I have wanted to follow up the article I wrote on mercy and the Star Wars saga with a couple thoughts on “The Force Awakens”—which believe it or not only came out a little over two weeks ago. I know—it seems like last year. (Actually, come to think of it, that is also true.) But I haven't wanted to spoil anything, so I've resisted. Until now!
The Power of Repetition
Maybe the biggest criticism I’ve heard of “The Force Awakens” is that it’s just a rehash of the original “Star Wars.” Consider the film’s plot in a sentence: lonely dreamer stuck on a desert planet who escapes by way of the Millennium Falcon and Han Solo to get involved in resistance movement that involves blowing up a planet killing, er, planet, but at the cost of a father figure murdered in front of the dreamer by the villain.
So yeah, pretty darn similar. And frankly, if I could have erase one idea from the new movie, it would have been the whole Death Planet Starkiller device. It’s just played out, yo. I mean, yes, this one was bigger—but it was also clearly derivative.
(Also, more or less impossible to understand: I’ve read the explanations saying the blast from Starkiller goes through hyperspace so that it can blow up things across the universe, but then how is it everyone seems able to see the beams? And since when is hyperspeed instantaneous? And what did blowing up those planets even mean? Is there no Republic government anymore? Because that seems like something that would make Leia and her pals WAY more upset than it seems to.)
So yeah, Starkiller—not the best choice. Although I will also say, on repeat viewing it’s actually not such a problem. I don’t know if that is because you now know it’s coming and can ignore it or because it just sort of works better on second (or third) (or fourth—don’t judge me) viewing.
But even with Starkiller, “The Force Awakens” is definitely not the same movie as “Star Wars.” Just to take the most obvious example, there’s Finn, the storm trooper fleeing the First Order. There is no Finn-equivalent in the Star Wars saga. He is something entirely new, and the movie is as much about him as it is about Rey.
(Also, it’s my suspicion that he, too, is a future Jedi. He’s the one that Kylo Ren notices on the planet. He’s the one that somehow manages to break out of the programming the First Order puts all the troopers through. And Rey hasn’t done anything yet when Commander Snoke says there has been an awakening. So get on board people. They can’t all be Skywalkers.)
Rey herself makes for interesting analysis. It’s true, like Luke, she is an orphan stuck on a harsh desert planet. But unlike him, she’s not desperate to leave; she is desperate to stay. She has lost everything and she is living in the ruins of war (literally), and still she keeps hoping she will be reunited with her family. Her story is just as poignant as Luke’s, if not more so; but it is also totally different.
And that is the real pattern of “Force Awakens—lots of echoes of “Star Wars,” but with cool alterations. We open on a star destroyer filling the screen, but this time it is between us and the planet, creating that sense of a growing darkness. We have a droid with plans that need to get back to the good guys, but those plans aren’t about blowing up a Death Star, destroying an Empire or even killing an evil Sith, but about bringing the Jedi and their goodness back into a universe that is slowly growing colder. We have a scary bad guy in a mask, but he’s altogether different than Vader.
In the book of Genesis, the same basic stories keep repeating themselves from generation to generation: older and younger brothers compete and betray one another; people are tempted and fall; societies decay; and God elects unexpected individuals to see humanity through. And that repetition is part of the point: no matter when you’re living, the choices, the temptations and God are the fundamentally the same.
But at the same time, the alterations amongst generations remind us that we are not trapped in an endless loop. People (and God) can always make new and surprising decisions. Even amidst the humdrum or the seemingly never ending, there is always also the possibility of change.
For me, that is the fundamental point of the repetition not just in “The Force Awakens” but all the “Star Wars” films. Life is always the same struggle of good versus evil, and yet it’s always also filled with surprise, the possibility of a new hope.
The Consequences of Mercy
As I wrote a couple months ago, I think the primary theme of the original “Star Wars” films is the challenge of mercy. Everyone around Luke tells him he should kill Vader, but once he discovers the man in the suit is his father, he refuses to go that way. Instead he sets out to save his father and that choice not only helps Vader regain his soul but gives him the courage to destroy the Emperor. Luke’s love literally saves the whole universe. It’s all very satisfying and happily ever after.
Except in a way Yoda and Ben were right: Being merciful is incredibly dangerous. To be merciful is to expose yourself to pain, betrayal or worse. In life as in the movies, doing the right thing usually comes at a high cost.
In that sense, the ending of “Return of the Jedi” is a bit of a cheat; and I think most viewers feel on some level like something is missing in the film. It’s not just that Ewoks are a fundamental dumbing down of the “Star Wars” concept; somebody important should have died or something important should have been lost. Imagine if Chewbacca or Leia had been killed in the battle on Endor; think of the gravitas that would have added.
I think this new film is trying to explore that other side of the coin, the consequences and risk of mercy. The situation is another wonderful repetition-with-reversal of the original: instead of the son trying to bring back the father, here we have the father, Han Solo, trying to bring back his son—who is appropriately named Ben. (Actually Leia and Han giving their only son that name is entirely silly; neither had any real contact with Ben Kenobi. But it’s perfect for the scene, so just go with it.)
And the scene is laid out in ways that visually and emotionally echo both the Kenobi/Vader moment in “Star Wars” and the Vader/Luke confrontation at the end of “Empire.” The Kenobi/Vader moment is the most obvious—just as Ben gets confronted by Vader after he’s finished deactivating the tractor beam, Han, having finished setting the mines that will help the Resistance forces confronts his son.
But right away we have the difference that Han proceeds from a stance of mercy. In “Star Wars,” Obi-Wan has long past given up on Vader. He calls him “a master of evil” and refers to him only as “Darth.” Han, on the other hand, refuses to call his son by his goofy bad guy name, even gets him to take off his “I Wanna Be Darth Vader” Halloween mask. He’s only there to try and help his son, just like Luke in “Return of the Jedi.”
But unlike Luke, he pays the price—which in retrospect really had to happen. And it really is the highest of prices; unlike the Jedi, Han should not have any “ghost afterlife” to look forward to. He put himself out there, knowing the risk, and he lost everything.
If I had to guess, I would suspect that the journey of these films as compared to the original trilogy is how that sacrifice will change everything. It’s really the story of Jesus, if you think about it. (Tell me you ever thought Han Solo could be a Jesus figure...) He gives everything, completely fails. And yet as a result of his willingness to love no matter what the cost, to be faithful, the world is completely changed.
Ben Solo killed his dad in order to quiet the torment in his soul. (For me the very best part of that scene is how fundamentally true the conversation between Ben and Han is. He is tormented; he does want his father’s help. And his dad will do anything.) But will that murder fortify his evil intentions or erode them? That’s what will be interesting.
In the subsequent battle between Rey and Kylo, the film also gives us a small hint of the danger of the Obi-Wan/Yoda “The Only Thing To Do With Bad Guys is Whack Them” path. It’s not a coincidence that when Rey levels up to badass Jedi and has her chance to kill Kylo, her face goes all rage-y. Slashfilm.com got access to the script itself; here’s how that moment gets described:
She could kill him — right now, with ONE VICIOUS STRIKE! But she stops. Realizing she stands on a greater edge than even the cliff — the edge of the dark side. The earth SHAKES. The earth splits. A gully forms.
Apparently in the novelization of the movie, she hears a voice in her head that says “Kill him,” which the audio book suggests is that of Commander Snoke.
So yeah—mercy versus revenge, even justified punishment—it’s all over this film, and yet the territory we are entering is completely different. And who knows what’s to come....
507 days until Episode VIII.