By Caskey Dyer
(Spoiler warning: This review assumes you’ve already seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens, so if you’re waiting for a Netflix release and have avoided spoilers thus far – impossible as that sounds – then read no further!)
Despite not yet having children, I still manage, in my infinite anxiety, to stress about it. But stressing about it doesn’t prevent me from being self-indulgent. If I’m going to daydream about being a parent, why not treat myself to a vision of myself as a progressive uber-parent, bravely conditioning the next batch of humans? I’d be a super-dad! I‘d build a nurturing home. I’d give them structure, but space. I’d provide them with just the right combination of freedom and guidance so that by the time they’d turned eighteen, all I’d have to do is step back and watch their personalities flourish. They’d have their own lives. Their own passions. Their own heroes.
All of this optimism dissipated after watching Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and I realized I’d probably end up conditioning the poor squirts to idolize fictional characters.
How reactionary of me.
Okay, that’s hyperbole. But this film really, really knows how to make good characters for young audiences. The producers knew that millions of families with children were going to see this movie, and they wielded that power responsibly. The Force Awakens is all about pleasing the new fans, not pandering to the old. While there’s plenty of nostalgia – subtle aesthetic touches like alien wildlife or jokes about trash compactors – The Force Awakens has a fresh sense of style and humor that ensure cross-generational satisfaction. Most commendably, it works hard to create a loveable cast of characters, who are no doubt already stepping into an upper echelon of pop-culture idols.
The new leads – Rey, Finn, and Poe – aren’t even likeable to a fault. They’re just likeable. They’re brimming with charisma, they’re principled, resourceful, skilled, funny, and somehow still feel human. The chemistry between them feels genuine and endearing. There’s a moment where Rey and Finn, having just taken out some TIE fighters (in one of the film’s most adrenaline-pumping sequences), enthusiastically complement each other for a good ten seconds, and it’s seriously the cutest thing (why can’t I have friends like these?). Thankfully, most of the character-building is done through visual storytelling and dialogue, so there’s little in the way of overly-long exposition.
I’m trying hard to not pick favorites – again, I’ve got hypothetical parenting to train for – but Star Wars ruined that for me, too. I absolutely love Daisy Ridley as Rey, the savvy scavenger from Jakku who’s committed to reuniting with her family. She balances compassion with strong-willed diligence and sheer skill, and Ridley brings an electric amount of energy to her performance. The character occasionally veers into feeling one-note with how damn good she is, but Star Wars knows how to handle one-dimensional characters, so it never detracts from her likability. It’s cool to think of how many young girls are going to watch this film and see Rey hold her own against all the crap thrown at her while sticking to her principles.
Finn, played by John Boyega, is also extremely likeable. His moral dilemma – whether to help the Resistance or save himself – brings him depth, but Boyega really shines when he’s bringing the humor. In a way, Finn’s the most “modern” character. While unavoidably mired in the universe’s own logic, he’s still flippant and boyish and completely flabbergasted by the absurd situation he’s stuck in. He’s probably the closest thing to an audience surrogate the film has. He’s also a former soldier, and the writers were smart to use this to give Finn competence and skill that ensure he’s a valuable member of the team.
Poe Dameron, the Resistance pilot played by Oscar Isaac, also brings a lot of humor, but it’s with a cockiness that’s charming and never sours the movie’s tone. Like with Ridley, both Boyega and Isaac represent demographics that have long been neglected in Hollywood. It’s nice to know that there will be many young children of color who will grow up and see characters that look like them in the role of the hero, and not the token.
In the Dark Side’s corner, Star Wars mostly sticks to tradition by not bringing much depth beyond the main Sith – in this iteration, Kylo Ren, played by Adam Driver. Driver gives a solid performance, and the film wisely uses him to impart moral lessons onto its young audiences. I’ve seen Kylo’s character take a lot of flak online from audiences who thought he was too whiny, but I thought it was a great choice. It’s not that groundbreaking to portray Evil as unabashedly cruel and self-assured, so Star Wars portrays Evil as throwing temper tantrums, sucking up to elders, and disrespecting personal space. If parents won’t teach their young boys that these things aren’t cool, at least Star Wars will. (In one of the film’s more interesting scenes, Kylo taunts a captured Rey, gets way too close to her face, and tries to force himself into her mind. Rey fights back and uses his own tricks against him. The message is clear: violating people is something the Bad Guy does).
The film really shines during its action sequences – the camera has a constant momentum that makes the high-velocity combat feel like a theme park ride. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really stop to breathe in the lulls between setpieces, which particularly hurts the pacing in the middle of the film. Some sequences, like Rey sneaking through the Death Star, or finding Luke’s lightsaber, could have benefitted from longer, quieter shots.
Although the film shines as a sci-fi action-adventure, there were a few plot holes that limit immersion. I know, Star Wars never made any claims to being grounded in plausibilty. However, there is a point past which something becomes so unbelievable that it dampens engagement. A few examples: The Starkiller planet (supposedly several times larger than the old Death Star) is introduced with hardly any fanfare, an entire star system is destroyed in about three minutes, and the heroes blow it up with a few well-placed fighter shots. Kylo Ren, despite being the leader of something called the “Knights of Ren,” seems challenged by two decidedly non-Jedis in an anticlimactic lightsaber duel in a forest. The hunt for Luke Skywalker, which has evidently taken up the better part of a couple decades, is resolved in one film with Rey finding Luke’s lightsaber and R2-D2 inexplicably booting to deliver a missing map piece.
These resolutions were unsatisfying, and I would have liked to some plot threads stretched out into another movie. Still, that’s only my opinion, and the movie is still quite an experience.
A final quip – sometimes characters fall too easily into the video-game logic. Finn’s background as a Stormtrooper doesn’t seem to affect him much as he excitedly blasts away at his former comrades. During the battle on Takodana, Rey shoots a blaster for the first time and kills a Stormtrooper. She pauses, takes two seconds to look profoundly distressed, then hardens her face and continues firing. While these moments are satisfying in an action-movie way, they represent a missed opportunity for character work. The Star Wars universe could benefit from some moral relativism – at least in the way it treats the Stormtroopers.
These are, though, personal quips, and they never shadowed the visceral satisfaction this film brings. It’s expertly crafted to make you feel like a kid again, to fall in love with its characters again, to feel the speed of an X-wing and grip the armrests during a blaster battle again. And, it is, after all its successes as a film have been discussed, an excellent surrogate parent. Or so I’d imagine. Excuse me, I have some merchandise to stock up on.