Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015) (Revised Review)

Composed by John Williams

To the surprise of many, George Lucas sold Star Wars to Disney for a whopping $4 billion plus. Lucas was at this point likely tired of the constant barrage of fan criticisms leveled at him for the prequels and various re-edits of the original trilogy. In fact many fans were excited to see Star Wars done by somebody else. J.J. Abrams was tasked with starting the new trilogy under the direction of producer Kathleen Kennedy. The first of the sequel trilogy, which wipes out most of the continuity of the original expanded universe, was a smashing hit and well-liked. The Force Awakens sees the galaxy plunged into a new war as the First Order, a remnant of the Empire, seeks to regain control with the help of Starkiller, a literal planetary Death Star. Both the First Order and the Republic-backed Resistance are after the last piece of a map that will lead to the missing Luke Skywalker. Young scavenger Rey teams up with Finn (a defector from the First Order) to bring the map fragment to the Resistance. Along the way they bump into classic characters like Han Solo and Princess (now General) Leia, and confront Han and Leia’s dark side-wielding son Kylo Ren.

I was among the many that initially loved the movie and hailed the rebirth of Star Wars, but have come to actually dislike it. The magical feeling of seeing Star Wars back, with a heavy dose of nostalgia, fooled me into loving The Force Awakens. However, I realize that most if not all of the Disney trilogy’s flaws were a result of director J.J. Abrams’ usual hackery, starting with this film. By retreading the plotline of the first film and its rebels vs. empire conflict, he forced the Star Wars saga into a cyclical rather than progressing narrative. To the film’s credit, many of the new characters are good and full of potential, especially Adam Driver’s conflicted Kylo Ren. One aspect that is definitely praiseworthy is John Williams’ score. I was actually concerned that at this point in his life Williams would not be able to reproduce his musical magic, but I was ecstatically surprised. The soundtrack for TFA is abundant in both old and new themes and states them frequently while keeping them fresh.

Whereas the prequel scores suffered from a lack of thematic continuity, the sequel trilogy has fared much better in this regard thanks to many recurring characters and factions. The Force Awaken score’s greatest strength is an actual array of new themes, several quite memorable. Thanks to the effective non-spoiler nature of the film’s marketing (they even hid the track titles inside the booklet instead of the back of the CD), there was discussion as to who the trilogy’s main hero would be. One only has to listen to Williams’ album to figure it out. Rey, the main female protagonist, is blessed with an emotionally engaging theme introduced in “The Scavenger.” This theme has a main core motif, a secondary phrase for longer appearances, and an accompanying dual rhythm. The dual rhythm is the first part to appear, underscoring Rey’s innocent nature at the start of her journey. It debuts on flute and piano (0:53). It leads into the first statement of her full theme (1:31). The core theme is childlike and innocent, but also heroic. A definite highlight is the concert arrangement in “Rey’s Theme.” Throughout the score her primary motif often plays on its own, reserved for when Williams needs to make a short statement in the midst of an action or conservational cue. When he uses all three parts together, the effect is incredible. This is the strongest of the sequel trilogy’s themes, and it is heard no better than in its first film.

A couple of the other new heroes get their own motifs. Fighter pilot Poe gets an uplifting heroic motif in “I Can Fly Anything” (1:19). Hypercompetent and cutesy droid BB-8 has an innocent little motif in “Rey Meets BB-8.” One great misunderstanding involves a playful action rhythm. Many fans identified it as a theme for Finn. However, it’s really a chase motif and Finn happens to be in all the chase scenes. It also never appeared alongside Finn in the next films. This fast playful motif dominates “Follow Me” and the “The Falcon.” The major new theme for the heroes is the march for the Resistance. Showcased in a concert arrangement in track 16, this militant brass theme represents the new batch of heroes in general. Despite representing the good guys, it shares many instrumental similiarities to the Nazi themes from the Indiana Jones films. This isn’t to say that it’s evil-sounding. It is in fact quite rousing and heroic, though seems resistant to much in the way of variation.

