Everyone has a Star Wars story. The moment when they first heard John Williams’ triumphant fanfare. When someone on the playground imitated Darth Vader’s breathing and bellowed “I am your Father!” When they sat in front of a computer for hours in 1998 waiting for the Phantom Menace trailer to load. The Star Wars saga has become generational mythmaking on an unprecedented scale in the modern era.
It’s not surprising, therefore, that the latest entry in the series, The Force Awakens, arrives with an astonishing amount of baggage, whether from previous entries, our own nostalgia, our feelings about what Star Wars has done to the film industry. So here’s what I’m not going to do. I’m not going to tell you my Star Wars story. I’m not going to be drawn into a quality comparison between the films. I’m not going to use the terms “fan fiction” or “Mary Sue”. I’m not going to talk about power levels. I’m not going to demonstrate open contempt for people who disagree with me (a depressing trend in a fair number of the negative reviews of this film – and in some positive ones too). I’m not going to get hung up on minor details and nitpicks and so-called “plot holes”. And I’m not going to start a fight about whether Han shot first.
Instead, the purpose of this review is to attempt to analyze the themes of The Force Awakens. For all the talk about the qualities (or lack thereof) of The Force Awakens, there has been comparatively little in-depth thematic examination of the film. Then again, why should there be? It’s a blockbuster, right? It’s the seventh film in an ongoing series churned out to reboot a franchise to the tune of literally billions of dollars by a director who’s best known for “rehashes”; how could it possibly be about something?
Well, because it is. Blockbusters – true blockbusters, the ones that become zeitgeist phenomena – aren’t simply whizz-bang-pow spectacle, and if they were they wouldn’t simply succeed. Empty calories can only satisfy for so long. Even a Transformers film is, theoretically, about something (namely, Michael Bay’s crazed, uber-patriotic and somewhat frightening vision of America), but all blockbusters do paint their themes in big, bright, bold colors and, as an ever-increasing foundation of the film industry, they deserve the same level of deeper scrutiny afforded to the higher-brow films.
Moreover, Star Wars has always been rooted in something deeper and more powerful than virtually any other franchise out there (with the only possible exception being the Lord of the Rings trilogy), and the latest film plays around with that in some very intriguing ways. Joseph Campbell’s archetypes have fallen out of favor in some circles, but Star Wars is about nothing short of taking all of world mythology and distilling it down to its purest essence. A film like The Force Awakens would not succeed on the level it has without speaking to something deeper and more powerful than simple nostalgia. But nostalgia is a good place to start.
PART ONE: THE SHADOW OF THE PAST
There is no more representative image of The Force Awakens than its new hero Rey (Daisy Ridley in perhaps the most indisputably star-making performance in a very, very long time), sitting in front of her crashed AT-AT home in Jakku, wearing an X-Wing pilot’s helmet. It’s a beautifully humane moment, capping off an extended sequence that may be the series’ finest representation of what it’s like to just live in the GFFA. It’s also an effective way of turning Rey into an audience surrogate – just like much of the audience probably did when they were children (and Rey is very childlike, unsurprising for someone who was abandoned when she was five), she’s playacting at being in the SW movies. But more profoundly, it’s an extension of the film’s largest theme: each new generation has to grow up in the wreckage of the past generation’s mistakes.
This is not necessarily arguing anything revelatory. Indeed, anyone who’s paid attention to what Abrams and Kasdan have been saying over the last year would know this would be a major concern of the film. Moreover, it’s really not shocking that a series obsessed with generational storytelling would continue that theme into the seventh film. However, much of the discussion of The Force Awakens’ use of the past has been centered on its plot, and comparatively little on its characters. This is noteworthy because the characters have received the bulk of the positive response for the film and – more crucially – the film is absolutely centered on how its characters deal with living through these mythic events, time and again. So it’s worth examining The Force Awakens’ use of history from a different angle.
Every major character arc in this film is about struggling with the past. Indeed, virtually every important character (with the exception of the irrepressible Poe Dameron) is in some ways looking back. When the film’s villain Kylo Ren is introduced, it’s in a conversation entirely about his heritage. Kylo, like Rey (and, tellingly, like his father Han Solo) has an arc centered around deceiving himself about the meaning of his past. Kylo (who has the most fascinating arc in the film) believes that his true legacy comes from his grandfather, not his parents and his uncle, even as there are little hints of compassion that sneak around the edge, until the very end. It’s a terrifying level of self-delusion that makes Kylo an immensely compelling character.
