This article is about Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and discusses elements of the plot that could be considered spoilers.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens needed to do a specific set of things in order to be called a success. It needed to be nostalgic, it needed to rekindle the love of the franchise driven almost completely into the ground by Lucas and his prequels, and it needed to make a ton of money. But one thing it didn’t have to do, necessarily, was be a good, strong, compelling piece of cinematic storytelling. The fact that it succeeds in being just that is its masterstroke. Forget the comparisons to the originals: this film uses Star Wars to say things that Star Wars has never said before, about families, struggles and particularly addiction. The original films touched on those topics through the lens of medieval mythology and perhaps an all-American sense of cultural shifts in the 1960s, but The Force Awakens weds Star Wars with something like Long Day’s Journey Into Night, and it is all the more remarkable for it.
This is something the first-time viewer, excited simply by seeing credible Star Wars stories on the screen again, may not even notice. But the second, or third viewing, especially if one strips away all the theme park foolishness of 3D or D-BOX or whatever it’s called, brings out more of the film’s strengths, which are considerable. There’s no substitute for good writing and good acting, and luckily this film has both.
The key to it all is the performance of Adam Driver as Kylo Ren. While this is most certainly Rey (Daisy Ridley)’s movie, and her journey will no doubt provide the spine for episodes 8 and 9, Ren is shaping up to be her main opponent in the continuing struggle between the light and dark sides of the force. The two characters are almost perfect dramatic mirrors of each other: male/female, good/evil, dark/light, but they share a mysterious parentage, were both either abandoned (Rey) or rejected (Ren) by their families, and both are engaged in a profound journey of self-discovery. The difference is that Rey has learned self-reliance and the importance of hard work from her struggles in life. She might be young, and not particularly physically robust, but she has an unshakable core of strength and maturity. Just consider the way she drags those Star Destroyer parts around the desert and hauls them in for nothing more than a couple of freeze-dried food packages. The determination in her eyes is one of absolute focus. Whereas Ren, with his snivelling and his too-quick judgements and his temper tantrums, still has a long way to go before he can be fairly called a “man”.
The main difference, it seems to me, between Rey and Ren is addiction. Ren is a poster child for a child of a wealthy, prominent family, sent to the best schools with the best teachers (namely his Uncle Luke Skywalker), who falls prey to the temptations power and privilege present to him. He’s reminiscent of Topher Grace’s character from Traffic in that way: deliberately slumming it, in part, as an act of rebellion against his parents. The difference, in Ren’s case, is of course that he intends to take the whole galaxy down with him, and undo everything his illustrious family has worked to achieve.
Like many addicts, Ren’s power and his choices seem to bring him little joy or pleasure. There’s no sense that he, like many stock villains, is rubbing his hands with glee at the thought of defeating the republic (indeed: he basically sits out that whole episode and leaves it to the more ordinary neo-fascists). Instead, Ren is obsessed with his own personal quest to find and kill Luke Skywalker. He makes mistakes and moves too quickly in this at each and every turn, losing the map to Luke early in the film and then subsequently tossing away an opportunity to retrieve it because of his undeserved confidence that he can wring the information from Rey’s mind. (This is neither the first, nor, one suspects, the last time he will underestimate Rey.) He’s angry, sulky and impatient, not at all like the methodical and decisive Darth Vader he claims to emulate. For most of The Force Awakens, Ren comes across as nothing better than a snivelling brat.
That is, until the final showdown with Han Solo in the middle of Starkiller base. We bring up this moment not in the interests of spoiling the outcome (which, really, seems too dramatic and unearned), but the moments just before it. Han and Leia speak of their son in terms that O’Neill would have found familiar: the misbegotten son, led astray, notorious, anti-social, but they still love him and still want to save him. Leia holds out the traditional mother’s hope that her son is not beyond redemption, while Han has given up for very understandable reasons (“If Luke failed, what can I do?”), but is enticed to give their son one last chance.
The parameters of the drama here, including the dialogue, is pure family crisis stuff. Han’s devastating last words to Ren, “Come home, son. We miss you,” are at least as powerful as “I love you: I know,” and just as shocking to find in a Star Wars movie. Credit for the scene, like all scenes, should be shared between the writers, director JJ Abrams, and probably Harrison Ford himself, an actor famous for being able to draw a straight line through any given scene. (Just think of his quick dispatch of the swordsman in Raiders, or his no-nonsense Jack Ryan.) But whatever the origin, it’s the moment when the film’s central conflict snaps into focus in an entirely real way, despite the elaborate science fiction surroundings. Abrams and his collaborators have found a way to invest the franchise with real emotional heft, by dispensing with strange, distanced, stylized acting and writing and cutting right to the heart of the characters and their concerns.
This sort of thing is what makes The Force Awakens easily the best Star Wars film since Empire, and in fact one of the great films in recent science fiction history. It’s always a delicate balancing act that these films have to perform, carefully managing world-building and ambitious intellectual notions with true, down-to-earth, dirt-under-your-fingernails drama. Mad Max: Fury Road also found moments like this, which is one of the things that’s earning Miller’s film a place near the top of this year’s “top ten” lists, besting even many straight-ahead non-genre films. But that film seemed to come out of nowhere and take the world by storm. The Force Awakens, on the other hand, was the most anticipated film of the year, and perhaps even the decade (so far). That it succeeded in surprising, dramatically, and having its best moments simple exchanges between two characters, is a testament to the power of taking the genre seriously (while not taking yourself too seriously, which is Snyder’s mistake) and crafting character and drama first, science fiction conceit second. It’s a great way to set up not just the rest of the Star Wars films, but will hopefully serve as an inspiration to a generation of filmmakers yet to come.