As I more or less expected, the week between Christmas and New Year’s completely ate me. I try to cram so much into that one week that I’m lucky if I have two hours of free time to rub together. It’s always a lot of fun to see my family and a large percentage of my friends from high school, college, and beyond, but it isn’t conducive to writing blog entries. That said, I knew early on that I wanted to write a spoilerific post about Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and I knew it would be a really long one. This is that post. If you’re concerned about spoilers, steer clear of this entry until you’ve seen it.
First off, I must say how impressed I am with the Internet geek community when it came to spoilers. Due to the need to arrange childcare, Beth and I weren’t able to secure a chance to watch it until December 26th – more than a week after its release. Despite our inescapable exposure to the geek community online and my son’s insistence that we watch every Star Wars trailer a zillion times since that first teaser most of a year ago, we managed to avoid spoilers. During that week, everyone clearly labeled their spoilers so it was as easy as scrolling down without reading. Some even went so far as to post a spoiler warning and then create a link to the actual spoilers so that it wasn’t even possible to accidentally read spoilers.
This is your second warning: Star Wars spoilers ahead.
There’s a long history of action movie trailers giving away half the plot of the movie, and Star Wars had a lot of trailers ahead of its release. Every time we got word from the Mouse that no really, this is the last trailer before the movie, someone on the Internet would unearth a completely new trailer from China or Japan or Mars or wherever else Disney thinks it can sell a lot of movie tickets. In watching the movie, however, I discovered that the trailers used footage from the film in a calculated effort to mislead or at least misdirect. I mean that in the best way imaginable. I had a pretty good sense of the main characters’ backgrounds, and I knew that Han, Leia, Chewbacca, Luke, and the Millennium Falcon would be in it. But despite having seen the trailers a hundred times I didn’t really know the plot until I was in the theater. It was like arriving at a local watering hole to celebrate my birthday with a few friends and then being whisked away to my absolute favorite restaurant and discovering that a hundred of my friends had shown up to celebrate with me. Any disappointment I might have felt about not getting what I expected was completely swallowed up in my delight at what I received. (I’m speaking as an extrovert, of course, for whom “everyone shows up to hang out with me at the same time” is a cherished fantasy and not a nightmare scenario.)
This is your final spoiler warning. After this, I stop being coy and start getting specific.
The Wonderful Lies the Trailers Told Me
We get a glimpse of the Knights of Ren in the rain looking all badass, but they only appear in a single flicker of a Force vision, leaving Kylo Ren the only one of them to make more of an appearance in the movie than we get in the trailer. I’m okay with this. It sets them up to be more important in later movies, and after seeing how much of a badass Kylo Ren I’m looking forward to seeing them wreck some Resistance forces.
The trailers also show the Millennium Falcon fleeing TIE fighters above the desert junkyard planet of Jakku. This obviously happens, but the trailers cut in shots of Han and Chewie in such a way that it seems obvious that they’re the ones piloting it when in fact this scene takes place after Finn and Rey steal the Falcon and are fleeing for their lives in one of the most exciting sequences of the early part of the movie. Han plays an important role in the new Star Wars, and his presence in the trailers surely built up fan excitement ahead of the movie’s release, but this isn’t his movie any more than A New Hope was Obi Wan’s (and in the exact same way that it wasn’t Obi Wan’s movie, as it turns out…).
One of the trailers shows Rey bent over a body, looking upset, and then Leia weeping in Han’s arms. One of the geeky sites I saw analyzing that trailer frame-by-frame noted that the person Rey is worrying over appears to be Chewbacca. The shot is actually a bit vague, even if there is absolutely nothing confusing about it in context. In reality, Leia weeps into Han’s arms as they discuss their son, who has become Kylo Ren. And the vague body is actually Finn, who has been badly injured in his fight with Ren. Well-played, trailer editors. Well-played.
The trailers also show Finn with a lightsaber and introduce him in the first teaser immediately after the mysterious voice says, “There has been an awakening. Have you felt it?” Both implied that he’s the proverbial Luke, but it turns out that his co-star is the wildly Force-talented member of the cast (with a caveat that I’ll talk about more later). Similarly, Luke isn’t so much a character in The Force Awakens as he is its MacGuffin. The glimpse of him we get in the trailers is half his total screen time, and he actually has more dialogue in the trailers than he does in the movie. There are other, similar touches, but you get the idea.
