Movies Science Fiction

Initial Thoughts on The Force Awakens

It’s all spoilers, people. You have been warned!

At the time of this writing, I’ve seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens twice three times: once with Beca and Annika on opening day, once with Beca and my sister-in-law on Christmas Eve, and once by myself in 3D laser projection. These are my initial thoughts after those two viewings and many hours of rumination and conversation. It’s hard for me to analyze a text I can’t readily access, so I know I’ll revisit all this stuff once the Blu-ray comes out and I can pick it apart and illustrate my points directly. Until then, here are some of my thoughts about the movie…

FN-2187: “There is a person in there.”


When Finn (then still FN-2187), sees his comrade get shot on Jakku, he bends to comfort him, and the dying trooper’s bloody had leaves red streaks on FN-2187’s helmet. During this scene, two things popped into my mind simultaneously. One was this:


The other was the phrase “There is a person in there.” This First Order Stormtrooper was having an existential crisis and you could see it all over his “face.” John Boyega is a very good actor to be able to pull that off as well as he does. FN is an individual, and he’s different from the other stormtroopers. The bloody handprint on his helmet is almost a visual inversion of the white hand on the faces of the Uruk-Hai in Lord of the Rings:

White Hand

Abrams marks FN with a bloody handprint, so he’s easy to spot, but we don’t need it. Boyega’s body language tells us everything we need to know. There is a second revealing moment when Finn is called “Traitor” by a stormtrooper on Takodana. If Captain Phasma is there, this is Finn’s old division, and that trooper recognizes Finn’s face, so he must be a former comrade. Stromtroopers spent time together without their armor on. There are people in there.

Screen Shot 2016-01-05 at 8.16.27 AM

Kylo Ren: “There is a person in there.”


When Kylo Ren has a hissy fit and goes nuts on a control panel with his home-made lightsaber, the same phrase popped into my mind: “There is a person in there.” Unlike Vader, who was cold and showed his displeasure by calmly choking generals to death, Kylo has a very emotional, very human freak out. It’s like seeing Spock freak out and get all emotinal duirng Pon Farr.  Just as Finn’s reactions to what is happening around him tell us that he’s different, Ren’s reactions show us that he’s emotionally unstable and does not have control over himself.

Oh no, R2-D2 has PTSD!

Artoo_Luke-closeWhen we finally see Artoo on screen, he’s under a sheet and has been in “low power mode” ever since Luke went away and “sadly may never be his old self again.” Whatever Artoo saw Kylo Ren and the Knights of Ren do to Luke’s students broke him as much as it did Luke. He has been traumatized and retreated from life rather in the face of that emotional damage.

“Oh my god, they named him Ben…”


When Han calls out to his son, and we hear his given name for the first time, it set off a cascade of emotions and echoes for me. My immediate thought was “Oh my god, they named him Ben…” a touching tribute to the man who brought Han and Leia together and watched over Luke (more on names below). But right on the heels of that was a feeling of dread. We have heard the name “Ben” called out on a “Death Star” during a daring escape before…and it did not end well. Fathers confronting sons on rickety bridges above giant chasms don’t tend to end well in Star Wars, either.

Ren holds out his lightsaber to Han after saying “I want to be free of this pain. I know what I have to do, but I don’t know if I have the strenth to do it. Will you help me?” I really thought Ren/Ben was asking Han to help him commit suicide. I thought we were going to get a further linking of the Jedi with samurai, as Han acted as kaishakunin for his own son’s act of seppuku.

Chewie_DetonatorI was shocked when Han got killed, but my catharsis didn’t happen until Chewbacca flipped out. “Oh no,” I thought “Chewbacca saw Han get killed.” Yes, I got super emotional right then. And the wound that Chewie inflicts on Ren leads to my favorite piece of business that Driver delivers during the duel in the forest: rhythmically pounding his wound as if gaining strength from it. Adam Driver is an exceptional actor.

Also, when Ren tells Han “I’m being torn apart.” it is totally this:

Rey gets the best theme


I’ll admit it, I was never a huge fan of John Williams’s “Duel of the Fates” theme from Phantom Menace. Too bombastic. Too choral. Too much. But in Force Awakens, Willaims gives Rey a beautiful, layered, ultimately soaring theme that fits her perfectly. It does feel a bit Harry Potterish to me, too but in a good way.  Here, refresh your memory:

Memorable. Whistlable.

Echoes, loops and rings (but no rings on the planet explosions, thank The Maker).

Chewie Hamlet
Alas, poor Threepio!

