December 20, 2015 2 Comments
Beware, the spoilers are strong with this one.
Return of the Jedi. That’s what the last film in the extant series was called — chronologically speaking, at least. Return of the Jedi. And yet, thirty years later, at the outset of a new trilogy designed to take the Skywalker story forward, these Jedi who have apparently returned are nowhere to be seen. According to the opening crawl, the Jedi did enjoy something of a brief resurgence, but the New Jedi Order came to an abrupt end when one of Luke’s padawans gave in to the Dark Side. In the years since, as the film’s title suggests, Luke and the light have gone into hibernation.
This might come as something of a surprise given that until now Star Wars has followed the Skywalker story this far, but The Force Awakens instead asks audiences to put a pin in the whole Chosen One thing and instead watch what is essentially a rerun of the first movie, as a new, utterly unrelated group of youngsters get to grips with the Force and take their first small steps into a conflict that has raged for generations. While it’s understandable that J. J. Abrams and Disney might not wish to acquiesce to the Expanded Universe — a collection of stories previously considered to comprise the canonical continuation of the saga, post-Jedi — it does rather lead to a more contrived and counter-intuitive continuity as the obvious narrative trajectory is eschewed in favour of a more awkward alternative. Ben no longer refers to Luke’s son, but to Han and Leia’s, while everyone else has to be introduced individually and ushered into position before the story everyone’s actually been waiting thirty-odd years for can actually begin.
Strangely, rather than open the world of Star Wars to encompass new worlds and perspectives, J. J. Abrams decision to start his film in this way has the opposite effect. The film may open on Jakku, ostensibly a new planet, but there is no mistaking it for a pale imitation of Tatooine, a remote outpost of almost no relevance to the wider mythology. The new characters don’t offer much more in the way of variety either, limited as they are to an orphan, a maverick and a Stormtrooper. So much of Rey’s past is withheld that it’s hard to infer anything about her upbringing or motivations, while Finn’s identity as a trained trooper — if not actually a clone — means that much of his own history is already written. Bizarrely, the film actually does introduce a character with some alleged connection to Star Wars lore, played by Max von Sydow no less, but rather than make use of his potential for providing context and establishing stakes Abrams simply kills him off, without the ceremony such an actor or character undoubtedly deserves. What of Endor, the last known resting place of Darth Vader, and therefore the most likely place Kylo Ren acquired his idol’s helmet? What of Cloud City and the AWOL Lando Calrissian? What of Kamino and its directly referenced clone army?
It’s not until the second act that we meet up with any familiar characters. Last time we saw Han Solo he had apparently turned his back on smuggling for good in order to begin a relationship with Leia and in the process become a fully-fledged soldier in the Rebel Alliance. He had lent the Millennium Falcon to Lando for the Battle of Endor, himself and Chewie instead leading a ground assault aboard a hijacked Imperial shuttle, but it’s easy to picture the pair fighting many more battles aboard the fastest ship in the galaxy — itself an asset to the Rebel Alliance. As it happens, this is not exactly how history transpired, as following the conversion of his son to the Dark Side Han returned to smuggling and apparently lost his ship to another scoundrel. The Falcon is found by chance on Jakku, by Rey and Finn, though it isn’t long before its most famous owners take advantage of the opportunity to take it back. It’s a nice moment, and duly brings Han and Chewie back into the fold, but relies so heavily on coincidence that you can’t help but imagine there might have been a more straightforward (and much less contrived) way of doing so.
Even so, it’s a little odd that Han should be re-introduced first, ahead of Luke or Leia. He may always have been the most popular character but he was never the series’ protagonist, instead occupying more of a supporting role. His son may be the saga’s new chief antagonist, but Kylo Ren’s obsession with Darth Vader — his grandfather on his mother’s side — and the fact that Leia is now a general in the Resistance — the enemy — makes her a more obvious target for a personal vendetta than an absentee father. Instead, it’s Han who gets the face-to-face confrontation with Kylo Ren, in which he inevitably meets his end at his son’s own hands (Harrison Ford has been looking for a way out of the franchise since Jedi), while Leia is sidelined at the other end of the universe. Presumably Ren knows of his mother’s role in the Republic, and given that the super-weapon on which he is situated is currently taking aim at the Resistance’s base, you’d think he’d be a bit more concerned with his Force-sensitive mother’s fate. During his confrontation with Han Leia isn’t even mentioned.
The Force Awakens goes to great lengths to show Rey as a capable and compelling female character who can take care of herself. She has apparently raised herself, supported herself and protected herself for most of her life, while the film depicts her fighting off kidnappers, resisting Kylo Ren’s attempts at mind control, and saving both herself and Finn from an untimely end. In fact, of all the newcomers, it is Rey who stands out as the obvious leader and hero-in-the-making. The Force Awakens also features Gwendoline Christie as Captain Phasma, a powerful figure in the First Order, and never once makes reference to her gender. It’s a shame, then, that Leia isn’t given more to do, instead being left to watch helplessly as a group of men across the galaxy attempt to fire a sun at her. Come film’s end, when the Resistance retrieves Luke’s location from a star map conveniently located within R2, she doesn’t even set off in search of her long-lost brother — the brother she has very explicitly been searching for all this time, and the Resistance’s best chance at stopping the First Order and avenging her late husband. Presumably we’ll see her again in Episode VIII, but it would have been the perfect opportunity to get her back into the heart of action. It’s certainly a far cry from the Leia of Return of the Jedi, who strangled Jabba the Hut and fought the Empire on Endor. As Luke’s Force-sensitive sister, and presumably the “other” hope referenced by Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back, why isn’t she using her latent abilities to stop her own son?
And then there’s Luke, a bona-fide Jedi, so committed to his friends that he abandoned his training on Degobah in order to save them, completely unwilling to join Yoda in exile and neglect his destiny a moment longer than he must. Luke, who, from the moment he saw his aunt and uncle slaughtered by the Empire, never stopped fighting, even after he learned that the Sith Lord behind it all was actually his father. Instead, Luke spent the rest of the series trying to save Anakin from himself, eventually succeeding and in the process returning balance to the Force. He blew up the first Death Star, rejected the call to darkness, and even built his own lightsaber. To learn that, after all he had accomplished, Luke simply gave up when another threat arose, is to learn that you never really knew the character at all. That he gave up on family and left his best friends to suffer an uncertain fate after doing so much to save them doesn’t sit right at all. None of it fits, it feels illogical when it should feel intuitive, and is the chief reason that The Force Awakens doesn’t really feel like Star Wars at all. It’s a film about people running away — and while this may have precedence thanks to Yoda and Obi-Wan, when it comes to the main heroes that audiences have tracked throughout the original trilogy not even C3PO missed a moment of action.
Instead, it feels like fan fiction, or a throwaway aside. Like someone who grew up loving Han Solo and A New Hope (but who dismissed the prequels, and probably wasn’t even that keen on Return of the Jedi, if he was being honest, as most fans apparently have) who has been given the chance to write the future as he would like it to be, and not how it ought to be. We get a remake of the first film (or fourth, chronologically speaking) instead of a sequel to the third (sixth). There is safety in the familiar, and nostalgia pays, but it is not the Star Wars way. After all, it all started with Lucas, and if there’s one thing you can’t ever accuse him of, it’s giving his audiences what they want. Say what you like about the prequels, but they spent about as much time progressing the story as The Force Awakens spends regressing it.