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Review: “Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens” Blu-ray Continues a Timeless Legacy

by on April 5, 2016
 

Star Wars: The Force Awakens Blu-ray Box ArtFellow nerds and pop cultural aficionado, I have a confession to make. I am a twenty-nine year old woman who never watched the original Star Wars trilogy until last December. That’s almost three decades of my life without Luke and Leia, Darth Vader, Boba Fett, lightsabers, and anything with the word “Jedi” or “The Force” in it. I was stubborn: fans would gawk at me incredulously, the monocle popping out of their eye as they repeatedly insisted I watch the cinematic equivalent of the Holy Grail. Needless to say, my refusal only increased over time. This isn’t from lack of trying. I attempted to join the bandwagon when the prequels came out seventeen years ago which should tell you plenty already. I wasn’t planning to watch The Force Awakens either, but the Internet is a teasing mistress. I slowly started hearing Things. A movie with an awesome female lead? People of color as prominent characters? A woman wearing practical, non-fanservice battle armor? Convinced, I watched A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi in preparation for The Force Awakens.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Star Wars is quite possibly the greatest thing I’ve ever seen and that is not hyperbole. The original three exemplify and perfect the Hero’s Journey, bringing the monomyth to modern times and prompting numerous homages and inspirations from other forms of media that exist to this day. I’ve known how much of a trendsetter Star Wars is, but only now do I understand the context behind why. It is an ageless masterpiece that is expertly narrated and tightly paced; a perfect culmination of Luke’s development from humble farmboy to celebrated Jedi bigwig. If The Force Awakens retreads familiar ground, then it couldn’t be any less appropriate than Star Wars to eat its cake and have it, too. As the first of a new trilogy, it is off to a strong start.

Star Wars: The Force AwakensAt the start of The Force Awakens, it is thirty years after the end of Return of the Jedi. The dreaded First Order, rising from the ashes of the Galactic Empire, has struck and Luke Skywalker is nowhere to be found. The First Order vows to find the last Jedi and destroy him at any cost. Leading the resistance against the First Order is General Leia Organa who desperately seeks her brother to restore peace. She sends the daring pilot Poe Dameron to the desert planet of Jakku to retrieve a map carrying the whereabouts of Luke. The mission soon expands to include renegade stormtrooper Finn, Poe’s droid companion BB-8, and a desert scavenger named Rey.

The Force Awakens is a meditation on legacy, family, and repetition of history. It follows nearly the same plot as the original, yet is able to filter it through new lens. Star Wars has always centered on these themes, so it feels like a deliberate attempt to echo the same messages. While the first trilogy was specifically about Luke’s coming-of-age, The Force Awakens forms more of an ensemble cast. It’s as much about Finn as it is about Rey. It dives deeply into villain Kylo Ren’s psyche as it does our protagonists. Secondary characters are comprised of past cast members: Leia, Han Solo, and Chewbacca serve as budding mentors and been-there-done-that heroes. They’re exactly where they need to be to please older fans, but never overshadow the newer cast members. It’s not their story anymore; The Force Awakens is for them to pass the baton.

Despite the trappings of cliché plots, Star Wars had the moxie to break a few as well. Pure black and white morality stopped being a factor when Darth Vader turned out to be a man who struggled to see the light. Luke fights his father, but wins not through violence, but love. Leia may have been a damsel in distress at the start, but never returns to that role after, remaining active, competent, and beautifully snarky throughout. The Force Awakens continue to deconstruct and apply layers to what could have been bland archetypes.

Star Wars: The Force AwakensStormtroopers are the ultimate cannon fodder: nameless, faceless folks with no personalty or purpose other than to serve the Empire/First Order and die for their cause. We don’t mourn them, and they’re just numbers for the movies’ death toll. Their predecessors were at one point actual clones just to drive home the point of their worthlessness. Finn was raised with this doctrine nearly all his life; a cog in a big machine. Witnessing a cruel act is what causes Finn to rethink everything he’s been taught. He escapes, only to be overwhelmed by the idea of individual decisions and free will. Finn is a fascinating character because we gain the perspective from of one of these unlucky Red Shirts, and we see what happens when one is given a face and a name.

Without spoiling, Kylo Ren is the strongest embodiment of the movie’s theme, suffering growing pains from his forefathers. Kylo is a short-tempered, violently deranged man with a dangerous sense of entitlement. He impetuously throws tantrums like a whining child when things go south. He’s a major step below from the dignified Darth Vader, but it’s possible Kylo Ren knows that himself. He attempts to emulate the great Sith Lord, but who can replace Darth Vader? Not this inferior wannabe, yet he tries and most of his actions are attempts to live up to the one he idolizes and rebel against those he claims to hate. Kylo Ren is a spoiled child in a grown man’s body and it transforms a pathetic miscreant into someone unpredictable and deadly.

Star Wars: The Force AwakensThat brings us to Rey. Ahh, Rey. If there ever was a more divisive character, it’s her. Within the context of the story, Rey is the closest to being the central protagonist, walking a similar path as Luke once did. While Luke sought adventure that eventually challenged and humbled him, Rey is thrust into it and must learn to adapt. Rey is lonely, longing for the missing family who left her on Jakku many years ago for mysterious reasons, forcing her to fend for herself. Her major arc has her forming a surrogate family from the people she meets despite initial hesitance. She and Kylo Ren share numerous parallels, noticeably the effects of the past influencing their paths. No doubt they’ll clash over the course of the trilogy.

The Force Awakens is equally poignant for its portrayal of Rey as an excellent example of a well-defined woman in the media. Rey is multifaceted: dependable and empathetic, quick to adapt, and courageous in the heat of battle. She is also conflicted, haughty, and unsure, often longing for a connection that she rarely got in her youth. Rey’s story shares numerous themes from the movie and is intricately connected to the greater plot. She is many things because Rey is a character who isn’t slapped with an unfortunate gender stereotype, strictly defined by her gender role, or reduced to sexy eye candy. Bonus points for not strapping a love interest on her, too.