Skipping Rey for a moment, Han has a similar level of self-delusion. In conversation with Leia, Han claims that smuggling was the only thing he’s ever been good at. But the film itself (and the three prior to it) shows a very different picture. Han Solo is a terrible smuggler. He’s constantly in debt. He can’t quite talk his way out of trouble the way he obviously believes he can. And he can never quite get a handle on his cargo, whether he has to drop it, or whether it escapes and starts devouring everyone. In contrast, when he takes up the good fight again, he’s a hell of a gunman, a good tactician, and willing to lay down his life for the right cause. This is the actualized Han Solo, not the one he thinks is his true self. But as Lawrence Kasdan has said about this film, as characters age they don’t necessarily get wiser, they simply get older. It’s far easier to regress than to confront your problems, and by the time Han finally confronts his great mistake, it’s far too late for him to fix it.
There’s a particularly beautiful moment that bears mentioning here. It comes when Han is explaining to Finn and Rey exactly why Luke Skywalker left the mundane world behind (though he doesn’t tell them precisely who is responsible, we’ve just learned that Kylo Ren is Han’s son, so the subtext is fairly obvious). When he admits to Finn and Rey that the Jedi and the Force are real, to them it’s exactly like learning their greatest myths are true. But to Han, the Force is what cost him his son. This film – arguably the first character-driven Star Wars film – never loses sight that amidst the vast powers of the Force, the glorious legends and heroes are real people who suffer real loss along the way. History – even that of the greatest heroes in the galaxy – is filled with mistakes left for the next generation to correct.
Rey’s arc functions on a similar level, though the film likely needed another mention of her desire to return to Jakku in the third act (probably something like Han telling her they’d have her back to Jakku soon enough coupled with an ambiguous reaction on her part), and perhaps a little more emphasis on her reaction to the map to Luke Skywalker being completed, to really drive for home in that regard. Still, it’s a deeply sad story of someone who has been living a terrible life she could have easily escaped if not for being quite literally trapped by her deluded vision of the past. It’s no accident she makes her living as a scavenger. But once her illusion is shattered on Takodana, she can begin to embrace her true power. As Maz tells her, the belonging she seeks is not behind her, but ahead.
Other characters simply try to outrun their history. Finn, of course, is the most notable example of this way of thinking. Like Rey, Finn is a childlike character (given this is probably the first time he’s thought for himself, that’s not really surprising either), and running is the immature response – just get away from the bad guys and all of the bad things he’s helped accomplish so he doesn’t have to deal with it anymore. Still, he can’t stop being a soldier – even if his former allies are trying to kill him, his training kicks in and he’ll do what he has to do without regret. And, in a very childlike response, it’s no accident he quickly latches onto the people who are actually kind to him – first Poe, then Rey. Ultimate maturity, then, comes from the fact that in the end he can’t turn his back on his friends, even as he pays a terrible price for it.
Still more characters try to bring back the good old days. The First Order, of course, is the obvious representative of this. This will be discussed more later, but evil in Star Wars is a fundamentally uncreative force. It’s the exemplar of beating your head against the wall until you get it right, whether portrayed through how the villains of the prequel trilogy are unformed precursors to Darth Vader, or how they believe the way to conquer the universe is simply to build bigger and better weapons. But once again, this way of thinking is fatally flawed.
However, it is intriguing that the film treats such concerns as superweapons as, basically, a sideshow. Even the leader of the First Order is implied to think his new empire is a complete sideshow compared to the Force users of the galaxy. Han jokes about there always being a way to blow it up – and he, of course, is right. Rey’s sole deliberate contribution to destroying the Starkiller is quite literally opening a door. And the entire final battle above Starkiller is treated as a backdrop to the choices made by Han, Kylo, Finn, and ultimately Rey. What matters isn’t the governments or the superweapons – what matters are the decisions the people in them make. And those decisions will shake the stars.
