Star Wars: Episode VII – The First Step Into A Larger Universe

For the general audience, Star Wars Episode VII is a film with grand hype around it and turns out to be an enjoyable movie-going experience.

But I am not the general audience.

On the scale of Star Wars fans, I am above casual fans – having grown up reading Star Wars novels and playing Star Wars video games – but below the fans who go to Star Wars Celebration and participate in cosplay leagues like the 501st.

Like many other fans, I have been contemplating a follow-up trilogy to Star Wars. However, like shooting a proton torpedo into a shaft leading to the main reactor of the Death Star, this seemed impossible. After the prequel trilogy, a quality follow-up trilogy seemed even further from possible. Instead, I reveled in the imagined futures within the expanded universe / legacy universe.

When Episode VII was announced, that impossibility became a reality.

However, this new hope was tainted with the fear the film would not live up to the legacy of the Original Trilogy. Episode VII doesn’t need to be groundbreaking or incredibly new. All it has to be is good.

For me, Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens would be good if it:

  • Is true to the rough-and-tumble mise-en-scene of the Original Trilogy (mise-en-scene, for all you non-film-majors out there, is the mix of sets, costumes, and other elements which make up the world within the film)
  • Has believable, interesting characters
  • Has a sense of fun, wonder, and adventure
  • Has cool spaceship battles

After having been burned by the Prequel Trilogies – which have a few redeemable moments and qualities – I spent my first viewing of Episode VII thinking only, “Please be good.”

And then, as the final credits rolled, I was able to relax and accept that this film was good. It fulfilled all my hopes for a sequel to the Original Trilogy. While not a perfect film, it is good.

Which is why I had to watch it again. I had to watch it relaxed and simply enjoying traveling across the cosmos to the galaxy far, far away.

Spoilers

More than anything, Episode VII is an excellent Act I to this developing third trilogy. The film walks a tricky balancing act of pulling threads from the Original Trilogy to draw fans along while introducing a new world and new dynamic.

I should note there are arguments there are too many threads from the Original Trilogy, and that The Force Awakens is a blatant copy of the original film (Star Wars / A New Hope / Episode 4 / What Are We Supposed Call It? Wasn’t It Just Star Wars When It Came Out?).

Yes, both begin on a distant desert planet where a droid with a galactically important mission unites with our main character, leads them to a interspace adventure via the Millennium Falcon with the help of Han Solo and Chewbacca, and then the new heroes work with the rag-tag military force to destroy giant, spherical Nazi-esque-bad-guy weapon of DOOOOOM!

On a surface level, sure. There are parallels. However, these parallels are used strategically to create a connection between the old and the new. These connections are fun – but done in a new spin. This is a remix, with new elements added in to bring us up to speed in this new paradigm.

I think the best example is the comparison of Luke and Rey are from desert planets and then learn about their mystic connection to the Force, but they are very different people. Luke has been raised in a safe environment with his aunt and uncle, with the dangers and darkness in the galaxy far from his homestead. All he’s thinking about is upgrading his ride and chilling with his friends at Tosche Station.

Rey is alone.

She is waiting for an unknown family to return, to come. In the meantime, she is savvy to the darkness in the world and is a survivor. She has a toughness Luke doesn’t gain until after getting his hand cut off by his father.

In The Force Awakens, Finn provides the innocence Rey lacks. While he is a stormtrooper, his life has been more sheltered than Rey, and much of the world is unknown.

In short, the argument that The Force Awakens is just a rip-off of the original film is weak. Yes, the connections are there, but they are used as a familiar platform to bring us thirty years further into the story.

And if The Force Awakens is following the pattern of the original film, so did The Phantom Menace, but with more midichloriens, stilted dialogue, and an overly-precocious protagonist.

Below, I go deeper into what worked, what I’m not sure worked, what didn’t work, and what we have to look forward to.

What Worked

The New Heroes

BB-8, Poe Dameron, Finn, and Rey have been passed the Lightsaber of Destiny, and, so far, they are carrying them well.

BB-8 is like R2-D2 spunkier younger cousin, and evokes a lot of emotion for being a mushroom-cap on top of a soccer ball. Also, BB-8’s thumbs-up alone is worth a lot.

Poe Dameron gets very little time in the movie, but brings in a sense of fun and adventure which was lacking in the Prequel Trilogy. He’s got a strong sense of self and has all the swagger a top fighter pilot should have. I’m hoping we get to know Dameron more in depth in later films, but am content if he remains between the Lando and Wedge Antilles side-character-spectrum (side characters with names and dialogue, who we know a little about, but not a huge amount).

