[SPOILER WARNING: this post contains detailed analysis of characters and plot elements from The Force Awakens]
part three: falling in love again
(AKA where everything is puppies and rainbows and the Force, assuming Kylo Ren didn’t kill the puppies in the meantime)
It certainly can be said that a great deal of The Force Awakens’ plot is reminiscent of ANH, a remix of sorts. Droid carries secret important information, is pursued by space Nazis, runs into fresh-faced desert dweller. Space Nazis fire superweapon and raze a planet or two. The really bad guy with the funny helmet kills a beloved father figure, and Our Scrappy Young Hero suddenly finds the mystical force to fend off the bad guy and fight another day.
And yet: the same, but not the same. Familiar, just so. New, just so. But made great by a good script – kudos to Michael Arndt, JJ Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan – and an absolutely perfect stellar cast.
I have seen this movie three times already (fourth viewing tomorrow, treating mom and stepdad to IMAX for the first time). Every time I marvel at the emotions conveyed by each performer. These are some damn fine actors.
Oscar Isaac brings us into the fray with Poe Dameron, immediately likable, 100% cool. Like a Disney prince. He wins our hearts with his pluck in the face of capture and then his instant rapport with Finn. He names Finn. He’s the first person in the world to see him as a human being.
But it’s John Boyega as Finn that becomes the audience’s conduit, our Everyman braving new worlds. How original, how positive and daring it is to open this movie with a Stormtrooper turning back on his masters and becoming a protagonist? Finn is a joy to watch, with great comedy moments but also genuine fear, doubt and ultimately courage. He also probably the first Stormtrooper in the history of Star Wars to actually hit a target… after deserting, of course. Someone should maybe check those helmets for actual visibility.
And then: Rey. The next generation’s Luke Skywalker. There’s no other words for it. Star Wars’ central protagonist is now a woman. They hid it cleverly – always showing Rey with her staff only, and Finn holding the lightsaber. It was subtle, but not deceitful – I guess JJ did learn something from the Cumberbatch-is-totally-not-Khan debacle. Daisy Ridley is simply marvelous. She is the heart and soul of this movie, her expressive face conveying infinitely more emotion than dialogue could possibly cover. I can’t have enough of Rey. Who is she? Why was she left behind on Jakku? I feel her loneliness (it comes to me, as I write this, that Rey waits for her family the same way I once waited for my mother to come back for me, and the thought is jarring) and her inherent good nature and the sheer joy she takes from simple things such as bypassing the compressor. I can’t get enough of her smile. I think she hasn’t smiled enough in her life and she certainly deserves it.
This is a movie full of empathy. Poe’s eyes widen in horror as he sees the villagers on Jakku being slaughtered. Rey refuses to trade a droid she just found for an obscene amount of food. Finn, faced with death for the first time, freezes as he understands exactly what being a Stormtrooper really means. Later, after spending half the movie saying he wants to get as far away from the First Order as possible, he literally walks into the dragon’s lair to save Rey because Rey was his friend and she treated him like a person.
This is a joyful, positive movie. This is a movie about people finding their humanity and strength, about forging bonds of friendship. It’s about Finn becoming a person instead of a number and about Rey learning to trust and love after a lifetime of loneliness. But there is also sorrow. There are others who desperately try to snuff out their own humanity as if it were a disease.
Because on the other end of the spectrum, you have Kylo Ren. The villain that had to face the impossible task of living up to Darth Vader. How do you do it? Of course, you literally give him the impossible task of living up to Darth Vader. Being a Star Wars villain is not an easy task. You need to be evil, iconic, yet there must be a hint of humor around you. When we first meet Kylo he’s immediately established as a badass – he freezes Poe Dameron and a blaster shot in mid-air. The incredulous look on Poe’s face as Stormtroopers drag him past the suspended energy beam was the look on all our faces – SHIT JUST GOT REAL. And yet after our heroes escape with BB-8, Kylo Ren, grown man and master of the Dark Side, throws a fucking temper tantrum that wouldn’t be out of place on a three-year-old kid. When I think back on that scene, I chuckle to myself and imagine Kylo as all the white privileged dudebros moaning about Star Wars having a black Stormtrooper and/or a female protagonist. WHAT DO YOU MEAN THERE WAS A GIRL WITH THE TRAITOR AND THE DROID? GIRLS DON’T FLY STARSHIPS! GIRLS DON’T USE LIGHTSABERS! GIRLS HAVE COOTIES!