In this film, Maz Kanata stands out as the voice of history itself. Most of her lines emphasize this: history repeats. The same evil takes different forms, and so do the same heroes. People do not change, or at least do not change easily. But each person still has a choice: become consumed by the past, or take up the lightsaber (the Sword in the Stone imagery of the finale is far from accidental, especially in a series as deliberately mythic as this one) and make your stand against the darkness.
PART TWO: WHO IS LUKE SKYWALKER?
Perhaps the most interesting example of a character struggling with the past is the one who retreats into the deep past to deal with more immediate past mistakes: Luke Skywalker. It’s strongly implied that Luke hasn’t just gone to the Temple to hide – he’s gone there to go back to the very beginning of the Jedi, to figure out if there’s a way to break the light side-dark side cycle.
The Hero’s Journey (which forgive me, but I must cite – it’s inextricable from this particular series) has become somewhat passé recently, largely because it’s been misinterpreted as a writing guide when instead it’s more of an introductory anthropological study. And most writers who take inspiration from it only go halfway anyways. The oldest myths don’t conclude with the characters at their greatest moment of triumph, they go on to the very end – until death and true apotheosis. Luke has been on the Magic Flight, the retreat from the ordinary plane into higher, more spiritual matters. It’s no mistake the choice was made to have him go to the first Jedi Temple. Similar to the Sword in the Stone imagery mentioned above, the image here is directly out of Arthurian mythology, harkening back to Avalon, and to the Fisher King – the wounded hero healed by the restored talisman. Indeed, the film is rife with Arthurian and chivalric imagery, complete with castles and broadswords and a definite Mordred figure in Kylo Ren. However, it is very telling that the film does not end with Luke taking this film’s talisman – the lightsaber – from Rey. For better or worse, the fight is in the hands of the new generation.
If you look closely at the new generation, however, you notice something very interesting. Let’s break it down like this:
A youth on a desert world making a hard living who discovers they have extraordinary powers, who feels compelled to do good and use those powers to become a Jedi. Who am I talking about?
A brave and compassionate young man standing outside the war who takes up the lightsaber to defend his friends and pays dearly for it. Who am I talking about?
A daring pilot in the fight against an Evil Empire who destroys a superweapon through impossible feats of flying. Who am I talking about?
A young Force user torn between light and dark, struggling with the legacy of Darth Vader and the shadow of his father. Who am I talking about?
Together, Rey, Finn, Poe, and Kylo all form a deconstruction of Luke Skywalker. Between the four they encompass the entirety of Luke’s arc (though Kylo’s is a fascinating inversion) in the Original Trilogy. And through this, the film considers the question of what makes a hero. The answer it comes up with is in line with the rest of the series: a hero is someone who isn’t held back by their past mistakes but learns from them, someone who stands up to defend their friends and the innocent even at great personal cost, and someone who is willing to commit themselves to a deeper, more spiritual understanding of the wider universe. Someone who, in the end, sounds an awful lot like Luke Skywalker.
Much has been made during the film’s advertising process of how Luke Skywalker was missing. But even if he’s not physically present in the film, he is implicitly there in every single frame. His presence or absence is far more crucial than any mere superweapon. He is a folk hero, someone who has ascended in this universe to the level that King Arthur or Robin Hood holds in our world. The film is a celebration of that type of hero as the galaxy cries out for him to return. But, as the film shows, each one of its lead characters has the capacity to be him. They have that power too.
PART THREE: THE CALL TO THE LIGHT
In these films (whether simply the Star Wars saga or blockbusters in general), we often see a hero struggling with their darker side, trying to avoid becoming the thing they fight. In the prequel trilogy, we saw a hero fail, and in the original trilogy we saw a hero succeed. But what if, instead, a villain is struggling to avoid becoming the thing he dreads? Not because of family ties, but simply because doing good feels good?
Indeed, this film emphasizes that doing good does feel good. Rey, Finn, and Poe all go out of their way to help one another (or BB-8) at various points, and are by and large rewarded for it. The entire arc of Finn’s character is that, despite his programming and his fear, he simply can’t help but do good in a way that establishes him as the moral center of the coming trilogy. He may pay a terrible cost for it in this film, but the arc of the series bends towards justice, and he will likely receive it.
So where does this leave Kylo Ren?
