The editors of Across the Margin convene to examine the particulars of JJ Abrams’ long-awaited continuation to the Star Wars saga…
DG: First and foremost is, I don’t think Star Wars fans could have asked for a better experience. What a film! With that said, where do we even begin here with so much to get to? How about with Supreme Leader Snoke?
MCS: Agreed. I cannot imagine how a Star Wars fan could walk out of the theater feeling anything but satisfied and enlivened. I had an ear to ear grin on my face from the the moment the Falcon first took flight (and was dragging through the sand!) until – well, you know when (we’ll get to that of course). I even found myself close to welling up at points that weren’t even that emotional, but nostalgia is a hell of a drug. I believe JJ nailed it, and he did so by sticking to the blueprint that stole our hearts initially (I love, love, love that there was another death star – I don’t understand how some folks are gripping about the plotline mirroring A New Hope and Return of the Jedi). I am also so impressed with the next generation of characters: Rey, Finn and Poe (“Who talks first? Do I talk first or do you talk first?”), Kylo Ren and BB-8. They were all fantastic. But man was it good to be in the Falcon again. “We’re home” indeed!
With so much to tackle, let’s take this slow and piecemeal and Supreme Leader Snoke is as good of a place to start as any. The laundry list of freaks that Andy Serkis has brought to life continues to grow! First off, I love that Snoke employs the use of a gargantuan hologram. That’s one way to intimidate the employees. He’s about seven feet tall anyways, but that hologram makes him out to be about two, maybe three stories tall. I also appreciate his measured delivery, but I feel we have much to learn about Snoke, and I can’t wait to know more.
I am going to come from sort of a unique angle on this one (bear with me here). I have heard a few critiques of the The Force Awakens already (it was bound to happen of course), mostly about R2D2 just coming to life at the most opportune of times and about the map to Luke, but I also heard a couple of grumbles about Snoke and about Maz Kanata (brought to life wonderfully by Lupita Nyong’o from 12 Years a Slave) – and these are two characters I very much appreciated (especially Maz and her talk of the seeing the same eyes in different people). What’s funny to think about is that while The Force Awakens excels because it returns us to what made Star Wars so special in the first place, these two characters would have fit in aptly in Lucas’ unfortunate prequel trilogy. While The Force Awakens was already in full swing at the time, I thought the film triumphantly took off when they got to Maz’s cantina on the planet Takodana, and Rey fell under a spell of visions in the presence of Luke’s lightsaber. Depth was added in that moment, and the battle between The First Order and the New Republic that ensued just blew my mind. The full body chills I got when you could see across the lake from afar the swell of water caused by the New Resistance’s X-wings was amazing. One of my favorite moments from the film. But I believe Maz and Snoke were integral, and successful, components of the film and I expect to see a whole lot more of them both.
CMT: Snoke ordering General Hux to bring Kylo Ren to him in order to complete his training as the Starkiller Base disintegrated, and the First Order’s mighty new weapon was lost, was powerful. Powerful in the fact that Snoke appeared to offer no emotion, no anxiety or fear or perturbation in the defeat that was suffered at the hands of the New Republic forces. I had the distinct feeling that Snoke was playing the long game, that his age and his wisdom and his experience as a Dark Lord of the Sith allowed him to see moves and plans that are not apparent to the majority of the inhabitants of the galaxy. Sometimes you have to lose – sometimes big – to win, especially if you want to instill in your foe a false sense of bravado and success.
I feel like Snoke has an interest in Kylo Ren because he is a conflicted user of the Force. A Force-sensitive individual who is besieged by both the light and the dark side. Snoke’s interest in such a conflicted individual as Kylo – who can exist powerfully in both Force currents – has to be something that Snoke can use to his advantage. However, as the film ends, and Kylo cruelly kills his father, Han, it appears that Snoke intends to finish Kylo’s training, and further cement him in the teachings and the path of the dark side of the Force.
I couldn’t help but draw parallels between Snoke’s portrayal as a massive, twenty-five foot hologram atop a stone throne and the scene in Tim Burton’s remake of Planet of the Apes where Mark Wahlberg’s character finds himself at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. – on what he thinks is his version of Earth – only to find out that the massive statue of Abraham Lincoln that graces the majestic memorial is actually one of an ape-like version of the great president. I’m not sure if this is an ode to that film or its essence, but I couldn’t help but draw such a parallel!
