This isn’t necessarily a review of “Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens.” My friend/colleague/Jedi Master Bryan has already posted a spoiler-free review of The Force Awakens, and if that’s what you’re looking for, you should go check that out. This is more a brief analysis of some of the characters from the new movie, including the classic Star Wars characters that make an appearance. To have a full discussion, there are going to be spoilers. Somehow, even as plugged in as I am to all things Star Wars and news and geek and Twitter and Facebook, I was able to avoid the most major of these spoilers going in, and I’m grateful to my friends and comrades and geeks for helping me avoid them. So…do the same. Don’t be a dick.
That said, if you followed a link from Facebook or Twitter to get here, and you have spoilery things to talk about, let’s do it in the comments here, not on Facebook or Twitter where you saw it linked. Save some surprises for the other nerds.
Okay. My due diligence is covered.
I’m going to start with ten new characters — six heroes and four villains. I’ll just broadly say that I enjoyed all of these characters, and I appreciate the diversity that JJ Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan brought to our Star Wars family. Not just in terms of skin color and gender, but also complexity and voice. The way these characters are written matter as much (probably more) than how they look.
Rey is my favorite new character. Chances are very good that she’s your favorite new character too. In a decade that’s also given us Katniss Everdeen and Imperator Furiosa, Rey is a strong woman who still feels like she could have a life outside of a post-apocalyptic hell. She’s smart, she’s strong, she has a sense of humor. She’s a mechanic, a fighter, but has memories and dreams of her own that keep her tied to Jakku. She’s kind enough to help BB-8 and Finn, but strong enough that she really doesn’t need their help avoiding the First Order Stormtroopers. The scenes from the trailers that had the Millennium Falcon evading TIE Fighters by flying through the carcass of a Star Destroyer? That was her piloting, not Han, not Chewie. And even as part of me was thinking “she couldn’t possibly…” the bigger part of me loved that she was doing it. As she eventually realizes her potential (and I love how she does, in that Force-pushing staring contest with Kylo Ren), she’s as amazed as we are. I’m glad we don’t know about her mysterious past, her parents that leave her on Jakku and promising to return. I’m glad we don’t find out she’s Kylo’s twin sister. I’m good with some mystery for now. I want to know more. And I love her.
Finn is the other strong addition to the heroes of Star Wars. His backstory is just a sketch, but that’s all we need. We know he was taken from his parents so young that he doesn’t have a name, he’s given one by Poe Dameron as they’re escaping the First Order. He’s escaping because he refuses to be the killer he’s been trained to be, and as we travel with him, we get his perspective on the larger-than-life events that he gets caught up into. His interplay with Han had great chemistry, and his fawning over Rey was as sweet as Luke’s farmboy love for Leia in “A New Hope” (I know that gets weird later, but in “A New Hope,” it’s sweet).
Poe Dameron: 8/10
I love this guy. I thought he would play a larger role in the movie than he actually does. What he does, he does great — heroically sending BB-8 off on his mission, fighting insurmountable odds on Jakku, fighting off Kylo Ren’s mental attacks, escaping with Finn. But ultimately he’s more a “Super Wedge” than his own complex character. There’s more to him that I’m sure we’ll see in the novels and comics, but when he’s such a badass pilot, I wish we would have seen more of him.
The first time I saw BB-8, rolling along in that first trailer, I thought he was the stupidest-looking soccer ball ever. And then (like many of you, I assume) after seeing that he’s a practical effect, demonstrated at whatever convention that was, I fell in love with him. Knowing that he could be as “real” as C-3PO or R2-D2 somehow made him better for me, and I was free to love the little guy. And I do. He’s got the loyalty and sense of humor that R2-D2 always had, but a little more adorable, a little more puppy-like, following Rey around. I don’t know that he’s as assertive as Artoo, but I don’t have a problem with that. I’d pretty much buy anything you slap his little face on. Which may be the goal. In any case, I love him. And so do you.
