The Dark Side and the Light: Revisiting The Force Awakens

Well, it’s been out for a while now. Does Episode VII still cut it? Rod gives us a detailed analysis. 

Perhaps it goes without saying, but for the ten people in the world still yet to see it, this article is crammed with SPOILERS. 

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is one of those films where I wanted to avoid as many spoilers as possible before seeing it. I actually avoided all of the trailers except for the very first teaser that was released. You may not believe it, but when I would see other movies at the cinema, and they played a trailer for this film, I would close my eyes so as not to see the images. I very much wanted to have as little from the movie in my memory as possible. It was certainly worth all the effort and waiting in the end, though!

As you no doubt know, The Force Awakens takes place roughly thirty years after Return of the Jedi. The basic story is that Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has vanished. A new enemy of the Republic has arisen, known as The First Order, which was established some time after the fall of the Galactic Empire. A planet-sized monstrosity known as the Starkiller Base is a dangerous weapon much more powerful than a Death Star, and The First Order plans to use this against our heroes. But a fighting force for the Republic known as the Resistance was formed to combat them, headed by Leia (Carrie Fisher), who no longer holds the title of Princess and is now a General.

On the desert planet Jakku, a portion of a map that leads to Luke’s location is in the hands of an old village elder named Lor San Tekka (Max Von Sydow). Skywalker has disappeared because he was training a new generation of Jedi when one of them fell to the Dark Side of the Force and betrayed the new Jedi Order. This betrayal was committed by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who takes great inspiration from Darth Vader and idolises him heavily, even going so far as to create a mask that alters his voice. Ren is strong in the Dark Side and is now part of The First Order. He wants the map to Luke’s location so he can find the last of the Jedi and kill him.

Episode VII also introduces new heroes to the Star Wars saga. Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is the Resistance group’s best pilot. He visits Jakku to retrieve the portion of the all-important map from Lor San Tekka. When Kylo Ren and The First Order’s Stormtroopers show up to kill Lor and all the other villagers, Poe is ultimately captured but manages to give the map to his droid, BB-8, so it can be delivered to the Resistance. Oscar makes Poe an instantly relatable character, with loads of charisma. He effectively plays the part of a heroic X-Wing pilot with ease, and I would say he’s a really good addition to the film and the universe. This is actually the first movie I’ve seen Oscar act in, and I was impressed.

Finn (John Boyega) is Stormtrooper FN-2187 and refuses to engage in The First Order’s massacre of the villagers. He decides that he doesn’t want to kill for them, and after Poe has been interrogated by Kylo Ren, he helps Poe escape and they end up crash-landing on Jakku after the TIE Fighter they acquired is shot down. John manages to impress with his portrayal of a Stormtrooper with a conscious; a determination to do what is right and not follow The First Order’s whims. He makes Finn a likeable character you want to see succeed.

Rey (Daisy Ridley) is a scavenger on Jakku, who finds parts to be traded in for food by taking them to Unkar Plutt (Simon Pegg), a junk boss. BB-8 is saved from being scavenged by Rey. Finn eventually finds her and BB-8 after she’s attacked by scavengers working for Plutt, who are ordered to steal the important droid. Rey is hoping that her parents will one day return to Jakku so they can be reunited. Daisy gives us a character who is not only strong-willed, but is also believable as a woman who can take care of herself, as well as being strong in the Force, too. What a great discovery Daisy has proven to be!

Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) meet Finn, Rey and BB-8 after they escape Jakku in the Milennium Falcon, which had been stolen from Han some time ago and changed hands a few times before winding up in the hands of Unkar Plutt. The freighter Han and Chewie are piloting captures the Falcon and they board it to find Rey and Finn, who thought they were discovered by The First Order and had planned to use poisonous gas to ensure their escape. Han and Chewie have returned to being smugglers and are pursued by two groups known as the Guavian Death Gang and the Kanjiklub, respectively. They’re sore over deals made for dangerous creatures known as Rathtars. It is the accidental release by Rey of these confined beasts that ultimately allows Han, Chewie, Rey, and Finn to survive and escape aboard the Falcon.

It is revealed that Kylo Ren is actually Ben Solo, the son of Han and Leia. He was seduced by the Dark Side and sees his grandfather, Anakin Skywalker, merely as Darth Vader. Kylo is conflicted because he’s torn between the pull of the Light Side and the wish to stay with the Dark Side. Driver really conveys this anger and hatred but also the unhinged nature of Ben Solo really well. I think he does a nice job in the role and I look forward to seeing how he develops in Episode VIII. I will go into more detail on Kylo/Ben later, but he is an interesting villain to say the least.