Yet soon after Darth Tantrum comes a revelation that froze me cold. Because when Darth Gollum – I mean, Supreme Leader Snope – told the audience that Han Solo was Kylo’s father… I immediately knew that Han’s fate was sealed. I had read rumors, of course, but ignored them as speculation. Nothing could have prepared me for that scene, though. Harrison Ford and Adam Driver acted the shit out of it. The way Han walked up to his son without fear but daring to hope, with so much grief etched into his face. The way he did it for Leia. The way Kylo’s eyes brimmed with tears. The cruel deceit of the heart wrenching exchange between them, with Han unaware that Kylo is building up the courage to kill him and not to renounce the Dark Side. Darkness falling as Starkiller Base finally depletes the sun; Han’s hand tenderly cupping his son’s face right after he’s murdered him, fuck all this, I’m tearing up again, Han falling, falling, WHY DON’T YOU PEOPLE STAY AWAY FROM THE WALKWAYS, NOTHING GOOD EVER HAPPENS ON WALKWAYS.
And then that duel in the snow. No acrobatics, no twirling lightsabers. Just raw emotions and intensity. I still feel mesmerized about the way the lightsabers shone on their skin, the way the snowflakes fell on their faces. I was Rey in that moment, finding her strength in the Force, in the knowledge of friendship and love around her; but bizarrely I was also Kylo Ren, lost and desperate, yearning for meaning and destroying his world in the process. What made Ben into Kylo? Fear? Privilege? Ambition? I want to know.
I want to see if Kylo Ren can possibly be redeemed after this.*
When the Millennium Falcon soared over the ocean and Rey walked up those steps, I knew who she was going to find. We all knew it in the movie theatre, that after all those years we would again face Luke Skywalker, Jedi Master. After the shock and loss of Han’s death, we needed a familiar face. We needed hope again. And we found it in Luke’s piercing eyes. When Rey extended that lightsaber in offering and Luke finally revealed his face, all I wanted was to know how the story continues.
I’m not saying this movie is perfect, you see. That whole story with the map is the most ridiculous movie McGuffin in the history of movie McGuffins. Hey, everything is ruined and I’m leaving forever to get away from things and I just deleted all my social media accounts, says Luke Skywalker, but just in case you need me here’s a map of the galaxy with my exact location. From several bits and pieces such as the novelization, it seems that our McGuffin is actually a map of all the known Jedi temples in the galaxy – hence the connecting dots – and that from stuff he may have said before disappearing, those who knew him best – Han and Leia, oh my breaking heart – deduced he was trying to find the oldest temple of all. At this moment, however, I’m far too invested in the fates of all these people to care about movie logic.
Also, I think these characters owe a debt to Extended Universe concepts that should be acknowledged. In the EU, Han and Leia had three kids: twins Jaina and Jacen, and little brother Anakin, who dies as a teenager in the beginning of the New Jedi Order series. Jacen was very attuned to the Force, preferring to meditate rather than play with other kids; eventually he succumbed to the Dark Side as an adult and took the name Darth Caedus in the final novels of the EU, killing Luke’s wife Mara Jade, mother of Luke’s son Ben. Jaina was a great mechanic and pilot who loved working in the Falcon with her father. In the end she fought her brother and killed him but with his last breath he used the Force to warn his family of an impending attack and thus save them. I clearly see echoes of Jacen in Kylo and of Jaina in Rey but this in no way means anything other than that – I’m not quite ready to infer family relations or plot points solely from similarities with the EU.
