In his “review” of Star Wars: The Force Awakens—it’s really more of a commentary piece if we’re playing semantics—Salon’s Andrew O’Heir makes what I would say is a fair point regarding the film:
“You can choose to understand “The Force Awakens” as an embrace of the mythological tradition, in which the same stories recur over and over with minor variations. Or you can see it as the ultimate retreat into formula: “Let’s just make the same damn movie they loved so much the first time!” There are moments when it feels like both of those things, profound and cynical, deeply satisfying and oddly empty.”
O’Heir’s instinct to work against his initial either-or binary here is telling, and reflects a lot of what I reacted to within The Force Awakens. There is a larger narrative ongoing about this film being “safe,” and about duplicating and/or rebooting the existing films—primarily A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back. I think this argument makes a lot of sense when considering an overview of the film’s plot, but I think we need to fully acknowledge the tension with which this process takes place. O’Heir’s argument about the mythological tradition absolutely echoes in The Force Awakens, but the questions of how those stories will recur, and who they belong to, are more important to my experience of this film than the level to which they do or do not vary from the previous narratives.
[Warning: Pretty extensive spoilers for The Force Awakens, so proceed at your own peril.]
The Force Awakens begins with a straightforward sequence: Poe Dameron is given a standard MacGuffin, a small drive containing what we’re told is a map to the whereabouts of Luke Skywalker. The film uses its opening title crawl efficiently, informing us of Luke’s disappearance, such that the appearance of the map sets up an established quest narrative: the Resistance is searching for Luke Skywalker. That quest is immediately placed in the hands of Poe, the Resistance’s top pilot, who steps forward as our central hero.
But then the film complicates this. The map ends up inside BB-8, who Poe sends into the deserts of Jakku before being captured. We think that Poe is heading down to Jakku in order to continue his quest, but he disappears after the stolen tie fighter crashes on the planet, leaving Finn to take over. Meanwhile, BB-8 finds its way to Rey on Jakku, the three eventually converging just in time to join the long list of thieves to pilot the Millennium Falcon… only to be abducted by Han Solo and Chewie.
Throughout all of this, there’s a game of tag over who exactly is responsible for this quest narrative at any given time. Outside of the missing Poe, none of these characters are actually part of the resistance, despite all sharing some relationship with it: Rey is clearly invested in the “myth” of the Force and stories of the rebellion but has no direct ties to it (as far as she is aware); Finn’s rejection of his Stormtrooper orders logically creates a relationship with resistance values, but he primarily understands this as a personal dilemma rather than a galactic one; Han Solo is indeed the pilot who knew Luke Skywalker and fought in the rebellion, but he’s also estranged from the leader of that resistance and fraught with personal tragedy.
None of these characters asked to be on this quest: the quest’s leader, General Leia Organa, doesn’t appear for a long time in the movie. But what makes The Force Awakens work for me is that the film uses this as its anchor. The film presumes we care about the search for Luke Skywalker, which is especially true for anyone who watched all the trailers and noted the character’s absence despite Mark Hamill being the second-billed actor in the film. And then it asks us to think about which character will be the one to take on this task, and uses character’s relationship with the task as a way to articulate a wide variety of valuable story dynamics.
You have the yo-yo between Finn and Rey, the former with the more heroic “instincts” but the latter with a stronger sense of self and identity; their dynamic on Jakku is crucial to the movie, as Finn’s efforts to treat her as a damsel in distress are rebuffed as they enter into an equal partnership. The film later uses Luke’s lightsaber as the “torch” representing the journey, suggesting a strong connection with Rey at Maz’s but initially placing the lightsaber in Finn’s hands instead as the battle progresses.
But you also have the yo-yo between the old and the new, as Han’s reluctance to take on the quest becomes a meta-commentary on the film’s interest in the generational dynamics of it all. What’s interesting for me is that Finn and Rey are never actually wholly invested in the quest narrative: Rey believes in the importance of the mission but always intends to return to Jakku, and only travels to the Starkiller because she’s kidnapped; meanwhile, Finn tells Han when they arrive that he’s really only there to rescue Rey. By comparison, once Han reunites with Leia, he falls back into a different set of old habits than the ones he adopted after Ben’s betrayal, joining the Resistance both out of a sense of duty and by its link to the other person with this particular quest: Ben, or as he’s known for most of the film, Kylo Ren.
There is no doubt we can track a lot of this onto the structure of A New Hope (Han is Obi-Wan, Kylo is Vader, Luke is Rey, Finn is Han, etc.). But what makes it more dynamic for me is that I was never sure who was who until the final act, at which point I was invested enough to want to see how this played out heading into Episode VIII. The final act doesn’t work as well as the others because it lacks the same sense of discovery: the climactic moment between Kylo and Han on the bridge lands, of course, but in the context of the film it doesn’t feel like a climax. It feels like one long denouement to the film’s real climax, which is the thrill of discovery of seeing who is going to populate this universe going forward.
I think it’s easy, as a result, to look at the film in a cynical light in retrospect. Kylo Ren is the franchise building a character who embodies the anti-hero status of Darth Vader from the get-go, the battle between light and dark inherent to his identity, and his cool costume attached to the potential for good in a way that fuels children’s imaginations. And I can see how the second act, as the story shifts away from the characters tumbling unexpectedly into a larger conflict toward a more clearly established set of stakes, could be dismissed by some as overly conspicuous world-building: there is a lot of coincidence driving Rey’s call to heroism, what with Luke’s original lightsaber so conveniently located in a box in Maz’s basement.
But to summarize the film, for me, fails to capture my reaction to it. It’s also why I think the internet at large seems to be doing fairly well with not spoiling the film, as they understand how much of their enjoyment of it—if they enjoyed it, of course—came through the unfolding discoveries rather than necessarily through the spectacle of the final battle (which is fine and all, but the Starkiller is a pretty one-dimensional threat as far as threats go). Rather than a movie designed to surprise with shocking twists, The Force Awakens sets a clear story in motion, establishes the characters that will populate it, and then lets the dynamism come from watching the pieces move into place gradually over the course of the film, the rising action becoming its climax.
Once that puzzle is complete, the final result is a solid foundation for the rest of the franchise, but watching it come together was more dynamic than that, and more than just a retread of the rest of the franchise.
- Whereas the music cue titles quite notoriously spoiled a major plot development in Episode I, here Williams’ score only spoils whose story this really is: while there are cues associated with other new characters, it’s hard not to see “Rey’s Theme” and know who’s most important.
- I will be curious to see whether or not any of the novelizations or other tie-ins offer any clarity as it regards the timeline in the film. Specifically, how long has passed between Ben’s uprising at Luke’s Jedi training island and the events in the film? How long have Han and Leia been estranged? I’m not shocked that a movie franchise built on the imprecise “a long, long time ago” would be vague with such details, but the opening title crawl plays loose with the temporality of it all (in a film that’s more invested in the uncertain spatiality of things, what with the MacGuffin being a piece of a map).
- My favorite sequence in the film is the one where Rey is underneath the floor of the Falcon while Finn and BB-8 work out a deal in regards to informing Rey of the location of the Resistance. It’s both a great showcase for the almost inconceivably charming execution of BB-8 and the way Abrams’ sense for comic timing elevates the energy levels of this film as compared to the prequels. While there’s lots of spectacle for me to enjoy on a second viewing, it’s scenes like this that I’m most excited to revisit.
- This has to set some kind of record for the least screen time for a second-billed actor in cinematic history, right? I was not shocked to see Hamill’s role so small in the context of the film, but still chuckled as the credits started rolling.