This article contains extensive spoilers for The Force Awakens
Now that The Force Awakens has blown past box office records in a way that made it look easy, the question is how will the movie be regarded in the future? Ten years from now, how will we be discussing the film that effortlessly helped Disney relaunch this beloved franchise? The Force Awakens has been criticized as a retread of A New Hope, and praised as celebration of diversity in film. But more than anything else, the film is a signpost of where the Star Wars brand is at this place and time. The movie’s themes and concerns are directly connected to the franchise itself.
The Force Awakens’ most predominant theme is about being so mired in and fixated on the past that moving forward seems impossible. Every character that has an arc (so Poe, Captain Phasma, and Snoke are out) reflects this theme.
As the heroic and capable lead Rey is understandably drawn toward using her knowledge and talents to find adventure with Han Solo, the father figure she never had. Yet when the opportunity is presented to her, she turns it down. She has to stay where her family left her so she can be reunited with them if/when they return. The hope of being reunited with them is more powerful then the allure of space travel and adventure. It isn’t until she begins to discover who she really is and what she is capable of that she is able to move past that hope and into the future. This is why her first face to face confrontation with Kylo Ren is so powerful. That scene is all about self discovery, learning about her abilities and limitations. She is gaining independence to move forward. In discovering her potential she finds the strength to move on.
In much the same way, Finn is held back by fear of The First Order. He wants to be heroic, but only to a certain point. He has no interest in going against the powerful fascist regime he just fled. He knows what The First Order is capable of. Not only does he know about Starkiller Base, he has seen Kylo Ren stop a laser blast in mid air! He has reason to be afraid. And so when the danger becomes too great, he plans to run away to the farthest reaches of the galaxy. He is only pulled back when Rey is taken captive. He is willing to brave the danger for her, forgetting every reason he had to flee in the first place. Once committed to braving the dangers he fears (and thereby facing his own past), Finn begins to become something new. He is a benefit to The Resistance. His firsthand knowledge helps them mount an attack that will save millions of lives. He marches back into the base he ran from and faces down the enemy who terrifies him. In doing so he becomes the hero he pretended to be in the beginning.
For Kylo Ren, this theme is splintered. He must contend with two pasts that haunt him in equal ways. On the one hand he battles the goodness inside of himself that calls him toward the light. He has had to vilify the people who raised him (his father in particular) in order to embrace the darkness, but it is clear he is not convincing himself. Trying to face this struggle he is a man torn apart, unsettled with his place in the world. He is also haunted by the legend of his grandfather and the fear that he will never be as powerful as him. The result is a man out of control, temperamental and petulant like a child. By killing his father, Ren hopes to end the war that has waged in his soul. In so doing he should be able to move forward in becoming his own man, independent of his grandfather’s legacy. Whether or not he is successful remains to be seen. His arc is the least secured. He remains the one character unable to satisfactorily move forward. This gives us hope of the future, that he may eventually find redemption. But for now he is the one character most held back by the past.
Luke, Leia, and Han
The three returning main characters: Luke, Leia, and Han Solo, have inspired the most debate about their characters’ progressions. It would have been very interesting and challenging for the audience to see these beloved characters in different circumstances than when we left them at the end of Return of the Jedi. We can opine what could have been, but in the end it’s irrelevant. The characters are where the creators want them to be and for a very good reason. Each character’s advance has been halted by their collective failure. Not only did they fail in training Kylo Ren (then Ben Solo) into becoming an honorable Jedi, their failure cost other potential Jedi their lives and served as a catalyst for The First Order. How does one move past that? The easiest answer is to retreat.
Luke hid away, either rendered impotent by his own failure or so fixated on finding a solution that he removes himself from everyone. Han goes back to smuggling where he is far from any possibility of facing his son or wife again. As a General in The Resistance, Leia has effectively created a safe barrier in which she won’t be forced to face her son. Her life isn’t about battling or rescuing him, it’s about combatting the collective evil of The First Order. She knows how to do that, but facing her son or her failure is much more cloudy a proposition. Even when Han goes to face off with Ren, the question of Leia going isn’t even raised. In the end, both Luke and Leia are placed in a position where they must move forward. The wheels of change are moving too fast now for them to hide. They haven’t experienced any sort of arc yet, but they are finally at a place where they must move forward. Han has faced his past and moved forward by offering himself to his son — either as a lifeline or sacrifice. It would seem, for now, that he is the latter, but time will tell what long-term impact his death will have on Kylo Ren.
Disney and Lucasfilm
When Disney bought Lucasfilm, the general reaction was mixed. Did people really want more Star Wars? Could Disney deliver on the anticipation of what an expanded universe promised? The original trilogy was a generation spanning cinematic experience. Families three generations deep have had their imaginations informed by the adventures of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Princess Leia. Could they live up to what the original movies accomplished? Most everyone seemed doubtful. Disney had to have felt the weight of that pressure immediately, as if millions of eyes were trained on them to see if they make one misstep.
The pressure is all the more compounded when considering how poorly the prequel trilogy was received, and how poorly it has aged. Replicating the success of Star Wars was not as easy as it originally seemed. The prequels made it look like Lucas and his production team didn’t fully understand what made those original movies great in the first place. Why should anyone assume the next generation of directors and writers would replicate the original trilogy’s success any better?
Add to all of that the intensity of Star Wars fandom. One wrong misstep and the internet would be overflowing with commentators lambasting the new movies for killing what made Star Wars great. To try to introduce something controversial like midi-chlorians again and there may be riots in the streets. Yet Disney proceeded forward. They even called their shot: one movie a year, every year, until we all die. Disney wants total saturation. Their first step would be to launch a new trilogy set some thirty years after the second Death Star is destroyed. To put a fine point on this, Disney set themselves up to take on all the pressure of replicating the financial and creative success of the original movies, avoiding the creative pitfalls of the prequels, and launching a franchise that would make people want to come back to this cinematic universe at least once a year, every year! That is an insane amount of pressure for one movie.
Whether consciously or unconsciously, the creative team behind The Force Awakens brought those concerns into the writer’s room. The characters reflect the franchise’s struggle: the past looms too large to move forward. The movie’s answer to being mired in the past was to embrace it whole-heartedly. They took a loner living on a desert planet and turned her into the hope of the galaxy. They placed a great secret inside of an unassuming droid. They made a bigger Death Star. Why? Because in hitting those familiar notes, the audience is comfortably introduced to all new possibilities. The creative team knew that the future came through the past. Now that the past has been dealt with the story can move forward.
Rey’s journey may have started out much like Luke’s, but they are not the same person, and her future is unknown and exciting. Her similarities to Luke connected her to the audience, but now we are invested in her as a character. We are ready to agonize over her failures and celebrate her successes. Kylo Ren is meant to remind the audience of Darth Vader, but both his powers and struggles are uniquely his. He may still see himself living in Vader’s shadow, but to the audience he is a fully formed character whom we’re ready to see commit acts of great evil and/or find redemption. Hopefully both.
The main problem with the prequels is that they were too different aesthetically while trading on nostalgia in a way that felt cheap; they distanced audiences from the galaxy they loved. The Force Awakens used aesthetic and nostalgia to comfortably usher us back into the galaxy far, far away. Lucasfilm effectively acknowledged and embraces the past so they could move the story forward. What will happen in Episode VIII is anyone’s guess (with certain questions that need to be answered in some respect), but Lucasfilm has effectively gotten its audience invested in the journey and excited for what comes next.
And that’s really all we could have asked for.
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