NEW RELEASE – SPOILERS
STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015, 2016 Lucasfilm Blu-ray DVD set)
When we last saw our heroes in 1983, Evil had been defeated. Seemingly, Luke Skywalker fulfilled the prophecy of the chosen one who would bring balance to the Force, via his father Anakin Skywalker. Appealing to the good still within Darth Vader, the evil henchman of the Empire turned back to the light and betrayed his Sith lord, Emperor Palpatine. The Rule of Two was broken and the Sith were destroyed, along with their ultimate weapon, the second dreaded Death Star. In death, Vader redeemed himself. Luke smiled when he saw the ghost of his father standing next to those of his old masters Yoda and Ben Kenobi. He turned to rejoin his friends in the celebration of victory. Roll credits.
For decades, we were told “that’s it”. That’s the end of the story, said the man who wrote it, George Lucas. Sure there was talk of a sequel trilogy before, even two sequel trilogies! This seemed highly unlikely in 1983 as George was adamant that he was letting Star Wars go to work on other projects. The legacy of a sequel, of “what happened to Luke, Han Solo and Princess Leia later” was left first to novelist Timothy Zahn and then to a whole new generation of writers who filled the galaxy with stories of what came next. Of course, we all knew that should George actually change his mind and allow sequels to be made, all of that old stuff from the books would go out the window. No way was anybody going to try and adhere to continuity that somebody else wrote in a novel.
In 1994 there was hope. Lucas re-emerged and began working on the mysterious and long-awaited Star Wars prequels, Episodes I, II and III. Questions now could finally be answered. Who were the Jedi? Who is Luke Skywalker’s mother, only briefly mentioned before and never seen or named? Most importantly, how did Anakin Skywalker transform into Darth Vader, and why did the Repulic fall to be replaced by an Empire? One of the problems with this situation was that some questions are often best left to the imagination.
It was undeniably wonderful to finally return to the Star Wars galaxy, but it is also impossible to overlook how ill-received by fans the prequel movies were. The stiff acting, the wooden dialogue, the unlikely scenarios and muddled plots of these movies made them difficult to fully enjoy. Although entire cottage industries had grown out of anticipating the possibility of a sequel trilogy, many fans were happy all the same if they never got made. Lucas pooh-poohed the idea, now claiming Star Wars was always two trilogies, six movies, and the story of Anakin. There were no stories beyond that, he continued. It would be fun, he said, to see what Luke and Han were up to later, but ultimately they would just be extraneous to the actual story of Darth Vader. The end.
“Everyone said, ‘Well, are you going to do sequels to the first three?’ But that was an afterthought; I don’t have scripts on those stories. The only notion on that was, wouldn’t it be fun to get all the actors to come back when they’re 60 or 70 years old and make three more about them as old people.”
Quietly and in secret, Lucas once again had a change of heart and began work on the Star Wars sequel trilogy. Realizing that he would not be able to undertake such a massive project at his age, he made the brave choice of handing Lucasfilm over to Kathleen Kennedy, and selling Star Wars to Disney. Lucas’ story and characters were thrown out, but used as inspiration for what would eventually become Episode VII. Artists dug way back into the Ralph McQuarrie archives for inspiration, and so decades-old designs for Star Wars were finally able to leap onto the big screen.
Much of this information is the included documentary, Secrets of the Force Awakens: A Cinematic Journey. Though that feature does document the emotion and gravitas of what a sequel really means, it fails to really express the true feeling of it all. For decades, we were told this movie was never coming, but Episode VII was what we all really wanted, not Episode I. After the credits rolled on Return of the Jedi, did we all not grab our action figures of Luke, Han, Leia and Chewie and try to play out what happened next? The toy company Kenner tried to come up with new villains (I’m sure “Mongo Beefhead Tribesman” would have been a big hit), and Marvel Comics introduced a new villain called Lumiya, the Dark Lady of the Sith. Mace Windu, Darth Maul and Qui-Gon Jinn did not exist. The truth is, even in 1983, we didn’t really care about prequels. We wanted to know what happened next much more than what came before. So the dual challenge with Star Wars Episode VII was to not only make a movie that continues the story of the Skywalker family appropriately, but also to live up to everything we imagined and played out as kid. No pressure, right?
Director JJ Abrams felt the pressure, but what he and his creative team emerged with in The Force Awakens is everything that fans needed it to be. Not that there were no complaints. The heaviest criticism laid against The Force Awakens is that it imitates the first Star Wars (A New Hope) slavishly. Some derisively refer to The Force Awakens as a “reboot”. The parallels are there, but let us also not forget that Lucas himself tried to make his trilogies “rhyme” with similar circumstances. Did they go too far trying to copy the original?