Finn is a needed character in the Star Wars canon. He is unsure of who he is, full of fear, and stumbling from one problem to the next. His intentions and heart are clearly seeking good, but he does not know where to find it, nor what to do about it. While he has the intent to run away, he also is seeking a sense of belonging, and tries on different personas for size (I love, after Finn explains he’s a “big deal” in the Resistance, when Han looks at him and says sarcastically, “Okay, Big Deal”). He is torn between self-preservation and trying to do what is right and brave. He has fantastic potential for Episode XIII.

And there’s Rey.

What can I add to what has already been said? SHE IS AWESOME!!!!!!

First, it’s always refreshing to have a three-dimensional female lead in a blockbuster franchise. Second, regardless of gender, she is a great character. She has an inner strength, even in the face of grave danger. And when she discovers how to be in tune with the Force, her awesomeness explodes.

Some have criticized she’s a little too good at things, at the point of being a Mary Sue. I feel she’s had to learn a lot of things in order to survive on Jakku. Also, she fumbles through a lot of the movie, trying things, and hoping they’ll work. When she and Finn are trying to help Han and Chewbacca get free of the space black market thugs, she pulls the wrong fuse, and causes the Ralthtars to escape and the following chaos. She doesn’t come fully into her own until the final lightsaber battle with Kylo Ren – which is awesome (see below).

Rey is an incredible character, carried with wit and gravitas, and is a strong centerpoint for the new Star Wars Trilogy.

Throwbacks

Han Solo. Always cool.:

Bringing Han Solo and Chewbacca in as key characters, with a small support by Leia, built a strong bridge between the Original Trilogy and the new trilogy. Each remained true to who they are in the prior films, while hinting at the loss and pain which passed in the thirty years between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens. The second time watching the film, I got a little teary-eyed at Leia and Han’s final embrace.

Princess Leia, Han Solo, Episode VII:

As a note, for Han’s death, it was predictable, but needed as a catalyst for driving the new trilogy. Han had to die, just as Obi Wan Kenobi had to die. This is the passing of the mentor to give way for the next generation to stand up and take their place. This is the way mythology goes.

As for lighter things, I loved the little touches – Rey living inside an AT-AT and wearing a rebel helmet, Finn accidentally turning on the gaming table in the Millennium Falcon, C3P0 continuing his interruptions – they ran smoothly without intruding on the storyline.

Soundtrack

While, as StarWarsAnon pointed out, there isn’t a distinct, epic piece like Duel of Fates or Battle of the Heroes from the Prequel trilogy, John Williams has brought us another great music-scape as a backdrop to this new set of adventures in space. The music has its swelling moments, but blends with the film, filling the emotional scope of each scene.

Spaceship Battles

We had some real starfighter action! Sweet!

While there could be some more emotional tie to the starfighter action, this was some pretty sweet X-Wing versus Tie-Fighter dogfighting. The action was believable and fun.

What more in Star Wars do we need than spaceships blowing up other spaceships?

Lightsaber Battle

star wars force awakens poster drew struzan Star Wars 7 Clip Teases Kylo Ren vs. Finn Lightsaber Fight

Oh, right. Lightsaber Battles.

I loved the final lightsaber battle in this film. All of the CGI-Enhanced gymnastics of the Prequel Trilogy were stripped away to a raw brawl, with injuries that don’t include slicing off limbs (so many cut off hands in Episode III – so many). Instead, we got both Finn and Rey battling Kylo. Kylo’s whole character is an undisciplined young man not knowing how to use his own power and rage, and this came across in the battle. Finn and Rey have no idea how to use the lightsaber, and their desperation builds the tension as they’re just trying to survive.

Then, when Rey gets in tune with the force – everything is awesome. Rey’s moves are still raw, yet more disciplined, more exact.

My favorite lightsaber battle remains Luke vs Vader in Empire Strikes Back, but this one is able to bring a great mix of emotion with action. I look forward to seeing how the lightsaber battles develop over the course of the trilogy.

What I’m Not Sure Worked

Rathtars and Space Pirates

Nice to spot some obvious Lovecraft influence in the new Star Wars…

While I was happy with Maz Kanata and Mos Eisley Cantina 2.0, the Rathtars and the Space Pirates sequence felt a little out of place the first time I watched the film. The second time it didn’t bother me as much. However, the sequence just felt a little forced, not really driving the story along. It did bring one thing glaringly missing from the Prequel Trilogy – which is the underworld and black market of Star Wars. Yes, there are brief mentions, but Jango Fett is immediately rolled into the Clone Army issue, instead of being a mysterious third party.

