Expecting a Jump to Lightspeed? How The Force Awakens Stalls the Star Wars Saga

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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.

My Eight Main Questions Upon Leaving The Force Awakens

Star Wars 2Overall, I’d say I generally enjoyed Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens. There were some thrilling set pieces, a scattering of witty one-liners and a couple of very interesting additions to the cast. However, I left the cinema with a number of burning questions, some of which I believe were intentionally left unanswered, but others too that rather undermined by enjoyment of the film. Here are six of the most pressing. Obviously spoilers will follow.

What happened to the other padawans?

Was there another youngling massacre? It is revealed during the movie that Luke was training a new generation of Jedi when one of their number — Kylo Ren, then known to Skywalker as nephew, or Ben — burned everything to the ground. But are they all dead, or did some of them escape and simply abandon their training? The introduction of Rey and Finn (as well as the film’s title) implies that people across the universe — whether scavenger or Stormtrooper — are developing Force powers, while a number of supporting characters appear to have an understanding of the Force that goes beyond simple study. Presumably, they are not alone, and, X-Men style, people throughout history have found themselves imbued with inexplicable power. Would it not have made a more interesting film to explore what they might do with these new abilities, without mentors good or evil to influence them? It certainly would have given The Force Awakens a unique slant, and a more complex morality.

Was that Coruscant?

We first see the full capabilities of Starkiller Base when it fires a sun across the galaxy to destroy the distant Hosnian system, home to the New Republic, and therefore the Senate. We know from George Lucas’ prequel trilogy that the original Senate was based on Coruscant, the city planet that also housed the Jedi Council. From the fleeting footage of life on the surface we see helpless citizens watch on helplessly as their world ends around them, and it certainly has a familiar air. I understand that the prequels are unpopular, and that J. J. Abrams might wish to distance his own films from them, but having spent half of the extant saga on and around Coruscant it seems unceremonious to say the least (more like spiteful) to wipe its entire star system from the galaxy with such senseless abandon. Would it really have hurt the film to base some of its action on the planet’s surface so to at least give the carnage some meaning? Even anonymous Alderaan got that honour, when Darth Vader blew it up in A New Hope with one of its residents — Princess Leia, no less — watching in horror. Remember guys: anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering…

How does Finn’s moral compass work?

According to Finn, he and his fellow Stormtroopers are abducted from their families at a young age and trained to do one thing — presumably to kill, or maybe to miss, it’s hard to say. Why this is easier than using clones bred on site is never really clear, but whatever. He also explains that during his first battle he chose to make a decision, that he would not kill in the First Order’s name. Let’s look past the fact that, if someone really was to be raised in an environment such as this, steeped in the Dark Side, would they suddenly decide that evil wasn’t for them? I suppose it’s possible that he somehow managed to fly under the radar, even with Captain Phasma watching, until adulthood, at which point he was able to orchestrate his escape. What really jars, however, is that having just forsaken murder he is so quick to turn on his own. Having acquired a TIE fighter from one of the Star Destroyer’s hangers, Po at the helm, Finn lays waste to battalion after battalion with obvious glee. So…he’s a good guy now?

What has the Resistance been doing all this time?

Thirty years have passed since the second Death Star was destroyed and Ewoks defeated the Empire, and all that the Rebel Alliance appears to have done in that time is change their name. (The Millennium Falcon has clearly had its deflector dish repaired too, though that might easily have been done by one of its subsequent owners.) Over the course of the original trilogy, having grown from the nucleonic Alliance to Restore the Republic established by Padme Amidala at the end of Revenge of the Sith, the Rebel Alliance clearly grows from a handful of fighters to a full-blown fleet with a veritable smorgasbord of vessels to its name. Worryingly, however, as of The Force Awakens, the newly minted Resistance has since resorted to the same tactics they used in A New Hope, namely to dispatch a dozen or so X-wings and hope that they can stop a planet-killing superstructure before it wipes them from the face of the universe. What’s more, it doesn’t even have Y- wings in its ranks anymore, let alone the B-wings and A-wings that were introduced in Return of the Jedi. We also learn that Han and Leia lost their son to the Dark Side, a trauma so great that Luke fled, Han and Chewie deserted and R2D2 simply switched off. None of this rings true in any way.

If Luke wants to be left alone, why did he leave a map?

So, since ditching his friends and leaving the galaxy in the hands of Kylo Ren and the First Order, Luke has taken a leaf out of Yoda’s book and exiled himself on a distant planet — one that, somehow, is completely off the charts. For some reason, however, a map exists to his location. Now, I suppose that if he were going to leave directions to a small outcrop off the coast of Ireland he would store them in R2 for safekeeping, but why R2 should then power down (and why he should choose some completely arbitrary point in the future to power up again) doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Was there really no way of retrieving the information from an offline droid? Did Princess Leia even look? (Remember, having already programmed him with information, she clearly knows her way around an R2 unit.) The point that really rankles is made by Kylo Ren, who reveals that the rest of the map was actually recovered from the Empire. What? And, what’s more, it exists as a jigsaw puzzle, part of which was stolen from the First Order by Po. The completely baffling bit comes at the end of the movie, when R2D2 (now conveniently awake and willing to help) projects the map with Po’s piece of the puzzle missing. Was it saved on some sort of shared database, between the Rebellion and the Empire? Again, WHAT?