Passing the Torch to the Next Generation
At its heart, The Force Awakens is about passing the torch of Star Wars from the previous generation to the current one, and the movie carefully aims to please both audiences. It does a great job of this. The first movie I remember watching in the theater was Return of the Jedi. I would have been five years old, and I vividly recall being terrified of Jabba the Hutt (and covering my eyes), but I also remember staying in my seat through the whole thing and obsessing over all things Star Wars for years afterward.
We took William to see The Force Awakens on the 30th. It was his first movie in the theater, and he spent it by turns scared and fascinated, but whenever we offered to take him out of the theater for a little while he flatly refused to budge from his seat. He has talked about little else but Star Wars ever since. He will be four in February – so within a year of the age I was when Jedi was released. Not that he never talked about Star Wars before, but then while the first movie he ever watched was The Empire Strikes Back (last Christmas, on a day when both of us were home sick), I distinctly remember the asteroid scene on my parents’ TV when I was right around that age.
Given his age, we weren’t sure how he would handle it. We’ve shown him the other Star Wars movies here and there, but big screens are another thing. So we chose a 9:30am show on a weekday. We discovered that the theater was almost completely deserted except for about a dozen families with small children whose parents were doing exactly the same thing we were. This was, to be honest, kind of cool.
A Timely Update
Even aside from what was happening in the theater, though, The Force Awakens concerns itself with moving the focus from Luke, Leia, and Han to the next generation of heroes – Rey, Finn, and Poe. While I respected the boldness of a true Star Trek reboot that read as an alternate universe of the Trekverse everyone grew up with, it nevertheless resulted in a Trek that preserved many of the flaws of the original movies that just wouldn’t fly today – an overwhelmingly white, male cast and a lead character with, um, outdated romantic proclivities, which make it a hard sell to a generation that is collectively working to slowly stamp out the universality of both of those tropes.
The newest Star Wars offering doesn’t deny the franchise’s past, but nor does it merely try to dust it of a bit in hopes that contemporary audiences won’t notice that it still has only one person of color and one woman of consequence. Leia is feisty and cool, but she also gets damselled more than once, spends a lot of time acting as a romantic interest (first for Luke and then for Han – not to mention the slave outfit thing), and never gets any cool Force powers despite the movies making it clear that she has the same potential as Luke.
Instead we get Rey, Finn, and Poe. This choice gives me hope that we can finally, finally put to rest the bullshit Hollywood “wisdom” that says a movie with a black or female hero can’t succeed. Seriously, guys, we also have the Twilight series (not my cup of tea, but that changes nothing) and The Hunger Games, so they really should have figured it out by now, but with Episode VII now the highest grossing movie ever (and it’s only been in theaters for three weeks) – in spite of none of its leading heroes being white men – that counterfactual article of faith really needs to go away forever.
Rey is what Episode I Anakin Skywalker should have been. She has a lot in common with him – a mysterious past, a gift with building machines and piloting ships, and a natural aptitude with the Force that causes other Force users to shit themselves in terror. Seriously, if prequel Anakin had sealed his deal with the Dark Side by taking down several Jedi at the height of their power instead of by murdering an elementary school we might have been willing to believe he was some kind of corporeal manifestation of the living Force and not just a whiny, child-murdering, easily manipulated brat.
Anyway, with Rey we have a plucky, self-sufficient young adult who is just trying to survive in a society that insists on cheating her on a daily basis. Her existence is defined by picking over the literal wreckage of the previous generation’s wars and selling it in exchange for starvation wages. Despite her prodigious talents and willingness to work hard, she cannot escape an endless cycle of life without purpose. She waits for relief from a family who has (for whatever reason) abandoned her to this fate, and it is her patience in that vigil that is ultimately holding her back from achieving greater things.
