The purpose of these Second Look articles is to deep-dive into a piece of text once enough time has passed for us to assume that a good percentage of our readership has had a chance to see something. Considering Star Wars: The Force Awakens has now earned $700 million dollars domestically and is on track to become the biggest domestic grosser of all time sometime this week, I think it's safe to have the conversation now.
This is criticism as analysis, as a direct read of the text, the film that we all saw, and not as a value judgment. Let's assume that I enjoyed the film, and that you're reading because you enjoyed the film or because you are curious about the points I'm making. If you're looking for someone to shred the film, that's not this article, and I'll be honest… I'm not interested in having that argument.
That's not to say I think everything about the film is flawless or beyond reproach. Far from. But that's not the point. I'm more interesting in looking at the choices that were made in the storytelling and the performances than I am in being “HEY, LOOK, I FOUND A CONTINUITY ERROR!” guy, a role that is more than filled in today's internet landscape. Towards the end of the piece, I will set aside space to address some of the most common comments I'm seeing attacking the film that I think are misguided or confused, but by and large, this is about my reading of the film, and that's all.
So where do we begin?
“Luke Skywalker has vanished.”
Man, what a great opening line. In fact, let's take a moment to appreciate the opening crawl in its entirety:
Luke Skywalker has vanished. In his absence, the sinister FIRST ORDER has risen from the ashes of the Empire and will not rest until Skywalker, the last Jedi, has been destroyed.
With the support of the REPUBLIC, General Leia Organa leads a brave RESISTANCE. She is desperate to find her brother, Luke, and gain his help in restoring peace and justice to the galaxy.
Leia has sent her most daring pilot on a secret mission to Jakku, where an old ally has discovered a clue to Luke's whereabouts…
The main story of the Star Wars films is the story of the Skywalker family. Always has been. I don't think I'll say it always will be, because Rogue One begins to test that theory next year, and I suspect that Lucasfilm's big-picture plans for the property are far more ambitious than only telling the Skywalker story. But I think that as long as they're making Star Wars films, there will also be stories about the Skywalker family.
Family remains one of the most important primary ideas in the films, and specifically the notion of what it is that we get from our family, both good and bad. While there were mysteries about parentage built into the Original Trilogy, that wasn't really set in motion until the second film, once George Lucas knew he was going to be able to make three films instead of just one. Most of the larger Skywalker soap opera is built in Empire and Jedi, while this time around, there is absolutely no doubt that they're making an ongoing series of films, a potentially endless serial. That's the game plan right now, anyway, if you take seriously Disney's threat to release one Star Wars-branded film every year, a threat one would do well to take seriously when you look at how much money they're spending to create the new Star Wars-oriented section of Disneyland, removing some of the long-standing iconography of the park that stretches all the way back to Walt Disney himself. They're betting big, and we'll get our first look at what a non-Skywalker Star Wars film looks like when Rogue One: A Star Wars Story arrives in theaters December 16, 2016.
For now, though, The Force Awakens is firmly and without apology a Skywalker chapter, and the single biggest question in the movie is just how many Skywalkers there are actually are. Kylo Ren, aka Ben Solo, is obviously one, and I think most people assume that in some way, Rey is also one. But how? Does the movie explain her parentage? And if so, are we all reading the clues the same way?
I. WHO IS AWAKE?
The film's opening shots are strange and fascinating in terms of perspective. After we get that opening crawl, so specifically grounded in the POV of the characters we know, we then plunge headlong into a POV that we've never really followed in a Star Wars film before, that of the ground-level “bad guys.” One of the master strokes of Star Wars was giving all of the rebels individual human or humanoid identities and making all of the bad guys very featureless and identical. It dehumanizes the Stormtroopers, and it makes them easy, angst-free cannon fodder. Here, we get that opening shot of the Star Destroyer blotting out our view of Jakku entirely as four transport ships emerge and race across the frame, and then we're inside the transport. We see the First Order Stormtroopers standing, ready, their faces hidden and impossible to read. In A New Hope, we're with the rebels onboard the ship at the start of the film, everyone scrambling to battle stations, then listening as the Star Destroyer swallows them, waiting for the stormtroopers and the entrance of Darth Vader. Here, the Stormtroopers are the ones who are tense, preparing for a battle. And as they approach the small village of Tuanul, we see that someone's watching them, a tiny orange and white robot, BB-8.