Let’s get this out of the way first: Kylo Ren is unlike any Star Wars villain before, because Kylo Ren is genuinely insane in a way that few villains in these types of films are. Most recent “crazy” blockbuster villains (like the Joker, Loki, or Silva) are also plotters – people whose madness takes the form of elaborate schemes that only make sense to their twisted minds. Their insanity feels calculated. Kylo Ren’s madness, in contrast, is deeply insecure and impulsive – he’s always a hairs-breadth from lashing out. He has no apparent grand plan beyond killing off any possibility that he could go to the light side. Previous villains in these films have been defined by their greed, their lust for power, their desire for control and order. But Kylo Ren is outright disturbed, and has been failed by his parents (who thought packing him off to Luke would help), by Luke (what went wrong there will undoubtedly be explored in the next two films) and by the First Order (who obviously want to use him for their own ends). This is a man who commits patricide just to make his pain stop. He is a monster of everyone’s making.
And yet he still feels the call to the light as well. The way his arc plays out as a seduction in reverse is brilliant plotting. And it places an important emphasis on one of the series’ key points: so long as there is a spark of light, it will eventually overwhelm the dark, no matter what the dark does. Kylo Ren casts his lot with the dark, but he too will be undone by the light, likely of his own making.
The supreme irony of this film, though, is that he does everything he thinks he needs to do to “win”. He achieves his “atonement with the father”, and is “rewarded” by being brutally scarred just like his hero. But from where he’s left in the film, it doesn’t seem like winning feels nearly as good as he thought it would.
It’s interesting to note that of the film’s three principal characters, all three are introduced wearing masks and, over the course of the film, lose their masks until all three stand fully revealed at their final confrontation. Rey (the most in touch with herself) simply uses her mask as a means of protection amidst the junk of Jakku, but would really rather be wearing a pilot’s helmet. Her mask is a way of fitting into the environment she should be escaping. Finn’s identity is wiped out by the mask he’s forced to don, but he is reborn in the desert as he sheds his armor and reclaims himself. And Kylo wears his mask to evoke the fearsome creation he wants to be, but his armor falls apart as he’s forced to confront the pitiful creation he truly is. Which tragically has the effect of making him more monstrous.
On a side note, Poe Dameron’s pilot helmet doesn’t hide any of his face from the world, because Poe Dameron is one happy-go-lucky man completely in tune with himself.
A final point about costuming: Rey and Kylo’s robes are deliberate black-and-white parallels to each other, while Finn is dressed in black and brown, representative of his being caught between the two worlds of the First Order and the Resistance. But at the end, Rey (after having the briefest of brushes with the Dark Side as she takes down Kylo – which could have had an extra beat of emphasis, but it’s there in the music and Ridley’s performance) has added a grey vest to her outfit, while Finn is the one all in white. Again, Rey may be the ultimate hero, but Finn will be the moral center of these films.
PART FOUR: THE DECLINE AND FALL OF THE EVIL EMPIRE
As mentioned earlier, Maz discusses how the same evil takes different forms. But what she didn’t discuss was how that evil degrades in form over time.
Evil as portrayed in Star Wars is fundamentally uncreative, as has been previously noted. It consistently takes the form of a grubby bureaucratic middleman, a constant attempt to create the perfect drone soldier with a bigger and bigger gun, and the Dark Side ruling it all. It’s a perfect amalgam of what the Western world sees as evil – the crushing out of all individuality with a dark spirituality mixed in on top. Each trilogy may be viewed as a kind of progression, a further attempt by the Dark Side to get that combination right. There’s even a brief debate here about whether clones would be superior to brainwashed soldiers. Evil can learn from its surface mistakes, but it will always fall into the patterns that destroyed it before.
Let’s be very clear: the First Order is obviously an attempt to continue the Empire both in-Universe and out of it. But the characters of the Empire and the First Order are incredibly different. The Empire is bureaucratic, cold, and determined to wipe out all identity. Every ground trooper is as interchangeable as every middle-managing middle-aged thin-lipped British general. There is no singular self in the Empire, which is why Darth Vader is such an uncomfortable power in the middle of it.
