Updated: Feb 12, 2019
This was originally posted on my "Geek Dad" blog on 12/20/2015
The first line spoken in The Force Awakens is a message to all the adult Star Wars fans who still feel spurned by The Phantom Menace and it’s two sequels. Max Von Sydow’s Lor San Tekka - who I, for one, am hoping against (new) hope is actually Kanan from the Star Wars Rebels series - smoothly coos this line handing over what is this film’s Death Star plans. And it is the beginning of many MANY call backs to the 1977 classic original. And that is where I will take the rest of this rambling account of JJ Abrams’ best work to date.
As a review, I give this film 4.5 out of 5 stars. I don’t have any real “system” or “guidelines” for how I rate movies. I almost never rate movies. I only give it 4.5 out of 5 because I feel like no matter how nearly perfect I think TFA is (and yes, I just already abbreviated it with the familiarity of ANH, ESB and ROJ), I have to take half a point off simply because I am a fan boy. There are very few five star films in my opinion. Blade Runner, Godfather II and Jaws are the only ones that come to mind for me. Oh, and The Empire Strikes Back.
But let’s get to the callback system of this movie and why it actually works incredibly well. The biggest and most consistent complaint I’ve heard from people I’ve spoken to about the movie (and I saw it three times with seven different friends/family in the first 36 hours) is that “it’s basically A New Hope.” And, they are 100% right. Totally, spot-on, completely correct. And, for good measure, I hope to point out things in this movie that make it even more A New Hope-like than you may have even noticed, because it is all for a good reason.
The reason is two pronged. First, and most simply, this movie needed to be familiar to fans. It needed to get us back into that comfy chair after sitting in the new stiff one we got with the prequels. Sure, it was new, shiny and we wanted it to work, it simply did not. And, so we had to go back to our old one. When we go back and find our old spot on that old couch, it feels like home - even if you haven’t been there in a long time. Like, when you visit your parents house and see your old bedroom. It may be decorated differently (or the same?) but you are instantly transported to the time and memories that went with it - for better or worse. This needed to do that. It needed to make us “old school” fans feel like we were back with our old friend - even though he/she has changed a bit, we still know them and what motivates them. I’m sorry, but now I am out of metaphors. Like a guy who goes back to the well, one too many times … Sorry.
The second, and most important reason, is because we live in the age of reboots. We live in a world that has seen three different launchings of the Hulk and Spiderman franchises, second tries at Fantastic Four, Batman and Superman and remakes of just about every Disney cartoon classic. For better or worse, many of us hoped that with Disney taking over Star Wars, there was a chance that they would erase and revisit the Clone Wars era - but do it right unlike the debacle that was Hayden Christiansen and Natalie Portman delivering lines worse than an inexperienced Saturday Night Live guest. But, in our heart of hearts, we knew that wouldn’t or, honestly, shouldn’t happen. Further, the Original Trilogy (yes, I capitalized it out of respect) is too damn good to reboot, remake, redo or re-anything.
However, I dare say, The Force Awakens is a reboot of Star Wars. By definition - at least as I understand it - a reboot takes the existing story elements, characters and basic plot and puts a new face on it with new actors, new script, slightly different take on the storyline and current movie making sensibilities. Take the Nolan Batman series versus the Burton Batman. Same story, same characters, but where Burton was making a quintessential pulpy movie for the late 80s, Nolan took a very dark, gritty view of the same characters and “modernized” the story for the new century.
The Force Awakens, while not a direct reboot a la Superman, Batman, Fantastic Four, Hulk, Spiderman …, it is the same story ELEMENTS with the same character TYPES as A New Hope. What you may not have noticed (other than the planet destroying super weapon), is that there are a number of repeated beats and character roles. What I am about to ramble even further about, also takes into account some of my theories about where the story will be going. Follow me on this one.
A New Hope is about a desperate attempt by a small group of freedom fighters to deliver data tapes to their leaders to destroy the bad guys’ big bad weapon. The Force Awakens is about a desperate attempt by a small group of freedom fighters to deliver a data stick to their leaders to find the guy who destroyed the bad guys’ big weapon.
In A New Hope, there are cute robots, strange creatures, and a young unexpected hero abandoned on a desert planet. In The Force Awakens, there is a cute robot, strange creatures, and a young unexpected hero abandoned on a desert planet.