When we head inside one of the homes in the village, do you think Lor San Tekka is speaking for JJ Abrams and Lucasfilm directly to fandom? “This will begin to make things right.” That's a bold statement considering the state of fandom at the end of the previous trilogy. By the time Revenge Of The Sith opened, I think things were as weird as they could be, and Lucas was feeling bruised as an artist. When you look at the prequels, those are the exact films that Lucas set out to make, and they are pure Star Wars straight from the tap, whatever you think of them. This time out, we're looking at the first real Star Wars film that is being made by people who grew up on the Original Trilogy. One of the reasons I think the Prequels were so poorly received is because Star Wars fans had sixteen years to live with the first three films, trying to imagine what the Clone Wars were and what truly happened between Obi-Wan and Anakin, and actually locking things down was always going to be a competition with the stories people had already told themselves. Here, finally, someone who grew up dreaming about the further adventures of Luke and Han and Leia is telling that story, a daunting toybox for anyone to be handed.
One thing's clear from the interaction between Lor San Tekka (Max Von Sydow) and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac); Tekka has been part of this universe for a while, and has a relationship of some sort with General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), having known her long enough to remember when she was still Princess Leia. Tekka is aware of the Dark Side and its dangers, so when the First Order lands, he and his villagers swing into action. They fight back. They certainly don't just lay down and die.
For me, the first real “whoa” of the film is when Poe tries to shoot Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and Ren stops the bolt in mid-air. That's a brand-new image for a Star Wars film, and the best part of the gag is when Poe moves past the bolt that is still hanging in the air, crackling, just paused there, giving it a wide-eyed look of astonishment. Oscar Isaac has been making the most of every single role he's been given up till now, and I remember how entertaining he was on the set of Sucker Punch or at the Robin Hood press day and thinking how strange it was that he couldn't project the same energy in the films. He's finally had his movie star moment here, and he was ready. Watch him when he waits for Kylo Ren to break that first uncomfortable silence. Watch how perfectly he throws away that opening joke. “What happens now? Do I talk first? Do you talk first?” He makes a joke about Kylo Ren's mask in their first moment face to face. This is our introduction to the new face of the Dark Side, and Poe Dameron manages to laugh right into it. I can see why Abrams realized they couldn't just kill the character after the crash on Jakku, and it is going to turn out to be one of the master strokes of the film when future episodes build him into even more of a hero and a central player.
What I think is clear here is that there has been, as Snoke observes later, an awakening, and it is in at least three people who we meet in this film, and possibly in a few inanimate objects as well. They are drawn together, their crossed paths and their shared energy representing this awakening. It is not any one single person who has awakened here. The title is not meant to be figurative; it is literal. The Force is hungry, and there's plenty here for it to savor. It may be Rey who is on a path to become a Jedi, but the Force is at work in all of their lives in this film.
For Finn, the moment happens when he's there in his uniform and his dying friend reaches up and leaves the bloody handprint on his mask. When he's told to execute the gathered villagers, he can't shoot. Because of that hesitation, something happens, something that Kylo Ren feels when he's walking back to his shuttle. He can smell it on Finn in that moment. By making the choice he makes, Finn pushes the awakening forward a bit, pushes fate into place, and Kylo Ren is sensitive to it, aware of it, but not quite sure what he's feeling specifically.
I'll say that I think BB-8 has an awakening, and that there is precedent for that in the series. I think droids are not all as personality-driven as C-3P0, R2-D2, and now BB-8. I think it is proximity to people who have a certain degree of Force sensitivity that makes certain droids more animate, more alive, if you will. We see lots of droids in the various Star Wars films that are just toasters, just blenders, slightly more anthropomorphized, but not alive. And I think that's a thing that's going on under the surface, especially in this film, and it explains some of what happens here, and in the series as a whole. R2-D2 is definitely Force sensitive after spending generations interacting with Skywalkers directly, and that may be why we see one particular event near the end of the film. We'll come back to that, though.
