Return of the Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

From the moment I heard about the ‘reawakening’ of the Star Wars franchise, I wanted to love this movie and I was afraid that I wouldn’t. Rebooting a successful franchise is a chancy thing. Having assiduously avoided spoilers (not even watching trailers) I went to a screening very soon after it opened in Australia and I nearly cried when I heard the theme music and the familiar yellow lettering began to scroll up the screen.

Decades after the death of Darth Vader, the Empire lives on through the violent mimicry of the First Order. There is some version of the Republic in operation but it’s unclear how extensive its authority is and anyway, it seems disinclined to actively do anything about the neo-imperialistic organisation terrorising the galaxy, which leaves the work of actively fighting back to Leia Organa – now General Organa – and a new generation of rebels who call themselves the Resistance.

The First Order seem to blame the Jedi for all their problems, or perhaps more accurately, for them not being as big a problem as they want to be. They are ransacking the galaxy in search of Luke Skywalker, the last of the Jedi, who long ago performed a vanishing act so thorough that even Leia has no idea where he went.

Her most talented pilot, Poe Dameron, flies to the isolated desert planet of Jakku to meet with an old rebel, who I feel I’m supposed to know? But don’t, because he’s never been in the series before. Possibly he’ll show up in Rogue One. The old man has a piece of data that may lead to Luke Skywalker and he passes it into Poe’s possession. The First Order are hot on their trail; Poe’s little spherical droid BB-8 rolls up to warn him of incoming troops and Poe runs for his ship, but the initial attack damages it too badly for flight so Poe conceals the precious data in a compartment of BB-8’s casing and sends the droid away. “I’ll come back for you!” he promises, then joins the fight.

These stormtroopers are not Kamino clones. They wear the same uniform – partially, I’m sure, to both unify and dehumanise them, since they are brainwashed soldiers serving a meglomaniacal cause, but also to strike terror into anyone who remembers the might of the Empire. Marching into the desert encampment, they slaughter everyone in their path. One stormtrooper, however, breaks from the pattern. He stops to catch a fallen comrade and is marked by a bloody handprint pressed against his helmet. Staggering around the battlefield in a visible state of shock, the only reason he does not immediately draw attention is the dramatic arrival of a new First Order spacecraft. A man masked and hooded in black stalks out.

Watching this for the first time, my mother laughed at the sight of him and called him a wannabe Darth Vader. She has good narrative instincts

Wannabe-Vader calls himself Kylo Ren, though it is obvious that the old rebel who helped Poe remembers him as somebody else. “You cannot deny the truth that is your family,” the rebel tells him. Kylo Ren answers by cutting him down with a blazing red lightsaber shaped like a broadsword. Horrified, Poe breaks cover to try and shoot Ren, but the man he’s dealing with is a powerful Sith and he’s got all those stormtroopers to back him up, so that attempt goes about as well as can be expected.

Poe is taken for questioning (i.e. torturing) and on Kylo Ren’s orders, the remaining villagers from the encampment are lined up and shot. The stormtrooper with the bloodied helmet will not fire his gun. Ren looks straight at him, confused, but is otherwise occupied and stalks on by. He is going to regret doing that.

Returning to the First Order mothership, the renegade stormtrooper FN-2187 yanks off his helmet to reveal a terrified young black man underneath. It’s important to note two things here: contrary to some of the commentary around this casting decision, the clone troopers were played by a Maori actor and therefore have always been people of colour. But this is the first time a POC has played a lead in the Star Wars franchise, instead of a side character. There are actually two POC leads, if you count Poe Dameron, which I definitely do. It only took six movies to get here!

These new stormtroopers are not nearly as homogenous as the uniforms are meant to make them seem, on neither ethnicity or gender. For instance, FN-2187’s commander, Captain Phasma, is female (or at least vocally presents that way and is played by Gwendoline Christie). She demands that FN-2187 immediately replace his helmet and hand in his blaster for inspection, clearly suspecting that it was never fired. She also rebukes him for removing his helmet without permission and he obediently replaces it.

She is going to regret making him do that.

Meanwhile, on Jakku, we meet the young scavenger Rey. Left behind as a child and grown to adulthood still waiting for her family to come back, she spends her days picking through the vast, hollowed-out ruins of fallen Star Destroyers, remnants of a long ago battle that are by now half-buried in sand, consigned to the scrap heap of history. It was at this point that I realised I was irrevocably in love with this movie.

