No, New Jacket: The Force Awakens and Deciding Who to Be

Here’s the deal. I can’t NOT write something about Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens after having seen it this past opening weekend (and watching it again while this is going live).

non-spoiler prologue, or, what you need to know

Here’s the spoiler-free verdict.

  1. If you’re an established Star Wars fan, you should see this movie right now. I don’t care what you smell.
  2. If you’re nonplussed by that last sentence (really, who even areyou?), then you should watch the other six episodes of Star Wars in numerical order and then go see The Force Awakens like…right afterward.
  3. If you’ve already seen it, you should see it again.

If nothing else, please take away one of those three points (whichever applies to you) from this blog post.

But of course, there is much more to be said.

The rest of this blog contains SPOILERS!
Read AFTER you’ve seen the film.

Let’s do this.

“like my father before me”: the Skywalker unity

​Any argument that attempts to situate Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens within a hierarchy of “better” or “worse” (or even “best”) in relation to any of the previous six movies fundamentally misses the point of what Star Wars is and does. Star Wars serializes the ultimately unified saga of the Skywalker family within the context of the fall and perhaps the resurgence (time will tell) of the Jedi order.

​As I argued in “A Case for a Completionist Star Wars Literary Theory,” episodes I through VI are unified by the character of Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader: the progenitor of the Skywalker family. And as IV through VI can be framed as an embedded plot structure within the Anakinian sextuplet, we understand Luke Skywalker, the son, to become a spiritual heir of sorts: the last Jedi, helping to redeem Anakin Skywalker and going on to attempt a reestablishment of the Jedi as an institution, as Han Solo explains in Episode VII.
The Force Awakens continues the Skywalker saga by placing Luke, absent until the film’s final scene, in a position fundamental to the core problem that the plot goes on to solve.

​But more important even than Luke’s relation to the film’s background conflict is the identity of Kylo Ren, the son of Han Solo and Leia Organa, the grandson of Anakin. Episode VII begins with stating the core conflict (Luke has disappeared) and then opens on Jakku, with the first meaningful character development involving Kylo himself. This is significant; the film is equally concerned with the character of Kylo  as it is with Rey and Finn.

That is, the film is concerned with the Skywalkers, as the others have been. For some viewers, this fact is annoying because it’s emblematic of another apparent problem: rehashed plot elements.

(not) like my father before me: down payments and difference

One of the most frequent criticisms of Star Wars VII I have seen is that it panders to the fan base. It shamelessly bombs the audience with reference after reference to the original trilogy (IV, V and VI). To these critics, it’s basically episodes IV and V in new clothes—you’ve got the droid with important information, the trench run on the giant, planet-destroying battle station, the loss of Han Solo (though this time for good, methinks). Granted, these criticisms are halfway true (even if I tend to say, “yes, give me moar” rather than “give me less”).
​But I believe they miss something critical about Star Wars Episode VII.

In a Pop Culture Happy Hour roundtable on the film, critic Glen Weldon said this on the topic: “From a plot level, I think we could probably say that there is some very plain riffing going on [in The Force Awakens]. … It’s a big tribute from a plot level, but I do feel on a story level, on a character level, they are finding new things within the existing mythology.”

​This observation, in a way, is the bottom line: Star Wars VII is part down payment on an established (and passionate) fandom, part emotional debarkation. The Force Awakens echoes (or, in Lucas’ verbiage, “rhymes with”) the previous episodes, but it doesn’t state these things with nearly the emphasis of the originals; the space battles commence without dramatic buildup (compare the long lead-in to the Death Star attack in episode IV); the unveiling of Kylo Ren is quick and to the point, likewise without emotional fanfare (compare Vader’s revelations in episodes V and VI); other central unveilings and set pieces are played out quickly and decisively, precisely because we do not need them to be anything else.

We’ve already seen a Death Star. We’ve already seen pitched battles in space. We’ve already seen terrifying villains wielding the Force to brutal ends. We’ve already seen what a lightsaber can do (although seeing what a lightsaber can do in a snowy forest was new and awesome). The pacing with which The Force Awakens both acknowledges the past and pushes through the throwbacks to focus on its new characters is, I think, quite telling.