So, I’m glad we explored more of the underworld of the Star Wars Universe – it’s probably my second favorite part, after starfighters. However, I wish this sequence felt a little less forced.

Also, was it just me, or did the Rathtars look like Marlboros from Final Fantasy?

Malboro Scan

Kylo Ren

Image result for snoke

One one hand, Kylo Ren is a great villain. His entrance is ominous, his special hold-people-still and hold-blaster-lasers-still power is cool, his ability to get into people’s minds is creepy. However, with his mask off, and in his dialogue with Supreme Leader Snoke, he comes off as far more weak and less threatening. Are we meant to care about him and want him to be redeemed, or are we meant to think of him as a horrible human being? Do we sympathize or do we hate? By choosing to walk this line, the filmmakers gave us a more complex human being, but a less ominous threat than could have been.

I still like Kylo Ren/Ben Solo, and am intrigued to see where he goes, but I think he could be just a little stronger of a character.

Starkiller Base

AKA Death Star 3.0 – Bigger, Badder, and now blows up solar systems.

One problem is The Jedi Academy trilogy of novels by Kevin J. Anderson introduced the Sun Crusher, a single ship which could cause a sun to supernova. While this is in the non-canon “Legacy” universe, it’s still a way to nod to the Death Star while building something more threatening.

Also, the base itself combined all three films of the Original Trilogy: Death Star with weakness a fighter can exploit (Star Wars Episode IV), ice planet (Hoth in Episode V), and forest (Endor in Episode VI).

And where are all the stormtroopers? Is the base so large its undermanned? How do our heroes sneak around the big, nasty, badguy base without encountering stormtroopers? Is it because they trapped Captain Phasma? Is it because Han Solo’s coolness factor kept them hidden? I believe in Rey being able to hide through her scavenger-Jedi-ninja-skills, but not everyone.

Still, being able to drain the power of an entire sun is pretty cool, and made for a cool, ominous backdrop as the space battle wore on. Also, the planet crumbling as Rey and Kylo Ren are fighting is pretty cool too.

Overall, Starkiller base was okay, but could have been better.

Luke Skywalker: Hermit

The blatant mcguffin (fancy term for random object everyone in the movie is trying to get) for The Force Awakens are the whereabouts of Luke Skywalker.

While I understand Luke’s new Jedi Order blew up in his face when his nephew betrayed him, running away doesn’t make sense. Luke Skywalker may be older and wiser, but running from the problem doesn’t fit his character.

I can excuse Obi-Wan and Yoda’s hermit lives. They were utterly defeated. Obi-Wan was protecting and hiding Luke. Yoda was over 900 years old and exhausted. However, they had an idea of a plan. What is Luke up to?

I need more information in order to buy Luke Skywalker running off to an island in the Irish sea and living as a hermit for 15-20 years. The Galaxy is at stake. Was he waiting for Rey, or someone like Rey to find him? Is he as sad as I am that Mara Jade isn’t part of the Star Wars canon? What are you doing out there Luke?

Though, props to Mark Hamill for conveying a tortured sadness in a single look. For being in the film for a single minute, he had a huge impact.

What Didn’t Work

While I have questions from the above section, I feel most of them will be answered and developed in Episode VIII, and I can be patient. The only thing which truly bothered me was

The Villains

The First Order is a good continuation of a faction of the Empire, and I liked that women and multiple nationalities were added to the First Order crews. However, the three main representatives of the First Order – General Hux, Captain Phasma, and Supreme Leader Snoke – all had fantastic potential they didn’t live up to. This is another issue Episode VIII can help resolve.

My problem with General Hux is he lacks the gravitas of Grand Moff Tarkin and even Admiral Piett. The Empire commanders from the original trilogy are believable as strong military leaders who know what they are doing and are an intelligent threat. Hux feels more like Colonel Sandurz from Spaceballs – a weak, slightly whiny villain. I hope he improves in future films, but he needs to be far more ominous.

Captain Phasma looks cool, and could be threatening, but seems easily thwarted by the heroes. If she can be given a more ominous and cool moment in Episode VIII, I think she has the potential to hang out with Boba Fett on the eternal lunchbox of cool-looking bad guys who aren’t that big in the film.

Supreme Leader Snoke is the weakest out of all the villains, and should be the most threatening. The look for him is too-CGI, especially in a world populated by practical effects.