When we see Poe Dameron fly that attack on Takodana, there's one long shot where Finn is scrambling on the ground, and overhead, we see Poe take out five or six TIE fighters along with at least five First Order Stormtroopers on the ground. He's not just good; he's supernatural. Clearly he's touched by the Force in some way as well. While I think some fans think the Force belongs exclusively to the Jedi, it seems to me that the Universe that Star Wars supposes is a universe where there is a limitless power that anyone can reach out and connect to if they're willing to make that connection. Forget Midichlorians; everyone else has. The Force belongs to more than just the Jedi, although clearly the Jedi and the Sith are the most powerful users of it. The Force believed in the victory of Anakin Skywalker and Luke Skywalker at the end of Return Of The Jedi. There was a moment of joy there, and the Force relaxed. That moment of happiness and contentment obviously did not last, and the reasons it didn't last is something I'm going to guess we will see in some form later.
“No fair.” If that's your thought there, let me explain my position: this is a serial. They are telling you up front that these are chapters in a larger story, and this one has a pretty specific title. I think Abrams told that story, the story of what happens when the Force realizes that there is something wrong and it starts to push pieces into place to make something happen. These characters are all touched by the Force, and that's the point of what we're watching. These early scenes, these are the moments when it is flexing, reaching out. Those first images, the troopers in free-fall, that's the Force looking for someone who is ready, who is sensitive, who is suitable for being awakened. When we see Rey out there by herself working, searching, scavenging, making her home, she's ready. She's a sleeper. She's out there waiting for the Force to find her, whether she realizes it or not. She thinks it's a family that she's waiting for, and in a way, that's right. But not in the literal sense. She's waiting for the Force to find her, and I think that's the whole reason she's on Jakku. It's something that people are waiting for. In particular, I think an old friend of Princess Leia's might have a reason to live near Rey… but not too near Rey. Somewhere just far enough away from her to keep an eye on her and be aware of her and, when the moment comes that she is called by the Force, maybe even take her temperature, as it were. Would Rey be drawn to the light… or would another nature take hold, a pull to the Dark? And if that was the case, what could be done about it on Jakku, where no one would see, where no one would ever know? Maybe there's a reason for Rey's isolation after all.
That brings us to our second point…
II. REY AND THE FORCE
I'm not going to wade into whether or not Rey as a character fits into a particular trope because that has been debated at length by this point, and I'd rather talk about her as a specific character than as a representative of a type.
Rey's been forced to define herself while living alone on a very hard planet, and without any real guidance. Her primary relationship appears to be with Unkar Plutt, played by Simon Pegg, who buys her salvage for far less than it's worth, keeping her on a leash. However bleak Tatooine seemed, it looks like Manhattan compared to Niima Outpost. It looks like a bunch of tents, a shack or two, and some parked spaceships. It's nothing. It's not a place. It's a flag planted where a place could go later. That's it. Rey's portions are just enough to keep her alive and working, never enough to let her get ahead. It's a fiendish set-up, and Rey seems comfortable with it because she's waiting. That's who she is. She's the girl who waits. And she's sure she'll get the thing she's looking for. She's sure she's going to get an answer and she's going to go home, and it's going to be exactly what she wants… whatever that is.
When she meets BB-8, she is drawn to it. She's drawn to something in its plea for help. Rey's probably scavenged droids and partial droids before in all of that wreckage out there. But BB-8 calls out, she hears it, and she sets him free, no questions asked. Her real decision, her moment where she goes from “unwilling sideline player” to “the main character” is when she decides not to take Unkar Plutt's offer for BB-8. She respects the droid's autonomy. The droid knows where it wants to go and what it wants to do, and it has a mission. I like that tradition of droids in Star Wars that have missions. I like that R2-D2 was willing to be a bartender on an alien fuck barge all so he could be in place when Luke Skywalker would need his lightsaber. I think that makes R2 badass. He's a robot James Bond. He's super-effective. He got his job done, right? And no one ever really looked twice at R2 in any of the films.
BB-8, on the other hand, is not particularly stealthy. After all, he is ADORABLE, and he's memorable because if HE HAD CHEEKS YOU'D JUST PINCH THEM because he's ADORABLE, damn it. That makes it pretty hard for BB-8 to travel around incognito, but that same irresistible nature is part of what wins Rey over. She ends up playing the role of protector to him from that moment on, and BB-8 sticks close to her, worried about the motives of each new person he meets.