Supreme Leader Snoke (motion-captured and voiced by The Lord of the Rings‘ Andy Serkis) is Kylo Ren’s master. He appears to be gigantic, but since he’s a hologram, it can be assumed that Snoke just likes to be seen that way whenever communicating with underlings. But I could be wrong. At first, his size put me off, but once I realised he was a projected image, I came to like the character. There is certainly something mysterious about him and the possibilities of who he might actually be.

General Hux (Harry Potter‘s Domhnall Gleeson) is portrayed really well. The speech Hux delivers before the Starkiller Base fires, and the way Domhnall delivers it, is very impactful. There is a rivalry of sorts going on between Hux and Kylo. In one scene, they are discussing the “traitor” Finn and that perhaps clones would be better than the Stormtroopers, but Hux expresses anger at this comment. This is the first film outside of the Potter franchise where I’ve seen Domhnall’s acting chops. He is certainly a good performer and I like the way he portrayed the character.

Captain Phasma (Game of Thrones‘ Gwendoline Christie) is a high-ranking Stormtrooper within The First Order. When Finn takes off his helmet after returning back from the massacre on Jakku, she orders him to have his blaster rifle checked for faults (thinking he didn’t shoot because of a malfunction) and to report to evaluation, as well as chiding him for removing his helmet without permission. Later, Finn, Han and Chewie force her to power down the shields that are protecting Starkiller Base. While the character isn’t in the film all that much, I’m sure that more will be done with her in the next chapter, making Phasma the Boba Fett of this movie.

Other characters introduced in The Force Awakens include Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o), a thousand-year-old pirate who is acquainted with Han Solo and lives in her castle on the planet Takodana, which handily has a cantina within it. Maz refers to Chewbacca as her boyfriend, and says to Han that she likes that Wookie. Maz isn’t a Jedi but she is sensitive to the Force. The lightsaber that Anakin and then Luke possessed has somehow gotten into her hands after Luke lost it on Bespin in The Empire Strikes Back, and she has been keeping it hidden. It will be interesting to see what else will be revealed with this intriguing character.

The acting overall is excellent. Certain scenes with Finn and Rey are very reminiscent of dialogue from the Original Trilogy. Poe, Finn and Rey, the three new heroes, are interesting additions to the mythology. I thought their chemistry with one another was excellent. The humour in this movie was done really well, too, never feeling out-of-place or forced. I genuinely found each moment of levity funny, especially where BB-8 is concerned, and he’s a better source for comedy than a certain character with the (ironic) initials of J.J. in the prequels. I also liked that you can tell the actors are enjoying themselves. It was great to see all our old favourites return, too. While it’s only a very short moment, the reveal of Luke Skywalker at the end of the film was a really good way to go out, and Hamill does so much expressively without saying a single word. Some might dislike that Luke isn’t in the film more, but I am certain we will see much more of him in Episode VIII.

The overall scale is amazing, such as Rey exploring the ruins of a downed Star Destroyer for parts to sell in exchange for food, and living inside a trashed AT-AT, as well as Poe being escorted to his interrogation room aboard Starkiller Base through the palpably enormous hangar. While there is still use of CG, naturally, there was still a very deliberate intention to do as much as possible with practical and creature effects. As a result, the majority of things in this film feel like they have weight and tangibility. I imagine that this would have made things much better for the actors as well, because they can have a much clearer understanding and react to what they’re supposed to be interacting with, which in turn makes things more believable for the audience.

John Williams once again returned to compose the score for The Force Awakens, and he really did a magnificent job interweaving the long-established themes from the previous Star Wars films among the new compositions created for fresh characters and situations. He truly is a master of his craft, and I am glad that he was able to return to compose for these new films. I cannot wait to own the soundtrack so I can listen intently to the score without the sound effects and dialogue to get in the way. It’s something I always do with scores, because that way, when I watch the film again, my connection to what I’m hearing in the music becomes much stronger.

There’s many other great things which I enjoyed seeing, too. There are appearances by General “It’s a trap!” Ackbar and  Nien Nunb (as a kid, I really liked the latter for some reason), who you might remember from Return of the Jedi as Lando Calrissian’s co-pilot on the Falcon during the Battle of Endor. Daniel Craig also has an unlisted cameo as the Stormtrooper Rey uses the Jedi “Mind Trick” on. It was great to see the X-Wings and the TIE Fighters again, with both being very similar to their Original Trilogy versions with subtle differences. Hearing familiar effects such as the screeching of the TIEs was also a treat. The sound design as a whole is wonderful. There’s also the screen wipes and fades that have been a staple of Star Wars since the beginning.