In A New Hope, the bad guys, led by a military genius and a force using baddie in black show the power of their planet destroying weapon once before trying to take out the home base of our heroes in an epic final battle. In The Force Awakens, the bad guys, led by a military genius and a force using baddie in black show the power of their planet destroying weapon once before trying to take out the home base of our heroes in an epic final battle.
In A New Hope, one of the most memorable scenes was in a bar filled with strange creatures where our young hero, a smuggler and a wise old man set the plan in motion. In The Force Awakens, one of the most memorable scenes is in a bar filled with strange creatures where our hero, a smuggler and a wise old woman set the plan in motion. Let’s get a little more specific…
The first call back is in the opening crawl. The Force Awakens' sprawling yellow text opens with “Luke Skywalker has vanished. In his absence the sinister FIRST ORDER has risen from the ashes …” The last line of the crawl in A New Hope is “Pursued by the Empire’s sinister agents, Princess Leia races home aboard her starship, custodian of the stolen plans that can save her people and restore freedom to the galaxy….” I’m not gonna lie, I noticed this upon the first screening. Who uses the word “sinister” anymore? And it is perfectly pulpy.
After the crawl, TFA opens with a 2015 version of the “cool - a planet. Wait, holy crap that is a huge spaceship” moment. This time though, it is done in 21st century blacking out the sky fashion.
Now, while it is easy to make the "Jakku desert planet is Tatooine desert planet" connection, what you may have not paid attention to is that this movie has, once again, followed the opening of A New Hope: big spaceship, robot realizes the good guys are about to get beat up, resistance/rebel fighters taking their positions then an outpouring of stormtroopers in a head to head attack. The only difference is that the boarding party landed on the planet versus entering the good guys’ captured ship. BB-8’s reaction to seeing the landing party is reminiscent of C-3P0 and R2 commenting on hearing the Star Destroyer lock onto the Tantive IV. And, much like ANH, we are introduced to our robot hero before any human character. This sets the tone that you are in a sci-fi fantasy with imaginary creatures and characters.
From there we see Poe Dameron, one of our heroes, hide the data in his droid and send him on a mission which he must not fail just before he is captured. He is then taken by stormtroopers to meet face to face with our bad guy in black where he cracks wise (Leia: Only you would be so bold / Poe: It’s just that it’s hard to understand you with all that apparatus).
The next A New Hope twist is how our all important data carrying droid friend meets our new hero. R2 was captured by scavengers, BB-8 was rescued by one. Rey (described multiple times throughout the film as a scavenger) hears the little ball boy being captured by a critter named Teedo when she is eating her one quarter portion. BB-8 literally purrs like Puss in Boots with one big watery eye and charms his way into her world. Where R2 and 3P0 were captured by scavengers and sold to Luke. Both films use scavengers to help our robot friend get to the next phase of their mission.
Here’s where I need to share my Rey theory. I am not alone or terribly original in placing my money on Luke being her father. There are a number of things that point to it before she even meets Finn. If you look quickly, you noticed she had a rag doll in her home that is wearing an orange and white X-wing pilot jumper. Another inkling is that she puts on an X-wing pilot helmet (I thought it WAS Luke’s but I don’t think so any more) while hanging out on the dune, eating her dinner and watching a starship leave Jakku, making her look remarkably Skywalker-y. I believe that when Luke failed with Ben Solo (spoiler alert, whoops!), one of his students was a very young girl who was his daughter. When he went into hiding, she was left on the planet Jakku (because, apparently that’s how you handle problems in the Star Wars Universe) and is watched over by … wait for it … Han Solo.
This is where the next wave of A New Hope similarities continue. I would love to see, as one of the stand-alone movies, the story of Obi-Wan Kenobi learning how to commune with the Force after death and watching over Luke and waiting for that pivotal moment in A New Hope. In retrospect, there is no better acting in the entire saga (even if it is accidental) than Alec Guiness’s reaction to hearing the name Obi-Wan from Luke. It is as if he knew this day would come and it signals that his ultimate sacrifice is coming. He looks stunned and silenced like he knows this is the first step that will lead to his own death. In fact, the line, “He’s not dead … not yet,” is chilling if you look at the story that way. Ben Kenobi KNOWS he will not be alive much longer.