Star Wars has always borrowed from, quoted, and played homage to a wide variety of films, movies, myths and traditions. And Star Wars has always drawn from the best stuff: Kurosawa, Dune, Shakespeare, Mœbius, David Lean, etc. and gained additional depth and meaning from this resonance with other material. The Force Awakens does this too, but from new sources…including strong references to the original Star Wars trilogy.

Mike Klimo did a great job deconstructing the visual and structural connection between the original trilogy and the prequels in his article,  RING THEORY: The Hidden Artistry of the Star Wars Prequels.  What I see happening in The Force Awakens is very different.

I don’t see rings so much as echoes. Echoes of stories that didn’t exist before Star Wars, and echoes of Star Wars itself. The presentation of Rey is a good example.

When Rey slid her way down a rope into the ruins of a star destroyer, I leaned over and whispered to Annika “She’s Nausicaä!” and the echoes of Miyazaki’s heroine are strong.

When we first meet her, Rey is hidden beneath protective clothing and gear, as is Nausicaä.


Both are exploring and scavenging the ruins of an ancient battlefield.


There are huge, silenced leviathans in the sand.


Both Rey and Nausicaä descend into cavernous spaces, which leave each tiny in frame.


And both Rey and Nausicaä team up with a small, frisky orange companion!


Rey also has clear connections to Kaylee from Firefly. At one point, when Rey is tying to get Finn to hand her a tool on the Millennium Falcon, she almost quotes Kaylee verbatim: “No. No. The one I’m pointing to.” At this point, Beca leaned over to me and said “Kaylee.”

Here is the scene from Firefly episode “Out of Gas”:


This scene, and multiple instances when Rey displays a deep understanding of ship mechanics, show how that there is quite a bit of Kaylee in Rey, and reminded me how much I miss Kaylee.

These echoes associate Rey with these strong women, and also serve to remind the audience that they exist. Rey is not the first, and she’s in some great company.

Just as George Lucas (and Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett) referenced the things they loved to previous Star Wars films, J.J. Abrams and Lawence Kasdan and Michael Arndt reference  things they like, some of which were themselves influenced by Star Wars (like Firefly) and some of which are…actually Star Wars.

luke_helmetThere are multiple connections between Rey and previous Star Wars movies. Echoes of Luke are the most obvious. Both grew up without their immediate families on a desert planet. In her home, Rey has a hand-made doll that looks suspiciously like Luke in an X-wing flight suit, and later she dons a dusty rebel helmet that looks almost exactly like the one Luke wears. Rey also has visions after entering a cave-like space and denies the call: “I’m never touching that thing again! I don’t want any part of this.” These could be clues that Rey is indeed Luke’s daughter, but they also signal to the audience that, like Luke, Rey is the hero.

ben_shield-midRey is also visually associated with Ben Kenobi, sneaking around the Starkiller Base, evading stormtroopers and pulling mechanical handles, much as Ben did when deactivating the shields on the Death Star. And she get’s her own “These are not the droids you’re looking for,” moment when she uses The Voice to escape a stormtrooper (played by Daniel Craig). It’s possible that Obi Wan had family too, and Rey might be part of his lineage. It would be nice to see Luke training his old master’s granddaughter.

Many critics have been complaining that The Force Awakens is just a copy of previous Star Wars movies, but I disagree. It’s why I like using the word “echoes” because echoes are a repetition of a sound, but also indicate distance from the source.

“You’re Han Solo! And you’re Han Solo! And You’re Han Solo…”

it's me
“Hey…it’s me.”

One criticism of the Star Wars prequels was the lack of a Han Solo-type character. Someone who was charismatic, resourceful, self-reliant, roguish, wise-cracking, and fun to watch. No one fit that description in Episodes I-III. Obi Wan could have (and should have), but not even Ewan McGregor’s huge charisma could bridge the gap left by those awful scripts. He tried, but couldn’t quite get there.

But, in The Force Awakens, we get our Han Solo right away. When Poe Dameron faces Kylo Ren and breaks an uncomfortable silence with: “So who talks first? You talk first? I talk first?” we clearly had our Han Solo. Check.

Then, when Finn puts on Poe’s jacket, and when Rey asks if he’s with The Resistance, he answers “Obviously. Yes I am. I’m with The Resistance. Yeah, I am with The Resistance,” it feels just like “We’re all fine. We’re fine here…how are you?” OK, so Finn is now our Han Solo. Check.

Then Rey jumps into the pilot seat of the Millennium Falcon, and flies in a very Han Solo fashion. Oh crap, , our Han Solo, too!