The First Order is a bunch of bullying kids and poseurs playing dress-up. Kylo Ren is the obvious exemplar here, but General Hux, Captain Phasma, and the Supreme Leader himself are all frauds to one degree or another. When Hux boasts about his men being programmed from birth, it’s hard not to look at his youth and see that he was too. He’s far too young to have been responsible for what happened to Finn, so it’s just an empty boast from a child playacting at fascism. His spittle-spewing speech to the First Order runs along similar lines. It has the conviction, but he’s taking vengeance for old battles he cannot possibly remember. He’s continuing his parents’ fight, not his own.
Similarly, Captain Phasma may be threatening when faced with unarmed civilians and have superb fashion sense, but she quickly proves to be a paper tiger as well – completely willing to sell out to save her skin. Tarkin stayed at his post as the Death Star blew; Hux and his men can’t flee fast enough (though it can be assumed that Hux at least stopped to pick up the wounded Kylo before running away with his tail between his legs). And Supreme Leader Snoke may be the biggest (literally) fraud of all.
The most interesting thing about Snoke is how completely dismissive he is of Starkiller Base, both its successes and its downfall. His interest in the First Order seems to solely extend to how many Force Users it can put under his control and whether or not it can kill Luke Skywalker. Unlike Palpatine who truly desired rule over the galaxy, Snoke seems to have an entirely different goal up his sleeve – and he has pulled off a truly epic con involving starting a new Empire to get it.
And make no mistake: Snoke is a con man. A con man posing as a god, but a con man nonetheless. The film is clearly playing with Man Behind the Curtain imagery with his vast hologram. He’s set up to look like a twisted monument, as though some great statue had come to life. The First Order refers to him in almost mythic terms, holding him in simultaneous awe and terror. It’s likely the final character will be somewhat more underwhelming.
So while the dark side can cause horrific tragedy, this film furthers the ongoing series theme that it’s ultimately somewhat pathetic. Vader’s terrifying armor was a walking iron lung. Palpatine was an old man who, for all his vision, got tossed off a bridge. Grievous was just a sack of meat shielded in metal. Boba Fett was a nice packed lunch for the Sarlaac. Now, they all stand revealed as the self-serving, immature cowards they truly are. That doesn’t make them any less vicious or cruel, and the power they wield means they still must be fought. After all, they all made it out. If there’s one thing the First Order has over the Empire, it’s survival instinct.
For the record (as if you can’t tell by this point), I greatly enjoyed the overall film. It does have some legitimate flaws – most notably in its lack of explanation for the political situation in the galaxy – and its breakneck pacing does leave behind some of the more interesting figures on the margin. In its eagerness to get where it’s going, the film occasionally trips over itself, and yet I find what it’s presenting to be so effective so often that most of these complaints feel like nitpicking.
And then there’s the most-criticized part of the film: Starkiller Base. On a plot level, it’s easy enough to see why this has drawn the bulk of the complaints. It is yet another superweapon in a series already criticized for going to that well more than once. And its final defeat comes from a (very brief) trench run – one point where it’s entirely fair to say a more creative solution for how the thing would be blown up wouldn’t have been unwelcome.
As pointed out above, however, Starkiller Base actually plays a different role in execution than the two Death Stars. It is the backdrop against which the main characters make their choices and their fates are decided. They are what’s important, not Starkiller Base. And, symbolically, it plays a very different role from either one as well.
The first Death Star is the symbol of the technological bureaucratic monstrosity of the Empire. It’s a gray, featureless world brought down by the colorful alliance. The second Death Star is a spider’s web, representative of the labyrinthine plotting of the Emperor as he attempts to pull all his enemies into his trap.
Starkiller Base is nothing short of the Dark Side of the Force itself. It’s a decaying corpse of a world, with the remaining trees a fake organic shell around the cold mechanical might within. And more, it literally sucks the light out of the galaxy as it’s powered. Starkiller Base is the logical extension of what the villains have wished to do to the galaxy all along.
Yet look at its final fate. It, too, cannot contain the light within. Starkiller Base does not explode. It becomes a star. Light prevails. Life prevails. This is the story of the entire series, writ as large and as operatic as possible. There were no fairy tale endings for the lead characters of the Original Trilogy, and there will be much loss and grief along the way for the lead characters of the sequels too. But The Force Awakens ends by affirming the ultimately hopeful nature of the series. As long as there is a single spark of light within the all-consuming dark, good will triumph.