DG: I think that Snoke somehow has ties to the prequel trilogy/Sith. There’s a fan theory out there that he’s really Darth Plagueis. Regardless of the merits of this theory, I’m glad that there seems no malicious intent by JJ to undermine the prequels and/or pretend that they don’t exist, as so many franchises in the recent past have attempted to do to their predecessors.
MCS: That theory make sense as Darth Plagueis was the master of Darth Sidious, so while we saw what became of the Emperor, who’s to say his teacher isn’t still in the mix dabbling with the dark arts – except for the fact that, as the story goes, the Emperor killed Darth Plagueis on his rise to power1. But maybe there is something there. Interesting.
DG: As interested as I’m am in Maz Kanata and her backstory, I’m equally interested to know how she recovered Anakin’s/Luke’s lightsaber from Bespin. However it may have happened, I’m glad that lightsaber wasn’t lost forever. And yes, Lupita Nyong’o is a superb actress, and she presents Maz as a most intriguing new character.
When you mentioned earlier that some fans might be pissed at the inclusion of another Death Star-ish weapon, it got me thinking about parallels and cycles in these movies. As we’ve seen with the first act of a three-part story, it seems the mentor/father figure has to die so that the young protagonists story arc can advance. That’s why Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan both have to die respectively. But I knew going into this that Luke wasn’t going to die, so I was wondering if they were going to break away from this template of storytelling. I didn’t know Kylo Ren would be Han and Leia’s son because I’ve done such a good job staying away from spoiler heavy material, but the second Han called out, “Ben!” (exactly what Luke called out before Vadar killed Obi Wan!) I knew he was done for. Maybe on a subconscious level I knew it when Kylo has his meeting with Snoke and his paternity is officially revealed. But anyway, Han, and not Luke, is the non-Force wielding mentor that has to die so that Rey’s story can move forward, and I thought JJ handled that beautifully: a non-Jedi mentor figure perishing in an almost self-sacrificing fashion as we’ve seen previously in Episode’s I and IV.
CMT: I loved the Starkiller Base. What fascinates me about it so much was that it was actually a planet. That side by side comparison of the Death Star to the new superweapon in the Resistance’s battle room was amazing! To think about the enormous amount of effort on the First Order’s side that had to go into retrofitting an entire fucking planet to become basically a massive space canyon is beyond incomprehensible. In that final scene where the Starkiller base explodes (implodes?), after its destruction, instead of this massive burst of planetary material being flung out into space, the planet rather elegantly morphs into an entirely new star. It’s pretty exciting to think about all of the science necessary to turn a planet – one that had absorbed basically an entire nearby star to power the Starkiller weapon – into a brand new star. Additionally, the destruction of an actual star to serve their nefarious means is such an Empire/First Order move. But it’s such a Rebellion win to have a new star born as a result of their efforts. The First Order may be capable of destroying stars and planets with ease, but the Rebellion can be seen as the rebuilders of the galaxy, literally and figuratively, while the First Order only seeks to further its decay, a process started with the Empire in the six previous films.
MCS: Well said. And to echo Doug’s point about the prequels, I also loved that there was no deliberate intent to undermine the prequels. No reason for that – what’s done is done. In fact, I felt that by including Maz and Snoke as characters who looked more likely to be in the prequels than the original trilogy, JJ was honoring some of George’s vision in that realm. George, after all, is the man behind the magic – and it’s obvious JJ has nothing but respect for him and his franchise.
I, too, need to know more about the journey of Luke’s lightsaber. Like Maz said, that is a “story for another day!”
But we have waited long enough. We must talk about Han in depth. The filmmakers and all involved did an amazing job keeping his death a secret, and it was certainly wholly impactful. To speak frankly, that was some cold shit that Ben Solo pulled. It’s very telling to Kylo Ren’s state of mind, his treacherous capabilities, and what it means for his passage into the dark.
I was surprised – amazingly so – of the minimal level of hurt I felt when Han passed. Of course it hit hard, but not as much as I could have anticipated with Han being one of my favorite characters in film of all time. Maybe it was because in the moments leading up to his death you knew it was coming and you had time to prepare, to brace yourself so to speak. Or maybe it was because I’m very familiar with Star Wars and the history of loss and its relationship to characterter growth. But the truth of the matter is, it was such a perfect final chapter for Han, and I truly never expected to be given any more time with Han prior to the announcement of Harrison Ford’s participation in The Force Awakens. Spending nearly the entirety of the film with him felt like such a surprising gift, a cherry on top that I don’t take for granted at all. I honestly never thought Han would be back, and although he is now gone, I am more thankful for this extra time than saddened by his demise.