Now, getting back to Kylo Ren. There’s certain aspects to his personality and his motivations which help to create a fascinating character. He is more than just another Darth Vader for this new trilogy. Ren has major anger issues, which the Dark Side of the Force responds greatly to. This anger manifests itself whenever things don’t go his way. The first of two moments effectively displaying this is when a First Order commander informs him that BB-8 was taken off Jakku with the help of Finn and Rey, taking it out on the poor underling who informed him. The second moment is when Rey has escaped the interrogation cell and Kylo destroys the room once he discovers she’s gone. When Vader expressed his anger towards those who brought him news of failure, his reaction was more subdued and he seemed much calmer in his rage. Ol’ Darth would just simply choke them with the Force, whereas Kylo will lash out and use it to bring his victim closer before physically choking them. Ren needs to learn how to control his anger and express it in such a way that makes it more effective. Much like Luke had to learn to control his fear.

Kylo is experiencing an internal conflict where he feels the pull of the Light Side, but he also wants to remain defiant against it. There’s a scene where he is speaking to the burned helmet of Darth Vader, asking to be shown once again the power of the Dark Side, so he can suppress the Light. Knowing that Anakin Skywalker was redeemed at the end of Return of the Jedi and became one with the Force just like Obi-Wan and Master Yoda did, I wondered what exactly was going on in this scene. Surely, Anakin’s spirit wouldn’t be teaching Kylo the ways of the Dark Side. At first, I speculated that maybe Kylo’s psyche is damaged so much that he might be having hallucinations of Vader, thinking he’s communing with him. But, as with Rey touching Anakin/Luke’s lightsaber and being shown visions of things that have happened, perhaps a similar thing is occurring between Ren and Darth’s helmet – he’s seeing what Anakin did when he used to be Vader, and using that as a teaching tool of some kind. Kylo was probably told the story of how Anakin became a Sith Lord and was ultimately turned back from the Dark Side. What he sees and inspires him is what Anakin used to be before his redemption.

Eventually, Han Solo confronts his son and tries to convince him to return home. There is a moment where Kylo could actually go with his father and turn his back on the Dark Side, but when it comes down to it, he decides to descend further into darkness by killing Han, with Rey, Finn and Chewie there to witness it. This was another powerful moment, not only due to the sadness of seeing Han get killed, but also the feeling of despair Chewie faces, which is expressed so strongly with something as simple as a growl. Not to mention Leia sensing the death of Han through the Force, too. Chewbacca then opens fire on Kylo, injuring him, which helps to explain why he loses his climactic fight against Rey. After detonating the explosives in order to help the Resistance in the battle against Starkiller Base, Chewie, Rey, and Finn escape. But Kylo also escapes too, along with General Hux.

Kylo killing Solo was one of the saddest moments in film history for me. When it was announced that Han, Luke and Leia would return for Episode VII, I was faced with the possibility that we could see one of these legends bite the dust. A character dying naturally, like Master Yoda in Return of the Jedi, is one thing but this was very different. While Yoda’s death is still very saddening for me, comfort can be found in the fact he died peacefully. However, a character getting murdered outright is a difficult experience because it is a death that could have been prevented. How could Ben kill his own father? He could have let his pops live. But it was naturally done so that his journey to the Dark Side would be complete. Anakin was redeemed eventually, and maybe that will happen with Ben at some point. However, for now, Ben has truly become Kylo Ren, just like Anakin Skywalker truly became Darth Vader. Han getting offed is obviously not the first nor the last time this will happen in the Star Wars saga, but it still doesn’t take away from the fact it was heartbreaking.

Earlier on, there’s a scene where Rey has been detained and Ren enters to interrogate her to read her mind and see the portion of the map leading to Luke. He uses the Force to do this, but he fails because Rey manages to repel him, and in the process, gleans some information from Kylo’s mind. Rey really hits Kylo where it hurts by telling him, “You… you’re afraid… that you will never be as strong as Darth Vader!” This moment was very powerful for me because it shows the level of Force-sensitivity that Rey possesses and reveals a fear that Kylo has, which is a major weakness in his mind, and it leads to a scene where Supreme Leader Snoke is outraged that Rey was able to resist the Dark Side so strongly. This in turn shows that even he has a misguided faith in the strength of the Dark Side, which plays into the whole idea that those who have joined the Dark believe it to be more powerful than the Light, and the arrogance of thinking they are stronger and will ultimately win.

There has been many criticisms directed at The Force Awakens, which is to be expected of any film really. As for my own criticisms, all I have is just a nitpick in the grand scheme of things, and it’s the ending shot of the camera revolving around Luke and Rey from a distance. It felt a bit out-of-place and it would have been better to end the film with the final closeup of Luke looking at Rey. Yep, that’s it.

