Hey Let’s Talk About The Force Awakens: A Deadshirt Roundtable

In case you’re just now waking up from a coma, Star Wars: The Force Awakens came out last Thursday. Box office records were toppled. Tears were shed. Nits were picked. There was dancing in the street. Here’s what the Deadshirt crew thought of it.

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SPOILERS BELOW

People get awfully funny about Star Wars don’t they? Look forward to the next few months of op-eds with axes to grind—how Episode VII erases the horrible prequels, how it erases the excellent prequels, how it’s just another prequel after all, how it’s worse than every “true” Star Wars that George Lucas was ever involved in, or how it’s better than all previous Star Wars films because Lucas was the entire problem after all. There seems little room out there for folks like me who enjoyed that yellow title crawl with just as much joy in 1997, 2005, and 2015.

The irony is that Star Wars was never concerned with questions of authenticity, least of all its own. It’s a patchwork of references that somehow became its own distinctive flavor. Episode VII is just like any number of other franchise remakes and revivals in recent years that gain their energy from the devotion of their young director to the original—Jackson’s King Kong, Singer’s Superman, even Abrams’ own Star Trek. It’s just that, due to the uncentered nature of the Star Wars franchise itself, this revival doubles as an authentic entry in the original series as well.

Both the filmmakers and the audience gain emotional purchase through a sort of shared recreation of their own childhood games. Who among us under the age of 40 didn’t stage something like the TIE hangar escape sequence with their action figures? Or the Falcon chase on Jakku, or Chewbacca’s rampage, or the X-wing rescue, or the battle in the snow? The sheer joy of certain sequences is lost on the cynical (even, to an extent, on the enthusiastic newcomer) without that context. Poe makes an unmistakable reference to the fighter simulator DOS games I grew up with. The identity and actions of Kylo Ren restage a major plot in the Star Wars novels. Deceased characters from the Expanded Universe are pointedly returned to prominence. This film is by fans, for fans.

But the film doesn’t limit itself thereby, because it returns to the strongest single Star Wars film plot—the original—while informing it with thirty years’ worth of hindsight and material to create a sort of quintessential Star Wars for the next generation. Those who notice these parallels and smugly pat themselves on the back for noticing the film’s “unoriginality” miss the point with such superficial study. What if Star Wars, in 1977, had had a diverse cast? If it had been written with an eye to sequels, rather than on the fly? If it had kept alive characters such as Tarkin to use in the future, while introducing characters such as Boba Fett and the Emperor to expand upon later? And if it had bothered to spend enough time on the deaths of whole planets, heroes, and even villains to produce actual pathos? That film would have looked a lot like this film.

– Patrick Stinson

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There are no spoilers in the track titles, but listening to John Williams’ score to Star Wars: The Force Awakens gives you a good sense of what the overall film is like: an overarching sense of tonal familiarity, with moments of outright recognition from the original trilogy—but, all in all, it’s a new, unfamiliar (but ultimately satisfying) experience.

The film is perhaps the best example of pure, unjaundiced fun to grace the screen this year. While the prequels had the thankless task of awkwardly interlocking themselves to a beloved narrative, director J.J. Abrams, working from a script he wrote with master scribe Lawrence Kasdan (The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi), ably answers what happens 32 years after the triumph of Luke Skywalker and friends.

There’s a fascinating blend of old and new at play: while some of the story beats crib too much from the originals, the exciting new characters (which feature, separately and together, the best traits of the original Star Wars heroes) and the new stakes raised by the classic forces of good and evil make The Force Awakens both a love letter to Star Wars past and a bold declaration of how the world we live in will shape these new stories—and vice versa.

– Mike Duquette 

So, hey, one of the leads in #NewStarWars is a black dude! Not just a diversity pledge token, but “A confident, Nigerian, Black, chocolate man” portraying the only character in The Force Awakens that doesn’t feel like a Reddit fan theory given sentience. When we meet The Man Who Would Be Finn, he’s just another faceless foot soldier, but even before we see John Boyega’s expressive visage, we see the iconic helmet his face hides behind stained by a haunting swath of crimson, a mark that blots beyond his uniform’s bone white mask down to his very soul. Despite six films with “war” in the actual fucking title, none of these flicks have managed to depict PTSD with any true sincerity beyond someone wielding a laser sword hiding out in a remote location when shit didn’t go their way. Finn rejecting everything he’s ever known when he sees the true horror of his occupation and struggling with a fight or flight crisis writ over his very existence is unique. In Boyega’s capable hands, Finn is charming and relatable in exactly the way the other new leads are, but this distinctive bent gives his character a beautifully honest sense of pathos that Poe, with his pulp hero charisma and Rey, with her vague Force Messiah positioning*, just don’t deliver.

Maybe in the next two installments, we’ll get more of FN-2187’s back story and he’ll just turn out to be another Next Generation stand-in (Rando Calrissian?) but within the confines of this film, he’s an incredibly moving presence, a new wrinkle in the pop mythos of Star Wars that places a black face in the sky lit pantheon of sci-fi heroes while bringing a very welcome dimension of realism to the proceedings.

(*Let’s keep it all the way 100: Rey is no more a Mary Sue than Luke was a Gary Stu. That’s literally how this Joseph Campbell hero’s journey shit tends to work in movies like this. More nuance woulda been nice, but subtlety was never gonna be on the table here.)  

– Dominic Griffin

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The Force Awakens was a lot of things to a lot of people, but maybe best of all it was the perfect ending to the story of Han Solo, a character very near and dear to me. When he’s first introduced to saga newcomers Finn and Rey, the two are at odds over who the old man who stands before them is: is this Han Solo the famous smuggler or Han Solo the famed Rebellion general? A leader of men or a famous outlaw? That uncertainty is arguably the core of the character Harrison Ford played over three films, and this fourth outing gives us an answer.

