Obligatory warning - this post is going to discuss all the major plot points from THE FORCE AWAKENS. This is your spoiler warning right here, so turn back now. If you wish a spoiler-free examination of the film, you can find that here.
Luke Skywalker - It's a testament to how good the film is that Luke doesn't appear until the final minute, and yet it still is one of the best Star Wars films to date. I like the mythic reputation the character has taken on in-universe and it really makes the whole "search for Luke Skywalker drive" really carry weight. Now the ball is in Episode VIII's court. It has to be worthy of all the build-up this film gave our exiled Jedi.
Leia - Carrie Fisher's screen time is briefer than Harrison Ford's, but Leia's encounters with Han are a highlight of the film. Fisher's persona has more recently been brasher and more humorous than Leia's, to the point where I was concerned that it might be hard to see the outspoken actress as a more reserved leader. I need not have worried. this feels like the same woman who took charge of her own rescue and later commanded the evacuation of Hoth.
It's a disappointment that she apparently didn't undergo any Jedi training. In JEDI she was held out as the last hope, but here, she's the same political leader she was before, albeit with a higher rank. How cool would it have been to see Leia light up a purple lightsaber during a ground assault? Or have her use some kind of Force abilities to gain insight into the attack? Or to reach out and try to communicate with Kylo Ren? (Or her own brother for that matter?) I like the Leia we got, but I can't help but feel an opportunity was missed here.
Kylo Ren's backstory - From the first images of Kylo Ren, people were theorizing that he was a Skywalker or Solo child, if not Luke himself. The film wasted no time dropping teases about his parentage, so it's no great shock that he's revealed as Han and Leia's son. I wish we'd gotten a little more of a tease as to exactly how his corruption by Supreme Leader Snoke happened. Even just giving us a vague point on the timeline would help. How old was he when he turned? Did his fall precede Rey being abandoned as a child?
How does a child born to two leaders of the Rebel Alliance, and trained by the man who destroyed the Sith become determined to follow an evil path? It's like an Orthodox Jew deciding to be the next Hitler. He's definitely got a warped view of Darth Vader, but does that mean he doesn't believe the story that Luke surely told? That Vader renounced his evil ways before his death? There's a key scene I'll get to later where he unmasks and he gives off the impression of being a brainwashed cult member. Adam Driver does great work, but I'd have loved just a few more bread crumbs about his turn and his goal beyond "finish[ing] what [Darth Vader] started."
Supreme Leader Snoke - At this point, he's not much more than the Emperor was in EMPIRE STRIKES BACK - a mysterious figure communicating via hologram. The "Great and Powerful Oz" routine has me suspicious that we're not seeing his real form there. At a minimum, I don't think he's going to be remotely that big in person. I wonder about his history with Skywalker. Were they close? Was Snoke a Jedi instructor who infiltrated Luke's academy to corrupt Kylo Ren? It might be interesting if he was a Jedi who survived the Order 66 Purge, only to embrace the Dark Side late in life. (Hell, it might even work out that he was an escaped youngling from Anakin's attack on the Jedi Temple.
Coincidence after Coincidence - There's an adage that you're allowed one coincidence per film. I tend to look at that as a loose guideline, but the motivation behind that "rule" is worth keeping in mind. When too many coincidences drive the plot, the audience can sense the film "cheating." You don't want contrivance taking a too big a hand in things.
I can buy into the idea that the Millennium Falcon is just sitting there on Jakku, waiting for Rey and Finn to steal it. And you know what, I'll even spot the film the huge coincidence that Han Solo is able to track and recapture the Falcon almost immediately. What feels too convenient for me is the fact that Maz Kanata just happens to have Luke's old lightsaber. The last time we saw that thing, it was falling down a deep pit in Cloud City. I would have loved at least a hint of an explanation for how it went from A to B, rather than putting us off for a later explanation that will probably never come.
Rey's parentage - After the film, I immediately rejected the idea that Rey could be Han and Leia's daughter. There were just too many pieces that didn't seem to fit. It also felt like we weren't given enough information to really conclude she could be Luke's offspring, even if the film seems to want us to consider that. I decided that might be a mislead to keep us from considering other parentage. Could she be a descendant of Obi-Wan? Of Supreme Leader Snoke?
Then I read this excellent Film School Rejects speculation piece and it completely turned me around on the Solo child theory. Give it a read.
Another megaweapon? - In-universe I get it. These Death Star-level mega weapons can totally upset the balance of power. It's an important part of any arsenal. But three out of the last four (numerically) episodes have utilized one of these planet killing weapons. It doesn't help that they're always destroyed the same way - a tiny flaw that lets enemy firepower take out a crucial reactor. As much as the whole movie is a riff on A NEW HOPE, here's where I really wanted something more original. The preponderance of planet killing weapons was what quickly turned the Extended Universe novels in to an aspect of the franchise that deserved to die and I really hope we won't see another of these in Episodes XVIII and IX.
It's a fool's game to poke at the science in these films, but I think Starkiller Base is ridiculously implausible. As visualized on-screen, it either happens to be in the exact same system as five other Republic planets it attacks, or it fires a laser capable of traveling at hyperspeed. The former reeks of contrivance and the latter makes the weapon too powerful and scientifically ridiculous. (Which is also a factor if the whole planet is mobile.)