CMT: In retrospect, The Force Awakens plays in part as a long, slow goodbye of sorts for Han Solo. In the same way that Walter White in Breaking Bad got to “glide through all” and revisit/make peace with his past and set a few things right with the future, Han too was able to participate in a few of these experiences. Regaining control of the Millennium Falcon was huge for Han. It was clear in the movie that he never gave up hope looking for her and it was in fact, his main objective all these years. All the wheelings and dealings he was doing, all of them way shady, seemed only to serve (and fund) his search for his beloved ship. Han getting to pass along the knowledge that the Force is indeed true and that the stories of Luke, Han, and Leia were not just myths did an excellent job of cementing his legacy, and his place in the great history book of the galaxy. Finn and Rey as the cross-bearer’s of that Legacy, and the story of how Han helped the Rebel Alliance defeat the Empire, now ensure that his story and his prestige will exist for new generations long after he is gone. Plus, Han getting to meet up with Leia, now much older and a General, and to make peace with their past must have given him piece of mind. The fact that Han and Leia’s love was not stronger than their differing personalities, but that their shared love of their son Ben Solo was, allowed Han a measure of closure in regards to Leia on what could very well be (and actually ended up being) his last great adventure.
Han getting to go on that last great adventure, at the helm of the Falcon, with Chewie at his side (and where he finally gets to shoot the bowcaster!) is his final send off. His one last hurrah before he dies. And then, finally, in the most touching (and tragic) moment, when Han gets to finally see his son, without his mask, and call him by his birth name (Ben) and tell him that he loves him and that he misses him and to get to touch his face, all before Rylo slays him, it’s all just the icing on the cake on what I can only describe as: The Scoundrel Guide to Going Out Strong.
DG: It was Chewie’s reaction that really got me. Watching Han plummet down the shaft and then Chewie shooting at his partner’s only son was the scene that got the biggest emotional reaction out of me. I was wondering to see how that would play out with Chewie after the fact, but JJ, like George, chose not to draw out the emotional implications, i.e. Leia’s reaction to the destruction of Alderan, Obi-Wan and Yoda coping with the fall of the Jedi and the Republic.
And so we see Rey, new captain of the Millennium Falcon, with Chewie as her co-pilot, taking on the mantle. Do you guys have theories about Rey’s lineage? The way she and Han saw eye to eye on piloting and mechanics would imply that she’s Han and Leia’s kid, not Luke’s. And would Luke, knowing that marrying and love is forbidden according to the Jedi code, choose to procreate?
MCS: There was also a brief shot of Chewie once they returned to base on D’Qar where you had a moment to dwell on his pain. But you’re right in that it is only a fleeting glance, and that you aren’t given the opportunity to ruminate about the loss until later.
But that is indeed the question we are now left with: who are Rey’s parents that passed on such abilities to her? Luke is certainly a possibility, but I am not so sure about that. Like Luke was deposited on Tatooine to protect him from those who might want to harvest his powers, Rey may have been marooned on Jakku in a similar manner (there are parallels there). But, I am thinking that Luke being her father is too simple an answer. And considering what you just said about her instincts within the Falcon and remembering the mention by Kylo Ren about how she wished Han was her father, we could have another twin situation on our hands.
