I caught Star Wars: The Force Awakens with my family over the past weekend. Before we got to the scrolling text on starry background (greeted by audience cheers) we were bombarded by trailers, mostly for movies about aliens blowing things up, with the occasional detour into mutants and/or Egyptian gods blowing things up. The worst of these trailers was for Independence Day 2: Labor Day, which ended with Jeff Goldman staring at a CGI spaceship and saying, “That is definitely bigger than the last one.” (That’s not the actual title of the movie.)
In this one inane line, a certain ethos of modern filmmaking was captured. We are condemned not only to endless remakes, reboots, and reimaginings of yesteryear’s properties, but to these rehashes trying to elicit that reaction: bigger than the last one.
Every time the new Star Wars film tried to be bigger than the last one (with “the last one” here meaning both previous Star Wars trilogies) it disappointed. A Death Star, after all, is a Death Star, even if you engorge its size and call it a Starkiller Base. We’ve seen that space battle already. What worked in the film, what impressed me and excited me, were the moments when it went small.
The heroes of the movie were instantly charming, thanks to some canny writing and the overwhelming appeal of their young actors. There’s conscientious deserter stromtrooper Finn (John Boyega), orphan scavenger and Force prodigy Rey (Daisy Ridley), loyal pilot Poe Damaron (Oscar Isaac), and even the spherical droid BB-8. In each small moment of their interaction, this movie is not afraid to make these characters unabashed good guys: warm, compassionate, and (when duty or destiny calls) heroic in the face of their fears. They easily slip into joyful friendships with each other and with returning scoundrel Han Solo. As DarwinCatholic pointed out, this is “willing-the-good-for-the-other friendship, pursuit-of-the-good friendship,” the kind to make a virtue ethicist’s heart sing. Poe gives Finn his name when Finn deserts the side of evil with only a number to go by. Finn celebrates Rey’s astonishing feats of piloting, and she his crack marksmanship. BB-8 uses one of its robotic attachments to mimic Finn’s thumbs-up. Han offers Rey a home and hope on the Millenium Falcon. It’s refreshing that the filmmakers chose not to reheat Han Solo and Princess Leia’s bickering chemistry for their new lead young leads: after every other franchise has tried to ape this dynamic, Star Wars gets to feel fresh simply by having its leads become genuine friends.
Perhaps more surprising to me, though, was the sense of emptiness in the villains of the film. Where Darth Vader was cool, this movie’s dark-robed antagonist Kylo Ren is falling to pieces, choking his subordinates not as a calm display of dominance but as part of a temper tantrum. In the villain camp, the metatextual question (how do we make another Star Wars movie that lives up to the originals?) becomes a textual concern with their dark legacy. The fascist-cosplaying General Hux spews a lot of hot air as he tries to fill the jackboots of Grand Moff Tarkin. Meanwhile, Kylo Ren perceives in himself the spark of compassion that animates the film’s heroes. Instead of embracing this goodness, he tries to stamp it out, to grow in merciless power like his idol Darth Vader—but this leaves him broken, and the audience hoping for his eventual redemption. The good guys, wouldn’t you know it, are cooler and happier than the bad guys.Each time I reflect on the film, more holes open up in its plot. Director J. J. Abrams did not quite manage to exorcise his “bigger than the last one” impulse, even if the sorry plight of Kylo Ren shows why that kind of thinking leads to the Dark Side. But none of that really mattered when I was walking out of the theater, listening to my younger sister happily list her favorite characters. These people and their friendships convince us to travel to a galaxy far, far away, not the big explosions. For my adopted little sister to get to see the orphan Rey put together her caring surrogate family (and wield a storied lightsaber!) on the big screen: that’s worth the price of admission.
Alexi Sargeant is a junior fellow at First Things.