The Force Awakens is a masterpiece that emulates and expands on everything that was good in the original Star Wars trilogy. If you haven’t seen it, you very simply need to. You’re also best advised not to read on just yet: to engage with the full scope of J.J. Abrams’ achievement, I’m going to be blasting out spoilers throughout this article.
Star Wars Episode VII: the Force Awakens is the best sequel anyone could have hoped for. That’s because it stays meticulously true to the original trilogy, and also does what all truly great sequels must: updates the franchise for our time. And it really does stay true to the original trilogy, to the point of even carrying forward some of its flaws (an over-heavy reliance on spherical super-weapons, for instance).
At times you could even say it’s too close to the original trilogy – that it’s on a par with A New Hope basically because it is A New Hope. Abrams has knowingly imitated the 1977 classic in a huge number of ways, from the desert-dwelling hero’s mysterious back story, to the insalubrious alien cantina scene and the wise old guide played by an acting legend. And that’s not even mentioning the two films’ almost identical opening scenes, where a Rebellion/Resistance hero, fleeing a masked villain, passes vital information to a cute and incomprehensible droid before being captured.
But Abrams has imitated A New Hope so closely because of the desperate need to anchor his sequel firmly in the original trilogy (a need we can all understand after the unmitigated horror of the prequel trilogy). Just as Rey scavenges in the shadow of wrecked star destroyers from a bygone era, so Abrams directs in the shadow of the phenomenally successful original trilogy. The landscape of looming hulks is a quiet nod to the enormity of Abrams’ task – of all he has to live up to.
And more than simply imitating A New Hope, Abrams expands on it and updates it for our time. The Force Awakens is a gritty and visceral Star Wars that truly inhabits its reality and has the power to speak to a 21st century audience. From the first sequence, when a dying stormtrooper plasters three bloody fingerprints on FN-2187’s helmet, and an entire village of civilians is massacred at gunpoint by the First Order, we see that this is a lived-in, complex universe where sharp corners aren’t simply filed down and rounded off. We see the blood under the laser blasts and the shiny armour.
At the heart of much of this complexity is Kylo Ren, because The Force Awakens does not simply present us with an obviously evil villain: it is powerful and modern because it shows us the complexity and moral chaos beneath the mask. Kylo Ren was not born a villain, but The Force Awakens does in one film what the prequels could barely manage in three: it convincingly portrays the corruption and moral confusion that lead to genuine evil.
Ren is set up like Vader, even acting out a number of his scenes, like the imposing entrance flanked by stormtroopers and the torture scenes. But as the film progresses, the mask slips: underneath he is a fresh-faced young man, filled with angst and ambition, desperate to live up to the reputation of his illustrious family. There is even the tantalising hope of redemption. But angst and moral confusion drive Ren to commit a genuinely evil act, and his desperate face becomes a mask of its own – more disturbing than any polished helmet, and capable of shocking even in our dark, desensitised times.