On the villain side of things Kylo Ren and the First Order by extension receive a generic five-note motif (4:20 in “The Attack on the Jakku Village”). It’s easy to slip into cues and is effective, but pales in comparison to Williams’ other villain themes. Williams usually has to surround it with powerful orchestral textures to give it more depth. Perhaps the choice of a generic theme was a conscious choice to underscore how Ren is really a conflicted wannabe-Darth Vader. Ren also gets a secondary descending motif that represents his tragic, tortured side. Its first appearance is a brass statement near the beginning of “The Abduction.” It’s more present in the second half of the score, once Ren’s parentage is revealed along with hints of his inner conflict. The real master of the First Order, Supreme Leader Snoke, garners his own motif in his titular track. It’s little more than deep menacing choir with little in the way of melody.

Finally there are several non-character motifs. First is a motif for the map that leads to Skywalker. It’s nothing complex, but appropriately mysterious. The Map motif first appears in “The Attack on the Jakku Village” (2:18). The second is a melancholy string piece for two of the film’s particularly tragic moments. The first is “The Starkiller,” when the First Order unleashes the latest super-weapon. The second is two minutes into “Torn Apart.” Third is a Patricide motif in “Snoke” and “Torn Apart.”

Many of the characters from the original trilogy are still alive, if very aged, so Williams makes liberal use of their themes while not referencing them too much. In contrast to the prequel scores, this gives the sequel scores a stronger thematic link to the originals. The one OT theme that played a major part in the prequels was the Force theme. Here it’s used less often until the final act when Rey starts to tap into the Force. Its first appearance in Force Awakens is not present on album. Instead one has to reach “Maz’s Counsel” to find it. It makes several notable statements for the final lightsaber duel and ending sequence. Luke Skywalker actually barely appears in the movie (ironically it doesn’t appear for his one scene in “Jedi Steps,” with Williams using the Force theme for more impact), but his motif does get a little more play than it would in any of the prequels. After the main title march it comes up for a nostalgia boost in “Rathtars!” (0:50), as the core of “Scherzo for X-Wings,” and in a partial statement near the end of “Farewell and the Trip.”

Princess Leia’s theme and her love theme with Han both come back for “Han and Leia” and “Farwell and the Trip.” It should be noted that the love theme never appeared in the prequels for obvious reasons. The Rebel Fanfare also makes a big comeback. Williams repurposes it as not just a general motif for freedom fighters, but as a specific signature for the Millennium Falcon. In fact it and the famed ship both appear together at the end of “Follow Me.” Darth Vader’s theme also makes an appearance when Ren talks to the burnt remains of his helmet. This doesn’t appear on album, but there is nothing special about this particular iteration so nothing is lost.

The albums for the sequel trilogy are for the most part chronological. Before diving into this one I should note that John Williams did not use the London Symphony Orchestra as was custom, but instead the Hollywood Studio Symphony. I don’t have the sharp ears that other listeners do, but there is something different with how the orchestra sounds and not just because there is a ten year time gap between entries. Some have given the opinion that the musical depth is weaker, especially in the main title. I don’t know if I would call it “inferior” but again, I don’t have the sharpest ears for this type of listening. Speaking of the main title, this time it leads into “The Attack on the Jakku Village.” The transitions starts sparkling underscore that then leads into an awesome malevolent bit (1:37). This kicks off a militant rhythm that descends into the first iteration of the Map motif. The action picks up, leading to the first statement of Kylo Ren’s theme.

“The Scavenger” introduces Rey’s full theme while “I Can Fly Anything” gives us Poe’s fanfare amidst a dense action cue. It was really good to have William writing dense and engaging action cues again. “Rey Meets BB-8” is a short track with more light-hearted music. It gives a short hint of the Resistance theme around 1:10. Here it’s on light wind instruments, as the full force of the Resistance fighters has not been revealed yet. “Follow Me” and “The Falcon” are two parts of an action chase cue and it’s a bit odd that Williams chose to plop the concert arrangement of Rey’s theme between them. “That Girl with the Staff” is among the less interesting cues, starting off with a soft statement of Rey’s theme and then some filler material. “The Rathtars!” starts off with suspense, leading to a statement of Luke’s theme. The rest of the track is a fairly light-hearted action piece built around the chase motif.

“Finn’s Confession” sounds the most like a cue from the prequels, with the opening notes mirroring the opening of Phantom Menace’s “High Council Meeting.” The primary motif from Rey’s theme makes a few appearances starting at 0:49. “Maz’s Counsel” is a bit of a slow piece from when Maz confronts Rey about her destiny. Here Williams brings back the Force theme (2:14). The track gets more dramatic with a few notes of Rey’s theme. After the tragic “The Starkiller,” Kylo Ren’s theme makes an overdue return in “Kylo Ren Arrives at the Battle.” “The Abduction” introduces Kylo’s secondary motif. The music subsides with some low iterations of his primary motif before swelling with Rey’s theme.