Are Finn and Po more than just friends?

When it comes to racial and gender politics, Star Wars has had something of a checkered history. The original trilogy only featured one non-white actor (and one non-white actor’s voice), who was revealed to be a traitor, and forced its only notable female character to wear a metal bikini; while the prequel’s came under fire for their depiction of Gungans and whatever Viceroy Gunray was supposed to be as apparent racial stereotypes. The Force Awakens raises a few eyebrows too, namely for a throwaway Han Solo line referring to Asian raiders as “little” and a scene showing Finn drinking from a trough. For the most part, however, thanks to the casting of Daisy Ridley, John Boyega and Oscar Isaac in key roles, J. J. Abrams film boasts one of the most diverse casts of Hollywood history, even if it still doesn’t technically pass the Bechdel test. Rey is a capable character who can fight her own battles, Finn overcomes his fears to fight the good fight, and Po is repeatedly described as the best pilot in the Resistance. But there is a chance that it could be even more progressive than that. Whether the script is supposed to be setting Finn and Rey up as suitors or not (after all, there’s no reason that any of the new characters need pair up), the closest it actually comes to creating believable sexual tension is in a handful of encounters shared by Finn and Po. The actors may simply have been aiming for bromance, or perhaps homoeroticism, but their interactions hint at something more. When Finn returns to the Resistance wounded, Po even appears to rush to his sickbed, while Finn’s earlier question to Rey (“Do you have a boyfriend, a cute boyfriend?”) is strangely phrased to say the least. Not only would it be refreshing for a film of this scale to feature gay characters, it’d be worth it just to see the fanboys froth. If anything was going to break the internet, it’d be that.

Who is Rey, really? 

Regardless of how hard you tried to avoid spoilers, the rumour mill had ways of getting to you. With the trailer showing Rey on a desert planet much like Tatooine there was inevitably speculation that she was somehow related to Luke Skywalker, whether genetically or otherwise. The film reveals that Rey — a non-native to Jakku — has been waiting on the planet for her parents’ return, with a Rebel helmet and a hand-stitched doll in the colours of an X-wing pilot. She tells BB-8 that her backstory is also classified, which suggests she is of some importance, while later she notes that the Stormtroopers chasing Finn are shooting at her too. It seems unlikely that she would be Luke’s daughter, not least because she imagines that Jedis and such might be a myth, but there are a number of moments later in the film that imply otherwise. When she is saved from Starkiller Base and returned to Jakku she is greeted with a silent embrace from Leia, despite apparently never having met. They might have had some sort of Force connection (although Luke is described as the last Jedi, Leia is clearly shown to register Han’s death from the other side of the galaxy) but the fact that Leia should send Rey in search of Luke (with Chewie and R2D2 by her side) and not go herself suggests that she knows something that we don’t. Finally, when introduced, Luke and Rey something that JK Rowling might have described as a “meaningful look”.

What would Lucas’ Episode VII have looked like?

The short answer is that we’ll probably never know. When Lucas sold the Star Wars rights to Disney the deal included his treatments for the sequel trilogy, but he has since revealed that they were never used. Meanwhile, the future described in official Expanded Universe materials has also been discarded in favour of a new continuity. However, there are elements of The Force Awakens that follow tangents established in the canon films and the non-cannon literature, not least the fact that Luke founded a new Jedi academy and the son of Han Solo was seduced by the Dark Side. It’s not hard to imagine some of the other changes, either. The film would have probably featured more CGI than Abrams’ does, and it probably wouldn’t have been as well acted or directed. However, it probably wouldn’t have stuck so close to the plot of A New Hope (and therefore The Phantom Menace). Lucas has in interviews described the saga as poetic, so themes and narrative elements recur throughout, but none of Lucas’ films were quite as repetitive as Abrams’. The action starts aboard a shuttle carrying Stormtroopers from a Star Destroyer to the surface of Jakku, then returns to the Star Destroyer, then to Jakku again. It also features a desert planet indistinguishable from Tatooine, a bigger Death Star, and so many captures, tortures and escapes that it is impossible to keep count. What’s more, there is a dearth of memorable ships, planets and leitmotifs — issues (though there were of course others) that even the prequels never had. There is also the very real chance that it might have felt like a more comprehensive saga, with more elements carried over from the prequels. It might have felt a bit more like Star Wars.

Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (2015)

Star Wars[Spoiler Alert] Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is missing, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) have deserted, leaving the fate of the galaxy in the hands of the New Republic and its Resistance, now lead by Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher). When her star pilot (Oscar Isaac) is captured by the First Order, the new face of the Galactic Empire, he entrusts vital information concerning Skywalker’s whereabouts to a droid who is left on the planet of Jakku. There it seeks assistance from Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger who, along with reformed Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), agrees to return it to the Resistance, steeling a ride aboard an abandoned Millennium Falcon and narrowly escaping the clutches of General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson). The First Order have other plans for the Resistance, however, mostly involving a new weapon that makes the Death Star look like a Jedi training ball. [Spoiler Alert]

When the first of George Lucas’ prequel films was released in 1999 it was met with widespread disdain, with most criticising the fact that the film was too different from the original trilogy. What was once a story about rebellion was now a treatise on trade law; where once the galaxy had felt lived-in and battle-damaged it now sparkled and shone; while what in childhood had once inspired wonderment and awe now seemed to adult eyes childish and insipid. Nobody seemed to notice the similarities: this was once again the story of an inexperienced Jedi, plucked from obscurity on a distant desert planet and thrust into the midst of an apparently eternal struggle between good and evil. For this consistency, for his single-minded determination to make films that served the ongoing franchise he had conceived rather than the fanbase that had adopted it, he was met with ridicule and contempt, and was ultimately forced to relinquish control of his creation. Because in this day and age, even in cinema, it appears the customer is always right.

Disney bought Lucasfilm for $4 billion, and gave J. J. Abrams the job of rejuvenating the franchise, or rather redeeming it in the eyes of the most vocal members of its audience. He had previous experience, having recently restored Star Trek to perceived relevancy with his 2009 reboot, so his appointment was welcomed by many, even as Star Trek‘s own fanbase criticised him for taking too much of a revisionist approach to their beloved continuity. Whether as a reaction to this, or because of his own self-professed love for the original trilogy, Abrams soon sought to reassure fans that Star Wars: The Force Awakens would be a continuation of the saga made by the fans for the fans, even as he avoided referring to it as Episode VII and thus risk placing it in the wider, prequel-recognising series (though this subtitle was thankfully reinstated for the theatrical release). In keeping with this populist approach, stars Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher were re-signed, while all involved took every opportunity to satisfy fans that the less illustrious elements of the galaxy far, far away — the Gungans, Ewoks and midichlorians of Lucas’ world — would not appear. Whether it made sense within the story for them to or not.

The result is a film that bears a closer resemblance to A New Hope than even The Phantom Menace (there’s no pod-racing or choral choirs to distinguish The Force Awakens). Lucas often spoke of the poetry of his Star Wars saga, of a story that echoed down the generations, and there is an undeniable symmetry to the original and prequel trilogies. With Lucas gone, however, disharmony has crept in, and there’s an element of confusion to this latest stanza, the discord of an imperfect rhyme. The Force Awakens features familiar worlds with unfamiliar names, recognisable characters with unrecognisable faces, and traditional themes refracted in non-traditional ways. It’s uncanny at times, particularly where the returning characters are concerned. Like pastiche, like pantomime, there is a celebratory, self-congratulatory quality to The Force Awakens that feels out of place in a universe used to such high stakes, of galaxy-obliterating super-weapons and fatal family feuds. Everyone seems too happy, too eager to please, with past conflicts forgotten in favour of an out-of-place comfort. Even the perennially pessimistic C-3PO seems uncharacteristically content, as if scared to upset the film’s fervent following and therefore risk expulsion from future instalments. After all, who would want to be the next Jar Jar Binks?

None of this is to suggest that The Force Awakens isn’t enjoyable, because it undoubtedly is, or that is doesn’t take any risks, because it does. The film is fast, frenetic fun, J. J.  Abrams ensuring that the pace doesn’t let up long enough for the plot holes to register, while his decision to cast trained actors instead of matinee idols pays dividends in the work of the key newcomers, who break the blockbuster mould in a number of refreshing ways, even if their talents rather outshine those of the established cast. Daisy Ridley, John Boyega and Oscar Isaac are all terrific actors, the best (and most diverse) the series has ever seen, but they’re somewhat hamstrung by characters who don’t make a whole lot of sense. Their backstories and motivations are either concealed or contrived, so that Rey keeps alluding to a childhood trauma that is never elucidated on and Finn is left to make decisions completely at odds with everything we know about his background. Abrams just doesn’t have the same flair for iconography that Lucas did, and has made a career out of playing with other people’s creations. Jedi has become a recognised religion, while the ships, worlds and even jargon of Star Wars transcend not just the series but cinema itself. Even the prequels registered and resonated with the public consciousness, with their battle droids, padawan learners and Order 66 entering the wider lexicon. Nothing invented specifically for Abrams’ film makes quite the same impression — except perhaps BB-8.

At times The Force Awakens feels more like fan-service than film-making, and come film’s end it’s questionable whether Abrams’ has added anything new to the Star Wars mythology. It’s strange, therefore, that he should have been so wary of spoilers getting out in the first place. As with Star Trek, he pre-empted this not just with heightened security but with misinformation, so that he wasn’t just mollifying audiences but misleading them. That’s not all it has in common with Star Trek (and, for that matter, Star Trek Into Darkness), for only in its last few moments does Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens promise anything resembling a new direction, by which time everyone’s too relieved to criticise such an unsatisfying ending. The Force may have awoken, but to what end is not yet clear.

3-Stars