Maz Kanata: 10/10
This has been a character kept so under wraps that the best picture I could find of her online is the one above, super-cropped in from the movie poster. One of the few characters that appears to be fully digitally animated, she fulfills her role perfectly. Has she literally been holding down that fortress/bar for a thousand years? I kind of hope so. I love the idea that she’s a barkeep, but there’s more to her than that. Flirtatiously asking about her “boyfriend” Chewbacca? Looking deep into Finn’s eyes and seeing what he doesn’t want seen? I love the idea of having a character who recognizes the Force, believes in the Force, understands the Force…but is neither Jedi nor Sith. She’s not a Force user, but she believes anyway. There may be other Star Wars characters that this applies to–Admiral Ackbar, say–but Maz is the one who has said it most explicitly. I love that she’s the one who’s been holding Luke’s old lightsaber safe until Rey can claim it, and the psychic impact that it has on Rey, and Maz recognizes. Did Maz survive the destruction of her home? I hope so.
Kylo Ren: 8/10
I’d break this down a bit — Kylo Ren masked = 10/10, Kylo Ren unmasked = 6/10. I like the idea of the character more than the actual execution of the character. He’s vicious, he’s cruel, but unlike his hero Darth Vader, he doesn’t Force-choke his crew when they screw up. He still has his anger issues, taking it all out on the equipment nearest him. He’s also still human enough that he makes wisecracks here and there–I’m not sure if that undermined him as a villain or not in my eyes. After learning that he’s Han and Leia’s son, we see more complexity to him, and his interactions with Snoke are intriguing. He’s acolyte to a master, but they aren’t necessarily Sith. They refer to the “Knights of Ren,” which we see in Rey’s visions after slaughtering Luke’s Jedi School. But that’s really all we know about them. I like having that mystery, I like thinking there could be more out there, and after killing his father, I want to see the evil grow in him. Which is kind of screwed up. Part of me doesn’t like the parallel of another father/son relationship, but I think the bigger part of me likes seeing this play out — if Luke had killed Vader in cold blood in “Return of the Jedi,” would that have leveled up him up so he would become a Sith Lord, replacing his father at Palpatine’s side? Symbolically, at least, Kylo Ren has just taken that last step into the darkness. I don’t know if he can come back from this, or if I want him to.
Captain Phasma: 7/10
She has the most completely badass armor in this movie. And that’s kind of all I wanted. Someone as mysterious as Boba Fett was in “The Empire Strikes Back.” I love Gwendolyn Christie, but I’m glad we didn’t see Phasma unmasked. I’m glad we heard her voice, we saw her in action–and truthfully it would have been cool to see more of her in action. Some of that “Game of Thrones” power we know she has. But I’m fine keeping her a woman of mystery. It’s enough that she leads her strike force in the brutal attacks on Jakku that destroy a village (and turn Finn against the First Order). She also suffers a similar ignominious death as Boba Fett, ending up in a trash compactor. Which made for a funny joke, but I’m hoping she found a way out of that one. Somehow.
General Hux: 8/10
I don’t have a lot to say about Hux except that I like that he’s really not afraid of Kylo Ren. He’s a little unsettled by him, but when both are before Snoke, they approach him as equals. He’s not cowering, like the Imperial officers did with Vader; he’s confident enough in his own command. He also gives good Nazi rally speeches on parade grounds.
Supreme Leader Snoke: 6/10
I’m not sold on him yet. He’s like a combination of the Wizard of Oz and Palpatine’s hologram in “The Empire Strikes Back.” I’m intrigued, I want to know more, but he just doesn’t work for me yet. Oozing evil, but too ambiguous for me to really get on board with.
Han Solo: Infinity/10
This is it. This is how you hero. I loved every beat of his story. He had a much larger role than I anticipated, with Han being involved in pretty much every part of the movie. I love that he lost the Falcon some time ago. I love that he and Chewie have a piece of shit freighter that they’re using to haul monsters, and that he’s continually on the run from people he’s either screwed over on purpose or accidentally. I love that he and Leia’s relationship didn’t work out. I love that he’s still a smartass. I love that after everything he’s seen and experienced, he now believes in the Force. I love the way he takes Finn and Rey under his wing. I love that he still loves his lost son. I love that after all of the enemies he’s survived, it’s his son who’s close enough to his heart to be the one that kills him. For some reason, going in, I thought if any classic Star Wars character died, it was going to be Chewbacca. And I’m glad it wasn’t. But having Kylo Ren kill Han–it was shocking, it’s heartbreaking, it’s what needed to happen. If this movie is Han Solo’s swan song, it’s a beautiful one. He was perfect here.