Andy Serkis has become a master at CGI characters, yet I wonder if Snoke would have been better if they just used Andy Serkis in some makeup. He’s a great actor, and being able to look him in the eyes would be spectacular.

Maybe there was too much Snoke – those scenes felt more exposition-esque than driving the story forward. Maybe we knew too much by the end of the film, and so the dark mystery and threat of Snoke wasn’t clear.

By the time the Emperor was introduced in The Empire Strikes Back, he was creepy and threatening, leading to a chill as he came to the Death Star in Return of the Jedi. Or, perhaps, the Emperor was scarier because he was keeping the scary figure of Darth Vader in line?

No matter what the case, in the new film, the new heroes get a A+ while the villains get a B-. With a few tweaks, I think the villains can be spectacular.

What We Have To Look Forward To

We get to Learn more of Rey’s story and hear from Luke. I’m really excited to learn what her Jedi Vision was all about. I think Rey’s past and what Luke has to reveal are tied together. I don’t think we’ll ever know the whole story of Rey’s past, but having a few more puzzle pieces will be fun.

Rogue One

star-wars-rogue-one-cast

Gareth Edwards doesn’t have a large resume as a director, except for Godzilla. This means this movie will at least be full of action and shiny. And, really, if it’s a movie about starfighter pilots, what more do you need? (ok. We need decent characters and plot)

Episode VIII

I am hopeful for this one. Rian Johnson isn’t the most famous director, but he has some solid work in his background. The Brothers Bloom is an odd, fun film with a good mix of action and relationships. If he can bring that into the grand canvas offered by the Star Wars universe, this can be a great film.

I’m not sure about Colin Trevorrow directing Episode IX after he directed Jurassic World. While successful at the box office, Jurassic World, to paraphrase Monty Python, is a silly film. Star Wars, while a fun, blockbuster series, also needs just enough grit and gravitas to carry the epicness. Although, Jurassic World does deliver on its basic premise: Dinosaurs fighting dinosaurs!

Maybe we’ll get a spectacular lightsaber battle between a tyrannosaurus rex and a Jedi both wearing high heels.

I’m just hoping Kathleen Kennedy can use her powers as head of Lucas Film to carry the quality of the Original Trilogy into the upcoming films.

And, after all of this analysis, I want to finish with this: I loved this movie. I would rank it just above Return of the Jedi and just below Empire Strikes Back. This movie is awesome.

Side Note 1: Kylo Ren: Undercover Boss. I’d love to see a Darth Vader or Emperor version follow-up.

Side Note 2: I would be remiss if I didn’t take a moment to pay respects to celebrity icons who passed last week: David Bowie and Alan Rickman. Very different men, but both had enormous impacts on the pop culture world and on future generations of artists.

First, I want to share a tribute by Grace Potter for David Bowie:

Here’s the original. I had a few friends in high school who were in love with the Goblin King version of David Bowie. I had other friends (and a sister) who were in love with Jennifer Connely’s ballgown:

As for Alan Rickman, he brought both a gravitas and humor to his roles as appropriate. While many modern fans remember him as Snape – which is a fantastic role – I would like to remember an incredibly silly role he embodied and brought to another level – Dr. Lazarus in Galaxy Quest.

Side Note 3: Speaking of stepping into a larger universe…

I will be a panelest for a few panels at the Life The Universe and Everything writing conference in Provo, UT on February 11th to 14th. This is my first writing conference to present for, and I am suuuuuuper excited. If anyone has any suggestions or advice, let me know. Here’s my schedule:

Alphabet Soup: What’s the differnce between an ‘R’ & ‘TV-MA’? I, Robot & the Karate Kid: What’s in a Title?
20 Years of Pixar: The Past and Future of Digital Animation
TV vs Novel. Good Better Best.
Th Feb 11 11:00 – 12:00 Timpanogos Th Feb 11 4:00 – 5:00 Cedar Fri Feb 12 5:00 – 6:00 Aspen Sat Feb 13 3:00 – 4:00 Birch

Also, if you’re coming and would like to meet up, let me know.