It somehow doesn’t strike me as an accident that Rey is played by an actress whose age places her firmly among the Millennials. This is a generation that faced an impossible choice – go to college at a time when post-secondary education costs were rising so quickly that they would be deep in debt by the time they graduated and be told that they were childish, selfish, and lazy because they couldn’t afford to do “adult things” like buy houses and start families, or skip college and live from paycheck to paycheck because apparently no one who didn’t go to college deserves to make a living wage. In short, Rey is every Millennial who is just scraping by, by turns abandoned by or cheated by an older generation that sees nothing of value in anything she produces unless it has some connection to her elder’s glory days. And yet it is through a relic of that era (the Millennium Falcon) that she secures her freedom – not by merely exchanging it for money from her elders but by taking it and making it her own. In some ways it strikes me as J. J. Abrams subtly telling us that yes, he’s taking the franchise in a different direction, but that he thinks that’s a good thing, and he hopes we’ll agree.
Then we have Finn, who was recruited from birth to be a Stormtrooper – a soldier for the evil Empire whose entire on-screen purpose throughout the original trilogy was to be faceless enemies that killed innocent people or died unmourned in conflicts with the heroes we were supposed to be rooting for. It was simply understood that these were faceless minions whose deaths meant nothing to anyone. The first time we are able to distinguish Finn from his fellow faceless goons is when he recognizes and is recognized by a fallen Stormtrooper. The death of that unnamed Stormtrooper marks Finn – both figuratively and literally – and sets him apart from his companions in arms. It is the first time any Stormtrooper has been humanized in the movies. I understand that the Clone Wars animated series has clone trooper characters, but even in the prequels where they are initially the good guys, the clones are not fully developed characters. Finn refuses to participate in the massacre when Kylo Ren orders him to do so. Later, he takes off his helmet to reveal a black man underneath, and his superior officer promptly chides him for doing so without permission.
Let’s talk about this for a little bit. The Stormtroopers are not given the choice of whether to join the First Order. They are all either indoctrinated into the army from childhood or, in the case of clones, manufactured as soldiers for the Empire and its successor. An accident of birth determines not only their careers but whether or not anyone – their commanding officers or the Rebels/Resistance – will value their lives or mourn their deaths. In the original trilogy, both sides of this conflict were overwhelmingly white, which can be attributed to the previously mentioned time those movies were released. Even in Episode VII, though, the leaders of the First Order are white men, and given the relative diversity of the rest of the cast, that does not seem like an accident to me. Nor was making the humanizing face of those faceless goons a black man.
Knowing as he does that Stormtroopers are ultimately victims of a military-industrial that recruits poor children and indoctrinates them as fanatical killers, it is a bit disappointing that Finn does not hesitate to kill them. This franchise is not exactly renowned for its moral complexity, mind you, but it would be nice to see someone regret mowing down former brothers-in-arms like wheat with TIE fighter blasters. At least we still have Kylo Ren (more on him later). The way the First Order recruits its Stormtroopers also echoes what many of us have been saying since our first glimpse of the younglings in the prequels, which is that the way the Jedi Order recruits its padawans is super creepy and not indicative of the moral superiority of the Republic.
Finally, we have Poe Dameron, whom the Internet has already dubbed “nice guy Poe Dameron” and whom a friend of mine affectionately describes as “PC Han Solo.” Here you have this amazing pilot who is also concerned about the safety of the mysterious Resistance ally and visibly fond of his astromech droid. He treats Finn warmly even though he immediately recognizes that the deserter is really only jail breaking him because he desperately needs a pilot. He helps the Stormtrooper leave behind his old life by giving him a name to use in his new one, and he is visibly happy to see Finn when they meet again later.
Having watched the movie twice, I can see why so many fans are hoping for a romance between Poe and Finn, because they really have strong on-screen chemistry. Even if the franchise doesn’t take his character in that direction, Poe is an undeniably likable character – like the high school football star who never lets it go to his head and is still really nice to everyone. Others have pointed out that he even manages to radiate charisma during the planning scene ahead of the attack by standing quietly in the background and letting other people take the lead in their areas of expertise. I look forward to seeing more of him in future movies.
From the Ashes of Empire
As the Resistance and its heroes accept the torch offered to them by the Rebellion and its legends, so the First Order and its followers spring forth from the Empire and the villains of the original Star Wars trilogy. Despite these similarities, however, we see some stark differences between the two generations of bad guys.
