I think if you had explained the plot of Star Wars: The Force Awakens to me I would have rolled my eyes. As a bullet point list it is fanservice to the point of obnoxiousness, repeating an absurd amount of classic Star Wars beats. Several things happen that I had literally joked about beforehand “If they do this, I’ll walk out”.
And yet I didn’t. Somehow, those nostalgic call backs are downplayed, delayed or slathered in enough good humour to stop them from being intrusive. There’s never a ‘dun dun dun!’ followed by ‘I am your father’. It’s all just a little bit classier than that.
This isn’t to say there aren’t clumsy moments. I found the fact that the film tells us there’s a New Republic, but never actually shows it in order to preserve the image of our heroes as a scrappy resistance pretty silly. But then there’s also moments of genuine cleverness, like the First Order.
The First Order are essentially the cargo cult version of The Empire, much like those that sprung up after the fall of Rome. They dress like the Empire, act like the Empire and collect imperial memorabilia. A handful of throwaway lines even reveals that they number their Stormtroopers in train them much like the Clone Troopers of old.
It’s a very clever idea, because it takes what could be criticisms of the First Order being a bad Imperial knock off and puts them the text. When Rey shouts “You’re terrified you’ll never be as good as Darth Vader” at Kylo Ren, you can almost believe the screenwriters are talking to themselves.
Ren is the focus point for a lot of this meta-commentary. Throughout he is presented as a guy who is trying a little bit too hard to be a cool Star Wars villain. Darth Vader wore a mask because he was horribly injured in Revenge of the Sith, Kylo Ren wears a mask because he thinks Sith Lords are supposed to wear scary looking masks. And yet what could’ve been a criticism of the script becomes instead a criticism of the character. It fits perfectly with Ren’s insecurity and conscious aping of the Empire. He isn’t a malevolent villain, he’s just a whiny adolescent cosplaying as Darth Vader.
Again this might seem like a bad thing, but it isn’t. Ren being incredibly insecure is an explicit part of his character, one which gives him far more depth as a villain than Vader or Palpatine ever had. The Force Awakens’ depiction of the Dark Side is more nuanced too. I always hated the Dark Side as evil energy that flips people to 100% pantomime villain the moment they make a mistake (I’m looking at you, Revenge of the Sith). A villain who struggles with guilt and believes he cannot be forgiven for what he’s done is far more interesting. He might not be better than Darth Vader, but he’s definitely better than Anakin Skywalker.
Interesting though he is, Kylo Ren is essentially a new spin on a traditional Star Wars role. The same could be said of Poe and Rey, the same could be said of a lot of the film. In many ways The Force Awakens plays it as safe as it possibly can with the Star Wars legacy, but there’s one exception to that: Finn.
There isn’t really another character like Finn in the Star Wars canon (although I’m sure there were plenty in the expanded universe). He’s just an ordinary guy, a literal faceless enemy drone who one day and decides to do the right thing and changes the course of history as a result. None this film happens if Finn doesn’t have doubts. The entire narrative hinges on the First Order’s inability to crush his humanity.
For much of the film Finn’s motives are presented as shallow. He’s either fleeing in fear or acting out of a naïve infatuation with Rey, the first person to ever treat him like a human being. Yet I still find him heroic, he’s the one guy at the Nazi rally who says “hang on guys, this isn’t right”, and that takes tremendous strength of character, even if your response is to run away rather than turn and fight.
I really hope the subsequent films don’t make Finn a secret Jedi or Lando’s son or something terrible like that. Finn shouldn’t ever be special, Star Wars is full of special people with the right lineage, Finn is the nobody who changed the world.
That, I think, encapsulates my hopes for the new trilogy. Having delivered a film that was not terrible, I’d even call it ‘good’, I think it’s time to start taking a few more risks. The Force Awakens camouflages its nostalgia expertly, but if the next film is just a blow for blow repeat of The Empire Strikes all this goodwill will just be wasted.
Seriously though, if this all with Kylo Ren throwing that giant bald guy down an elevator shaft I will scream.