I also love Rey, who is resilient and agile and despite the incredible unfairness of her entire life – a whole day’s scavenging earns her barely enough food to get by – she still leaps to defend BB-8 when another scavenger snares the droid and Rey overhears its panicked beeping. Like Poe, she speaks fluent droid, among other languages. Once rescued, BB-8 follows her around like a lost puppy and the next morning she takes it into town to look for Poe. The scrap dealer there offers what to Rey is a small fortune if she’ll sell the droid. She is badly tempted, but refuses.

So BB-8 is doing okay, but Poe is in bad shape. Tortured for information by Kylo Ren, both physically and with the Force, he doesn’t so much give up the secret of where he put the data so much as have it torn out of his skull. He’s a mess when a stormtrooper enters his cell with orders to take him back to Ren.

Except, no. FN-2187 is breaking free of his brainwashing and has decided to bust Poe out too. “Why are you helping me?” Poe asks, bewilderedly. “Because it’s the right thing to do,” FN-2187 tells him. They steal a tie-fighter and Poe figures out how to fly the thing while in the air. He refuses to call his new friend by a number, nicknaming him Finn (checking first to make sure he likes it). They are both giddy with the shock of escape and they could not be more adorable.

Poe is determined to return to Jakku for his droid, despite Finn’s protests, but they are shot down just before they reach the atmosphere. Finn regains consciousness in the desert, amid the smoking remnants of the tie-fighter. It starts sinking into the sand and there’s nothing Finn can do to stop it, nor any sign of Poe. The only thing he manages to salvage is Poe’s jacket.

Devastated, he sets out alone, discarding his armour plate by plate. When he finally reaches a town, he practically drowns himself in the communal fountain, not caring how dirty the water is. He hears a scuffle and sees Rey getting jumped by a couple of other scavengers, who are trying to capture BB-8. Finn heads towards her, thinking he should intervene – and wow, what a strong moral compass this boy has, not even a lifetime with the space terrorists could cut it out – but Rey does not in fact need his help, handily taking out her assailants with her staff. Then BB-8 notices the jacket that Finn is wearing, gives a shrill squeal of accusation, and Rey goes after him, under the impression he’s some kind of grave-robber. She knocks him off his feet and BB-8 electrocutes his knee for good measure. Learning that Poe died in the crash, BB-8 droops miserably.

When Rey assumes that Finn is part of the Resistance, he goes with it. He is a dreadful liar but when he lets slip that BB-8 is carrying a map to Luke Skywalker, Rey is hooked. “I thought he was a myth,” she says eagerly. There’s not much time to talk, after that, because stormtroopers are already searching the town for the escapees. Finn seizes Rey’s hand and starts running. “I know how to run without you holding my hand!” she snaps. They keep perplexing each other with these gestures of kindness that they are unaccustomed to getting in return because they grew up in actual hell-holes with nobody to teach them proper humaning but they figured out how to be wonderful people anyway, and did I get this emotional this quickly on the first viewing? Yes. Yes I did.

Rey’s first choice of get-away ship gets blown up, so she diverts to Plan B, the one she dismissed as ‘garbage’. Otherwise known as the Millenium Falcon. She is a decent pilot but has never flown anything like this; it doesn’t help that the ship is in pretty poor condition and that it is being shot at by space terrorists. Finn is equally baffled by the antiquated defence systems. With tie-fighters hot on her heels, Rey flies through the interior of the crashed Star Destroyer that she knows so well from scavenging – an obstacle course only she is equipped to navigate – and successfully shakes off the pursuit.

Rey and Finn gleefully congratulate one another’s skill sets. Not to overstate this or anything, but they are so nice? Rey also checks in with an anxious BB-8, promising to get it safely back to the Resistance. They don’t have time to make a plan because a pipe breaks and Rey frantically tries to fix it before it can flood the ship with poisonous gas. Finn uses the distraction to make a deal with BB-8 – he acknowledges he’s not a member of the Resistance but offers to help out anyway and asks that BB-8 not reveal the facts to Rey. BB-8 is dubious but decides to trust Finn. Both are startled to learn that Rey doesn’t plan on coming with them. “Why does everyone want to go back to Jakku?” Finn moans, then adds “Do you have a boyfriend? Cute boyfriend?” He does not have subtlety. Rey tells him firmly that it’s none of his business.

Upon hearing that Finn helped BB-8 escape, Kylo Ren throws a flaming tantrum by slashing up a bunch of consoles and making everyone in his general vicinity wish they worked somewhere else. Between him and the stroppy General Hux, who poke jealously at each other’s authority whenever they’re in the same room, it’s like this joint is being run by extremely unpleasant children.