When we meet Han once again, he’s an old man trying and failing to play a young man’s game. In the wake of his son’s transformation into the evil Kylo Ren and the resulting dissolution of his relationship with Leia, Han leans back on old smuggler habits rather than face the implosion of his family head-on. Han is a man in denial, grasping at the straws of a life in which he doesn’t belong. When he sees his son from a distance after a battle, it’s important that we see that Han’s visibly afraid of him. It’s only after he finds a new family of sorts and receives much needed prodding of wise space matriarch Maz Kanata that Han finally returns to Leia and his obligations as a father.

Abrams’ decision to frame Han, not Luke, as the film’s new “Obi-Wan” was an inspired way to both fulfill the need for that type of character in the film’s plot but also because it’s genuinely surprising to watch unfold. It’s Han, not a Jedi, who explains the Force to Finn and Rey. It’s Han who shepherds our young heroes to their first major battle with the First Order. When Han finally confronts his wayward son, it’s as a recontextualization of Obi-Wan’s final encounter with Darth Vader. While Obi-Wan and Vader fought, Han approaches the former Ben Solo without any intention of violence.

There’s an uncomfortable inevitability to these scene, knowing that Han is going to his death. But it’s so important that Han died without a blaster in his hand or manning the cockpit of his beloved Millennium Falcon in some dogfight. Instead, he’s trying desperately to be a father to the son who he had failed. Even more tragically: Han fails to reach his son, and dies. Chewbacca, in a fit of rage, kills several Stormtroopers and even manages to inflict a significant wound on his friend’s killer. It’s a tragic ending, and what’s great is how shaken we are by this: “Han Solo can’t save you now,” Kylo mockingly tells Rey and Finn as Starkiller Base falls apart around them. It’s not a pleasant end for one of our favorite characters, but it’s a very honest one. 

The Force Awakens is the story of Rey embracing The Force and accepting her destiny as a Jedi, but it is just as importantly the story of the galaxy’s most famous scoundrel being the man we have always wanted him to be. 

– Max Robinson

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I’ve seen The Force Awakens twice already and I’m completely in love with it and everyone in it. It’s pretty incredible that they were able to create a lead trio as hilarious and lovable as Han, Leia, and Luke, as well as the most impeccably designed droid to be that insanely cute across the spectrum. The only two complaints I’ve seen about the film is that it too closely mirrors A New Hope, and that Rey is just too good at everything. The former criticism is mostly valid but not a detriment to the film—in fact, it was kind of the perfect way to ease into a new trilogy. The latter complaint, however, feels like a lot of hot air grasping for internet straws.

Complaining that the film’s lead female is TOO capable is a weird hill to die on, especially considering that it’s clearly because of her Force abilities that she’s been hidden away on this desert planet where she spent a decade starship breaking and learning to fight and survive. It’s extremely believable that someone with that kind of potential power who is already familiar with the legends of the Jedi and their capabilities would be able to tap into the Force at the rate that she did.

The fact that I’m participating in this argument is frustrating because a) it exists at all, and b) what it meant for me and others to see a character like Rey on screen. I cried approximately three times during the film: when Chewie lost it after Han’s death, when Rey and Leia embrace, and when Rey force pulls Luke’s lightsaber away from Kylo Ren. I never really watched the animated Star Wars features and haven’t read much of the now defunct EU, so Rey is the first time I personally have seen a woman wield the Force in this way on screen. When she comes face to face with the film’s lead male antagonist, she is his match. When she uses mind tricks on Craig Trooper, it gave me actual chills. And I canNOT wait for her inevitable rematch with Kylo.

And really, the film’s treatment of the Force is what we’re talking about here. The previous six films have taught us that a guy has the Force, someone trains him with lightsabers, and he does a handful of spiritual mind things. But right off the bat in this film, we’ve got Adam Driver’s menacing but extremely cool Kylo stopping a plasma ray midair and using theForce to steal people’s secrets from their brains. The Force Awakens may feel like the A New Hope when it comes to plot, but there are new players and new rules. And frankly I couldn’t be happier that we got a film that feels so much like Star Wars and so new at the same time.

-Sarah Register

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Man, I enjoyed The Force Awakens. It was just the shot in the arm the franchise needed, establishing new directions for the stories while recapturing the fun and magic of the original series after years of drudgery. It wasn’t perfect; I felt it was a little long and it crossed the line between homage and regurgitation once or twice, but for each element I had an issue with, there were at least three that left me with a big grin.

The moment that’s stuck with me the most is a very minor one: the way the stormtrooper with the electrified baton yells “TRAITOR!” before attacking Finn. It’s brief, but it says a lot about the interesting aspects of the new villains, the First Order. As a splinter faction of the fallen Empire, the First Order is devoted to control, the Dark Side, and general evil with a new fanaticism. General Hux gives crazed, slavering propaganda speeches, and Captain Phasma carries out her duties with a clear sense of pleasure and conviction. Unlike the banal, bureaucratic evil of the Empire, the Order is comprised of zealots who confer with their master in a huge stone temple. It’s a passion that makes them dangerous, especially to the apostate Finn. Like Dom said, Finn is a new kind of character, one who isn’t built into the fabric of the Star Wars universe. His dynamic, of someone who has seen through his own helmet the evil these people are capable of, is the spark that makes this new conflict real.

– Joe Stando

The Force Awakens is now playing and will probably be in theaters until uhh probably April. 

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