I recently saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) and had some thoughts. I share these because in my own perusal of movie reviews, critics typically can only focus on major plot points and characters due to word count, and thus a lot of the most interesting details go undiscussed.
Without further ado, I submit five thoughts for your perusal. (Spoilers ahead for any late-comers!)
1. I thought Kylo Ren was a convincing evil figure. There’s been a good bit of conversation over “Emo Kylo Ren,” with a funny Twitter account to boot. I do think this villain fits our era, yes, but by my lights, Ren’s lack of discipline made him plenty scary. As embodied by the actor, Ren was simultaneously very powerful but capable of lashing out. This was a nice twist on Darth Vader, I think, because part of what made Vader so chilling was his politesse–the fact that he engaged courteously with folks before twisting them into little heaps.
Ren has that same quality, the formal linguistic style and impeccable manners, but he is a roiling core of fury underneath. I found that tension, brought out very nicely in Ren, fascinating to ponder. Is evil banal, or is volcanic? Or both? Probably both, if I were seeking a conclusion, but the point here is that Kylo Ren was scary and easily the most compelling on-screen character in his scenes. His voice was a work of aural mastery, too, much like Bane’s in the Dark Knight film. It filled the ear, resonating deeply, but also had a touch of the scratchiness of a walkie-talkie (remember those, anyone?).
This impressed me deeply, the combination of clarity and slight fuzziness. It impressed all the more because Vader’s voice was obviously a technological marvel in itself, and I wasn’t expecting a similar achievement in 2015. J. J. Abrams’s team pulled it off, however (and might deservedly win an Oscar for these kind of killer effects).
2. I loved a good bit of the cinematography and shot-making in The Force Awakens. Oddly, visual matters of films are often the least-discussed, which is a shame. Movies are, after all, fundamentally visual, but we tend to drift from the carefully-curated particulars to the plot-based spectacle unfolding before us. TFA had numerous great shots or more extended sequences, for the record, though they quickly sped by in the movie’s haste to keep the audience maximally plugged-in at every possible moment (a necessary evil of the movie-as-cosmos-ending-spectacle age). Here are a few:
–The red burst streaking across the sky as the camera zoomed in on Kylo Ren (gorgeous)
–The opening shots of the stormtroopers, with the lights flickering in and out
–The introductory sequence with Rey
–The forest battle between Ren and Rey (Ren’s lightsaber was very cool)
My own favorite shots invariably involved Kylo Ren. As my friend Alex Duke noted, the camera often zoomed forward to highlight the oncoming menace of Ren. This was a brilliant tactic on the filmmakers’ part. It had the effect of heightening the looming nature of his evil presence. I believe Vader was shot in a similar manner in past films, though I can’t fully remember.
(By the way, I recently saw the first scene of Stark Trek (2009) by Abrams and was reminded of how good he can be with opening scenes. His shots of Chris Hemsworth dying heroically while his wife gives birth is heart-stopping, and one of the best scenes in cinematic history. It captures the joy and tragedy of life in one propulsive burst. There’s clearly competition among modern directors to tender the best opener; Christopher Nolan holds the crown in my view–“The fire rises,” anyone? Wow.)
3. The nature of Star Wars is inherently youthful. This was true in TFA. The characters of Finn and Rey were both lively, likeable, and often fun, but they were also inherently childlike. Of course, Star Wars is not trying to be adult theater. I like that it is fun, and always has been fun. But I also found the acting over-the-top in many places. The fast-paced nature of the scenes with Finn and Rey ensured that the action was humming, but the two characters mostly ran around with high-intensity interactions that failed to convince.
I did find Finn’s courage appealing, and I liked how Rey showed steel as she discovered the power to use the force. Daisy Ridley has some serious potential. But the movie still leans pretty youthful.
4. Star Wars continues to explore father-son dynamics with power and pathos. The core of these movies is the tangled relationship between fathers and sons, a remarkably old-fashioned theme in a gender-neutral world. It’s interesting, by the way, how filmmakers know at an emotional level what audiences are being trained to disavow at an intellectual level: that life is ordered around the interactions between God-constituted realities, namely, manhood, womanhood, fatherhood, the family, and so on. These are the most inspiring and touching elements of life: relationships that are grounded in basic realities but which engage the full spectrum of human emotion and experience.
TFA mines this territory in a powerful, if brief, way by putting Han Solo face-to-face with his estranged son, Kylo Ren. Ren is simultaneously drawn to and enraged by his father. We are reminded palpably of the twisted and fascinating dynamics of Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker. Mark Hamill was no auteur of the cinema; his performance was reedy and shrill in many places. But he succeeded admirably in capturing the paradoxical disaffection and father-hunger of the abandoned child. This is where the true power of the original Star Wars movies was. Years later, reflecting on the Vader-Skywalker exchanges, one still feels deeply moved by them.
George Lucas takes many hits for his sometimes wooden directing and awful dialogue, but his films–and the Star Wars series–offer us vivid portrayals of the complex relationship between fathers and sons. This is a big part of why they are beloved. They give men a vocabulary for what they feel on both sides of the equation, father and son. Though, thankfully, most fathers and sons do not handle their issues with lightsabers in hand.
5. It was shocking–and honestly touching–to see Solo and Leia reunited. The fact that Harrison Ford did this movie in his seventies, and that Carrie Fisher is still around, surprised me. It was moving to see these iconic characters reunited onscreen, and reminded me that Star Wars is as much of a cultural experience as it is a movie. How poignant that these two figures, once so young and vibrant, are now old and almost retired. Even Star Wars, of all things, reminds us of how quickly life passes, and how quickly the bloom of youth fades.
By the way, the closing scene was also stunning. I do wish Abrams had ended the film just as the robed figure turned around. Personally, I think that image had a punch akin to a blind-side uppercut, though of course the film telegraphed its coming. No matter–that discovery, after all these years, was a gob-stopper. I do think Abrams handled it well, though I think he extended the scene just a bit too long.
It’s kind of like in preaching, honestly. I sometimes hear gifted preachers land the plane on a dime–but then they tack on, for reasons that are not immediately clear to me, two or three extra paragraphs that rehash the sermon, and leave us with a whimper rather than a wallop. Young preachers: do not underestimate the power of a conclusion that seizes your hearers by the throat, so to speak. Leave them on a cliff, rather than walking them soporifically back down the trail.
So there you have it. There’s much more to say about TFA, but those are a few things that struck me. Star Wars is not perfect, but it is compelling, and I am thankful for a fun movie that dips into meaningful themes while leaving the viewer–at least this viewer–with a sense of awe that accords with the wonder that accrues to anyone who studies the order and nature of God’s creation.
There is what C. S. Lewis called sennsucht in Star Wars, though you have to push beyond mere critique of the plot points and character dialogue to see it. In entering into this fantasy-world, many of us find ourselves longing for the true world, the one which is and is to come.
(Image: “Celebration Anaheim–The Force Awakens” by AdamBMorgan on Wikimedia Commons)