“Han and Leia,” aside from featuring the titular characters’ two themes, presents the album’s first full treatment of the Resistance march (1:13). The last part of the track goes through quite a few themes, with Han and Leia’s love theme, Ren’s secondary motif, and the Force theme. The Resistance theme gets a concert arrangement. I should point out a cue not on album that appears a few minutes earlier in the middle battle. It’s the first real appearance of the full-fledged Resistance march and is also accompanied by Poe’s motif. “Snoke” presents the villain’s admittedly undercooked theme. I noticed a short ditty at 1:23 that reprises in “Torn Apart.” I think it represents Kylo’s mission to kill his father and so call it the Patricide motif. The final battle sequence begins with “On the Inside.” “Torn Apart” starts with some non-thematic but engaging emotional string music. This hopeful piece gets dark at 1:26 with the Patricide motif. The motif repeats in intensity until the music cuts out. It starts up again with the tragedy motif before the brass builds up to one of the strongest statements of Ren’s theme (2:47). The track ends with a fragment of Rey’s theme as the final showdown is set.

“The Ways of the Force” features Rey and Kylo’s themes in conflict with the Force theme intruding at several points. I actually find this a bit weak for a final fight cue. It’s not bad, it’s just that the music doesn’t seem to maintain any momentum. The mixing of Rey and the Force themes near the end is neat. Fortunately Williams goes out of order here and makes “Scherzo for X-Wings” the action finale. With its many statements of Luke’s theme and the urgent bridging strings and brass it’s a real winner. This brings us to one of my favorite bits in all of Star Wars music. The opening of “Farwell and the Trip” is an incredible medley of several themes and motifs playing together in short succession. The second main phrase of Rey’s theme leads into Poe’s motif, which in turn builds right into the Force theme. The Force theme even has a hint of Rey’s theme built in. The themes don’t stop playing. Rey’s theme, Han and Leia’s theme, and Leia’s personal theme make up the middle section of the track. The last section of the track is uplifting, with a brief fragment of Luke’s theme leading into a full version of Rey’s theme.

The last track is another winner. In “Jedi Steps” Williams introduces an ending motif (0:20) that many fans hoped to see utilized in the next film as an old Luke motif (oddly this did not come to pass). It has the same gravitas of the Force theme but shares some similarities to Rey’s theme. The Force theme starts at 1:38 with a solo horn, but concludes with a lot of flair as Luke is finally found. The end credits suite is my first or second favorite of the entre saga. Thanks to all the new themes as well as how long credits go on these days, Williams is able to present an incredible suite of all the major new themes. Even if one does not like the movie, the end credits should still be able to invigorate him or her.

The Force Awakens is a grand return for John Williams and Star Wars music in general. It’s one of the few scores of the last ten years that I consider legitimately great. In an age of mediocre action scores, forced into existence by today’s tight post-production schedules, re-edits and re-shoots, and, particularly in the action-adventure brand, over-saturated visuals and soundscapes, TFA stands out as a shining jewel. One wonders if the weaker successors in the sequel trilogy were done in by such factors and why this particular score worked so well.

Rating: 10/10

 

Tracklisting

  1. Main Title and The Attack on the Jakku Village (6:25)
  2. The Scavenger (3:39)
  3. I Can Fly Anything (3:10)
  4. Rey Meets BB-8 (1:31)
  5. Follow Me (2:54)
  6. Rey’s Theme (3:11)
  7. The Falcon (3:32)
  8. That Girl with the Staff (1:58)
  9. The Rathtars! (4:05)
  10. Finn’s Confession (2:08)
  11. Maz’s Counsel (3:07)
  12. The Starkiller (1:50)
  13. Kylo Ren Arrives at the Battle (2:00)
  14. The Abduction (2:23)
  15. Han and Leia (4:41)
  16. March of the Resistance (2:34)
  17. Snoke (2:03)
  18. On the Inside (2:06)
  19. Torn Apart (4:19)
  20. The Ways of the Force (3:14)
  21. Scherzo for X-Wings (2:32)
  22. Farewell and the Trip (4:55)
  23. The Jedi Steps and Finale (8:51)

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