If there’s one action, one desire, that binds the characters of the Star Wars’ intergalactic universe, it’s this: search. Search for one’s father, father figure, power (of the kind only few have access to), home, and, in the latest installment of the series, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, son. And it’s precisely this want that lends this series a mythic, epic quality, for what are grand journeys if not a pursuit of something fundamental, something essential? The Force Awakens, the seventh film of the Star Wars series, and a sequel to the 1983 Return of the Jedi, is set, quite fittingly, around three decades later, in a universe where the old and familiar are missing. The whereabouts of Luke Skywalker, the Jedi Master, are unknown; after the destruction of the second Death Star, the First Order, a new dictatorial regime, has replaced the Galactic Empire; Darth Varder, who met his end in the Return of the Jedi, has given way to a new antagonist, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver); and a new group called The Resistance, led by Leia Organa (Luke’s sister), has taken it upon itself to decimate the First Order to maintain peace in this universe.
There are some other notable additions, too: In the first fifteen minutes of the film, we see the helmet of one of the Stormtroopers, the Nazi-like soldiers of the Galactic Empire and First Order, tainted with blood — something that’s, quite likely, never happened before. (For all the frequent violent showdown in this universe, blood’s rarely shown to be shed.) A few scenes later, we see the same Stormtrooper removing his helmet and orchestrating an escape from the First Order — an act of rebellion against the malevolent monolith by one of its insiders — something that, again, hasn’t happened in the previous films. The Force Awakens is also much funnier than every other Star Wars film (and, what’s remarkable, the humour doesn’t look forced here), but what’s really significant about this film is that it gives its female protagonist, Rey (a scavenger), agency. When Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Stormtrooper “Finn” (John Boyega) are evading the First Order’s airstrikes, he holds her hand, while running, and she tells him that she’s doing just fine, that she can manage by herself. When he holds her hand, during the same chase, again, she snaps, “I know how to run without you holding my hand.” When she soon spots a spacecraft that can help them escape, she says, “Follow me”, running ahead of Finn, and he follows. Even in moments of grave danger, Rey is her own woman. Later in the film, she’s shown flying a spacecraft (the much fabled Millennium Falcon), infiltrating the First Order and thwarting their plans, holding her own against Kylo Ren. The previous Star Wars films had important female characters as well, but they were a little too dependent on their men. (In fact, Leia and Padmé Amidala, despite their evident initial reluctance, were tirelessly pursued by Han Solo and Anakin Skywalker, who eventually became their husbands.) This change is heartening because you expect the seventh film of a highly celebrated series, which first came around four decades ago, to be novel, to not just piggyback on its reputation and past triumphs.
So, even though, The Force Awakens, for the most part, is sufficiently engrossing and entertaining, it’s also considerably led down by its villain. Unlike Darth Vader, Kylo Ren isn’t sufficiently intriguing, vicious, or menacing. He is also neither irrational enough nor an embodiment of pure evil that a franchise like Star Wars, an unapologetic mainstream entertainer, demands. The Force Awakens also, more than once, errs on the wrong side of exposition, and its mechanics of the climactic showdown — the plans to enter and destroy the First Order (by weakening its planetary shield), the subsequent attack, the cross cutting technique (the space battle between the Resistance and First Order intercut with a tussle involving lightsabers) — remind you of several previous films of the series, which is a pity because that template has run its course, and delivers little dramatic impact now. Sure, a major draw of this movie does lie in anticipating the familiar; one does want to see and know how the old guards — Han Solo, Leia, R2D2, Luke Skywalker — are faring after such a long duration of time, but The Force Awakens could have been more memorable had it striven for a more inventive narrative, especially in its climax. The film, however, does spring two genuine surprises here — deflating the audience’s expectations quite skillfully — but they are not enough to compensate for its flaws.
Having said that, The Force Awakens concludes on an impressive note, through a scene of immense power and possibility that doesn’t merely feel the Force but almost radiates it.
Originally published in FirstPost