Review by Logan
Just what is it that makes Star Wars Star Wars?
That’s a question that’s central in how we review this film. Was there something about Star Wars that was missing in the prequels, commonly regarded as the underbelly of the underworld in comparison to the lofty original trilogy? Or was it simply that they are all Star Wars, but to differing degrees of quality? Is it the lightsabers, the music, and the space battles? Or is it the philosophy, the theology, the spirit?
In a word: yes.
So in that vein, with that picture, that framework, how does the new Star Wars measure up? Is it a film we welcome to the canon with open arms or grudgingly do so because we have no choice?
The first step to answering that question comes pretty readily. The first litmus test of any story, in any time, is the characters. In The Force Awakens we have Rey and Finn. Rey is a scavenger on a planet we might as well call Tatooine, awaiting the return of her family. She’s tough, she can look out for herself, and she often does. Finn is a stormtrooper who grew a conscience, and now wants nothing more than to get away from The First Order and the villainous Kylo Ren.
And they are utterly fantastic. From Rey’s indignation at Finn trying to take her hand to Finn’s comical exchanges with Chewbacca, the pair could be no better as characters in whom the franchise now supposedly rests. When it comes to character development, the film skillfully balances nostalgia with novelty. A reformed stormtrooper is certainly new, and Rey is an incredibly compelling character, especially given the fact that, even at the end of the film, we know so little about her and where she comes from.
But when it comes to story, the film doesn’t balance the two quite so well. It leans far more toward nostalgia than novelty, to the point that the film’s plot starts to feel like an only slightly veiled rehashing of A New Hope. That’s not to say that it does it poorly – Harrison Ford’s Han Solo steals the show even more in this round than he did in the first. It contains what is probably the best Millenium Falcon scene in the entire saga. But when you look at the main events of A New Hope and the main events of The Force Awakens, they are so eerily similar that it’s slightly irritating.
However, the differences, slight as they are, are indeed important here. In A New Hope, Luke was a good kid raised by good parents who is nurtured by a good mentor to be a good hero. In The Force Awakens, we have something very different. It’s hard to say for sure what Rey’s background is because we just aren’t given much, but she is alone. But then there’s Finn. Finn was bred to be a killer. We learn in the story that stormtroopers (now having moved past only using clones) are taken as babies from their would-be families. The First Order raises them, undoubtedly brainwashing them to be ruthless drones in the process.
But Finn chose to be good.
The worldview of Star Wars has its problems. It’s deeply seeped in a tradition that’s more Buddhist than it is Christian, drawing from an impersonal Force rather than a personal God (for more on that, read Nate’s review of A New Hope). This is a problem present in every Star Wars film, and I don’t feel compelled to drive that point home here. But even despite all of those problems, Star Wars always manages to land on the side of virtue and integrity. For most of the saga that has meant denouncing anger and embracing self-sacrifice. In The Force Awakens, it means that good guys are not good because of their circumstances, but are good because they choose to be so.
The film is not without its problems. It has more of them than I’d like to admit, and I left the theater saying I wish I could like it more than I did. As far as the story goes, I believe it’s fairly unoriginal, even if nostalgic and well-executed. But old-fashioned heroes are hard to come by. And reviewing this blog from the perspective of a Christian who looks for morality and meaning in story, the unadulterated goodness of these heroes – and the execution that makes it possible for us to focus on that – makes this film difficult to toss aside, even if it’s unlikely to match the previous classics.