The political situation - After the endless talks of trade disputes and taxation in the prequels, I never expected people to come out of the new film craving "More politics." However, I have to concur that the situation between The First Order and the Resistance could have used some clarifying. We're told the Republic is backing the Resistance, but the implication seems to be that the Republic is considered the more legitimate governing body while The First Order is more of an insurgency (or at best, the equivalent of the Southern States in the Civil War.)
Yet the First Order seems to operate as if they have all the dominance that the Empire did in its prime, while the Resistance is reduced to hiding in remote bases. (And again, why is a military force supported by the dominant power called "the Resistance?" That's not the sort of name you'd give to something like the U.S. Military.)
Finn's skill with the lightsaber - I call massive bullshit on Finn lasting more than 15 seconds in a lightsaber duel with a Force-adept opponent who's been using his weapon for years. It's maybe the falsest moment in the entire film. In contrast...
Rey's Force skills - On one hand, it's a little absurd that Rey's Force abilties already outstrip Luke's in A NEW HOPE despite less training. Compare her pulling the lightsaber to her to all the effort Luke expends in EMPIRE trying to get his weapon while in the ice cave. And then there's the fact she displays the mind control it took Luke until JEDI to use. The topper to all of this is her duel with Kylo Ren, where she not only matches his skill, but decisively defeats him. He's only saved by a conveniently-forming chasm. Rey opening up a can of whoopass on Ren makes for one of the best lightsaber battles ever. It's a fist-pumping moment big enough to make us overlook that she's a complete novice.
But my theory is that this adeptness on her part is neither mistake, nor contrivance. She might be a latently-powerful Force-user, one whose natural ability can outstrip even Luke's. Kylo Ren's no novice, so the movie knows what it's doing in having Ren match him in combat. I hope this will be explored in later chapters.
The Map to Luke Skywalker - As a MacGuffin, this worked for me up until the point we saw it actually executed. I could go with the idea that the map is just a jigsaw puzzle piece-ike fragment. What feels aggressively convenient to me is that R2-D2 just so happens to have every part of that star chart except for that precisely missing fragment - to the point where his charts are displayed with a big gaping hole.
Artoo having shut himself down of his own accord, apparently, and then springing back to life when the plot requires it also rankles. Would it have been so hard to just have Artoo damaged in a battle and undergoing repairs until the moment when the script needs him to analyze the map? It also might have helped if Artoo first studied the map fragment, then made use of that data by triangulating some of the stars in it with stars that he already knew. The end result would still be that data in his memory banks gives the map the context needed to figure out where to go, but these changes would make it slightly less easy on our heroes.
The Death of Han Solo - From the moment Han stepped out on to that walkway, it was evident he was a dead man. The parallels to Obi-Wan's death in A NEW HOPE were just too strong, particularly when Finn and Rey arrive to bear witness from a distance. Being certain of the outcome didn't lessen the tension one bit for me. If anything, it heightened it. My heart has not been pounding like that in a film for a very long time.
Han Solo reaches out to his son, a confused young man consumed by evil but clearly struggling with a good that threatens to awaken in him. Speaking like a programmed cult member, Ren tries to shut his father's words out and sees only one path that will ensure he can never return to the light again - he impales his father.
It is possibly the single most visceral act of evil depicted on screen in any of the STAR WARS films. Sure, we've seen planets blow up, but never with people we know on them. The deaths of billions is almost too abstract a concept to empathize with - but the painful death of one of the most beloved film characters of all time? That's epic in its emotional investment. The fact his given name is "Ben," presumably after Jedi Kenobi, only twists the knife further.
Chewie's reaction was equally heartbreaking. He doesn't hesitate for a second to fire at Ren. This is significant because the lore tells us that Chewie was bound to Han by a life debt. Han saved his life years ago and Wookie culture demanded Chewie remain indebted to Han. Some books have extrapolated that this would extend to Han's children. If that was at all true in this continuity, Chewie's attempt to avenge Han shows that he doesn't consider Ren to be Han's son any longer.
I may have regarded Darth Vader as pure evil, but I never wanted him dead the way I want Kylo Ren dead now. DEAD. PAINFULLY. I want Luke, Leia and Chewie each to get a shot in, perhaps each taking off a limb. We surely will get the usual talk of redemption, of saving this wayward soul from the darkness... but I don't care. There's nothing there to save, nothing worth saving. He made his choice. I've never felt that Anakin really deserved to die as a hero after all he did and Ren deserves even less consideration.
STAR WARS exists in a universe where morality is absolute. Black and white. Good and Evil. Ren's patricide is an act without redemption. He made his choice, and I doubt there are few viewers who don't want to see him burn for it.
It's a powerful way to draw the film to a close, and one that makes us hungry to see the fallout among the older characters, and especially how they treat Kylo Ren at their next encounter.
We have less than two years until the next episode and already it feels like forever. J.J. Abrams gave us a new chapter that was a dose of the familiar mixed with some bold and powerful moves for the franchise. J.J. threw down the gauntlet. Now it'll be Rian Johnson's turn to deliver.