The Force Awakens aims straight for the nostalgic hindbrain of Star Wars fandom, but my favourite moments were invariably the ones where we saw something new.
The looming wreckage of a Star Destroyer on Jakku, hinting at three decades of history without a word of exposition. Kylo Ren's desperation to forge a new identity outside the established rivalry between Jedi and Sith. Rey's wordless introduction, focusing on her surroundings and her evocative theme music. And in a more general sense, the diversity of the cast, which may be the most significant innovation J.J. Abrams brought to the franchise. It's hard to articulate how important and exciting it feels to see actors like John Boyega, Daisy Ridley and Oscar Isaac at the helm of a story like this, except to say: oh my god I'm so in love.
You can easily map various aspects of the original trio onto Rey, Poe and Finn. In the foreground, Rey continues the Skywalker legacy as a Force-sensitive prodigy with a natural affinity for machines, trapped in an isolated desert settlement but dreaming of the stars. Then Finn and Poe share attributes from both Han and Leia: the pilot, the icon of the rebellion, the outlaw, the reluctant hero who is motivated more by love than by political ideals. Poe's arc in the first half of the film even follows Leia's role in A New Hope, as he passes important information to a droid before being kidnapped and interrogated by the enemy, only to be rescued by a stormtrooper.
This melting pot of familiar motifs is reminiscent of the way J.J. Abrams remixed Spock's death scene for Star Trek Into Darkness, but this time it was far more effective. While Into Darkness offered an unsatisfying copy of an already iconic moment, The Force Awakens had more in common with the way long-running superhero comics get updated for modern audiences. It extracted the most compelling ideas at the heart of Star Wars, pulled them apart, and rearranged them to make something fresh. This didn't always work (in particular, the Starkiller Base attack was unnecessarily derivative), but the three new leads were a phenomenal success.
First off: I'm super hyped that everyone's imaginary BFF John Boyega got to play one of the most interesting characters in the movie. Finn is funny and moving and instantly relatable, and he also answers an ongoing question that lurked in the background of the original trilogy: what kind of person becomes a stormtrooper, and why?
Finn's character arc raises so many interesting questions about life as a stormtrooper. Is he an anomoly, or have others abandoned the First Order and the Empire before? Rather than being the faceless drones of the original trilogy, are stormtroopers actually victims of cult indoctrination on an industrial scale? Are Poe and Rey the first friends Finn has ever had? Is Poe's jacket the first possession he's ever owned? Finn's background becomes more and more fascinating the more I think about it, not least because he's explicitly characterized as being so warm-hearted and full of personality, a burst of colour buried in the drab monochrome prison of the First Order.
TFA's nostalgia factor is something I plan to explore in a later post, but in terms of the main three characters I think it goes beyond their loose overlap with Han, Luke and Leia. The new heroes also embody some of the key narrative concepts at the heart of the franchise, with Finn representing the ongoing theme of personal choice. He takes the opposite role to Kylo Ren and Anakin, a classic example of an unwitting hero who drags himself out of obscurity to meet his true destiny.
Finn and Rey made me realize how many films just don't understand how to depict youth. I don't mean teen movies or coming-of-age stories, but the kind of youthful vitality that comes off Daisy Ridley and John Boyega in waves. They're so emotive and energetic! They react to everything so fast! They feel so much!
Rey is a new kind of Jedi. In fact, you could argue that she's not a Jedi at all. She uses the Force and she fights with a lightsaber, but she has none of the traditional Jedi training or ideology that we know from the other movies -- something that I hope gets explored in Episode VIII. Because let's face it: the Jedi suck.
The prequel trilogy, for all its many faults, is an effective parable about the Jedi being brought down by their own hubris. They're a stagnant organization, recruiting infants to go through rigorous training and then selecting the best ones to live the life of a monk. (Come to think of it, the Jedi have some things in common with the First Order's stormtrooper training program in that regard.) Stuck in a conference room on a heavily urbanized planet, the Jedi Council of The Phantom Menace were a perfect illustration of how far the Order strayed from the Living Force.
The Jedi's main purpose was to build empathy between all living things, but at the same time they pressured their members to avoid strong emotional attachments. So while Anakin and Padme's courtship is one of the worst love stories ever committed to film, you've got to admit that it's a compelling narrative conceit. By upholding the doctrine that forbade Jedi to fall in love, the Order sowed the seeds of its own downfall.
Throughout The Force Awakens, Rey's strength refutes the Jedi's traditional philosophy. Her greatest moment of Force-sensitive power is during her duel with Kylo Ren, but even then she's hardly an image of meditative calm. She's self-taught and passionate; the effort she exerts is visible in her face and body. We see her struggle, and get angry and excited and triumphant, and none of these emotions are perceived as a weakness to be eradicated. (Of course, Luke was similarly energetic in the original trilogy, but he had Yoda and Obi-Wan telling him to "calm his mind.")
I'm very interested to see what happens when Rey starts training with Luke, because while she clearly does need training in the Force, the other movies prove that the old-fashioned Jedi route is fundamentally flawed.
In the prequel trilogy, the Jedi Order feels old and tired, and eventually implodes. Then Obi-Wan and Yoda impart the remains of their knowledge to Luke in classic patriarchal mentor fashion, but Luke only defeats the Empire with the help of his friends. And we just found out that when Luke started training new young Jedi (presumably in the mould of his old masters), one of them went berserk and killed the rest. So I'm hoping that the next film will see Rey develop into a new kind of Jedi, one that fits more naturally with the idea of the living Force, combining vitality with serenity instead of eschewing all extremes of emotion.