Everyone is Han Solo

But when the actual Han Solo shows up, it turns out that he’s a bit more complicated, and is not quite the Han Solo we used to know. Beca pointed out that he treats Chewbacca like a servant, ordering him around and even taking his gun. His wise-cracks don’t always land, and he’s reverted back to “what he’s good at,” rather than moving forward with his life.

Screen Shot 2015-12-29 at 11.28.20 AMChewbacca, on the other hand, is his old self. Helpful, smart, affectionate and loyal. I read Han and Chewie as a mixed-age couple dealing with one spouse becoming more frail and slowing down, while the other is still young and vital and wants to keep adventuring. Because Wookiees live so long relative to humans, Han Solo was destined to grow old long before his partner did. Chewie is becoming Han’s caretaker, even making sure Han is wearing a warm coat before they head out into the snow.

If you map Han and Chewie to a long-married, May-December couple, Han’s offer to bring Rey into the family (onto the crew), would give Chewbacca a younger companion, “Chewie kinda likes you.” Of course he does. Rey is everything Han used to be…but she’s also like Luke.

Rey is almost the Kwisatz Haderach of Star Wars, with Han’s know-how and resourcefulness, but with the natural Force ability of a Skywalker. She’s a Mentat who will (hopefully) be trained in the ways of the Bene Gesserit.

When Han dies, Chewbacca is enraged and hurt, but he knew he would have to let Han go, because his human companion would grow old well before he did.

Beca asked me “Who owns the Falcon now?” to which I instinctively answered “They both do, together. Evenly.” Chewbacca and Rey’s relationship will be more balanced. Rey represents a younger, more tolerant, optimistic, and empathetic generation, while Han is the older generation, set in its male/human-dominated ways of thinking. Rey’s assumption of Han’s chair in the cockpit, next to Chewie is the beginning of a new chapter for the widowed Wookiee.

Chewbacca’s going to get his groove back, y’all.

The best pilot in The Force Awakens is the one flying the camera ship

I’ll admit that camerawork was one thing I was worried about when I saw the first teaser trailer for The Force Awakens. But in my hopeful heart, I chose to see it as a gauntlet being thrown, letting us know that this was not going to be a Geroge Lucas movie. Thankfully, I was right. Here’s what I could cobble together from the trailers:

Vittorio Storaro shooting Apocalypse Now

I’ll write up a full dissection of the cameras in The Force Awakens when it comes out on video, but one obvious echo that makes me very happy is shooting fast-moving ships with a really long lens from far away. This technique was defined in Firefly and popularized in Battlestar Galactica (effects for both provided by Zoic). Firefly was one of the first times that the handheld, documentary style, that was becoming popular at the time on television at the time, was brought outside, into space. It was as if some camera operator in a pressure suit was having to work really hard to keep up with the action, and didn’t alway get the framing or focus right. Here’s an example from the Firefly episode, “Serenity”:

I was glad to see the technique, refined and used sparingly, in a Star Wars movie.

Names are important. [updated January 3, 2016]

Finn starts with a number, FN-2187, and is given a name by Poe. It is symbolic, of his transition to personhood. This change is consummated with the shedding of his armor following the crash on Jakku. But Finn has no last name, no surname, no family name. He has no family, and his name underscores this lack. Later, Han gives Finn another name, “Big Deal” and even calls him “Kid,” Han’s nickname for Luke.

Han_SnowThere is some confusion around Han’s name as well. Finn calls him “Solo” to which, Han replies “Did you just call me Solo?” Fin is flustered and says “Sorry. Han…Mr. Solo.” Han previously dismisses his own name when Rey blurts out “You’re Han Solo,” and he answers “I used to be.” If names are tied to family identity, Han clearly has some issues with family.

Rey also has no family name (that we know of), and she also has no family when we meet her. Unlike Finn, Rey gets no names bestowed on her by new family members, pointing to the revealing of her actual family name in a future chapter. We shall see.

In contrast to Finn and Rey, Kylo Ren discards his family name. The Dark Side has a tradition of obfuscation using names: Palpatine/Darth Sidious, Anakin/Vader. He rejects his birth father (Han) in favor of an adopted one (Snoke).

I also noticed a stormtrooper in The Force Awakens identify himself at TK-338. I guess TK is a popular given name among stormtroopers, since TK-421 was the name of the stormtrooper on the Death Star who “loaned” his armor to Luke and Han.

Potpurri for $400, Alex

potpourriAnd to wrap up, here are some miscellaneous observations, some of which require more thought and research to sort out, and some of which are just things that tickled or irked me. I’ll likely expand on many of them at some point in the future, but for now, they are more stubs than anything.

