A trio of trios. That’s what this movie has given us. Lets talk it out (with an abundance of spoilers!)
As delightful as the heroes (old and new) were in The Force Awakens, the most captivating characters and the ones who kept my attention long after the credits rolled were the villains, of which there are three to consider.
First is Kylo Ren. The major villain of this movie, and presumably the entire Sequel Trilogy looks like a person who tried to dress up as Darth Vader based solely off of a third hand description. He dresses in all black and has a samurai-like helmet with mouthpiece that distorts his voice to a deeper register. You can see the influence, but he doesn’t quite look the part. He looks like someone trying to look the part. And then there’s his temperament. Whereas Vader was calm, cool and collected, and famously stood statuesque while underlings choked to death at his feet, Kylo Ren is impulsive, impatient, and immature. He lashes out into a darkside temper tantrum on two separate occasions, and is chided by both his master and his enemies for his temperament. He has possession of Darth Vader’s burned mask and he vows to “finish what” he “started.” Little does he know, apparently, that Vader renounced his evil ways just before his death. What is so captivating about Kylo is that he wants so bad to be Darth Vader but he’s got nothing on him. He does horrible things because he has the power to, but he lacks the maturity and gravitas that Vader had. Ren is bluffing his way through being a baddie.
Second is General Hux. This guy wants to be Governor Tarkin, but instead of being commanding and dominating (as Tarkin was, even over Vader), he’s petty, small and combative. When he and Ren stand before Snoke, notice the way they both vie for his affection and trade sneers with each other like children in front of a parent. Tarkin was supremely confident and greatly experienced. Hux is young, inexperienced (at least based on his reactions to setbacks) and lacks the respect from Ren that Vader clearly had for Tarkin.
Third is Supreme Leader Snoke. He was the most mysterious character of the film, with next to nothing made known of him before the movie released. Rumors persisted that perhaps he was Darth Plagueis (The Emperor’s master) under a pseudonym, but his look as he appeared in the movie looks nothing like official Star Wars references describe Plagueis. This villain is almost human, but for a horribly disfigured face. No answers were given to any questions fans had about him (other than “what does he look like?”). It’s clear he’s the big bad in charge of everything, as both the military man Hux and the ex-Jedi Ren answer to him. Hopefully future movies reveal more about him. He’s clearly very old, so where was he during the time of the Emperor and Vader? Was he lying low? Was he behind the scenes? Was he hibernating like a bear? So many questions. But keep in mind, the “Emperor” was only mentioned in one sentence in A New Hope, and only had one scene in The Empire Strikes Back. So we’re already on pace to see the Big Bad more than we saw in the Original Trilogy.
Those three villains (along with very underused Captain Phasma) serve as the trio of baddies our heroes will be contending with throughout this Sequel Trilogy. They are ruthless, murdering, scheming bad guys of the darkest kind.
They are also parodying Darth Vader, Gov. Tarkin, and The Emperor.
There’s an old saying in writing: “Find a problem? Make it a virtue.” In other words, as you proof and revise your writing you may notice that you got into the habit of giving a certain character a particular personality trait that you didn’t intend. Instead of going back and making several changes, you make that trait an intended part of the character. You take your mistake and make a virtue out of it.
At first glance you might dismiss The Force Awakens’ three principal bad guys as pale imitations of the three big bad guys of the Original Trilogy, but if it is intentional, it’s not a criticism. Screenwriters JJ Abrams and Lawrence Kasden made it a virtue. We have three villains that appear to be aping the Original Trilogy’s bad guys, but this isn’t lazy writing; it’s brilliant writing because the bad guys are doing a lackluster job of it. They are essentially “fans” of the Original Trilogy characters: They dress up like them, act like them, try to mimic what they think they talked like, but because they are just pretenders they are not the fearsome villains they want to be.
So, unlike in the Original Trilogy, where the villains seemed to be vastly stronger and more able than the rag tag heroes, in this Sequel Trilogy we seem to have villains that have a lot of power and might at their disposal but they wield it with a great deal of personal insecurity. That makes them unpredictable. That makes them even more dangerous than Vader or Tarkin.
And then there’s the heroes.
Again we have a trio that this new Trilogy will focus on: Rey, Finn and Poe. Unlike the villains, these three are not carbon copies of Luke, Han and Leia. In fact there’s a little of all three of them in each of them.
Rey is clearly the star. She’s the “Luke” of this trilogy, but she has Han’s gentle touch when it comes to the Millennium Falcon, and she has Leia’s “I can take care of myself” attitude. Her connection to Luke is obvious the moment she awakens her ability to use the force. She’s set to really grow as a character in the next movie, but here she’s given the spotlight and absolutely nails every scene she’s in. Daisy Ridley does things with her eyes that convey such a range of emotion, it puts the prequels to shame.