CMT: I’m really pulling for Rey to be Han and Leia’s daughter. It’s the storyline that makes the most sense to me and that’s the most familiar having been a fan of the expanded Star Wars Universe that lived on in the books that were written after Return of the Jedi. In that realm, which has been Star Wars canon for decades, Han and Leia have three children, Jaina, Jacen and Anakin, all trained in the ways of the Force. I can’t help but want to draw lines from Ben Solo to Rey because I’ve been comfortable for years now following the lives of the Solo children throughout the Star Wars books. But now that the official canon has changed, I realize that anything is up for grabs, and that that line of thinking may not be as sound as I want to be. Minus that fact, I’d be hard pressed to guess who Rey’s parent are, although the fact that she is sensitive to the Force at least whittles down the list of candidates by several billion. I’m also unsure of the “Luke Skywalker is Rey’s father” angle. Knowing Luke’s tumultuous history with not knowing his own parents, and then finding out too late and in a brutal manner who his father really is (his dad, Vader, cut Luke’s hand off!), I find it hard to believe that he would be so selfish and cold as to abandon his only child, his daughter, to a barren wasteland of a planet like Jakku. I just don’t buy that. The only thing I can say that might contradict that argument is that Rey has had dreams of a lush, watery green planet yet she exclaimed to Han and Chewie when they set foot on the watery, forested planet Takodana where Maz’s castle cantina was, that she can’t imagine such lush greenery and nature existing. So how does she, a child of the dry, desert climate of Jakku, have these dreams of such greenery unless she’s seen them before? Possibly with Luke as a young child on the planet she finds him on in the end of the film? I don’t know…feels like a stretch, but that’s all we can do but speculate until Episode VIII comes out!
DG: This is off topic, but….I don’t know what the makeup department did, and I’m sure it wasn’t much compared to other characters, but I would not have recognized Domhnall Gleeson from the movie if I hadn’t seen his name billed on the cast beforehand. He really lost himself inside that roll. Impressive transformation.
MCS: Gleeson as General Hux was unreal. I cannot believe that is the same actor from Ex-Machina. What a year for him, in two of the finer sci-fi films I’ve seen in a minute.
CMT: Gleeson’s rise from Harry Potter to Ex Machina to Star Wars and now to The Revenant is impressive. Most impressive.
DG: Here’s something to chew on: Between the first two trilogies we had pretty much all the info we needed. A rebel alliance was formed behind the scenes, but other than that we didn’t have to work too hard to connect the dots; everything was packaged very neatly and nicely for us at the end of Revenge of the Sith. But the timeline between Return of the Jedi and now had so much happen in thirty years, and so much was only barely alluded to. There are a lot of pieces to this puzzle, and I’m going to enjoy putting them together.
MCS: I wish we could see it all. See Han and Leia as parents of a young Kylo/Ben and then watch Han get back into smuggling and black market dealings as Leia rose to the head of the New Republic. See Luke training young Jedi and witness all the tragedies that led him to that lonely island. See Poe and BB-8’s mission in full that led them to the opening moments of The Force Awakens. And see what is going on with Lando of course. Where’s Lando?!
But, to circle back on the fact that RJD2 came to life at the end of the film to supply the remainder of the map to Luke, can either of you think of a reason why he came to at that moment? Did it have something to do with Luke?
CMT: I’ve heard rumors that R2D2 is a Force-sensitive droid. I’m wondering if his rather convenient awakening at the end of the film wasn’t something that was part of a larger plan. Something that Luke intended to have occur. It’s stuck in my head how easy it was to find Luke when the film made it seem like he really didn’t want to be found. The First Order were able to scavenge the entire map (minus BB-8’s missing piece) from the Empire’s galactic records. I’m not surprised that R2 was able to do the same thing. It’s the timing of his “awakening” that I find interesting because I think it was only meant to occur if things unfolded a certain way (ie. the way that they did in the film). The way that Luke wanted them to happen so that his daughter (?) could come find him.
MCS: The Force-sensitive droid idea makes a lot of sense. R2’s been through a whole lot. I can’t help but speculate that Luke awoke him at the opportune time. JJ recently remarked on where R2D2 could have gotten the information from stating, “We had the idea about R2 plugging into the information base of the Death Star, and that’s how he was able to get the full map and find where the Jedi temples are.” He then went on to explain R2D2 waking up from his robo-coma divulging, “BB-8 comes up and says something to him, which is basically, ‘I’ve got this piece of a map, do you happen to have the rest?’ The idea was, R2, who has been all over the galaxy, is still in his coma, but he hears this. And it triggers something that would ultimately wake him up.” JJ goes on to speak of loss and the yearning for some sort of redemption following the trauma, “While it may seem, you know, completely lucky and an easy way out, at that point in the movie, when you’ve lost a person, desperately, and somebody you hopefully care about is unconscious, you want someone to return.” All that makes sense to me.