A cute heroic droid carries a secret message on a desert world that must get back to the heroes. A new young character, a loner who is unwittingly Force sensitive, meets this droid and decides to help it. The desert world is escaped in the Millenium Falcon. They are pursued by the bad guys, led by a Force-using guy in a black mask and cloak with a crimson red laser sword. The bad guys have an ultimate weapon, a planet destroyer, and they use it. Our heroes must stop them from using it again. This large spherical weapon must be blown up, and a battle of X-Wings vs Tie Fighters will decide the fate of the galaxy. An old hero from a prior trilogy makes the ultimate sacrifice. Finally, our young new hero character concentrates to use the Force, and defeats the evil. Roll credits.
That paragraph describes both A New Hope and The Force Awakens perfectly. But a lot has changed, too.
Although we know the events that occurred 30 years prior off by heart, we know very little about what actually took place between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens. Here is what we do know.
After the Battle of Endor and the defeat of the Emperor, Han Solo and Princess Leia had a son named Ben. The Blu-ray special features reveal that Ben Solo was powerful in the Force, but with equal portions of light and dark within him. Director JJ Abrams tells us that the man known as Snoke, a dark side user, had his eyes on Ben Solo from the very start. So, much like his grandfather Anakin Skywalker, young Ben was being watched by a dark side master from the very beginning, and slowly seduced to the dark side. We also know that Luke was training a new generation of Jedi, but that Ben destroyed it all. Luke went into hiding, feeling responsible for his failure. We do not know anything concrete about this Snoke, or where he comes from. All that we know is that he seems very, very afraid of Luke. Ben Solo wants to find the map that leads to Luke’s hiding place. Snoke on the other hand wants that map destroyed if it cannot be recovered. He would rather that Luke never return to the affairs of the galaxy, where Ben is desperate to find that map, and therefore his uncle Luke.
Our new hero, the girl known only as Rey, has a Force vision in the movie that tells us a little bit more about what happened. We see brief clips of a massacre in the rain. Betraying Luke’s students by surprise in the night, it appears Ben, now known as Kylo Ren, has slaughtered Luke’s younglings with the help of his henchmen, the Knights of Ren, about whom we know nothing at all. We glimpse Luke placing his robotic right hand on his trusted droid R2-D2, perhaps shutting him down. And most interestingly, we see Kylo Ren killing someone through the back with his lightsaber, from the perspective of someone down below. Someone small like a child perhaps.
In that vision, which seems to be from the perspective of Rey as a little girl, Kylo Ren appears to be killing one of his fellow Knights of Ren. Is that indeed what is happening? Why did Kylo kill that man from behind? Did Kylo spare Rey from him? And who is Rey?
There seems little question that Rey is indeed a Skywalker. It also seems clear that Kylo Ren knows, or at least feels, that there is more to Rey than anyone else knows. It is Kylo who freaks out every time somebody mentions the scavenger girl from Jakku. Why? What is it about the idea of a girl from Jakku that has him so on edge? Rey is powerful enough to not only resist Kylo’s mind probe, but also reverse it and read Kylo’s mind. “You’re afraid,” she boldly proclaims, “that you will never be as powerful as Darth Vader!” She is strong enough to defeat Kylo Ren, at least semi-trained in the lightsaber, in a dual. Much like three other key characters in Star Wars (Luke, Leia and Anakin Skywalker), she has latent Force talents that are emerging on their own. And this terrifies Kylo Ren, very much. “You need a teacher!” he tells Rey, trying to avoid being bested by a girl. “I can teach you the ways of the Force!”
Kylo Ren is an interesting and complex villain. He has the fiery temper of his grandfather, but even more wild and untamed. His unfinished lightsaber is amaturish and dangerous. Unlike Anakin, he does not feel pulled to the dark. “I feel it again. The call to the light,” he confesses to Darth Vader’s melted helmet in meditation. “Show me again, the power of the dark side,” he begs the spirit of his grandfather. Wait…”again”? What’s this “again” business? When Anakin died, did he not revert to good? It seems highly likely that Kylo Ren’s master, Supreme Leader Snoke, is manipulating him with this Vader business. We will not know for sure until Episode VIII…or IX.
As for Snoke, we know he’s a Force user because we are told that he senses Kylo’s weakness, his compassion. We also know this because he says he’s going to complete Kylo Ren’s training. And that doesn’t sound too good for Kylo! His mucking around, trying to retrieve the map from Rey instead of destroying it in BB-8, caused the First Order to lose their gazollion-credit superweapon, the Starkiller. Think Darth Vader was in shit when he let the first Death Star get blown up? Just imagine the shit that Kylo Ren is in now. That new scar across his face his the last of his worries. When Snoke finds out that he not only got the base blown up, but also let the girl get away and the Resistance find Luke Skywalker…well, let’s just say I wouldn’t want to be Kylo Ren right now. The “completion” of his training will result in an even meaner and more intense Kylo Ren in Episode VIII.
