The basic challenge in making a film like The Force Awakens is this: how do you continue a story after the epic has happened? At the end of ROTJ, evil has been defeated, the Republic is victorious, good is triumphant. The original trilogy followed a perfect story arc to its satisfying conclusion. And yet, people must have more stories, and people must have more Star Wars films.
I thought The Force Awakens was an exceptionally good film. Ta-Nehisi Coates was right that the low bar set by the prequels made for a critical environment favorable to the new film. But the filmmakers deserve a lot of credit for making a good film when hopes and expectations couldn’t possibly have been higher. The Force Awakens isn’t a great film because it is too similar to what came before it. But that limitation is part of the challenge in making a post-epic, and the film soars because it manages to be what the prequels were not: well-written, well-acted, and interesting.
Consider the character of Kylo Ren. When he first appears, he seems almost a carbon copy of Darth Vader. Yet his voice and demeanor are riveting; and he conveys the epic sense of a villain. His emo nature was an interesting direction for a villain, and his struggle to transcend Vader’s legacy mirrors the very struggle of his film.
The film stumbles in having a weapon so similar to the Death Star as its main set piece. And yet the First Order are highly believable, as are the struggles of the Republic to hold together 30 years after their great victory. Kylo’s decision to embrace evil speaks to the mystery of evil itself. The Emperor has been defeated. Goodness triumphed. Why would someone who should be better choose evil? It’s the same mystery that leads a young man in Charleston to murder innocent people in a church. The climactic scene with Kylo and Han is sickening and powerful. The essence of evil is always the desire to hurt others and gain power. The world of The Force Awakens is much like our own. Instead of hurtling inevitably towards progress and utopia, it’s a world where evil still has a persistent foothold.
And yet, goodness exists as well, and it’s ultimately goodness which is the root of hope in a fallen world. Finn is the reverse image of Kylo. He is called away from evil to goodness. Note that Kylo feels the same goodness calling to him, but chooses to repress it. Finn chooses to embrace it. Why one man chooses to follow goodness and another chooses evil is a mystery as old as time itself; it’s the basis of all drama and conflict.
Rey is the anchor of the film and its great creation. Where she and Finn go will determine how good this series can be. As with the original trilogy, we want to see good triumphant and evil defeated, but we want to see the necessary amount of drama in getting there. If the next two films are as interesting as Force Awakens, they will have admirably served their purpose. If Rey and Finn can take the series in new and unexpected directions, then we will have something truly special on our hands. The world needs epic stories. The conclusion of every great story is an open challenge to create new ones.