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 for several billion dollars. George Lucas was aging, and his company had no major plans for upcoming films, with no real succession plan for the elderly George Lucas. Meanwhile, Disney saw in LucasFilm a company with the rights to both Star Wars and Indiana Jones, and the appeal of Star Wars was particularly attractive as the most popular franchise of all-time with a devoted fanbase, and the promise of merchandise sales, new movies, spin-off shows, as well as a new attraction at Disneyland based on the Star Wars saga. George Lucas then appointed Steven Spielberg’s former assistant, Kathleen Kennedy, to replace him and serve as the new President of LucasFilm. She was previously an associate producer who worked on several Lucas and Spielberg blockbusters. It is rumored that she made a number of internal 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 for a Star Wars reboot – everyone from Spielberg, to Guillermo del Toro and even Ban Affleck (can you imagine?) until they eventually settled on J.J. Abrams, the brains behind several action-packed reboots (Star Trek) as well as Armageddon, and the Lost television series. 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, it was denied by Disney and he departed the project, so Abrams brought on Lawrence Kasdan to help write the script for a new Star Wars film (Kasdan was the famous writer for Empire and Jedi from the original series). Abrams also recruited much of the 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 project. Lucas has expressed dissatisfaction on several occasions with the Star Wars reboot series, even disparaging Disney as “white slavers.”
For the plot, Abrams felt the film needed to return fans to the familiar terrain of the original series, rather than the disorienting CGI extravaganza of episodes I-III. For much of the shooting, the script was locked carefully in a safe. The plot takes place approximately thirty years after the fall of the Galactic Empire, and somehow yet another new power, the First Order, has risen from the ashes of the empire. How? It is not explained. A small, rag-tag group of New Republic defenders called “The Resistance” (previously the triumphant rebels) are led by Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher). Was there any point to the victory of the empire in the original series? Who knows. Anyway, the Resistance are now desperate to locate Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) as he has inexplicably disappeared somewhere in the galaxy. Poe Dameron (portrayed by Guatemalan actor Oscar Isaac) is an independent fighter pilot of the Resistance and is the clear Han Solo-esque character in the new series. 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 -a character we have never been introduced to before. Poe retrieves a map to the supposed location of Luke – a map to Ahch-To, an ancient Jedi temple located on an island. Suddenly, the First Order appears and captures and kills Lo San Tekka. Poe sends the map fragment in a droid BB-8 to the Resistance (sound familiar?) Kylo Ren (played by Adam Driver, in the vein of Darth Vader) captures Poe and takes him away while ordering stormtroopers to kill a local group of villagers. One stormtrooper feels particularly conflicted about killing innocent civilians. His name is 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). This character could have been an incredible story to explore in my view, but alas we are given zero backstory throughout this haphazard trilogy. A true opportunity missed.
Back on his ship, Kylo Ren tortures Poe, and then FN-2187 covertly tries to rescue Poe. Because of the name “FN” Poe gives him the name “Finn.” The two escape in a TIE fighter together. They fly to Jakku in search of the missing droid with the map to Luke Skywalker (against Finn’s wishes because he simply wants to escape the First Order which will surely kill him). However, they are shot down by the First Order and crash land on Jakku instead. Poe is nowhere to be found (what happened to him in this crash? Again, this is never fully explained) so Finn leaves the site of the crash and stumbles into a junk trading station in the desert where he also meets Rey, a capable junk trader who now has possession of BB-8 (Rey is 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. Rey and Finn joins forces despite meeting only moments prior, and they jump into an old “junk” ship that hasn’t flown in years (the Millennium Falcon of course) however, they are soon captured by another ship operated by Han and Chewbacca. Han and Chewbacca are in the midst of a confrontation with other smugglers to whom they owe debts. The gangs spot the BB-8 droid the First Order is looking for, but Rey accidentally opens hatches holding deadly creatures who then slaughter the gangsters just as the crew escape together on the Falcon. Somehow, Han seems tired, jaded, decrepit and incompetent in this film, while Rey is clearly portrayed as superior, devoid of inner conflict, and infinitely capable of accomplishing anything. She is a bland, milquetoast choice for a protagonist.
Meanwhile, the First Order have been constructing another planetary-killing base (a mirror of the original Death Star only this time much bigger and now called “Starkiller Base”) and the Supreme Leader Snoke (who is apparently some sort of Sith though he is never explained) orders them to use the weapon. Snoke also interrogates Kylo, his apprentice, about why the prisoner escaped and he questions feelings toward his father, Han Solo. Meanwhile, Han looks at the map to Luke Skywalker and notices it is incomplete. 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. We are given no character development of Rey or Finn at this opportune moment. In an odd interlude, they travel to a forest planet called Takodana to meet Maz Kanata (voiced by Lupita N’yongo), a cantina owner who Han thinks can help deliver the droid with the map to the Resistance. Meanwhile, Finn has an internal conflict over the situation and longs to escape to the outer rim (this whole time he has been posing as a Resistance fighter). Rey hears voices in her head and the force guides her into a basement where she happens to find the lightsaber of Luke Skywalker and Anakin Skywalker (how did this lightsaber end up here?) Rey flees the scene after experiencing a confusing vision that ends with the voice of Obi-Wan Kenobi.
Then, suddenly the First Order attacks the area but the crew are rescued by Poe and other Resistance fighters (Poe apparently miraculously survived the crash on Jakku). 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 despite the fact that she has no training or experience, and has never met a Jedi). Meanwhile, the Resistance launches an offensive against the Starkiller Base by planting explosives inside its oscillator outpost 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 having never used a lightsaber before) and the only thing that saves Kylo is a massive earthquake from the splintering and fissuring planet which divides the ground between them in two. The Falcon shows up and rescues Finn and Rey. Snoke orders an evacuation and a rescue of Kylo, as well. The Resistance mourns Han’s death, but suddenly R2-D2 awakens and reveals the rest of the map leading to Luke to the Resistance, thus allowing Rey and Chewbacca to fly the Falcon to the remote island planet where they find Luke alone at the end of the film. The Force Awakens ends as Rey hands the prized lightsaber to Luke.
A whole crop of famous actors appear in uncredited or minor roles in this movie, 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 his character of Han Solo to die. Ford was paid $25M for the film plus royalties (0.5% share of revenue). In contrast he was previously 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 90 degrees) when a piece of the hydraulic door on set of the Millenium Falcon fell on him. They needed to finish filming him from the waist up while Ford continued to hobble around. And also, Abrams suffered a fractured vertebrae when he tried to help lift the door off of Ford. Abrams kept this injury 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. Its sole purpose seems to be the selling of toys and other merchandise.
Nevertheless The Force Awakens is a fun, enjoyable film, despite its many confusing and convenient plot-holes. And 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 major point of criticism is how unfortunate the new characters are: Rey can apparently accomplish anything without training or experience; and Finn, why does he alone have the moral fortitude to leave the First Order? What is his backstory? His character arc could be one of the more compelling ideas to come out of this Disney re-hash; 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 Supreme Leader Snoke? Questions abound and the plot is somewhat questionable. Following the typical formula of Hollywood remakes, substance is sacrificed for flashy explosions. It is ultimately a safe film that ignores much of the fandom literature, and that attempts to throw every possible idea into the plot, it barely slows down to catch its breath and introduce the audience to the characters. The directors of yesteryear were able to accomplish far more with a lot less than this unfortunately –pacing is a key missing element of modern Hollywood epics that are hell-bent on “re-imagining” the classics from decades gone by.