The writing of Star Wars VII demonstrates not a desire to desperately pander to an opinionated audience; rather, it demonstrates trust in the themes Star Wars has laid down to date and confidence that its audience can deal with a new Star Wars story, one that consciously debarks in notable ways—not necessarily in terms of plot (thus far), but definitively in terms of the characters and their motivations, as we’ll see.

<sigh> yes, he knows he’s not Darth Vader: Kylo Ren

​Some have criticized Kylo, implying that he is not the right sort of villain, that by taking his mask off too soon he diminishes in terror and grandeur, that he is weak and pathetic (one headline I’ve seen reads “‘Darth Millennial’ Is a Drag on Star Wars”). In short, they say that he is not Darth Vader. This is true. What makes this seemingly throwaway fact an effective story element is that Kylo himself is aware of it.

​His motivation is presented as a religious desire to become like Darth Vader, his grandfather (I mean, he prays to Vader’s burned-out helmet, making it into a sort of Sith relic or icon). But his failure is that he trulyisn’t like Darth Vader. Unlike in previous episodes of Star Wars, we have in Kylo an antagonist in whom we (like Luke with Vader) can actually see the conflict. Kylo is repeatedly fighting the “temptation” to turn to the light side of the Force, an inversion of motivation when compared to the Anakinian arc.

​​One of the very reasons Kylo is insecure about his identity seems to be that he bears no scars. His body does not bear the archetypal l aspect of the Bakhtinian grotesque, the mutilation—whether self-inflicted or earned in battle—that has always characterized the most powerful Sith as an index of inner moral decay: Emperor Palpatine, Darth Vader, and Supreme Leader Snoke himself, apparently (not to mention the likes of Asajj Ventress and Darth Maul in the recent Clone Wars TV series). Kylo distorts his voice under his helmet, but he recognizes that this is artificial, a vain groping for the terrifying voice of Vader (a characteristic necessitated by the latter’s mortal injuries, something that Kylo lacks).

​Interestingly, Rey’s saber slash across Kylo’s chest and face seems to deliver just the mutilation he longs for. And it is fitting that it comes only after his fatal choice to commit to the dark side by killing Han Solo; likewise, Palpatine’s and Vader’s grotesqueness emerges only after their dark motivations are publicly revealed. Within the scope of the Star Wars texts, true commitment to the dark side has generally required that one literally embodies that commitment.

Picture
Commitment is part of what defines The Force Awakens for Daniel Silvermint, a philosopher who gave his review of the film in a blog poston the philosophy news site Daily Nous. He observes, I think rightly, that Star Wars, in a fundamental way, is about people deciding exactly who they will be:

“Ben/Kylo Ren has all the power on that bridge [where his father confronts him], but unlike Han, he has difficulty accepting where his choices are taking him. He speaks of the pain of uncertainty, of being continually torn between two paths, and what he seems to want more than anything is some kind of resolution. Any resolution, really. If he leaves with his father, the dueling temptations will always be there. But if he takes his father’s life, then he’ll cross a moral point of no return, and commit himself to every subsequent step along the path. When that lightsaber ignites, he’s resolving to just be Kylo Ren, because he imagines that a life without internal struggle will hurt less. He makes the wrong choice, of course, but his almost adaptive preference-like attempt to bind himself is very human.”

And Kylo’s character is challenging and difficult precisely because it ought to be familiar: not in a moral sense—we don’t all face down pivotal life moments about whether we’ll commit ourselves to light or darkness, at least not in dramatic ways—but in a continuous, relational sense.

​Consistently, the characters of Star Wars regularly struggle through every episode to define who they are in relation to others—to their heroes, their enemies, their friends, their families.

on being: Star Wars as a study in Existentialism

Silvermint and other reviewers in the blog post compare this struggle to the writing of philosopher Martin Heidegger, who wrote of what it means for a human to be in the world. As blogger Roy Hornsbyexplains, for Heidegger, “a human being cannot be taken into account except as being an existent in the middle of a world amongst other things.” Within this model, human beings realize that they exist in a temporal world and therefore are concerned with how their options for being are limited by external factors. We therefore make choices about how to be in the world in order to change our conditions:

“Human beings are characterized by uniqueness, one from another, and this uniqueness gives rise to a set of possibilities for each individual. All human beings are continually oriented towards their own potential, among which are the possibilities of authentic and inauthentic existence. If, whilst moving forward, the standards and beliefs and prejudices of society are embraced, individuals may fail to differentiate themselves from the masses.”

