Missing the Point:
An Analysis of Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Part II – A Star Wars Story
By Daniel Noa
In Part I, I discussed some structural filmmaking issues in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, much of which has to do with filmmaking intent, and while I believe they keep the film from measuring up to previous Star Wars installments, they may still be legitimate filmmaking choices. But I was more troubled that The Force Awakens does not adhere to the rules and mythology of the Star Wars universe as we saw depicted in the original trilogy in some very essential ways.
When George Lucas was asked to advise new generations of Star Wars filmmakers, his advice was a) it’s not all about spaceships, and b) not to turn the Force into gobbledygook. This film transgresses both, most cripplingly the second. Kylo Ren explains that Rey is “strong in the Force, untrained but more powerful than she knows.” While this explains her piloting skills and general usefulness in combat (Luke Skywalker is called out for both in A New Hope) her first act is using a “Jedi mind trick.” We see Obi-Wan Kenobi, a Jedi Master, use this trick in A New Hope, and Luke Skywalker in Return of the Jedi after having trained with Yoda. As Rey’s story continues, the Force becomes a stand in for self-empowerment, rather than selfless dedication to an ideal. Considering what screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan told Entertainment Weekly in a Q&A posted on December 21, this direction makes sense:
“I really do believe the underlying theme is recognizing your potential and understanding what you’re capable of. It doesn’t end. To understand what you’ve inherited, and what you like about that and what you don’t like about that. Have you fulfilled yourself completely — or is it too late. What is dormant? That’s a very real and tangible thing for people every day.”
Except that Star Wars has always said that the quick and easy path leads to the dark side. Recognizing one’s potential is not about daily affirmations and yoga meditations, but recognizing the need to apply oneself to study and hard work and perseverance.
Rey’s power is “awakened” without explanation. The moment she calls the lightsaber to her hand (again, something we only see Luke do after a long period of training) consistently gets cheers in the theater. But the idea of easy power has always been associated with darkness. In both Empire and Jedi, Luke’s aggressiveness is met with foreboding and sadness, only to turn to triumph when he jumps off the walkway or throws away his lightsaber, refusing to fight, and following the example of his mentor, who also allowed himself to be struck down. Yet when Rey says “the Force,” then closes her eyes in some sort of meditation, rather than surrender to peace or step away and deactivate her weapon, she attacks him with ferocity and anger. But listen to the music — it’s powerful, it’s optimistic, and it’s clearly praising what she is doing. The only reason she doesn’t kill him is because the ground opens up between them. It’s a storytelling cheat, but more troubling, it is “not the Jedi way.” Nor is it a good moral message for the film.
Meanwhile, Kylo Ren, the most interesting, potentially exciting aspect of this entire film is rendered completely ineffective. He opens the movie by stopping a laser bolt in mid-air and holding it. By the end, even Finn, who is also fairly ineffective throughout the film, beats him up more than anyone should be able to, regardless of the fact that Ren is wounded. Between the damage that Finn and Rey inflict on him in that final battle, why does Luke Skywalker not simply come and end this boy? Had R2-D2 simply woken up a little earlier, we could have finished this entire saga in one film.
Other issues abound, such as the extremely vague political setup and the confusing nature of the First Order. A Republic is mentioned in the opening crawl and subsequently destroyed as if the writers were annoyed they had to include it in the first place. The nature of this Resistance and its size is not explained. And a “hyper lightspeed weapon” that can fire at one star system from across the galaxy while being seen in a third system elsewhere in the galaxy completely defies any understanding.
But George Lucas has said that myths are about teaching the next generation our values and the difference between right and wrong. Whether it is Obi-Wan in A New Hope, or Luke on Cloud City in Empire, or again standing over his father in Jedi, the good guy ultimately knows or learns that sacrifice is stronger than force. The dark side is not about hating your friends and family but about selfishness. It is about selfishly holding onto and controlling your loved ones. It is about hating and killing your enemy. The light side, the good side as it is called in Jedi, is about loving your enemy. It is about laying down your life for your enemy because you are their friend.
The film’s best scene, the death of Han Solo, attempts to exemplify this value, but only because the filmmakers are riffing on the earlier films. It is undercut when Ren chooses to strike down his father. As the climax of a trilogy, signaling Ren’s irredeemability, perhaps this would have resonance. But while the moment itself is powerful, thanks to Harrison Ford’s world class performance, it rings hollow in the story and undercuts many of the more interesting prospects for the rest of the saga. J.J. Abrams’ explanation of the decision to kill Han Solo to the WGA indicates that rather than making this decision in terms of what it means for the characters, or because it was a natural conclusion to the story they were trying to tell, or even simply as a mirror to A New Hope, they did it because:
“If we’re not going to have something important and irreversible happen to him, then he kind of feels like luggage. He feels like this great, sexy piece of luggage you have in your movie. But he’s not really evolving. He’s not really pushing the story forward…. [Han Solo’s death is] this massive tradeoff. How can we possibly do that!? But… if we hadn’t done that, the movie wouldn’t have any guts at all. It felt very dangerous.”
Star Wars is a moral fable that is good for children because it does teach powerful lessons about right and wrong. In The Empire Strikes Back, Yoda tells us that a Jedi uses the Force “for knowledge and defense, never for attack.” It’s a powerful lesson that has stuck with me since I was a child, and I appreciated seeing that one of the downfalls of the Jedi in the prequel trilogy was their aggression, best seen in Revenge of the Sith when Yoda attacks the emperor, and draws his weapon first, but ultimately fails to save the galaxy. In The Force Awakens, Rey draws her lightsaber first. She does not wait for Kylo Ren to attack, she attacks him. The film lacks a true moral center and is extremely, senselessly violent. In fact, rather than teaching the next generation that violence is not the first resort of good people, this film teaches that if you hit hard enough and long enough you can beat that bully at his own game. That force and violence is the answer to injustice. Less Ghandi, more Malcolm X.
(All Accessed 12/21/15)
‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ – J.J. Abrams Explains the Thinking Behind THAT Kylo Ren Scene
We Need To Talk About Kylo
George Lucas says he would not direct another Star Wars film after criticism
George Lucas on the Meaning of “Star Wars” (Oct. 23, 2014) | Charlie Rose