Kylo’s father Han Solo went down a hero in The Force Awakens. Now, true Star Wars fans could have seen this coming right from the day they announced the movie was going to be made. Han Solo was supposed to die in Jedi. At first, George Lucas wanted balance. The victory of the heroes should be balanced by a tragic loss, because that’s life. He eventually backed out of this. It seemed obvious that the idea would be resurrected for The Force Awakens. But for Han to go down the way he did? Perfect. Flawless. Some complain that Han should have had the last word; he did though — his hand on his son’s face says 1000 words.
Chewbacca’s rage in that moment reflected the shock of everyone in the movie theater. Rey and Finn’s shock and sorrow was what we all felt, even though it was telegraphed from a mile away. If those gangsters chasing Solo earlier in the film didn’t hint that his luck was running dry, then the moment Solo walked out onto that catwalk surely indicated it was time for his end. If there is one rule in Star Wars, it’s be careful of catwalks. Have these people not yet invented the safety rail? On Earth, that catwalk would have violated so many regulations that General Hux would have been busted down to Colonel.
The Blu-ray has deleted scenes, and some of them reveal a little bit more detail. In one, Rey is told that Finn is going to be just fine, something left ambiguous in the final film. In another, Kylo Ren and a squad of Snowtroopers board the Millenium Falcon after its crash landing on the Starkiller planet. Knowing Ren would have grown up on that ship, you can only imagine his feelings as he stands in the cockpit. Other cut scenes, like a battle with Finn and Rey using Snowspeeders, would have made the movie drag. So here they are for your enjoyment, and separate from the film on a bonus disc.
The bonus disc also includes interesting bits about the different BB-8 droids that were built for the film, and the various creatures and monsters. Composer John Williams is the star of one featurette. The CG effects are gone over, and so is the end lightsaber battle with Kylo and Rey in the woods. Few lightsaber battles in past movies were filmed in a night time setting. In order to get the reflective glows on film, the actors used actual glowing lightsaber props for the scene. The result is more realistic lighting in a scene featuring many trees and lots of snow. Finally, there’s a bit about the famous “table read”. When the cast were assembled and the script was read in one room for the first time, the photo of this epic “table read” went viral. You may wonder, what did Mark Hamill do during this table read? Did Luke have zero dialogue or not? Good question: Mark read the narration. It’s only a shame the full two hour table read wasn’t included.
That brings us to Mark Hamill and Luke Skywalker, the ideal place to leave this epic review. There he was at the end, after 30 years of wondering “What happens to Luke, the only Jedi left in the galaxy?” Hamill’s face speaks volumes of what happened to Luke. Epic pain…sad wisdom…incredible knowledge. Luke has seen these things and much more, and it is in his eyes. His light beige cloak is a sharp contrast to the black clothes we last saw him in. In Star Wars, this communicates a purity awash in the good side of the Force. Whatever he has done in the years since he left, it is implied that Luke has become as powerful as the Emperor predicted. Probably more powerful even than Darth Vader ever was. Supreme Leader Snoke fears Luke Skywalker more than anything the pitiful Resistance can muster. Who do you think gave Snoke those horrific scars on his head? Perhaps the reason Snoke fears the last Jedi so much is that he has tasted the blade of that Jedi.
The Force Awakens may take all its plot cues from the original 1977 Star Wars, and that is a fair critique. As we have shown here, there is also much more to it. There are layers of mystery that are waiting to be peeled. When George made the first Star Wars in 1977, he didn’t know he would ever make another one. There were not as many questions to answer. What Kathleen Kennedy, JJ Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt came up with here was a story once thought impossible to write. They succeeded in coming up with a sequel idea that continues the story of the Skywalkers, introduces new heroes and villains, and doesn’t seem tacked on or mismatched with the original movies. It feels completely organic and natural. Indeed, The Force Awakens feels far more like Star Wars than any of the three prequels did. That’s something many thought impossible, like making the Kessel run in 12 parsecs.
Everybody’s going to buy this Blu-ray, so the only question left is which version to buy? I chose Walmart’s which came in a BB-8 case with a little “trading disc” inside. Only humbug: all those trailers we sat around and watched are not among the bonus features. But there are many versions out there and here’s a breakdown of them:
- Walmart – BB-8 case and trader disc.
- Best Buy – Steelbook case.
- Target – 20 minutes of additional bonus features including interviews with John Boyega and Daisy Ridley.
- Disney – free lithographs.