First off, the First Order is younger and less organized than the Empire was. Look at the faces of its officers. In Episodes IV-VI, everyone on the Death Star is middle aged or older – bald spots and grey hair as far as the eye can see. Grand Moff Tarkin is a model of military discipline who shows himself perfectly capable of keeping even the frequently impetuous Darth Vader in line. When the Death Star comes under attack and his aide warns him that defeat is possible, Tarkin stays at his post. We are given no indication that anyone under his command flees the Death Star before it explodes, and that stands as a testament to the structure the Grand Moff maintains. Moreover, his decision to destroy Alderaan is cold and calculated. Had the Rebel base been in a more prominent location, he might have ordered it destroyed instead, but he feels that making a statement is more important at that juncture than winning a military victory while the Empire’s enemies continue to multiply. It is only after Tarkin dies that Darth Vader no longer has anyone to prevent him from Force choking every admiral who disappoints him – behavior that made him an iconic movie villain but probably didn’t help further the Empire’s goals. After all, seasoned, high-ranking officers are not exactly easy to replace.
By the end of Return of the Jedi, the Empire has lost all the officers on the second Death Star, as well as those aboard the various star destroyers the Rebels destroyed during the Battle of Endor. Moreover, the early parts of The Force Awakens pretty strongly hints that the Empire’s war with the Rebellion has cost it more star destroyers, which quite likely included other veteran officers. We see the consequences of this continual loss of command and control centers in the comparative youth of the First Order’s officers.
General Hux cannot have left his 30s, yet, and almost everyone else we see is as young as or younger than him. Where Tarkin held Vader’s leash but also trusted his judgment enough to risk letting the Death Star plans fall into Rebel hands, Hux and Kylo Ren spend most of the movie sniping at each other in front of their mutual boss, Supreme Leader Snoke. As soon as Starkiller Base is operational, Hux does not hesitate to trumpet its potential to his followers in a public address that expresses his fanaticism and fascist world view, and then to immediately use it to destroy five planets that he claims (without offering any proof) are state sponsors of the Resistance (do you get the idea that maybe current events had some small influence on the plot of this movie?).
When the Resistance wins the day and his doomsday device is breaking apart, General Hux abandons his subordinates to their fates and never looks back. Nor do his junior officers overlook his absence. We hear a lieutenant ordered back to his post, only to reply that even General Hux has abandoned ship. It’s worth noting that Hux evacuates in part because Snoke orders him to do so (and to bring the injured Kylo Ren with him), but this only illustrates how much less concerned with the First Order’s imperialistic ambitions he is compared to the dictatorial Emperor Palpatine.
The Empire was dangerous because it was well-organized and had access to tremendous resources. It could also be devious enough to set elaborate traps or to expend those resources to hire bounty hunters for jobs to which it was not as well-suited. Ultimately, though, the Empire existed to maintain the Emperor’s hold on his Empire. The Death Stars were meant as a deterrent, a threat that Palpatine was not likely to use lightly or often. He wanted to rule the galaxy, after all, not destroy it.
The First Order is dangerous because its leaders (like Hux) quite obviously feel that they have something to prove. They want the galaxy to fear them, and they do not hesitate to destroy planets and institutions that they might more profitably suborn or conquer (as Palpatine did). Unlike the Emperor, Snoke seems almost disinterested in the politics of the First Order. He is much more interested in finding Luke and completing the training of Kylo Ren than in the completion, use, or destruction of Starkiller Base.
Speaking of Kylo Ren, I found him to be a fascinating and believable villain. He is everything Anakin Skywalker should have been in Episodes II and III. There are plenty of parallels between the two characters. Both are young, arrogant, and believe they are doing the right thing every step of the way. They’re both prone to lose their temper, and they both indulge in whiny monologues.
That’s where the similarities end, though.
Let’s face it. If you strip all of the absurd and boring out of the prequels, Anakin doesn’t exactly have it easy. He is born a slave. The Jedi take him away from his home and simultaneously hail him as a Messianic figure and refuse to train him. His mother dies as a direct result of the Stoic devotion the Jedi demand, which did not allow him to return to Tatooine to release her from bondage. Jedi rules also prevent him from pursuing a romantic relationship and, when he not-quite-admits that he has formed a strong emotional attachment, Yoda essentially tells him his lover is better off dead. So yeah, Anakin doesn’t have a whole lot of reasons to love the Jedi Order. It makes sense that he would leap at an opportunity to learn the ways of the Force without having to kowtow to the Jedi Council. And once Palpatine kills Mace Windu in front of his eyes, there is no way Anakin is going to be able to simply go back to the Jedi and expect to be treated as other than an accomplice, so he has nowhere else to go except into the arms of the Dark Side (into whose arms the Jedi have been driving Anakin since Episode I).
