A few years ago, a dear friend moved across the country to begin attending grad school. I even road tripped across America to help him transition from one coast to another. The thing is, what was once an almost daily friendship was now punctuated with frenzied visits once a year. Sure, we would talk on the phone or via Skype, we’d play SimCity together, and text each other, but it just wasn’t the same. Thankfully, when we were together, on the same coast, it felt like no time or distance had separated us at all. We’d tell the same kinds of jokes, laugh at the same kinds of things, and talk about all the same topics. We’re able to pick up right where we left off.
Watching Star Wars: The Force Awakens was a lot like catching up with that friend who rolls into town every once in a while. All the same sights and sounds were there, just like I remembered them. Even the same jokes were told, though there were far more laughs at some of the new ones. Certainly the trappings and the setting were different but it felt good to be reacquainted with this galaxy far, far away.
Much has been made of the similarity in structure between Episode IV, A New Hope this new film. The worst critics believe this imitation of what came before damages the film beyond repair; it’s a black mark that’s unimaginative and dull. What they miss is the parallel thematic and structural movements of the first six movies, perfectly encapsulated by Mike Klimo’s Ring Theory. No, the emulated structure is just another way The Force Awakens reacquaints us with the Star Wars universe.
Warning: major spoilers ahead
And just like any other friendship that’s stood the test of time and distance, this new Star Wars film has new stories to tell. Old characters meet new characters, echoes of the past haunt the present, and another Death Star is destroyed. It’s these new characters, Rey, Kylo, Finn, and Poe, who shed the brightest light on the themes of this film. Earlier, I wrote about the mythic legacy of Star Wars facing J.J. Abrams and these new characters. The family heritage of Rey certainly raised the most compelling questions after the film ended. The Skywalker family has been at the center of the entire saga so far and I would be surprised if this new trilogy didn’t have a Skywalker at its center.
The Skywalkers have never been known for their healthy family dynamics. A fatherless slave, raised by a single mother, develops an attachment disorder leading to his fall to the dark side. His twin children are split up at birth and hidden from each other. The son confronts the father twice, losing a hand the first time, and helps to redeem him the second. Those same strained dynamics are echoed in The Force Awakens. The death of Han Solo at the hands of his own son is just the next tragedy to add to the legacy. It certainly tugged at the heartstrings but it never felt earned. The brokenness of the Skywalker family did not end with the death and redemption of Anakin Skywalker. That darkness is seen in Kylo but the fractured relationship with his father is only spoken about, never seen until the fateful moment. Kylo’s story is not finished and I’m sure we’ll see him continue to wrestle with his sins and the sins of his father. It just felt like the death of Han should have been the climax of the second film in the trilogy (like Empire Strikes Back could have ended).
Family legacy may be the heart of the Star Wars saga but friendship is its soul. As Eric Hynes puts it in his review of The Force Awakens, “While family ties in the films are often fraught, needing to be overcome, severed, or vanquished—especially those between sons and fathers—friendships are relatively pure.” The original trio of Luke, Han, and Leia has given way to Rey, Finn, and Poe. Friendship is the catalyst that pushes characters to perform heroic rescues, flipping the romantic ideal on its head. Friends can be droids or walking carpets, old or young, men or women. It’s this naïve belief in friendship that proves to be the emotional heart of the original trilogy and this new film.
Perhaps the reason the prequel trilogy felt so hollow was because this platonic ideal was lost amid a painfully awkward romance. The best parts of Episodes II and III are the glimpses of friendship we see between Anakin and Obi-Wan. The most memorable parts are the melodramatic scenes between Anakin and Padme. Their romance begins before a friendship is ever developed. There’s no foundation to their relationship which may be the reason it felt so hollow.
Of the new characters, none exemplifies this spirit of friendship more so than Finn. He rejects the ideals of a faceless empire to help someone in need and he can’t help but make new friends wherever he goes. He’s loyal to these friends to a fault. John Boyega is perfect in the role and brings an energy to the film that’s unlike any other performance we’ve seen in this series.
After a ten year hiatus, Star Wars is back on the big screen and we’re just getting reacquainted. There will be new stories set in a galaxy far, far away coming every year for the foreseeable future, but The Force Awakens had a particularly unique role to play in the saga. J.J Abrams excels at reuniting us with old friends and helping us make new ones. He bridges the gap to this new era, while steeping his film in the familiar sights, sounds, and themes that make it Star Wars. Its now up to Gareth Edwards, Rian Johnson, and Colin Trevorrow to break new ground and take us on new adventures in this rekindled friendship.