Poisonous gas is abruptly the least of Finn and Rey’s problems. The Falcon is seized by a tractor beam and dragged inside a much larger ship. Finn is terrified that they’ve been caught by the First Order. They hide together in a compartment under the floor as footsteps mark new arrivals, but it’s not stormtroopers. Chewbacca and Han Solo, greyed and weathered by the intervening years, have got their ship back.

They are unimpressed by the damage it has undergone and are even less impressed by its occupants. Rey can understand Wookiee, at least enough to recognise skepticism when she hears it. Finn is just grateful to meet somebody else who thinks Jakku is a junkyard. “Han Solo just stole back the Millenium Falcon,” Han informs the two of them, proving himself to be one of the galaxy’s legends, and promptly wrecks his first impression by planning to dump Rey and Finn on the nearest inhabited planet. Finn, who remembers the name Han Solo as belonging to a war hero – and it’s so interesting that he should phrase it that way, given which side he was raised on – tells him that BB-8 is carrying a map to Luke Skywalker and Han looks…hurt. “I knew him,” he concedes. “I knew Luke.”

Oh, honey. You’ve come such a long way since Tattooine.

Whatever questions might have followed this confrontation are abandoned when a clunk outside the Falcon catches Han’s attention and he runs out into his bigger ship, worried in case the Rathtars have got loose. Rathtars are huge tentacled beasties that eat people, you see, and he’s smuggling them because he’s an idiot. What’s more, he’s managed to doublecross two separate criminal organisations that catch up to him at the same time. Despite not wanting anything much to do with Finn and Rey, he hides them both in the under-floor compartments (I am convinced he does not fly in any ship without those compartments) while he deals with the gangs.

Unfortunately, the First Order has expanded its search and promised a hefty reward for the capture of BB-8 – plus two fugitives. Overhearing the speculation, Rey decides to try and trap the gangs by closing the blast doors on them, but in the process of resetting the fuses she accidentally frees the Rathtars. On the bright side, the gangs are no longer a problem! On the less bright side, Finn gets seized, but Rey quickly figures out how to close a door which cuts off the tentacle. These two are already very protective of each other. Which is lucky, because Han and Chewie are looking after themselves. Doesn’t work out so well. Chewie gets shot in the shoulder. When Rey and Finn catch up, Han assumes the role of captain and orders them into position for an escape on the Falcon.

When word of the failure reaches the First Order, it goes all the way to the top, this being Supreme Leader Snoke, who is…well. He looks a lot like Palpatine, only deader and a little bit rotten, but still alive and present as a giant hologram. I don’t think he’s actually Palpatine. Remember how I said Kylo Ren and General Hux acted like unpleasant children? They really look it here. Hux wants to use ‘the weapon’ to destroy the government that supports the Resistance. Snoke gives him a disappointed little handwave as permission and Hux gives Ren a meaningful ‘you’re in trouble’ look as he leaves. “The droid is aboard the Millenium Falcon,” Snoke says ponderously, “in the hands of your father.” “He means nothing to me,” Ren insists. The ‘you’re my new dad!’ is implied. And revolting.

The Falcon is in trouble. The modifications it underwent while on Jakku were all bad ideas, leaving Rey and Han scrambling around the cockpit trying to fix things while Finn attempts first-aid on a very uncooperative Chewie. But Han’s a lot more inclined to like confirmed fugitives and Rey has the sort of technological genius that impresses him very much, though he doesn’t want to show it. BB-8 shows them all the data. It’s incomplete, one puzzle piece in a wider map. “Why did he leave?” Rey asks curiously. Han explains sadly that Luke was training the next generation of Jedi when an apprentice turned Dark Side and destroyed everything. Guess who that was. Luke couldn’t deal with it. There’s a rumour he went looking for the first Jedi temple, but nobody knows where that is either, so it’s not enormously helpful as a clue.

Finn tries to convince Han that he’s a ‘big deal’ in the Resistance and a big target to the First Order – which is true in a sense but only earns him a mocking nickname. Han likes Rey in a grouchy sort of a way, offering her a job aboard the Falcon that she desperately wants to accept but can’t, for fear her family will come back to Jakku and she won’t be there waiting for them.