Lucas made a grave mistake, though. He tried to convey this through a series of contrived conversations and over-the-top monologues – a classic case of telling the story instead of showing it. That is a blog post for some other time, though.
The Force Awakens does not repeat that mistake. Thankfully, we don’t get three movies focused on the rise and the fall of Kylo Ren. At the time Episode VII opens, he is already at a point in his narrative that his grandfather didn’t reach until the end of Revenge of the Sith. He’s not as far gone as Vader was at the beginning of A New Hope, but we certainly see plenty of evidence that he’s not above murdering younglings and other innocent people in the service of his ambition.
We didn’t need a virgin birth, a midiclorian count, a prophecy, or Jedi chin-stroking to tell us that he is strong with the Force. First, we all know his pedigree thanks to the movies that preceded this one. Even if you ignore the prequels, Vader is a scary dude. More importantly, the movie gives Kylo Ren plenty of opportunities to show off his powers – starting with the frozen blaster bolt, continuing with the interrogation of Poe, and culminating in the no good, very bad day when he fights two lightsaber duels after taking a blast from a bowcaster that should have thrown him off the bridge of Kazad Dum. Perhaps more tellingly, it is clear from the end of the end of the movie that he isn’t even fully trained, yet! Nor is he without obvious holes in his powers. We see him struggle to call Luke’s lightsaber, which is a far cry from Darth Vader flinging machinery at Luke during their duel on Bespin, and his lightsaber skills are nowhere close to as well-honed as those of the Jedi in the prequels (which I actually find completely appropriate given that Luke didn’t exactly have years of training in which to learn the old Jedi martial arts). Ren is a strong, worthy opponent, but his journey to the Dark Side is not yet complete.
The filmmakers chose to save the reason why Kylo Ren turned against the Resistance for some other movie, which is fine. Again, we know a bit about the world he grew up in, so it’s easy (even fun) to speculate about what led this child born to a family of the Rebellion’s greatest heroes to betray everything they believe in. Some fans even argue that he hasn’t actually betrayed them but is, in fact, engaged in an ambitious nd probably-misguided attempt to infiltrate the Sith and destroy them (sometimes described as the Snape theory). Was his father too distant? Was his mother too busy running a rebellion to spend as much time with him as she would have liked? Did Han and Leia find themselves clashing so much that they couldn’t hold it together in front of their son – possibly even to the point where they couldn’t stay together at all? Was Luke too gentle with Kylo Ren, or was he so intent upon not showing favoritism toward his nephew that he ended up being way too hard on this young apprentice?
If Rey is a hero for a new generation, then Kylo Ren reflects our culture’s evolving understanding of evil. When we first see him, he is a masked figure who strikes down unarmed prisoners and orders a massacre of innocent civilians. When he takes off his helmet in front of Rey, however, we see a kind of goofy-looking, skinny white kid. Over the course of the movie, he makes several grievous errors, any one of which would have gotten him Force choked if Darth Vader had been his commander – the escape of BB-8, the escape of Poe Dameron, the escape of BB-8 and company, his failed interrogation of Rey, Rey’s escape (due to the classic mistake of leaving one Stormtrooper to guard a Force-user prisoner), and the destruction of Starkiller Base at the hands of his father. Not only does Kylo Ren fail more times in a single movie than any villain since the arms dealer in The Fifth Element, but we’re given the strong impression that he is not as sure about his life choices as he wants everyone to believe.
I remember the almost universal laughter when we fans got our first glimpse of his lightsaber with the absurd cross guard. Sure, we eventually warmed up to it, trusting that it must have some purpose. Having watched The Force Awakens, I’m pretty sure our initial reaction is actually pretty close to what was intended. Ren’s weapon is trying so hard to be badass that it’s actually kind of sad, and it makes the villain a kind of pathetic figure by extension. It is exactly the right lightsaber for this villain, as it expresses his character perfectly – a powerful Force-wielder with a massive case of imposter syndrome that drives him to do horrific things in order to prove that he’s as evil as he wants people to believe he is.