Star Wars: The Force AwakensAs a result, it is disheartening that despite all the critical praise she gets, Rey has a number of detractors who view her as a Mary Sue. She is apparently “too powerful and talented”, outshining her male brethren and able to pick up skills at the drop of a hat while fellow protagonists Luke and Anakin Skywalker can get away with arguably the same level of competence. The two Skywalkers are prodigal mechanics and expert starfighter and pod racer pilots, showing expert-level skills despite minimal training. The younger Skywalker can blow up the first Death Star with the Force despite minimal Jedi training, while the elder is a literal product of a Virgin Birth that screams “Special Snowflake.” So it’s puzzling that when Rey correctly identifies ship parts, competently defends herself with a staff, expresses good virtue, and learns to fly a ship or shoot a gun for the first time, suspension of disbelief rears its ugly head. We can accept Luke and Anakin because we’re used to men in these roles, but when a woman fills the same or similar requirements, somehow it’s a detriment to the whole movie. Young girls will watch many movies in their lifetime, often berating why there aren’t enough complex, relateable girls in cinema. Until we get a better handle of balancing the gender gap, Rey is a shining example for whom girls can look up to.

Star Wars: The Force AwakensThe movie’s biggest flaws are still relatively minor, and may be addressed by Episode VIII and IX, but a few of the characters are underutilized in spite of their potential. Captain Phasma is only hinted to be a capable and dignified leader, but displays none of that on-screen. Depending on her role beyond Episode VII, she can either shine (one hopes) or go the way of Boba Fett, where her perceived coolness with the fans is overwhelmingly proportional to what she might actually do in the entire trilogy. I find General Hux’s rivalry with Kylo Ren interesting because of their heavy contrast. While the latter suffers fools greatly with emotional outbursts, Hux is calm and shadowy. Both are on equal footing, but are constantly vying for the attention of High Commander Snoke, the mysterious shadowy leader of the First Order. It’s a good conflict, especially for Hux since he seems to be the only one who isn’t afraid of Kylo’s infinite bag of rage. Then there’s Poe Dameron, who has a noticeably clumsy on-screen role. He’s a prominent player during the beginning off the movie until he’s unceremoniously pushed off until the last minute. I’m aware last minute script changes were the major factor for his conflicting screen time, but a minor shame nonetheless. I hope all of them get a major boost come Episode VIII.

The home release of The Force Awakens is packaged with both the Blu-ray and DVD, with a third disc hosting a mountain of behind-the-scenes features. The biggest is Scenes of The Force Awakens: A Cinematic Journey. Clocking in at over sixty-nine minutes, it’s the longest extra detailing the process of making the movie. The feature delves just as much into the theme of legacy, as people who’ve been a part of the original Star Wars return to reprise their roles, much to the awe and respect from the newer crew. The feature constantly draws parallels and homages the crew took the past movies to drive The Force Awakens. It’s also equally heartening to see that people who worked on the first trilogy now have children who are a part of Lucasfilm working on this movie. Regardless of generations, they’re all on the same page to produce a quality film with an exuberant amount of labor and love.

Star Wars: The Force AwakensThe rest of the Blu-ray extras are increments mentioned in passing during A Cinematic Journey, elaborated in their own section. The Story Awakens: The Table Read is a short look at the cast and major crew during their first script reading. Interestingly. J.J. Abrams opts not to narrate, instead passing it onto Mark Hamill. Crafting Creatures centers on the hundreds of alien designs and the various techniques to make them as lifelike as possible. Building BB-8 deals with the creation of the little droid. It’s a shame they didn’t mention that BB-8’s voice was recorded by Bill Hader and Ben Schwartz, if not for my personal amusement that Jean-Ralphio of Parks and Recreation was halfway responsible for the adorable droid. But hats off to the crew for infusing a great deal of charm on a robot that is literally half a circle on top of a larger circle. Blueprints of a Fight: The Snow Fight focuses on the infamous final battle at the end of the film and the amount of effort that went onto the set. This was a minor surprise for me because I never knew it was a set, which shows the amazing dedication to building a convincing outdoors background. ILM: The Visual Magic Of the Force centers on the people behind the CGI effects and the interesting challenges The Force Awakens brought when production decided to emphasize on-screen props over CGI-reliance. John Williams: The Seventh Symphony focuses on the legendary composer and how he still hasn’t lost his touch, even at the age of eighty-three. Deleted Scenes is what you expect, though most of them are extraneous and understandably cut. Finally Force for Change is a three minute feature on the charity the crew built during The Force Awakens and the impact it had on the world and other noteworthy charities. I have immense respect for Disney/Lucasfilm for adding subtitles to the extra features. Not many Blu-rays or DVDs go the extra mile, and as someone who is hard of hearing, it’s greatly appreciated.

I get it now. I get why Star Wars is A Big Deal. I understand why these movies have pressed on for so long. Setting it far, far out into space prevents it from falling into dated references. Its heroic coming-of-age quest is timelessly universal. Whether you are a fresh-faced youth clutching a BB-8 doll or an adult like me watching Star Wars for the first time, it remains incredibly accessible.The Force Awakens is a continuation of the legacy, upgraded for today’s era (I notice the movie has numerous people of colors—including Asians—compared to the original’s sea of white actors.) It is a tightly packed movie with engaging characters and a tried, but true narrative. When I see parents walking side-by-side with their kids armed to the teeth with lightsaber paraphernalia and Stormtrooper helmets, I am reminded that those children will grow up someday and perhaps speak fondly of Star Wars to the next generation. I certainly will.
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