- Luke is the valiant prince most notably seen in Shakespear’s title character of Henry V, but also seen in Fortinbras (Hamlet) and Macduff (Macbeth)
- Leia is the Strong Willed Princess seen most commonly in Kate (Taming of the Shrew) and Beatrice (Much Ado About Nothing)
- Han Solo is a classic scoundrel seen in Pertuchio (Taming of the Shrew) and Bennedick (Much Ado about nothing)
- Darth Vader then is the fallen prince (see above)
- And Emperor Palpatine is the evil King seen most famously in Richard III
From this perspective the entire Star Wars universe as comprised in Episodes I-VI can be seen as a sort of cyclical history in which each generation is doomed to repeat the storylines of the previous generation. In Episode VII however, that is challenged. History begins to repeat itself once again, but the players involved do not seem capable of taking on their roles.
There are no tragic lovers as far as I can see. The chemistry between Rey and Finn seems more filial than romantic. Rey is too rough and tumble to take on any kind of role that would suggest royalty and is often described by other critics to sound more like Aladdin than Jasmine (“riff raff, street rat”). Poe is certainly an arrogant hot shot but is far too noble and idealistic to take on the Shakespearean archetype of Scoundrel and is too much of a scoundrel to take on the role of a prince. Then there is Finn who is cowardly and noble in turns and doesn’t seem able to decide what kind of man he is. Basically he’s a kid trying to figure out what life is all about – hardly a Shakespearean archetype. That leaves us only with Kylo Ren who best fits the role once held by Vader of “Fallen Prince” and yet even there we see glimmers and flashes challenging that notion. Given this understanding of the principal characters in the “new Generation” we see that all the old plot points are ones that were set into motion by the older generation. Every time the kids get involved the audience switches from nostalgia to surprise. And I can’t say much more than that without giving away spoilers so 😛
So what happens when you tell a bunch of kids that they need to behave a certain way so that the story can unfold just the way we want it to? They ignore you and do their own thing. And that’s what makes Episode VII so exciting: the kids have gone off script.