CMT: The Force Awakens runs circles around the theme of “lost and found.” Han lost the Millennium Falcon and he found it again, and in doing so, he served to pass the torch of its helming to another, Rey. Luke “lost” his lightsaber (or maybe he gave it to Maz to hold?) only to have Rey find it again, and successfully wield it against another person sensitive in the Force, and ultimately to have her bring his very lightsaber back to him. Poe lost his best friend and metal compadre BB-8 only to have Finn and the friends of the Resistance bring the spunky little droid back to him in one piece. The reunion scene when Poe steps off his black X-wing (I love that it’s black!) and sees BB-8 there waiting for him like a loyal dog tugged at my heartstrings in a way I didn’t think possible. The way JJ drew parallels between a man and his droid and a man and his dog redefined this concept for me in the Star Wars universe. To think that a person can be as attached to a machine as they could to a dog really blew me away.
MCS: BB-8 aggressively shoved past Finn to get to Poe when he knew he was there. It’s so much fun how droids can be loyal in the remarkable way dogs can be. BB-8’s reunion with Poe was indeed special!
Luke’s self-imposed exile fascinates me, and I can’t help to wonder to what end he disappeared with the The First Order growing in strength and influence. Han makes a suggestion that Luke was in search of The First Jedi Temple and also makes an allusion to a relic. But, I wonder if there isn’t more to it. Luke failed in some way in training a new generation of Jedi, including Ben Solo, so it might be possible that he felt he was a liability in some way (did he choose exile over a fear of succumbing to the dark in some fashion?), or that it was necessary for him to be in seclusion as the Force awakened in others. Regardless, he left a map for when he was needed most – which is now. I am dying to know what he says when he finally speaks in Episode 8.
DG: The very idea of Luke’s isolation seems like risky business on JJ’s part. Leave Luke out of the movie until the very end and then don’t even give him any lines? I think a lot of people were expecting him to miraculously appear during the final lightsaber duel, and then he didn’t. He didn’t intervene once. It’s kind of like how Yoda remained secluded during the events of A New Hope (more parallels), except back then we didn’t know yet that there even was a Yoda.
To restate: to leave the most important character of the big three out of this movie until the very end, after thirty years, could have been a disastrous decision. But I don’t hear anyone complaining about it, so apparently the gambit paid off. I feel like it could have gone either way, though. Like I said, risky business.
MCS: While satisfied with the film – completely – I am left with so many questions (and I mean this in the best way, as so much wonder has yet to be divulged!). We mentioned multiple times about Maz having Luke’s lightsaber and how we want to know the deal there, but what about the fact that Kylo Ren has Darth’s helmet! Where’d he get that?2 I am also curious what happened to C3PO’s arm, and how is Rey able to harness the force so effectively (especially in the scene where she controls the stormtrooper played by Daniel Craig!). We saw Luke struggle to harness and control the power of the Force in his training with Yoda, but Rey seems to be a natural, unless there is more to it.
CMT: Right, Rey seemed a natural, but only because the only instances in which she was required to use the Force where when she was in dire straits. Luke acted in the same manner in A New Hope. But it was only when he was in his “training” that he was acting brash, insubordinate, young, and immature. I feel like there’s this “Force mode” these characters can get into, like a “fight or flight” response, where they are able to command the Force almost subconsciously. It’s in direct contrast to their training periods, where their mindset is more deliberate and intentional which involves the “newer,” more evolved parts of the brain instead of the more reptilian, “older” parts of the brain.
It’s our older, reptilian part of our brain that gives us our instincts and our reflexes and our adrenaline response. It’s our newer, higher-thinking, more evolved and emotional part of our brains that serves to cloud and obscure all that instinctual (meaning usually the right response for survival) line of thinking. Maybe the reptilian brain is where the Force resides and the Force training deals with how you merge the older brain with the newer, more evolved and rational aspects of the mind.
The Force has always seemed irrational and more animal to me but maybe that’s just the dark side talking there. Maybe the light side of the Force exists in the more evolved, higher thinking part of the brain. I could write pages and pages speculating on the Force and how it applies to the geographical layout and ordering of the brain! Force brain rules!
MCS: Rules indeed. What’s more fun to ponder than all the questions that resulted from The Force Awakens is the fact that we are only a mere year and five months from Episode 8! While May 2017 isn’t right around the corner per se, this is the shortest interval us fans will have to deal with between installments. Before we know it, more Star Wars hysteria will be upon us, and already I cannot wait!