Star Wars has always been a product made up of aspects such as mythology, classical storytelling, philosophy, archetypes, and themes, right from the beginning when George Lucas constructed what would become Star Wars in 1977. A major gripe of The Force Awakens has been that it feels too much like A New Hope, and that it plays things too safely. But I wouldn’t classify it as the remake as some have deemed it to be, as that sounds too much like a generalisation, and isn’t taking into consideration all the differences and additions there are; the similarities are configured in such a way that it doesn’t make them exact copies. For example, in A New Hope, Obi-Wan Kenobi confronts Darth Vader. It’s a situation where you have an old man who gets killed. In The Force Awakens, Han Solo is an old man and confronts Kylo Ren only to be killed by him. Leaving it at that, and telling people only that, would obviously make some think it’s just a copycat scenario. But, when you look closer at both situations, you can see that there’s sizeable differences, such as Han wanting to save his son from the Dark Side, whereas Obi-Wan doesn’t seek to bring Vader back to the Light. Also, Obi-Wan is facing off against a former apprentice. He and Vader have a duel, whereas Han and Kylo have a poignant conversation before Han is dispatched.

There is definitely a theme of history repeating itself in The Force Awakens, with Ben Solo having betrayed Luke and the other Jedi, which is similar to Anakin betraying Obi-Wan and the other Masters. Also, Starkiller Base is very much a Death Star but it is way more powerful and much larger, as well as being able to do a very different thing with the “laser” beam that crumbles planets. Not to mention that there’s more at stake for the heroes in their bid to destroy the superweapon. In any case, it’s not surprising that the evil side of the Star Wars saga would continue to be arrogant enough to think they can win just by creating a devastating weapon, and it’s another example of how they don’t learn from their past mistakes and failures.

Another pet-peeve is about Rey and her abilities with not only the Force itself, but her skill level in lightsaber combat. Personally, I don’t see her ability to overpower and defeat Kylo in a duel as being outside the realm of possibility. To apply it to reality for a moment, there are many cases where someone who has more skill and training in something gets defeated by someone with less. It can be a matter of the person with the most skill and training not being in the right state of mind, or having the wrong attitude and feelings about the opponent they’re facing. In the case of Kylo Ren, it is his arrogance, his reliance on anger and hatred, his overconfidence in his abilities, as well as his fierce loyalty to the Dark Side that is his downfall when he fights Rey. Remember what Luke asks Master Yoda in Empire Strikes Back, “Is the Dark Side stronger?”, to which he replies, “No, no, no. Quicker, easier, more seductive.” Having faith in the darkness being stronger is Kylo’s undoing.

Ren has a few disadvantages that are factors in why he loses that duel with Rey. For one thing, Chewie shot him, causing him to sustain an injury that causes him pain throughout. You also have the fact that Ren is not fully trained, and in many ways, is still just a novice. Even though he can do powerful things, like making a laser blast stop in its tracks and remain held there, as well as forcing his way into people’s minds to read their thoughts, it doesn’t mean he’s a master of the Dark Side. He is still learning, and will continue to learn in the next film, especially considering Supreme Leader Snoke’s desire to complete Kylo’s training. He is certainly not at the level Darth Vader was when he fought Luke in Empire Strikes Back, nor is he at the level of Emperor Palpatine. So, for me, I can completely understand how he could lose to Rey, and see it as a possibility. These aspects also help to ensure that he’s not just a copy of Vader.

Overall, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a welcome addition to the franchise. I really enjoyed watching it. It felt like a Star Wars movie, taking the elements that we’re really familiar with and mixing them with new story directions, opening the door for so many other possibilities. It is clear that J.J. Abrams has nothing but love for the franchise, and I’m glad that he has set a high bar for the directors that follow him. It’s a wonderful time to be a Star Wars fan!

Found him!

Found him!

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • Mark Hamill claimed George Lucas nonchalantly told him over lunch a new Star Wars trilogy was going to be made by Disney, and if he did not want to be involved, Luke Skywalker would simply be written out of the script. However, Hamill immediately agreed to reprise the role. Hamill admitted, however, that he pretended to also be nonchalant about it so it didn’t seem like he was excited for the role.
  • The first J.J. Abrams film not to have a musical score by Michael Giacchino. Aptly enough, Giacchino stated in an interview that he would rather hear the music of John Williams in a new Star Wars film than his own. Giacchino’s name shows up in Episode VII’s credits as a Stormtrooper.
  • Kevin Smith and Benedict Cumberbatch visited the set. Smith, infamous for his open and talkative nature, was forced to sign a non-disclosure agreement, and Abrams had World War II-style propaganda posters titled “Loose Lips Sink Starships” hung up around the set as a reminder to Smith not to reveal spoilers for the film to the public. True to his word, the only tidbit Smith revealed about his visit was that he cried when he stood on the Millennium Falcon set, as it reminded him of how much he loved Star Wars as a child.
  • Abrams revealed in an interview published in Entertainment Weekly that he came up with the name of the Captain Phasma character after seeing its chrome design: “It reminded me of the ball in Phantasm (1979).”

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Rod Petrie

Gamer since 1988 at the age of five. First system was the Nintendo Entertainment System. Favourite retro systems - NES, SNES, N64, MegaDrive, PS1, and PS2.

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