As for Rey's thematic role in the franchise, she clearly follows in the footsteps of the Skywalker family saga. I don't necessarily buy into the popular theory that she's Luke's daughter, but the film does draw a ton of parallels between her, Luke, and Anakin. (Which makes it all the more ridiculous that so many Internet Fools called her a Mary Sue -- a meaningless criticism that always originates from a wellspring of misogyny.)
Luke had a relatively sheltered upbringing with his aunt and uncle on Tatooine, which explains why he spends so much time being petulant and bad at fighting in Episodes IV and V. Rey's childhood was far more lonely and harsh, forcing her to gain the kind of survival skills that Luke never needed. However, the key difference between Luke and Rey isn't their respective skill levels or life experience, but the ways they develop on the road to heroism.
In A New Hope, Luke follows a very traditional hero's journey storyline where he learns new skills to defeat an enemy. Rey's arc, on the other hand, is more about inner strength. She already knows how to take care of herself, but she remains on Jakku because she's tied to the memory of her family. Her turning point is less about fighting an external opponent, and more about letting go of the past and fulfilling her full potential.
There are so many great little moments that emphasize this point throughout the film. The marks on her AT-AT's wall resemble a prisoner counting down their days in captivity, but when she locks eyes with that old woman near the beginning of the movie, you know she's seeing a possible vision of her own future. Like Luke and Anakin before her, you assume that she's trapped in this desert outpost against her will -- but as soon as she steals the Millennium Falcon, you realize that she could have left Jakku at any time. This loyalty to her missing family is all the more heartbreaking when you see how powerful and determined she becomes when she finally leaves, reflecting Finn's confusion and excitement at his newfound freedom.
A quick note on Rey's parentage
Star Wars fans are going to spend the next 18 months debating whether Rey is a Skywalker or not. Personally, I hope she isn't -- partly because we've already had one Skywalker family ~revelation with Kylo Ren, and partly because it's hard to legitemize a scenario where Luke (or Han and Leia) leave a small child alone on a desert planet. Especially if she was abandoned as a direct result of Ben Solo turning to the Dark Side, an event that would have to take place when he was about 15 years old for the timelines to match up.
But either way, the most important thing to remember is that this is a J.J. Abrams movie.
After Lost and Star Trek, J.J. Abrams has more experience with fan theories and speculation than any other filmmaker on the planet. He's savvy about which hints to include and what details should remain a mystery. So with that in mind, I'm 100% sure there are no stray clues in TFA. The film is riddled with parallels between Rey and Luke (and/or hints that Rey was a Jedi trainee as a young child), but I doubt there's any way to reverse-engineer a full picture of her backstory from all the conflicting information we already know.
For my money, I think it makes for a better story if Rey's parents are someone new and unexpected. Kylo Ren is already continuing Anakin's legacy in a fresh and interesting way, and even by Star Wars standards, it feels a little too obvious to make Rey the third Skywalker to come from such similar origins -- particularly if that story requires some kind of memory-wipe situation for Han and Leia. Those marks on Rey's wall should mean something more than a new angle on Skywalker family angst.
Poe had far less character development than Finn or Rey, which honestly does not matter at all because he made up for it in sheer charm. While Finn and Rey did most of the emotional heavy lifting, Poe's role was vital in its simplicity: he embodied Star Wars' sense of cool.
Poe Dameron is the living personification of the pure exhileration Star Wars is meant to inspire. He's a heroic, handsome pilot who laughs in the face of danger and flies a cool spaceplane with his robot buddy. He's just cool, which is the only reason Star Wars ever needed for including things like laser swords, cape-wearing supervillains, shiny gold robots, or alien jazz bands. (N.B. that musical genre is canonically known as "jizz," just FYI.)
Also, it was entertaining to see Poe Dameron and Han Solo in the same movie, because it really highlighted how much Poe resembles the character some people think Han Solo is -- if they don't understand Han Solo at all, anyway.
Let's get one thing clear, here: Han Solo is not a hotshot pilot antihero. He's a huge dweeb who constantly gets into trouble thanks to his bad decisions, and is conclusively terrible at handling his emotions. His romance with Leia is endearing because he's such a disaster zone, not because he's some kind of cool charmer. Whereas Poe kind of is that character, albeit more straightforwardly heroic and cheerful. He's not a bad boy, but he is charming in a way that feels pleasantly retro, as if he was transported straight from the pages of a 1940s adventure story.
If you've read this far (and if you have: oh my god, well done, this post is long), you're probably enough of a Star Wars fan to have see the coverage of the Finn/Poe relationship. Honestly, as someone who writes about fandom for a living, this huge surge of interest kinda took me by surprise. I wrote an article about the Finn/Poe/Rey OT3 shortly after seeing the film (paying special attention to the romantic cinematography: "the camera spins around Poe and Finn like they're in the ballroom scene of a Regency romance.") but I was still blindsided by the amount of mainstream attention this pairing received.
On the one hand, Disney has the opportunity to make a long-overdue change in Hollywood if it allows Poe to be portrayed as canonically queer in the next movie. But at the same time, the Poe/Finn ship (and Poe's potential queerness) is based on the same kind of subtext that fans have been speculating about for decades. It definitely helps that Poe is not an established character like Magneto or Sherlock Holmes, but I'm still not enormously optimistic about the likelihood of Star Wars being the first blockbuster to introduce a queer action hero. But hey, I'll be happy to come back and eat my words when Episode VIII comes out, you know? In the meantime, we can all enjoy our headcanons about Poe falling exuberantly in love with Finn at first sight. <3
Finn: Hey, I just met you Poe: And this is crazy Finn: But here's my number (FN-2187) Poe: So call me maybe— Gavia Baker-Whitelaw (@Hello_Tailor) December 23, 2015
Coming up next: Posts about literally every other aspect of this film, in hideously exhausting detail.
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