This is “the” The Force Awakens post. It’s probably the only big one I’m going to do – the movie a few hours in the past for me now, filtered through first impressions and subconscious dream states. (Sleep and then wake/for better hot take, as the old saying goes).
I’m not going to talk too much about the film overall here, though. I will say that this is going to be SPOILERRIFIC, so please take a step back if you don’t want to be spoiled – and you don’t – go watch the film first and come back afterwards.
Alright, so a little bit of light preamble: I liked that a whole lot. Loved it, in fact. Was it a little light on the exposition? Yes! But that’s okay, because it’s STAR WARS. I don’t mean that in a pure fandom sense, I mean that I have always thought Star Wars works better with a few gaps in the margins. The archetypes are broad enough that you can fill in the mysteries yourself, and it gives future installments bits and pieces to explore. Were there some retreads of A New Hope beats? Of course there were, not only because fans were hankerin’, but because Disney has a multibillion dollar IP to service, and they need to do it in such a way as to be sure audiences are going to be happy. They have every reason to be. It looks pretty, the new cast is great, the old favourites function marvelously, and the various balls are kept in the air. Well done, Disney, JJ, Star Wars and company.
More importantly though, rather than try to conceal what it borrows from the earlier films, The Force Awakens wears it proudly on its sleeve, and it does so for a purpose: this is a handover film. Of course there are X-Wing/TIE Fighter dogfights, fascist goons, masked villains, strange coincidences, desert landscapes, firefights, cute droids hiding secret plans, and aliens. That’s what Star Wars is. Han Solo gets to play a major role in the film not just as a creaky mentor, but as the custodian of Star Wars itself. “It’s true. All of it,” he says, as was seen in the trailers – but what’s more important is who he is saying it to: Rey and Finn, the new generation of Star Wars leads. Later in the film, as they face down Kylo Ren after he has done the “unthinkable” and kills Han Solo (the clearly telegraphed unthinkable that SUCCEEDS nevertheless, based on the gravelly way Harrison Ford says “Ben”, by the way), the key words of the franchise are exchanged: “It’s just us now.”
This is the film that had to be close to the old Star Wars so that Star Wars itself can be passed on. To whom it is passed on is the important point.
I want to talk about Kylo Ren.
It is no accident – can be no accident – that Kylo Ren is the flawed inheritor of the greatest of all possible Star Wars legacies. He is the son of Princess Leia and Han Solo, trained by Luke Skywalker…and he sucks. I don’t mean the character sucks, he’s great, but he’s great because he despite all his privilege isn’t very good at his job.
Can you hone in on the key word in that sentence? The Force Awakens says that the presumptive natural inheritor of Star Wars is, in fact, not such. Despite the legacy bequeathed to him, he’s not a Jedi (or a Sith). He’s a failed state. The crackling, semi-functional lightsaber he wields? Again, not an accident. Deeply symbolic. He can’t build a lightsaber. He is no Jedi. The knowledge and power he has acquired is half-borrowed, half-stolen. Think about what Ren says when torturing his victims. “I can have anything I want”. Think about the temper tantrums when someone gets away from him.
He’s a spoiled, frustrated, privileged asshole. He’s also – in case it missed your notice – the principal white male of the new generation.
The trailers certainly hinted that Finn was going to be the Force user touched by the titular awakening, and although that’s not off the cards yet, it’s not the narrative of this movie. Rey is the true inheritor of the Light Side destiny – at least for this film – and it makes this abundantly clear by having Luke’s lightsaber fly to her hand. “You need a teacher,” hisses Ren – despite the fact he’s been wounded by Finn already, that he’s made mistakes at almost every turn. The whole film comes down to that fight in the woods.
And then Rey beats the shit out of him. He’s wounded, and tired, and clearly having a hard day – but that message can’t be any clearer. The true inheritor of the Star Wars legacy is a woman. She is given both Luke’s lightsaber AND the Millennium Falcon. There can be no doubt. Star Wars belongs to her now, with Finn as the second principal figure. (And thank God for Daisy Ridley and John Boyega, because damn me if I don’t feel they both can carry it.)
JJ copped a bit of flack for his remarks about Star Wars moving to include women now – but it’s clear with the benefit of film context that he was trying to say something vital about what the film is.
To put not too fine a point on it: Kylo Ren is a Star Wars fan. He’s an insider – he knows all the old stories and all the players involved in it, and he’s a seed planted from the first moment a Princess clapped eyes on a scruffy looking nerf-herder. He thinks that makes him entitled to Star Wars. But it’s not for him. He has no right of ownership.
The Force Awakens is a movie which hands over Star Wars to the next generation, but it’s also a movie about who that next generation needs to be. Not the entitled legacy of another white man who feels he has been promised a victory he neither earned nor deserved, but belonging to those who can feel the Light Side of the Force, from all kinds of backgrounds who understand what it means, beyond all the trappings. Go where the heart goes, and the trappings will follow.
Much can be made of Kylo Ren’s complicated feelings about his father – the man who made him, but who, as the man says himself “will just end up disappointing you”. That observation can’t be divorced from the very complicated legacy of George Lucas. Lucas isn’t the villain of the piece, thankfully. It’s not what the progenitor of the franchise deserves. If he’s represented by anyone, it’s the creaky Han Solo, going back to his roots. Reminding us of what was great about Star Wars in the first place. Rather, the villain stems from the attitude of a total jerk who feel that he’s somehow been “betrayed”, that he is (and in so far as he represents certain segments of the audience, that they are) the true custodians of Star Wars. Yeah, that’s the Dark Side speaking, motherfuckers. That’s the opinion of the man who kills Han Solo. You don’t get to lock the gate and keep the key. The Force is part of all living things. You want to talk about bringing balance to the Force? That means it gets shared equally.
When Solo recognises Rey and Finn as his successors (and he does, that’s not a subtle point), he’s standing as the head of the comet – the titular expression of the old Star Wars verse that these new kids are the ones we’re following.
The Force Awakens succeeds not just in making a Star Wars movie which functions as a Star Wars movie with all the fun and all the trimmings (which was the bar everyone prayed it’d clear), but as a Star Wars movie which is to an extent about Star Wars and the culture surrounding Star Wars without undercutting all the fun and trimmings we’ve been waiting for. Take a victory lap, JJ. You’ve earned it.
Ren might turn back into Ben Solo before the next few films are done. It’s happened before. But for Episode VII at least, the conceptual markers are clear. Star Wars is what it always was, but there really are fresh hands at the wheel.