This tension is familiar when we look at the characters in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Like Kylo Ren, the others are continually faced with the possibilities for their existence, their potential, and the evolving nature of the self as it relates to the world, to other people. Silvermint illustrates this succinctly:

  • Leia fights on, as she always does, but in a quiet moment admits that this is her own way of running.
  • [Finn] … decides that he doesn’t want to be a killer, but soon realizes that he also can’t live with the responsibilities he flippantly undertook when he donned that Resistance jacket. Ultimately Finn resolves to be something simpler: Rey’s friend. …
  • Rey, a gifted pilot and engineer, spends years choosing to stay on a junkyard planet that she easily could have escaped, because she’s choosing to be that same abandoned girl awaiting rescue. She rescues BB-8 instead, and when the full consequences of that decision are later revealed, she takes her cue from Han and runs away from who she truly is. She eventually embraces the Force, because the only way to fight back against her circumstances is to be a Jedi. … 
  • Luke, who has himself fled from his responsibilities, makes no move to accept his old lightsaber, or the frightened yet determined student that’s holding it outstretched to him. He also has a decision to make about who he’ll be.”

If Luke, even after facing these existential questions in the previous three episodes, must still decide “who he’ll be,” then we realize that this sort of decision is not final, but continual, unless we forfeit it entirely, a behavior which we can observe in such characters as the stormtroopers, for instance. Apparently they, as Wikipedia formulates Heidegger, forfeit their “individual meaning, destiny and lifespan, in favour of an (escapist) immersion in the public everyday world—the anonymous, identical world of the They and the Them.”

conclusion: new jacket

Star Wars episode VII: The Force Awakens retreads plot territory intimately familiar to the fans. But its characters begin in vastly different relations to each other and to their “world” (galaxy?) when compared to the characters in the previous six films. Because of these varying relations, these characters also have different drives and motivations from what we’ve seen. And because of these factors taken together, we see the characters of The Force Awakens make vastly different kinds of choices from, say,  Padme in episode II or Luke in episode IV.

I appreciate how Jason T. Eberl and Kevin S. Decker summed up the film in their review for the Daily Nous:

“Many of the themes, settings and action pieces of The Force Awakens will seem like a retread of A New Hope  and Empire Strikes Back. … The film is set in a galaxy far, far away that is familiar to the audience, and the return of old faces from the original trilogy is welcome. Yet on planets like Jakku and Takodana, nostalgia for the good old times of the Rebellion is noticeable by its absence: people have forgotten the Jedi, the Force, everything important.”

​In addition to this forgetfulness, the characters who have lived through the last three films are noticeably grieved and disillusioned in contrast to the joy we see at the end of Return of the Jedi: after seemingly final victory over the Emperor and Darth Vader, Han, Luke and Leia have witnessed yet another catastrophic Jedi betrayal and the resurgence of yet another hegemony bent on universal order and domination at any cost, including the destruction of the Republic.

And even though we have rhymes and riffs on what we’ve seen before, The Force Awakens confidently presents its viewers with problems of being, of memory, of commitment, identity and what we do after we watch ourselves and our loved ones fail that we simply don’t get in episodes I through VI. This story asks different questions.

(Basically, The Force Awakens is Poe Dameron: he gives you a difficult, maybe dangerous task, but he gives you that smile and squeezes your shoulder to let you know he believes in you.)

49.media.tumblr.com/2c61f1118086d9c617a920ffbdaf10be/tumblr_nzvxc51nlm1v2w3lfo1_500.gif
​The aesthetic and technical elements some have derided for their reappearance—another Death Star, another cute droid, another trench run, etc.—are only the same on the surface; because of the way this film changes and complicates the positioning of these elements’ constituent characters and their motivations within the story, the elements interact in radically different, sometimes challenging ways compared to the previous films.

​Star Wars has changed. Han is wearing a new jacket, even if Leia thought it looked like the last one she saw. The Force has indeed awakened, though the dream remains the same. ​

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