Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015) Director: J.J. Abrams
In 2012, George Lucas controversially sold his company, LucasFilm, to the Walt Disney Company in a several billion dollar deal. George Lucas was aging, and his company had no major plans or upcoming films and no real succession plan for the elderly George Lucas. Meanwhile, Disney saw a company with the rights to both Star Wars and Indiana Jones, the appeal of Star Wars was particularly appealing to the corporation – a popular franchise with a devoted fanbase, and the promise of merchandise sales, new movies, spin-off shows and movies, as well as a new addition to Disneyland based on the Star Wars saga. George Lucas then appointed Kathleen Kennedy to serve as the new President of LucasFilm, an associate producer with several Lucas and Spielberg blockbusters. It is rumored that she made several political moves to better align herself with the vision of Disney for the Star Wars franchise, against the wishes of George Lucas.
Several directors were considered – everyone from Spielberg, to Guillermo del Toro and even Ban Affleck (can you imagine?) until they eventually settled on J.J. Abrams, of Armageddon, Star Trek, and the Lost series fame. Michael Arndt (of Toy Story 3 and Little Miss Sunshine fame) was the original writer of the script, but when he requested more time for the film and was denied by Disney, he departed the project, and Abrams brought on Lawrence Kasdan to help write the script for a new Star Wars film (he was the original writer for Empire and Jedi from the original series). They also recruited much of he surviving original cast (Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, and others). George Lucas played a minimal “creative consultant” role early in the creation of the film, but otherwise he played no part. He later stated that Disney discarded his original ideas for the films and he had no further part in the film. Lucas has expressed dissatisfaction on several occasions with the film.
For the plot, Abrams felt the film needed to return fans to the familiar terrain of the original series, rather than disorienting CGI extravagance of episodes I-III. For much of the filming, the script was locked in a safe. The plot of the film takes place thirty years after the fall of the Galactic Empire, and now a new power, the First Order, has risen from the ashes of the empire. The defenders of the New Republic called “The Resistance” are led by Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher). They are desperate to locate Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) as he has disappeared somewhere in the galaxy. Poe Dameron (portrayed by Guatemala actor Oscar Isaac) is an independent fighter pilot of the Resistance. He travels to the remote desert planet of Jakku in search of an ancient mystic and friend of the old Jedi order named Lo San Tekka. Poe is sort of the Han Solo of the new series. He retrieves a map to the supposed location of Luke – a map to Ahch-To, an ancient Jedi temple on an island. Suddenly, the First Order appears and captures and kills Lo San Tekka. Poe sends the map fragment in a droid (sound familiar?) away (the droid is BB-8). Kylo Ren (played by Adam Driver, in the vein of Darth Vader) captures Poe and takes him away while he orders the stormtroopers to kill the villagers. One stormtrooper starts feeling conflicted, FN-2187 (played by John Boyega, a British Nigerian actor who turned down doing a Jesse Owens biopic in order to star in Star Wars). Back on the ship, Kylo Ren tortures Poe, and then FN-2187 covertly tries to rescue Poe. Because of “FN” Poe gives him the name “Finn.” The two escape in a TIE fighter together. They fly to Jakku in search of the droid (against Finn’s wishes). He simply wants to escape the First Order which will surely kill him. However, they get shot down by the First Order and crash land on Jakku. Poe is nowhere to be found (what happened to him in this crash?) so Finn leaves the sight and stumbles onto a junk trading station in the desert where he also meets Rey, a capable junk trader who now has possession of BB-8 (played by a British actress named Daisy Ridley). Finn claims to be a member of the Resistance to avoid attention and shame, but suddenly the First Order arrives and attacks the outpost. They jump into an old “junk” ship that hasn’t flown in years (the Millenium Falcon) however, they are soon captured by another ship operated by Han and Chewbacca. But they are in the midst of a confrontation with other smugglers to whom they owe debts. The gangs spot the BB-8 droid that the First Order is looking for, but just then Rey accidentally