After watching this movie in theaters three times, I think I can finally articulate my thoughts on the new installment with something approaching objectivity: The movie is fucking awesome. It absolutely crushed records, it explained away many of the complaints people had about the trailer (e.g. black stormtrooper, the crossguard of Kylo Ren's lightsaber), and it restored the faith of the anti-prequel crowd. It, quite frankly, was an immensely enjoyable movie going experience that was only amplified by the hype and expectations that I had because of its universe.
Before getting into the meat of the movie, I would recommend that you read through the backstory abridgment first over on i09. If reading sources isn't your style, then here's what you absolutely must know:
After the defeat of the Empire, [its remnants] secretly pumped what money it could into building new fleets of ships, and invaded fringe worlds to establish itself as a dominant power again. The Finalizer, Kylo Ren’s Star Destroyer seen in The Force Awakens, is massive—twice the size of the Empire’s old Destroyers—and this isn’t a solitary vessel, but the flagship of a massive fleet of similar capital ships.
On the other hand, The Resistance is an independent, private force “tolerated” by the New Republic, but not officially condoned or supported, due to a fear of conflict with the First Order. This makes the Resistance’s actual military might incredibly small. In terms of ships, the organization has no capital vessels to call on, and its Starfighter corps is woefully light—two squadrons, Blue and Red, and Poe in the lead with his Black X-Wing. That’s it. Its capital, similarly, isn't the once-powerful Coruscant, the capital world of the Republic shown in the prequels. Later it was confirmed to be Hosnian Prime, a previously unheard of planet. Apparently, to convince New Republic worlds that this government was different, the Senate regularly voted to move itself to a different member world, to reflect that all worlds in the Republic had an equal say in the shaping of Galactic politics.
After defeating Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker attempted to rebuild the Jedi Order before being betrayed by Kylo Ren, forcing Luke into hiding. Since the disappearance of Luke Skywalker and the shattering of his fledgling Jedi following, the cosmic Force has lain dormant, seemingly quieted to those able to sense its presence. The adventures of Rey and Finn on Jakku coincide with a turbulence in the cosmic Force, a sudden ripple indicating the awakening of newfound ability. With the Jedi and their records vanished, few—other than Kylo Ren and his mysterious master—are able to appreciate the occurrence.
What I found particularly enjoyable about the movie is that, in much the same way as George Lucas avoided spelling everything out in the original trilogy, J.J. Abrams left much of the backstory to be filled in by the viewers and readers of the Extended Universe. This did several things that really amped the movie up:
First, it took out a lot of the exposition that plagued the prequels. The Force Awakens was simply a jaw dropping two hours of fast paced story telling, action, and drama; no more trade disputes. The movie kind of had an Avenger's feel to it, leading me to believe that Disney learned a lot through it's acquisition of Marvel and put those lessons to good use in the Star Wars franchise.
Second, it simultaneously paid homage to the Extended Universe without adhering to it in such a way as to be bound by it or have readers expect what was going to happen. This is evident in several small twists from the Extended Universe:
- In the EU, Han and Liea become married and go on joint adventures together simultaneously forcing Han into a life of politics and a Liea into a life of adventure that fit neither of them well; in The Force Awakens, the briefly allude to having marital problems prior to their son's fall to the Dark Side.
- In the EU, Han and Liea have both a daughter and a son. In The Force Awakens, they only have a son and there's evidence that Rey might be, at most, a cousin; at worst the daughter of Luke's mentor. However the original idea that the Extended Universe built on, and The Rise of the Jedi left us with, that there would be a new generation of Jedi and Sith pitted against two characters related to the original heroes is still very much alive.
- Luke's attempt to train the new generation of Jedi is met by betrayal, but from a different source than in the EU.
So for all of the angst some of the less flexible fans have for The Force Awakens destroying Star Wars canon, J.J. Abrams and crew did a fantastic job of respecting the decades of work fans have put into flushing out the universe's history. In fact, one of the main characters - my favorite character - is a huge nod to the Old Republic time frame.
From i09's description: As well as revealing that the saber housed a cracked crystal (hence its volatile beam and the need for crossguards to vent the energy), the description describes Kylo’s saber hilt as “an ancient design, dating back thousands of years to the Great Scourge of Malachor.” Malachor, or more specifically, Malachor V, played a huge role in Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords, and was a major planet in the Sith Empire and had powerful links to the Dark Side of the Force. Not exactly confirmation that Knights of the Old Republic is canon, but interesting insight into how deep Kylo Ren and Supreme Leader Snoke are plunging into Sith history.