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9 thoughts on “Star Wars: Episode VII – The First Step Into A Larger Universe

  1. Okay im going to try and hit as many points as I can. I think the parallels between Rey and Luke work well. The desert planet setting is great, I think you need that mirror. The only parallel that I don’t really get is the 1st Order. They seem like they came from nothing really. I dunno maybe I just don’t like the name but it just throws me off. I was a fan of the Rathtars. I think the view onto the black market of Star Wars is much needed. If you’ve played games like KOTOR that kind of stuff is all over it and an awesome part of it. Han is a smuggler he should be smuggling dangerous cargo. He and Chewy are badasses. I also think this could open up more black-markety plot lines in the anthology movies. And yes totally Malboros. And then we get to Starkville Base. It’s a cool idea but I have one HUGE problem with it. If you suck up an entire sun and take it out of the solar system in which it exists, then the gravity of that region would be competent thrown off and things would fly out of orbit. I mean theoretically planets should be crashing into each other, unless they just happen to always find suns without satellite objects. Which seems unlikely. I just want an explanation from Neil Degrasse Tyson I guess. And here’s the explanation I can offer for Luke’s retreat. For one, in order to really tap into his dark side powers, Ben Solo must have come across some Sith at some point. Whether it was Vader’s force ghost or Snoke, or who ever is behind Snoke. Luke is hiding from these Sith who started Ben down the path of Kylo Ren. I assume the Knights of Ren were hunting Luke. Luke knows when to pick his battles at this point. So he decided to wait until one day when Rey would hopefully find him. Going back to am earlier point, I think there is definitely someone behind Snoke. He just seems like too much of a puppet for one. And two, he does not call Kylo Ren his apprentice. The Sith believe in the Rule of Two, meaning that he must have a Master/Apprentice situation with someone else. I presume Snoke is the apprentice. I think Darth Plagueis could be in play somehow. Or Vader’s force ghost, or the Emperors force ghost. Haha the Colonel Sandurz thing is almost spot on. Just the look on his face. But Hux is really scumbaggy so I think he’s filling his role well. He makes you cringe. Very Third Reichy. I think I hit on everything I wanted to, but I liked the article. Very thorough.

    • Thanks for taking the time to hit all the points! Wow!
      First, some clarification of the First Order is needed in the films. With the Empire, it was clear they were galaxy-dominant. With the First Order, we can’t tell if they’re widespread or if they’re just a bunch of thugs with enough money for a planet-sized base.
      Secont, I’m glad we got a look at the underworld in the sequence with the Rathtars. I think my complaint stems from a film storytelling idiom – in a musical, each musical number should move the story along – and I think that applies to action sequences. The action sequence was a bit long for its purposes (1. Further bond Finn and Rey, which really isn’t needed at this point, 2. Get our gang of heroes onto the Millennium Falcon, 3. Update us on Han and Chewbacca’s lives)
      Third, I think you have some great points about the physics of Starkiller Base. On the other hand, actual science has always been a little hazy in the Star Wars Universe.
      Fourth, I love your explanation of Luke’s retreat, and would love to see this explored in Episode 8.
      Fifth, I’m glad you liked the Colonel Sandurz connection. He is scumbaggy, but he’s not as threatening as he could be, which is my general problem with the villains. They’re all right, but could be better.

      • Indeed the scene with the Rathtars is too long. They probably wanted to get as much out of the CGI Rathtars that they could. Instead of letting the pirates board I was hoping they’d just take them out Han Solo style and escape. As for the physics yeah they’re definitely up for debate but it was the first thing both my friend and I thought of so we think it deserves some discussion. The First Order I think is the most disappointing thing to me, but hopefully Rogue One covers it.

  2. I had been wondering when you were going to review Star Wars! I agree with you on pretty much everything. I think I like the villains more than you, though. I agree that they were not as well drawn as the heroes, but there’s still plenty of time for Snoke to get more badassy. And I’m sure he will.

  3. I love General Hux. I know I’m one of the few out there but he was perfect.

    I think the Rathtars should be moved to your list of what didn’t work at all. It was stupid, but I accept your defense on seeing the underworld. It would have been a lot more interesting if it was just the space pirates and no Rathtars and see Han talk his way out of it. Because I don’t think we’ve actually ever seen Han talk his way out of something yet, LOL. One thing about the Rathtars though was that is was very…Disney. To me, it reminded me the most that this was a Disney movie and it was almost like it had come out of Star Wars Rebels.

    I think Kylo Ren’s weaknesses actually make him a stronger character. I’m not sure we’ve seen someone like him in the Star Wars universe which is why I enjoyed him. The first time I saw it, I wasn’t sure about him but now, after 3 times, I really like him.

    • 1. I like Kylo Ren, but I think there’s more to be seen.
      2. Thinking about it, I think the Rathtars as a plot device were contrived. A good, classic space shoot out with the space pirates would have been better.
      Also, the layout of the ship didn’t make full sense.

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