Luke will refuse to train Rey – You know this has to happen. He failed with Ben/Ren and won’t want to risk another apprentice turning to the Dark Side. Also, he’s now Gandalf the White:

Great actors, well directed – Everyone is great, and the performances are deep and nuaced. They are obviously getting more direction than “faster” and “more intense” this time around.

The Bechdel Test – After the movie, Beca said “Well, that certainly passed The Bechdel Test.” And how!

Home – Home is certainly a theme in The Force Awakens. Characters are leaving, returning, losing, finding and creating home and family throughout.

Dealing with the past and moving forward – The secondary theme is dealing with and letting go of the past. It’s also the meta-theme for the franchise itself.

The Millenium Falcon reveal – This is the best character introduction in the film and one of the best I’ve ever seen. Got a huge cheer from the audience. Beca pointed out that it’s another nice nod to Firefly:

“Princesses…” nope. – When C-3P0 quips “Princesses,” to Han Solo, I heard “Bitches,” and it was weird and out of character and pulled me out of the movie.

R2-D2 still saying the same things over and over – This is my biggest disappointment with The Force Awakens. The sounds that R2-D2 (and all droids) make is dialogue. It’s not sound effects, it’s a character’s dialog, just like Chewbacca’s grunts and growls. Reusing the same series of sounds from previous movies in completely different context and conversations makes R2-D2 seem like he has Alzheimer’S Disease. The beauty of Artoo’s dialog in Episodes IV-VI was that you could almost make out what he was saying. The best example is this exchange from New Hope:

You can almost hear Artoo say “Do you think he likes me?” Star Wars fans know Artoo’s dialogue intimately. We’ve heard each line dozens (OK, hundreds) of times in the context of the films, and countless times on soundboards, keychains, ring tones and coming out of toys. We recognize these lines when we hear them, so when we hear them thrown randomly into a conversation, it’s as if Han asked Leia about their son and she replied “Will someone get this big walking carpet out of my way.” Everything he says is a non sequitur.  

Civil rights for droids have advanced – Maz Kanata’s cantina welcomes droids, unlike the cantina in Mos Eisley.

The Wilhelm Scream is there – It’s in the hangar as Poe and Finn are escaping in the TIE fighter. It’s subtle and nicely integrated. And, like a Hitchcock cameo in his later films, happens early, so we can stop looking for it.

Ships swallowing ships – When the Falcon gets scooped up by the Eravana, I thought of these two things:

Bala-Tik sounds like the Original Human Jabba – As soon as Bala-Tik started talking to Solo about their deal and being owed money, with a working-class accent, all I could think of was this:

...and here is your floppy disk.
…and here is your floppy disk.

Data storage metaphors have been updated – Leia gave the Death Star plans to Artoo on a disk. BB-8 get’s his secret plans on a thumb drive! I mean, that star chart couldn’t have been that much data, right?

So, there you go. Agree with me, argue with me, prove me right/wrong.


16 comments on “Initial Thoughts on The Force Awakens

  1. tensegritydan

    The Nausicaa connection is really insightful! An excellent piece in all!

  2. Rey and Chewie in the Falcon after Han’s death = River and Mal after Wash’s death, also. (And like hell it’s *both* their ship unless Rey is also Han’s kid. Which, please, no, can we have one character who isn’t related to anyone else.)

    I am so conflicted on TFA. Between release day and actually seeing it, the early reviews actually let me get my hopes up, which was a mistake. The only way I got through Into Darkness was by treating it as a jigsaw puzzle – how is JJA going to take each element of Space Seed/Wrath of Khan, flip it, change it, remix it, and slot it in some random place in the movie? (ST2009 had already basically killed any caring I had left about the franchise, honestly.)

    And here, there was a lot of the same stuff going on — you touch on a bunch of the reuses and parallels, but there are a thousand more. It’s almost clever, actually — you touch on Poe-as-Han and Finn-as-Han, but there’s Poe-as-Leia (giving the information to the droid before getting captured by the big bad), then Finn-as-Luke to Poe’s Leia (I’m not a stormtrooper; I’m here to rescue you), Finn and Poe as R2 and 3PO (crashed on the desert planet and separated), and on and on! On the bridge you’ve got Han as Obi-wan (which young Han would never have believed) which forces Chewie into Luke’s role. Makes me wonder if the writers actually set out to hit as many of those reimaginings as possible.

    Heck, let’s just look at Rey-Finn-Poe as Luke-Leia-Han — how many different ways can you map them that makes sense?