Han introduces Finn and Rey to his friend Maz Kanata, who runs a shady but nevertheless rather charming cantina on a planet so lush and green that Rey can hardly believe it’s real. Maz is tiny and intense. She likes Chewbacca (who stayed on the Falcon to recuperate) but is pricklier about Han, and who can blame her. Within minutes of BB-8’s arrival, both the First Order and the Resistance have been alerted. Kylo Ren goes to pray in front of Darth Vader’s warped helmet, begging for guidance on his path deeper into the Dark Side. I hope Anakin’s repentant ghost is bellowing insults at him from beyond the grave.

Maz, meanwhile, has been brought up to speed. She can get BB-8 to Leia – but she won’t. She thinks Han should face up to his issues and do it himself. Good on you, Maz. She also believes firmly that the First Order can be fought, but all Finn’s first-hand experience is telling him to run like mad. He grabs the earliest opportunity to get out. Confessing that he’s not part of the Resistance at all, that he’s just a soldier trying to escape, he asks Rey to come with him to the Outer Rim. She asks him not to leave, but he does anyway.

Standing there in misery, she hears a screaming child and turns around to follow the sound. It leads her down into an underground passage where she finds Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber and is confronted by a terrible vision of carnage. Kylo Ren is there, monstrous and terrifying. Then the vision changes and Rey is seeing herself, so small, abandoned on Jakku. A final switch to a snowy forest where Kylo Ren is once again waiting for her jolts Rey out of the vision and she crumples onto the floor, shaken. Maz is watching her. “Whomever you’re waiting for on Jakku,” she says gently, “they’re never coming back.” She tells Rey to take the lightsaber. Rey flatly refuses and runs out into the forest, too traumatised to take any more revelations. BB-8 trundles anxiously after her.

Hux is giving a hyperbolic speech to the First Order troops. As manifestos go, it makes no sense, but then dictatorial regimes don’t have to make sense and this group (as might be guessed from their name) is all about Order. Their order, specifically, and if the galaxy needs to be torn up in order to re-establish dominance, that’s what they plan to do. They have turned a whole planet into a war machine, powered by killing a sun, to wipe out whole solar systems. It’s an act of genocide that can be seen all across the galaxy.

Finn, who understands exactly what just happened, runs to find Rey but gets Han instead. They fight back when the First Order attacks. Finn takes up the lightsaber, but he’s so badly outnumbered; Rey tries to defend BB-8, but Kylo Ren just takes her instead. Just when it looks like all is lost, a fleet of Resistance ships come swooping over the water like the bloody cavalry, led by none other than the very much not dead Poe Dameron. “That’s one hell of a pilot!” Finn whoops, as Poe saves his life in a whirl of aerial derring-do. The First Order quickly retreat; they have what they want, anyway.

In the aftermath, General Leia Organa herself lands in the wreckage. She accepts a fond hug from Chewie then looks at Han with a sad, resigned affection. “I saw our son,” Han tells her. Yes, that would be the son who kidnapped Rey, dumped her in a cell and started an interrogation with all possible speed – definitely takes after Anakin’s side of the family, though to be fair we don’t know what dreadful relatives Han might have. But Rey proves a harder nut to crack than Ren was anticipating. Instead of getting inside her head, she manages to get inside his. First she offends him into removing his mask (revealing that he has a sullen face and great hair, also probably from Leia’s side of the family), then she taps into her own latent abilities with the Force to dig out his deepest fear: that he’ll never be as strong as Darth Vader. The look of shock on his face is SO SATISFYING.

Meanwhile, Finn is now more or less an official part of the Resistance. Brought back to their base, he is nearly barrelled over by BB-8, who reunites with a delighted Poe. Finn is overjoyed to see his friend alive; Poe feels the same way and they crash together in a bear hug. Realising that he’s still wearing Poe’s jacket, Finn offers to return it; Poe tells him “keep it, it suits you,” and it’s all just so sweet? Also, very flirtatious.

Leia has heard enough of Finn’s recent decision-making to thoroughly approve of him, but though she sympathises with his urgent need to rescue Rey, that’s just not possible right now. The piece of map is virtually no use, the First Order might at any time destroy another solar system, and the very sight of Han is getting on Leia’s nerves. Like a child hoping for a hug, BB-8 rolls eagerly up to an immobile R2-D2 – who remains immobile. He’s been like that for a while, ever since Luke left.

Side note: I realise that BB-8 is referred to as male within the story and I’ve been using gender neutral pronouns in this review, but it’s a bit weird that all the droids are guys and this is my little protest.