Poe gets the short end of the stick in this movie, as he sits out the entire middle of the film, but it’s clear that going forward he’ll be the other half of Luke. He’s the hot shot X-Wing pilot. He’s what Luke would have been had he never gone to Dagobah in Empire Strikes Back. He’s cocky, confident and quick to get into (and fight out of) a skirmish. Hopefully we see a lot more of him in Episode VIII, because what we saw here had the potential to steal the show had he been given more time.
Finn is the headfake. This is Rey’s movie but he is the one everyone assumed was the hero. Sure he has his heroic moments, but he’s not the star here. All the marketing, however, made him out to be the next Jedi hero. He’s holding the lightsaber in all the posters, and his duel with Ren was featured in almost every commercial. But it’s a headfake. Kylo easily bests Finn, and before that he duels with a Stormtrooper and has to get bailed out by Han’s blaster. He’s not the Jedi to be that Rey is, but he’s also not quite the hero of the resistance that Poe is either. So who is he? Or better asked, who is he on the path to becoming? The movie seemed to hint early on that he might have some Force in him, and maybe he does. On the other hand he may spend the second movie training to be a fighter pilot the way Rey will (presumably) be training to be a Jedi. His career trajectory is the most unknown, and that’s exciting for as great an actor as John Boyega.
And what of the Original Trio?
I almost don’t need to see the in-development Han Solo spinoff movie. This film has given me everything I could ever need from the character, all because it gave me closure. It’s no secret that actor Harrison Ford and Return of the Jedi screenwriter Lawrence Kasden both begged George Lucas to kill Han Solo off at the end of the Original Trilogy. It would have been great too, from a storytelling technique. As I’ve already written about, one of the major flaws with Return of the Jedi is the fact that problems are solved without any sacrifice. Other than the obvious (Vader dying), no one suffers in order to secure a victory. Imagine if Han had been rescued at the beginning of the movie and then—at the end of the film—sacrificed himself to destroy the Shield Generator on Endor. How poetic! It would have given the very-disconnected opening of the movie a thematic bit of closure. Instead everyone lived happily ever after and the movie felt a little too hollow. This movie fulfilled the wishes of both men, as actor Ford and screenwriter Kasden finally gave Solo the send off the character deserved. It was hard watching a childhood hero die, but seeing how he died (trying to redeem a fallen son) was just as good, if not better, than the heroic death he could have gotten at the end of Return of the Jedi.
Leia was given the least amount of attention in this movie, and there are various obvious reasons for that; there’s no need to rehash them. She does a good job with what she’s given however, it’s just that there’s not much to do with her. Leia is the only one of the three who doesn’t have an analogue among the new trio. As mentioned, there’s a little of Luke in Rey and Poe, and there’s a little of Han in Rey and Finn but other than the clichéd “independent woman” angle that Rey has with Finn early on, there’s no Leia to be found in any of them. In the 1970’s Leia being a princess who helps orchestrate her own rescue was a novel subversion of the trope. By the 2010’s however, having a strong female character is ordinary. It’s not novel, it’s usual. Of the three, time has passed Leia by the most.
And then there’s Luke. Where’s Luke? Why haven’t we seen Luke? Why isn’t Luke on the posters? Was that Luke in the trailer? On and on the questions persisted in the buildup to the release. We knew he’d be in the movie, and we knew he’d have a very Kenobi-like beard, but that was almost all we knew. As it turns out Luke was a living McGuffin. He was the most important character in the movie, while having only one minute of screentime. I bet Mark Hamill thought it was hilarious as he did media all over the world in promotion for the movie, knowing how little he’d be seen (while being unable to say anything). It makes you wonder what he was doing during all those months of shooting. It’s not like he was at home; he was on the set! I guess he was just hanging out with old friends. Luke will of course have an expanded role in Episode VIII (he better or there might be riots). His reveal at the end of this movie brought on an eruption of applause from the premiere crowd; fans want to hear the now-elder Jedi master speak. He has a lot of explaining to do.
The Force Awakens is, as already discussed in the spoiler-free review, a masterpiece of cinema. It’s a 10/10 picture, succeeding on the strength of a trio of trios that rekindled the magic of Star Wars that some fans thought was lost amidst the mediocrity and excess of the prequel trilogy. It spoke to the fan in all of us and ushered in the next generation of Star Wars while bringing closure to a critical part of the past generation.
Rejoice, fans. Star Wars is back, and is in good hands!