Kylo Ren pays tribute to far more of Star Wars history than The Old Republic era with his lightsaber; in fact, his entire character summarizes the Dark Side's several era long struggle perfectly. Kylo Ren is everything that we expected from Anakin and everything we fear from the Dark Side rolled into one character.
- Fed up with Sith infighting, Darth Bane fought to reshape the order through religious study. In his search for the Sith holocrons, Darth Bane frequently attempted to contact long since deceased Sith lords in order to learn from them; in much the same way Kylo Ren is seen reaching out to Darth Vader.
- The three most powerful force users to-date (Revan, Anakin, Luke) all have a long history of being pulled by both sides of the force. The story of Darth Revan is the story of a Jedi who mastered both sides of the force by becoming, at one point or another, both Sith and Jedi. Anakin is the story of a Jedi who is constantly tempted by the Dark Side and eventually falls to its seductive call, while Luke fends off the desire.
However, for all of their warnings there has never been a historic reference to Darth Maul feeling the pull of light, or Mace Windu feeling the pull of the darkness. For most force-sensitive users, they seem to be more-or-less set in their ways; content on wielding only half of the force's power. Kylo's fall to the darkness and constant fight to resist the allure of the light suggests that he may belong to a higher caste of force users than most.
This suggestion is further amplified when you consider that: (a) he took a fucking bowcaster shot to the gut, (b) he can stop blaster bolts mid flight, and (c) Kylo Ren isn't a Sith.
- For all of the tribute that Kylo Ren plays to the Sith of old, there's no indication of just how much, if any, training he's received from Supreme Leader Snoke. By all accounts, Kylo Ren made his own lightsaber using a cracked crystal, left his training with Luke prematurely, and went to work for Snoke. It's clear that Snoke has mentored the young man, but there's no indication of how much, if any, Sith training he's received.
In fact, J.J. Abrams has confirmed to Empire magazine that “Kylo Ren is not a Sith. He works under Supreme Leader Snoke, who is a powerful figure on the Dark Side of the Force. He is a character who came to the name Kylo Ren when he joined a group called the Knights of Ren." What his role in the Knights of Ren is has yet to be explained; for all viewers know, Kylo could be a small fish in Snoke's elite group, or their leader.
Similarly, we know very little about Kylo's arch-nemesis: Rey. We know that she was left on Jakku by someone loosely affiliated with the Republic when she was younger, and we know that she is force sensitive; probably a descendant from a Jedi. Beyond that, we know far less about Rey than any other character. The best link we have to her past is the helmet she wears during the opening scenes of The Force Awakens. According to the Star Wars: The Force Awakens Visual Dictionary, the helmet Rey wears belonged to an X-wing pilot named Captain Dosmit Ræh, who flew for the Tierfon Yellow Aces.
Don't get too excited yet: There's no mention of Ræh anywhere else in Star Wars history, and there's certainly no way to infer how Rey would have come into possession of Ræh's X-Wing helmet. The best thing this helmet does for viewers is tie Rey to The Republic and pay further tribute to the rich history (even if they're just now making it up) of the Star Wars universe; a trend that viewer's see throughout the entire movie.
In fact, The Force Awakens was a little burdened by the references to the past, with all the cameos and whatnot. Don't get me wrong, I loved them - and they absolutely needed to be there - but only time will tell if Episode IIX can stand on its own without having cameos on which to rely. I'm extremely optimistic that it can, because even while Han Solo helped prop Finn's comedic dialogue, the chemistry between Finn and Rey is better than that of any other Star Wars duo in its film history. The largest problem that the franchise has moving forward is in original story arcs: Simply put, The Force Awakens was a retelling of A New Hope which was already kind of retold through Return of the Jedi.
The evil Sith have a planet, or moon, that can shoot laser beams and destroy planets. Okay, after four attempts, we get it. We really need some new evil plots from The Empire, or the franchise will get old. For all of the originality and complexity of Kylo Ren, and all the mystery of Rey, The Force Awakens simply falls flat on the actual plot itself. Which is absolutely surprising because the characters - aside from a few minor annoyances, looking at you Captain Phasma - absolutely drove the movie. Which, if you look back at all six movies objectively, is completely opposite of every single movie: The acting was abysmal and the characters were difficult to empathize with.
This saga of Star Wars, led by this new generation of actors, seems to flip that problem on its head: Retell the old, unoriginal stories, with new and relateable actors. While the actors capture the hearts of the viewers, it's up to the writers of Episode IIX to come up with a new story arc, one that captures our imaginations and minds. The ground work is set, and J.J. Abrams has instilled new life into an old franchise, but fans will be eagerly waiting to see if a new universe can be built atop the ashes of hundreds of fan-fiction novels.