Basically the same everything I said about Han. Enough strength and humor and loyalty and rage and he finally gets to use his bowcaster (have we ever seen him use that before?), and his new partnership with Rey works better than I thought it would. I’m glad Chewie’s not dead. In some ways I think that would have hurt more than losing Han.
General Leia Organa: 7/10
Leia is the strongest of the strong in my book. She’s the hero that shaped my understanding of how powerful women could be (spoilers: just as powerful as men), she’s unflinching, she doesn’t back away from a fight. I don’t know that this movie gave her enough to do. When we finally do meet her, she mostly talks with Han about their son (understandable) and is in a war room (also understandable). She’s a strategist, she’s a warrior. But she’s missing some of that fire she had, and doesn’t seem to be the inspiring leader she was able to be in the other movies. Her briefing on Echo Base in “The Empire Strikes Back” — that’s more what I’d expect to see from her. If “The Force Awakens” was Han’s movie, I’m hoping we get more of Leia in the next.
Luke Skywalker: 10/10
The first line of the opening crawl of the movie is “Luke Skywalker has vanished.” …something like that. And that’s all I needed to know. The rest of the crawl explains why, and what everyone else is doing about it. Luke was the heart of the original trilogy, and I think we all expected him to play a larger role in “The Force Awakens” than…not being in it. But I love how JJ Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan handled this. Putting off his story until Episode VIII meant that we could have Han, Rey, and Finn take center stage this time around, introducing the new characters and getting us up to speed with them. If Luke had been crammed into this too, it would have been too much. It’s a better service to the character to have him not in this movie. He was the “McGuffin” for this movie–the thing everyone wanted to find. The movie is about him. And that’s what I needed.
C3-PO & R2-D2: 9/10
These guys were also almost entirely absent from the movie, which I’m mostly okay with. When we finally catch up with them, we find out that Artoo has been dormant for years, waiting for Luke to return. And Threepio–well, he has a red arm. His few lines are funny, and shows us that even as things change, they’re still the same. And I love him for it. Interrupting the first scene between Han and Leia with his inane chatter? Perfect. R2-D2 having the missing pieces of the Map to Luke Skywalker? Perfect. I just wanted to see more of them together with BB-8.
One last thing. I loved all of the aliens and droids we got in “The Force Awakens.” Moreover, I love how many of them were masks and puppets and animatronic and practical effects. There’s a physicality that comes with that, a weight that I still don’t feel with many digitally animated characters. So I appreciate that. I want to rewatch the scenes in Maz Kanata’s bar over and over and love these aliens as much as I do the ones in the Mos Eisley Cantina or Jabba’s Palace.
With the exception of Wookiees (Chewbacca), Mon Calamari (Admiral Ackbar), and Sullustan (Nien Nunb), were there any other aliens from the other six Star Wars movies in “The Force Awakens”? It seems to me that with such a cosmopolitan mix of aliens and characters that we would see a Rodian (Greedo), an Ithorian (Hammerhead/Momaw Nadon), Gamorrean, Twi’lek (Bib Fortuna and others), etc. Hell, I would have loved (I know I’m in the minority here) to see an Ewok in the mix with the Resistance fighters. A little mechanic or something. I know that last one is improbable, but the point still stands. The Resistance should have some familiar alien races in the mix. We’d see a few on Jakku, some in Maz’s bar. Just a sprinkling of them would have kept me more in the movie. I had similar issues with JJ Abrams’ take on “Star Trek” — having new characters with holes in their head or digitally animated heads, bypassing scores of alien races that could have filled that niche. I love seeing new aliens, new droids, new races, new monsters. But ignoring the dozens of established ones seems either clumsy or arrogant. I don’t think JJ Abrams is either. I guess I just want to know that my friends (and enemies) are still out there.
So what’s your take on all this? Am I way off target? What have I missed? I want to have these conversations with people who have seen the movie, and not spoil it for those who haven’t. I loved it. But.