Kylo Ren so consumes my meditations on film villainy that I barely spare a thought for the First Order themselves. They sure are great event organizers, because that speech before the first ignition of Starkiller Base was probably the most accurate reenactment of Triumph of the Will I ever saw. In case you hadn’t gotten the point about Space Nazis yet. I’m absolutely amazed at Domhnall Gleeson’s turn as General Hux; he’s usually so awkward and likable it was quite a shock to see him turned into Ginger Hitler. But I don’t really understand their motivations – besides restoring the Galactic Empire, of course. Who is Snoke? What is he? Where does he come from and what is his endgame?
I am also, of course, a little annoyed that Captain Phasma a) got very little screen time and b) JUST GAVE UP LIKE THAT and lowered the shields on Starkiller Base. I read somewhere she’s coming back, and since Starkiller got blown up there’s a good chance she may have chosen to omit that little detail from her mission report to Hux.
But Rey is my new heroine; and Finn and Poe are my new OTP. Finn was a number. He wasn’t even allowed to remove his helmet without permission. Poe immediately trusted him – hey, it could all be a ploy to lead the First Order to BB-8! - and named him. Here’s the thing: I don’t remember the exact words but Poe asked Finn whether he accepted his name. Poe acknowledged Finn’s agency for the first time in Finn’s life. And while they were apart for most of the movie, a bond was formed between them that would not be denied. When Poe shoots, like, ten TIE fighters in a row during the attack at Maz’s castle with Finn cheering though he had no idea it was Poe, I knew they were connected. When Finn saw Poe alive and well, and Poe said, “Keep the jacket. It suits you”, while licking his lips appreciatively, I could hear the sound of a million fics being written.
What a time to be alive. What a time to be in the Star Wars fandom.
A final moment of reflection and speculation. Rey’s origins remain a mystery and indeed we end up with more questions than answers. Rey was left on Jakku as a child, in the “care” of Unkar Plott. Nevertheless she retained an unwavering faith that her family would come back for her – thousands of days etched on the wall of her makeshift home. Rey is naturally strong in the Force. Rey has a vision of the Knights of Ren – possibly of the massacre of the apprentices when Kylo turned to the Dark Side. But all the speculation about Rey being a) Han and Leia’s daughter and thus Kylo’s sister or b) Luke’s daughter bothered me deeply. I find it very difficult to believe that any of these three characters would abandon a little girl like that. Remember, Obi-Wan left Luke with people he trusted and watched him from afar. Rey was left to fend for herself in the fringes of society. Not even after Kylo’s turn to the Dark Side, nothing would make any of these three people, as a loving family, to just discard of Rey like that.
A few days ago I read a theory that solves all of my above questions and sets out excellent dramatic tension to follow. It’s a great theory. But it’s just that. As far as we know, the folks at Lucasfilm may not yet have decided on Rey’s parentage at all.
As told by Maura O’Malley at Bustle, it goes as follows: Rey really is Kylo’s sister. According to official info, Rey is 19 and Kylo is maybe 29. So if Kylo turned to the Dark Side as a teenager, it fits the age at which we see Rey being abandoned on Jakku. And why was she left there? Because when it came to slaughtering the apprentices at Luke’s academy, Ben Solo / Kylo Ren couldn’t bring himself to kill his little sister. He faked her death to everyone, left her on Jakku, probably changed her name and wiped her memory.
This gives so many new layers to the story and the tragedy of Han, Luke and Leia. They lost two children and not one. They think their son killed his own baby sister. This is the pain that drove Han and Leia apart and traumatized Luke to the extent that he isolated himself from the galaxy. But it is also a tantalizing glimpse of hope for Ben Solo / Kylo Ren’s near forgotten humanity – and it may be the explanation to his outburst upon discovering that the fugitives have escaped Jakku with a girl in tow. He left her there, and his instinct immediately tells him his sister is back into his life. It also gives additional meaning to his offer to train her, mirroring Vader’s offer to Luke in ESB even deeper.
And more: the haunted look on Luke’s face in the final scene gains possible new meaning. Because Leia – who apparently remains mostly untrained - may not have known her own daughter, but Luke, strong in the Force, most definitely recognized Rey immediately.
I guess we’ll find out in two years. Or four.