Leia blames herself for her son turning out…the way he did and thinks there’s still a chance for him to turn to the Light Side. Oh, Leia. You haven’t witnessed his latest hobbies. She blames everything on Snoke. Han is less convinced, but Kylo Ren used to be their Ben and neither of his parents can let go of the idea that he can be that person again. Nor are they the only ones to prioritise hope over good sense. Finn pretends to know a lot more about the First Order’s shield system than he does in order to join the mission, so that he can save Rey.

Kylo Ren and General Hux have another spat in front of Supreme Leader Snoke as Ren has to admit he’s not only failed to get anything useful out of Rey, he didn’t bring back the droid either. He insists that he can train Rey into an asset for the First Order and Snoke demands that she be brought before him. That’s going to be tricky, though, since Rey is not where Ren left her. She clearly knows the stories of Jedi mind control and finds an easy mark in her stormtrooper guard. Kylo Ren’s tantrum when he finds out she’s gone is epic.

Legging it out of there with a gun, Rey crashes into Finn. She is overwhelmed to know that he came looking for her; nobody has ever done that before. Everything about these two is SO PURE. Finn’s way of disabling the shields is ambushing Captain Phasma and making her do it. With a clear path down, Poe leads an aerial attack. “As long as there’s light, we’ve got a chance,” he tells his team, but the First Order fleet are quick to counter-attack. It falls to Han, Chewbacca, Finn and Rey – and the bag of bombs Finn is carrying – to take out the weapon, if they can.

Finn gives Rey his jacket. I just feel that’s very important.

They start laying the explosives. Kylo Ren, though, senses his father’s presence through the Force. Han confronts him on a narrow walkway and Ren removes his helmet at Han’s request, begging for help. Han reaches out to him – and Ren stabs him through the heart. Rey screams. Chewbacca howls, a sound of pure betrayal, and fires on the boy who was once like a nephew, who is now his worst enemy. Across the galaxy, Leia feels the impact of loss and nearly collapses.

But Chewbacca was always more than Han’s friend. He’s a rebel. He takes down stormtrooper after stormtrooper and hits the detonator. While the weapon’s oscillator is damaged, it’s not destroyed, and Kylo Ren survived the explosion. He cuts Rey and Finn off in the forest, the snowy trees and blood-red lightsaber straight out of Rey’s vision. Only Finn wasn’t there, in that image. When Ren throws Rey into a tree, Finn is there to defend her. Ren has the GODDAMNED GALL to lay claim on Luke’s lightsaber (in his mind, it’s probably Anakin’s lightsaber) and he fights Finn like he’s waiting for him to just give up. Finn doesn’t. It takes a terrible blow to the back to bring him down, and by then Rey has regained consciousness. The sight of her friend on the ground brings out the steel in her. She takes up the lightsaber herself for the first time – it comes to her hand, not Ren’s – and they fight savagely, right to the edge of a cliff. Ren is still, impossibly, trying to talk her into joining his side and letting him train her. She answers by slashing a scar across his face. NO MEANS NO, KYLO.

Poe seizes on the opportunity Han and Chewbacca bought him with the detonation and finishes the job, setting off a chain reaction that takes out the entire base. As explosions tear through the system, Hux obeys Snoke’s last directive to retrieve Ren and leave the sinking ship. Rey is left with Finn’s limp body, so badly hurt that she doesn’t know what to do for him. And yet, she is not abandoned. Chewbacca comes for them both, alone in the cockpit of the Falcon.

Despite heavy losses, the mood at the Resistance base is jubilant. The First Order has suffered a massive defeat. Chewbacca and Poe carry Finn to medical treatment and Leia, with so much to grieve herself, hugs Rey tight like a lost daughter. What’s more, R2-D2 revives to give the best news Leia could hear right now: he has the rest of the map. They finally have a way to find Luke.

R2-D2 has always been there for Padme’s children.

Rey leaves Finn still unconscious, but recovering, piloting the Falcon with Chewbacca at her side. The world the map takes them to is blue with ocean and dotted with islands. The one they land on holds the ruins of some ancient civilisation, steps leading up and up and up…and at the top is an old man with sad eyes. The legendary Luke Skywalker, the last Jedi, is not the optimistic farmboy he used to be, but Rey holds out the lightsaber without hesitation. It’s time.

Rogue One opens in Australian cinemas tomorrow. Star Wars is going back to its roots with the story of how the Death Star plans that Leia sacrificed so much to hide were stolen from the Empire in the first place. I’ve seen the trailers for this one. I’m going to do my very best to avoid spoilers.

I’m ready to cry in a cinema over a galaxy far, far away.

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