    Where it actually manages some originality is in the emotional beats:

    Finn’s “there’s a person in there” moment at the start: a stormtrooper faltering like that, totally new for the franchise. (But it’s lazy of the movie not to explore the implications while massacring stormtroopers left and right in the third act.)

    Then you’ve got Kylo Ren worrying about the temptation of the light side of the Force – worrying that compassion will make him weak! Not something I’ve seen before in Star Wars; it’s a fairly frequent touchstone in BSG (via Cain, Kendra Shaw, Adama, Starbuck, and Tigh to different degrees).

    Finally, Rey’s savagery in the lightsaber duel. The IV-V-VI trilogy never really sold me on Luke’s dark-side temptability; when he does give in to anger in ROTJ it kind of comes out of nowhere (although it’s not inexplicable). The look on Rey’s face when she cuts loose suggests she could have a real dark side problem. That, plus her first use of the Force being the ethically-problematic mind trick.

    • All good points. For whatever reason, I’m ok with all the matrixed character mapping. And yes, if we mapped all the callbacks there would be a hundred. But I’m ok with that. None of it felt forced (no pun intended) to me. Star Trek Into Darkness was a travesty that proved that JJ, Orci and Kurtzman don’t understand Star Trek at all. I think JJ gets Star Wars and Kasdan certainly does.

  3. Reblogged this on Questions And Tea and commented:
    This is by a friend and former colleague from ILM. Tad is amazingly talented, as well as enthusiastically geeky. He’s great. Enjoy!

  4. Enjoyed reading this, thank you for taking the time to enforce what was already a great film. Hope the next one is unrushed and loved as this one was. I personally dont remember the prequels, strange as it is I remember the TFA. I was overjoyed that it was shot on the same film stock, it has that air of documentary fly on the wall grittiness that SW and ESB had. ROTJ did not need the ewoks but that is what happens when studios interfere. JJ had a lot of grief from the Star Trek fans, and he proved them wrong with this. The only scathing criticism is the sound mix, its awful on the film and really pulls you out of it at times. I think the sound editing and engineering needs improvement, R2D2 is a case in point. However part of me thinks that it was rushed through to make the theatres.

  5. Totally agree about the reuse of R2’s dialogue. That irked me immediately, although my overall excitement about the movie helped me forget that somewhat minor gripe.

    Also your analysis of Rey’s similarities to Obi Wan are spot-on, and let’s not forget about the use of both “old” and “young” versions of Obi Wan’s voice in Rey’s vision (they used both Alec Guiness and Ewan McGregor’s voices and had them say, “Rey, these are your first steps” during the flashback/vision scene). While it appears likely that Rey is a Skywalker, it would be really cool if she’s related to Obi Wan somehow.

  6. Love the Nausicaa references. It was clearly bugging me, but I didn’t even realize it until you pointed it out.

  7. Hey Tad, this is quite thorough, as I would expect. I heard on Adam Savage’s podcast that Bill Hader from SNL “played” the software tool given to hime by J.J. to create the “dialogue” of BB-8.
    I don’t know where he heard that little fact.
    Also Daniel Craig was the Trooper that Rey used her mind control on and who ultimately dropped his weapon, as she had “suggested.”

  8. I enjoyed the poetry of Starkiller base- It literally sucked the light out of the sun and turned it into a weapon. The moment the sun went dark was also the moment that Ren seemed to fully embrace the dark side and end Han. When the resistance defeated Starkiller base, it imploded and became a new sun, reigniting a small glimmer of light in the universe (a new new hope). That reminded me of the Genesis transformation of the Mutari Nebula for whatever reason.

    • Yes! I wrote down “Sun goes dark and son goes dark!” In my notebook. Love the new sun observation, too. Absolutely resonates with Trek II!


    The force is strong with that idea.

    Another point of note:
    Rey = King, in Spanish. The masculine noun, not Reina (feminine). Maybe a suggestion of her connection (to a noteworthy male), or the level of power she is destined to obtain? We’ve seen Emporers, a popular Princess… has there been a significant King?

  10. Dude this very very good read! I might have to ask permission to share it with my students. Bravo my friend!

  11. This is a great breakdown of the film ; ) My only issue was Rey’s theme, it totally took me out of the movie. It sounded nothing like Star Wars and came off to my ears as a mutation of the Harry Potter score and Alice’s theme from Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. I saw Force Awakens three times and by the third there was literally a choir of people in my head singing “Alice!” to fill in the gap after the theme built to it’s climax each time.

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