The Ben Kenobi of TFA is Han Solo. Part of my theory, as started above, is that Han has been watching and waiting for Rey to leave Jakku in his ship. It is my belief that he left the ship there for her, compressed the hyperdrive and put a tracker on it so that he could capture it and her before she got too far. And, as they were leaving his freighter while the Rathtar was trying to eat the Millennium Falcon he casually says, “this is NOT the way I expected this day to go.” That could simply be a typical Han Solo, “this isn’t a good day” comment or it could mean that he always knew this day would come, but he didn’t think it would involve two rival gangs who have a price on his head and a handful of man-eating giant beasts trying to make them all snacks. I don’t, however, think he knew he was going to die like Obi-Wan did (spoiler alert. Darn it. My bad).
Before I go on, when you watch this movie a second time, after you already know that Luke failed in the training of Han and Leia’s son, when Finn asks him if he knew Luke Skywalker and he says, “yeah, I knew Luke,” it feels completely different. The first time we remember with Han that they were buddies. The second time you know that he also knows Luke as part of the reason his son is on a very dark and dangerous path and that line comes across a lot darker.
Han knows he needs to get BB-8 to Leia and the Resistance, but also has to keep his promise and an eye on Rey, so he offers her a job. His plan was to get “Big Deal” Finn and BB-8 on a flight to the General through Maz Kanata, then scoop her back up and keep her “safe” as a smuggler with him. But, he also might need to get advice from Maz, who he knows as someone who can help guide the decision. He might even know she has Luke’s lightsaber.
Oh, and cantina, strange space creatures, music, conflict, plot impacting decisions …
So, we have our Obi-Wan character in Han, we have Luke in Rey and we have our comic relief and love interest wrapped up in one guy: Finn (C-3P0 and Leia from ANH). We also have our Grand Moff Tarkin in General Hux. He is the arrogant tactician with a direct line to the supreme leader (just as Peter Cushing had a bat phone to the Emperor) while the supreme leader kept him in check with his muscle (Vader in ANH - Ren in TFA).
Let me say this: I was not at all surprised that Kylo Ren was Leia and Han’s kid. His name gave it away to me up front: sKYwalker soLO. I was surprised, however, that Snoke just sort of blurted it out there halfway through the film. I also wasn’t shocked that Han Solo didn’t make it through the film alive because I know Harrison Ford always thought he should’ve bought it in either Empire or Jedi. However, I was pleasantly surprised with the way they set it up.
It would have been very easy for them to write a heroic sacrifice with the Falcon into the new Death Star thingie to save the day. I fully expected that. In fact, as they were setting up the battle on the Star Killer, I thought for sure he was going to crash the Corellian freighter into precinct 47 (yes, after seeing it 3 times, I remember the name of the spot they were attacking) to take it down and save the Resistance. However, the death at his son’s hands was not only a more satisfying, heart wrenching way to do it, it also mirrors Ben Kenobi’s death… from a certain point of view.
When Obi-wan died in A New Hope, it was the pivotal step in setting up our hero, Luke Skywalker’s personal journey to Jedi-hood. That sacrifice forced (no pun intended) Luke to take on the mantle and fulfill his destiny. When Han died, it was the first (or last) step to drive Kylo Ren to his destiny as an agent of evil. I may be reaching on that one, but there is a connection in that the death that will play a part in the story through the entire trilogy, I am certain.
There are a number of trivial yet important for rebooting effect details that I’ll let you find on follow up viewings. Things like stormtrooper comments in the hallways on the base, the Jedi mind trick, 3P0 saying, “thank the maker” and a few others I can’t remember off the top of my head.
All in all, this reboot is the best way to do it. They did not erase what had been done but rather they expanded it by playing it again. Like a new orchestra playing an old song.
At the end of the day, this Star Wars film is what we all wanted the prequels to be. If Episodes VIII and IX are done right, however, they will not dwell on the fond memories this one evoked. Like Rey flying the Falcon at the end of the film, they need to let these new characters take control of this story or, as beautiful as this one was, they will fail. I have faith that The Force Awakens has begun “to set things right” and in 18 months we will know if it worked.