Rey trusts Finn right away, even though he annoys the hell out of her at first. She is Force sensitive enough to know when someone's soaked in it. Finn's entire arc from the moment he wakes up to his meeting of Rey in Niima Outpost is all about the Force pushing him along, like it has him by the back of the neck, and then he meets her, and he knows. He knows he wants to be there and he wants to protect her and he wants to get done whatever it is she wants him to get done. So is he in the Resistance? Yes. Yes. He is in the Resistance. Sure, you can read it simply as Finn trying to impress a pretty girl, but clearly there's an immediate spark between the two of them. I say that connection is more than just a passing attraction. It's what the Force wants, and they recognize in one another this sort of dawning power, and in both of them, it is a moment of moral choice that symbolizes that awakening.
When they need to get off of Jakku and they use the Millennium Falcon, Rey is able to fly it intuitively, her natural inclination with machines paying off in the way she uses the ship as an extension of herself. She's born to it, another hint about her parentage, and if it bothers you that she's able to fly so well in her first real time at the helm of a ship, then maybe Star Wars isn't for you. An unnatural ease piloting complicated craft is a pretty good indicator of latent Force talent, and then she has her first big contact with Kylo Ren when he tries to search her memory. Instead of him getting the information, he accidentally opens a link between the two of them that works the wrong way. Suddenly she sees into his fears and doubts, and what's more, she absorbs things that she isn't even aware of actively. When she needs to get away, she digs deep and finds that she definitely knows the Jedi Mind Trick now. You can dismiss that as convenience, or ask why you think they gave her that ability at that moment, and I think it's because she has absorbed something from that moment she was connected to Kylo.
That seems even more true once they meet for the second time in the woods at the end of the film. By this point, Kylo Ren has some idea of what happened, and he's got his own theory about who Rey really is. He wants to recruit her, turn her to the Dark Side, and he makes that plea as they're fighting. It's clear he's not trying to kill her. He's already fighting at half-strength thanks to that laser blast he takes from Chewie's bowcaster, but he's also not giving it everything he has. Instead, he's seeing just how strong she is, just how fast she is, and drawing her out in the process. She gives it everything she's got, and then when he gets close and tells her that he'd like to train her in the Force, she digs deeper and finds a reserve she did not expect. It is her first conscious moment tapping into the Force, and what she finds scares Kylo Ren. He loses control of the fight, and if things had lasted even a few moments longer, he might have lost more than that. It's clear that Rey has crossed some point of no return by the end of the film, but that this has been building for a while. I don't believe for a minute that she's never shown any inclination towards the Force before, but I do think there was a decision made by someone else to put Rey somewhere isolated where she would never hear about the Force and where there was little or no chance anyone would train her. The Force knew she was out there, though, and wasn't content to just let her dwindle, her talents never used for anything.
But where's the proof that the Force is playing an active role in the events of the film? Well…
iII. THE FORCE VISION
There's a moment in this film that strongly echoes another scene from the Original Trilogy, and while some people are complaining about all the echoes (we'll get into that below), this is an important one. When Rey is at Maz's place, she hears a child crying, and that sound leads her downstairs to a room where there's a box, and in that box, there's a lightsaber, and that lightsaber… well, it bites.
Okay, it doesn't literally bite her, but it might as well based on her reaction to it. What it actually does is trigger a dark and upsetting vision that takes Rey into a vision of the past, both hers and someone else's. We recognize that lightsaber as the audience. It belonged to Anakin in the prequels, and it is the lightsaber he used to duel against Obi-Wan Kenobi in Revenge Of The Sith. It is the same lightsaber that Luke used when he faced his father on Cloud City in The Empire Strikes Back. This lightsaber has been present at some intense moments in the history of the Skywalker family, and it has absorbed some serious mojo over the years. But she's not only connected to the Skywalkers in the moment, despite her first stop being one of the Cloud City hallways where that duel took place. We hear Darth Vader's breathing. We see Luke Skywalker's hand and a scorched, beaten-up R2-D2, a flaming Temple in the background. We see the Knights Of Ren, seven figures in similar outfits, led by Kylo Ren who is notably the only one of them with a lightsaber.