The evil Kylo Ren represents isn’t the fanatical devotion of the original trilogy, where the bad guys never once question the rightness of their cause even when they’re blowing up entire planets. He isn’t a comic book Nazi or a Cold War era propaganda caricature of a Communist leader. He is someone who has done something awful, to be sure, and his better nature even seems to recognize it. Instead of atoning for his crimes and returning to the embrace of a family who clearly still cares for him, however, he stubbornly doubles down on the mistakes he has made. He doesn’t want to kill his own father, but he is so certain that murdering Han is the only way to prove himself to Snoke – and to prove to himself that he can be just as ruthless as Darth Vader was – that he takes yet another tottering step into the Dark Side.
In many ways he is a pathetic villain, in spite of his power. This aspect of his character has given us the wonderful Twitter account Emo Kylo Ren (@KyloR3n), which is hilarious. What is less comical is that his behavior is troublingly familiar. He is the quintessential “quiet kid who decides to go on a shooting spree at his school.” He has that reek of the toxic masculinity that mistakes bravado and violence for strength – prompting him to fly into rages at the slightest provocation. He allows himself to become entangled with jingoistic fascists like General Hux and a megalomaniac who clearly doesn’t have his best interests at heart (Snoke) because they are willing to stroke his ego and feed his delusions. Despite his posturing, Kylo Ren’s confidence in his own abilities is so fragile that he regards anyone whose power might be the equal to his own (such as Rey) as a threat. Moreover, as soon as he takes off his helmet, he looks no different from a million other goofy-looking, skinny white kids. You couldn’t tell him apart from the random guy you shared an elevator with this morning.
It is not without reason that I’ve seen more than a few fans compare Kylo Ren to the men who make up the ranks of Gamergate, Men’s Rights Activists (MRAs), and anonymous racists who clog the Internet with screeds belittling or demonizing women and minorities. Like Kylo Ren, these folks are ultimately pretty pathetic and clearly have other problems they need to address, but that in no way excuses their repulsive behavior.
I have just a couple more observations before I wrap up this beast.
We Need to Talk about Ben
The fact that Kylo Ren was once Luke’s apprentice, and that he murdered his fellow students in his turn to the Dark Side, really explains so much about why Han, Leia, and Luke went their separate ways. There’s no question that all three of them blamed themselves and that they would naturally assume that the other two blamed them too. The sense of failure must have been overwhelming.
I Count Two New Force-Users
It’s about as painfully obvious as Hollywood can make it that Rey has Force powers. I’m surprised by how few people have come to the conclusion that Finn is also Force-sensitive, if not the kind of wild talent that Anakin and Rey are. Those articles I’ve seen that agree with me on that point argue that Finn couldn’t have held his own in a lightsaber fight with Kylo Ren even for as long as he does except through the power of the Force. However, I’ve also seen arguments that his lightsaber skills aren’t a product of bad writing that hinge on the fact that another Stormtrooper wields a stun baton in a fight with him – implying that Finn has had the same training and so would benefit from it when he faced Ren. My argument is actually simpler:
When Finn looks up and sees the Starkiller Base weapon’s beam in the sky above Maz’s cantina, we hear a chorus of screams. I think most people just sort of assumed it was a reaction to the arrival of the First Order’s fleet, but they haven’t shown up yet, so that doesn’t seem to be the case. Is it maybe the freaked out screams of bystanders looking on in horror? I don’t seem to remember there being enough people nearby to justify that kind of a sound decision. But I remember the way Obi Wan described the disturbance in the Force at the moment Alderaan was destroyed – “as if a million voices cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced.” I generally try really hard not to speculate too much on sequels (since that always struck me as a bit of a sucker’s bet – the fandom equivalent of buying a lottery ticket), but if I have one prediction for the future of the franchise, it is that Rey’s obvious Force use was at least partially misdirection to prevent us from noticing the Finn has a burgeoning talent on par with Luke’s at the beginning of A New Hope.