opens hatches holding deadly creatures that kill the gangs just as the crew escape together on the Falcon. Meanwhile, the First Order have been constructing another planetary-killing base (a mirror of the original Death Star only much bigger and called “Starkiller Base”) and the Supreme Leader Snoke (who is apparently some kind of sith) orders them to use the weapon. Snoke also interrogates Kylo, his apprentice, about why the prisoner got away and feelings toward his father, Han Solo. Meanwhile, Han looks at the map and notices it is incomplete and he explains the backstory of Luke who became disillusioned and went into exile after attempting to train Kylo who then turned to the dark side. In an odd interlude, they travel to a forest Takodana planet called to meet Maz Kanata (voiced by Lupita N’yongo), a cantina owner who Han thinks can help the deliver the droid to the Resistance. Meanwhile, Finn has an internal conflict and longs to escape out to the outer rim. Rey hears voices and the force guides her into the basement where she finds the lightsaber of Luke Skywalker and Anakin Skywalker (how did this lightsaber end up here?) Rey flees the scene after having a confusing vision that ends with the voice of Obi-Wan. Then, the First Order attacks the area but the crew are rescued by Poe and other Resistance fighters who apparently miraculous survived the crash at the beginning and got to the Resistance. Kylo shows up and captures Rey but she quickly escapes realizing she has the power of the Force (she uses a Jedi mind trick on the jail guard). Meanwhile, the Resistance launches an offensive against the Starkiller Base by planting explosives inside its oscillator base on the planet: Han confronts his son “Ben” Kylo Ren who promptly kills Han Solo with a lightsaber, and Rey is reunited with the Resistance. Chewbacca shoots and wounds Kylo and detonates the explosives. Kylo chases Finn and Rey out into the snowy woods and he quickly defeats and badly wounds Finn, but Rey proves to be a formidable opponent as she nearly destroys Kylo (despite never having used a lightsaber before) and the only thing that saves Kylo is a massive earthquake from the splintering and fissuring planet that splits the ground between them. The Falcon shows up and rescues Finn and Rey. Snoke orders an evacuation and a rescue of Kylo, as well. The Resistance group mourns Han’s death, but suddenly R2-D2 awakens and reveals the rest of the map to Luke, allowing Rey and Chewbacca to fly the Falcon to the remote island where they find Luke. The film ends as Rey hands the lightsaber to Luke.
A whole slough of famous actors appear in uncredited or minor roles, including Daniel Craig and Nigel Godrich (as stormtroopers). It seems Harrison Ford was the most difficult star to obtain, as he had long ago wanted Han Solo to die. Ford was paid $25M for the film plus royalties (0.5% share of revenue). In contrast he was paid $10K for the first Star Wars film in 1977. Ridley and Boyega were each paid $476K plus a share of revenue if it grossed over $1B. Fisher was paid $1.5M and Abrams was paid $5.1M plus a 2% share of revenue. During filming, Harrison Ford suffered a severely rolled ankle (it apparently rolled to a 90 degree ankle) when a piece of the hydraulic door on set of the Millenium Falcon fell on Ford. They needed to finish filming him from the waist up. And also, Abrams suffered a fractured vertebrae when he tried to help lift the door off of Ford. Abrams kept this a secret.
Portions of the film were shot in Abu Dhabi and Ireland (Skellig Michael island), as well as England and California. Per usual, there was a somewhat substantial fandom push-back against the film, calling J.J. Abrams “Jar Jar” Abrams, but in all the film is better than could be expected for a franchise clearly taken over by Disney just to make top dollar for its shareholders.
The Force Awakens is an enjoyable film, Despite having some confusing and convenient plot holes, it is a terrific re-introduction to the Star Wars genre after so many were disappointed with episodes I-III. Even though the plot is more or less a re-telling of A New Hope, the film is still unique and tells a compelling story with beautiful imagery. One point of criticism is how unfortunate the new characters are (Rey who can apparently do anything without training, and Finn – why does he alone have the moral fortitude to leave the First Order?) and also how does Poe survive the crash landing only to appear later? Who is the First Order and how did they come to power? Who is Snoke? Questions abound and the plot is somewhat questionable, but overall the film is a fun return to the legendary series.