And then, finally, we see a little girl being left with someone on the surface of Jakku. We hear her cry out “Come back!”, and someone else says “Quiet, girl,” and it sure does sound like Von Sydow's character. I know it's meant to sound like Unkar Plutt, Pegg's character, but it's a misdirect. The third time I saw the film, I closed my eyes and listened to that moment, and I think it's Von Sydow's voice, treated a bit to fake viewers out. Finally, at the end of the vision, she sees the forest where she will face Kylo Ren at the film's end, and a familiar voice says, “Rey…” We've learned since that it is really Alec Guinness, using some of his original 1977 dialogue, leading into Ewan McGregor saying, “These are your first steps.” The combination of their voices is interesting both technically and thematically, especially over that footage. Then, just as it started, the vision ends with the sounds of Rey's childhood screams.
Rey's vision is much like what Luke encountered in the cave in Empire Strikes Back, with one important difference. Luke's vision was part prophecy, part symbolism. Are we meant to take everything in Rey's vision literally? If so, how much of it is her memory and how much of it is simply memory tied to the lightsaber? What connection does the lightsaber have to the moment she was left on Jakku? It is one of the most important pieces of information to the upcoming entries in the series, with a number of things conveyed to us very quickly, but how much of what it does is illuminate, and how much is exactly the opposite?
Speaking of that eerie moment in the middle of the vision, with Kylo Ren surrounded by those other Knights of Ren in the rain, bodies all around them on the ground…
IV. WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KYLO
Why should we worry about which way Rey is going to go? Isn't it obvious she's going to be a Jedi by the time this is all done? After all, she's relentlessly good natured, even when she's been abducted and mentally attacked by Kylo Ren. She's going to be fine. She'll train with Luke Skywalker, and then she'll be fine. She'll face off with Kylo, she'll beat him, and everything will be happy in the galaxy again… right?
The Force Awakens sets up a more contradictory idea of good and evil than A New Hope did during its initial release in 1977. In that film, Darth Vader was a figure of malice, nothing more. Kylo Ren is at war with himself in this film, though, and while he is certainly part of the hierarchy of evil, his place in that hierarchy is far less clear than I would have expected when the film began.
After all, his introduction is so badass and so clearly meant to inspire fear, as I mentioned above. We've never seen anyone catch a laser bolt in mid-air in the Star Wars series, and he leaves it where he catches it for the entire rest of the scene. It's only as an after-thought that he finally releases it, and from the explosion that result, it's clear just how much destructive power he's able to stop when he wants. But when we find him alone with Darth Vader's mask, he talks about feeling a pull towards the Light Side, and that struggle, already at work in him, means he's not just the retread of Vader that we expected. He's starting where Vader ended, the Light Side and the Dark Side at war inside him, and while we have no idea if he's hearing an answer or not (and who that answer might be coming from), he speaks to Vader's helmet as a sort of totem.
Let's look at a few specific Kylo Ren moments. First, there's the scene where he removes his helmet to interrogate Rey. I've read several criticisms saying this was a mistake, that they should have held that beat for the end of the film on the walkway with Han. Fair enough, but without him removing the helmet here, we lose any real sense of what's going on in his head. We have to see his face as he tries to search Rey's mind so we can see the exact moment things turn. He has an interesting line to her in this scene: “Don't be afraid. I feel it, too.” It's clear from the first moment she's mentioned to him by an underling that he is curious about her and that he has suspicions about who she is. He may not say her name in this film, but I'm willing to bet he knows it. Or at the very least, he knows where she came from. Even if he doesn't know her last name, he has some sense that there is a girl out there of a general age who could end up being a very powerful threat. His reaction to the first time he hears mention of “a girl” and his appearance in Rey's Force vision, taken together, suggest strongly that she was there when Luke's new version of the Jedi fell, betrayed by Kylo and his Knights of Ren. If she was, then she must have been thought dead until now, with some reason that he would be unsure about the truth of that demise.
Maybe that's wrong. But through the entire film, Kylo Ren almost seems distracted. As soon as he encounters Finn and Poe Dameron on Jakku, something is wrong, and it stays wrong from that point forward. Sure, the First Order makes some progress at crushing the Resistance in this film, but they also experience some setbacks, and it's safe to say that General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) has his priorities wrong when he's arguing with Kylo Ren in front of the giant holographic version of Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis). Starkiller Base is a big investment of time and energy, no doubt about it, but it's just a weapon. In the end, Kylo Ren represents something much more important to Snoke, because not only is he a very powerful ally and symbol, but he's also a perversion of the very people who helped propel the Rebel Alliance and the New Republic to victory in the first place. Imagine… named after legendary Jedi Knight Ben Kenobi, nephew to Luke Skywalker, and the son of Han Solo and General Leia Organa, Ben Solo must have been absolutely irresistible to Snoke. If he could turn him, lead him to the Dark Side, and then use that power, it would have sent a very clear message. And, based on where this film begins and ends, Snoke's message was indeed sent.
Whatever hold Snoke has on Ben Solo, it must have been a hell of a sales pitch, and I'm hoping Rian Johnson feels free to throw typical Star Wars structure out the window. Instead of just hearing bits and pieces of the story, I'd like to see some of it actually play out in Episode VIII, and I'd like to get some idea of how that seduction to the Dark Side happened. Considering the support system he had in place, Ben's fall from grace was a dramatic one, and it's obvious he's still struggling with it. When we see the way he struggles with his temper, it's played for laughs in one sense, but it's also a sign of just how weak he is. His lightsaber is the perfect externalization of who he is, spitting fire out of those vents, growling like a chainsaw. Yes, it does what it's supposed to do, but there's a feeling like it's constantly about to explode or burn out of control.
Then there's that final moment between Han and Ben on the catwalk. Honestly, the whole movie comes down to that moment, and it feels like everyone involved knew it. Driver is so good in the scene, so clearly torn, and while there's a sense of inevitability to what happens, I'm not so sure we saw what we think we saw. Early on in the production of the film, I had a conversation with someone close to the production, and they started to spill the beans in a big way. What they described was not who did what to who, but why. “And when the big death happens, it looks like someone is killed for one reason, but it's really all about setting up the endgame, doing something to serve the Dark Side in order to eventually help the Light Side win.” Now, that may well just be a reference to an earlier draft by Michael Arndt, or it may have been a description of the long game that Kylo Ren is playing. He may be exactly what he seems, or he may be Luke and Vader wrapped up in one body, at war with himself, desperately afraid that the Light Side is eventually going to overpower his worst instincts. If I were Snoke, I'd be terrified of this barely-contained cauldron of emotion, no matter how powerful he is or how much I wanted to harness that power. While Han Solo's death in general is played well, and it's very sad to see an icon snatched away just as we rediscover just how much fun he is to have in a film, I have a feeling that final gesture, that hand on the cheek, is going to haunt Kylo Ren, and while Han may not be in the next two films, his influence will still be felt, and his sacrifice will not be for nothing.
One final note: Kylo Ren's mask is an affectation, something he wears so he can look like Darth Vader, his hero, although he doesn't need it at all. When Rey gives him that scar running across his face at the end of the film, he finally becomes as physically twisted as his hero, finally earning a reason to hide his face behind that mask. It's a lovely nod to the traditional depiction of Dr. Doom, although that may well be an accident, a person who has always felt scarred and ugly finally getting their wish so they look the way they feel. I'm sure it will only make him even more appealing to the army of fangirls and fanboys who are already crushing on this new Emo Prince Of Darkness.
We're going to wrap it up here because this article grew way out of control. I've got big chunks of the second and third parts (yes, it really did get that long) already written, so publishing those should be faster. However, unless something changes, I have to announce that Toshi's promised review for The Force Awakens will not be happening. He felt unsure about it as we were editing it, and his comfort comes first. He knows that conversations we have are often part of my work here, but he's not ready to have another piece of his read and commented on by the general public, and I can understand. Not many fourth-graders would be completely comfortable with that.
More soon. For now, I'm excited to be hosting a free screening tonight of Star Wars: The Force Awakens courtesy of Dolby and HitFix, and I'm not sure if there are still seats available in at least a few of the cities where we're holding the screenings. If you're going to the Burbank one, I'll see you there.
For the rest of you, we'll continue this conversation right after I publish a couple of other long-simmering pieces including a Film Nerd 2.0 look at two classic SF/horror films that I would never have expected the boys were ready to see.