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What We Learned About the Star Wars Universe From The Force Awakens


“There has been an awakening. Have you felt it?” As Emily said in her non-spoiler review of The Force Awakens, the title refers in a big part to us, the fans, waiting for the start of a new Star Wars trilogy. But just as the Force got awakened on-screen, so did a greater understanding of the Star Wars universe off-screen. And The Force Awakens laid out a lot of new canonical groundwork. So, what do we know now that we didn’t know before we went into that theater?

SPOILERS for Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens.

The main barometer for this film seems to be “but does it feel like a Star Wars movie?” Yes, completely. The Force Awakens is thrilling in the way you expect an adventure like this to be; it’s just the right amount of funny without being smug or too self-aware. It’s also incredibly dark. It’s the bloodiest Star Wars we’ve seen yet, and it also covers more literal and figurative space than most of its predecessors. Even though Lucasfilm erased most of the Expanded Universe and began building a new literary canon in preparation for The Force Awakens, Abrams and co. pulled from the EU (now called “Legends”) in certain key parts for the movie’s plot. Most notable is the character of Kylo Ren, formerly known as Ben Solo: He embodies Jacen Solo’s haste and Anakin Solo’s chip on his shoulder regarding his grandfather, plus Kyle Katarn’s instability and Kyp Durron’s penchant for…killing stars and Jedi, yet he (like Luke and Mara Jade’s Legends-verse son Ben) was presumably named for Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Most of all, The Force Awakens hearkens back to the original trilogy while clearly kicking off a new one. It both fits within the canon and carves out a new space for itself. There’s so much to say about it, but here are a few of the major themes we picked up:

This is the Star Wars the 2015 Generation Would Make

Or rather, this is exactly the Star Wars movie that someone emerging out of their teenage years and responding to the world as it is in 2015 would make. Each of the three main characters from the younger generation represents a different perspective on this supposition:

The Force Awakens spoiler review

Kylo Ren is so angry. He’s so utterly furious for reasons we don’t yet know; perhaps Han and Leia were shitty parents, maybe he felt cheated by a system that couldn’t support his clearly impressive powers. Han clearly had trouble connecting with him as a child, and there are hints that he was shipped off to Luke’s school, where he would have been one of many people vying for Luke’s attention. That kind of neglect may have driven him into the arms of Snoke, who may have been the first person to truly acknowledge Kylo’s potential. As the son of two war heroes, he’s the character who seeks the most privilege. He’s aware that Darth Vader is his grandfather, and idolizes this man he never knew, using Vader’s legendary status as a step up into a leadership role that he probably isn’t qualified for. (General Hux certainly seems to think so.)

But unlike Anakin, who endured a lot of loss and made the calculated decision to become Darth Vader, Kylo Ren is all over the place. And yet, Kylo Ren is filled with enough hope that he can’t help but be constantly “tempted” back to the light side. Kylo screams “traitor!” to Finn right after killing his own father, projecting his own wrongs onto others, and he beats at his wounds constantly, perhaps thinking that he deserves them, or that his mistakes should permanently mark him. Kylo isn’t very emotionally developed, and his worldview centers solely around himself. He throws literal tantrums, slashing First Order consoles with his lightsaber when things don’t go his way, and probes (to put it politely) the minds of others to get what he deems is important. Kylo is selfish to a near-psychotic extent, and that selfishness creates incredible pain in the lives of those around him.

The Force Awakens spoiler review

By contrast, Rey takes whatever shitty hand life deals her—abandoned by her parents on Jakku yet looking skyward for their return, scavenging for less than a full day’s worth of meals—and makes the most of it. You can see the disbelief on multiple characters’ faces for why she keeps wanting to return to Jakku; even Luke was eager to get as far from Tatooine as possible! But she has grown up believing that if she stays in one place, the people she lost will return to her; instead, she realizes that she needs to follow that path on her own. Rey is hesitant. She’s proactive, but afraid of being seen as someone who simply takes what they want. This is selfish, as well, but very gendered in contrast with Kylo’s actions. Kylo expects his wishes to be granted. Rey fears what might happen if her wishes were granted, but knows that she gains nothing by not asserting herself in the larger world into which she has stepped.

The Force Awakens spoiler review

Finn is a fascinating character. Throughout The Force Awakens he tries out almost every identity that he comes across. After being conditioned to be a nameless Stormtrooper, he tries to adopt the Resistance swagger, then contemplates a quiet life on the Outer Rim before realizing he wants to fight for the only people who have ever seen worth in him: Rey and Poe. He tries a variety of weapons before ultimately realizing that it’s not the weapon he has that matters, it’s his willingness to fight for what he thinks is right. He’s a late bloomer.

The Force Awakens spoiler review

And Poe is that rare creature who knows exactly what he wants to do with his life.

Each Star Wars trilogy echoes the sentiment of the time it was created within. The original trilogy was a callback to a simpler narrative, where good and evil were physical forces, and very World War II-esque, while drawing on the loose activist humor of a generation coming of age through Watergate and the first years of Saturday Night Live. The prequel trilogy echoes the powerlessness and fear-mongering felt in the early 2000s during 9/11 and afterwards. This new trilogy feels similarly of the moment, depicting a generation with a strong social conscience, uneven economic backgrounds, and an urge to do something about the injustice they perceive, even if they don’t know what injustice really is.

It’s also worth noting how diverse the main trio of good guys are: a white woman, a black man, and a Latino man. But as much as we began to fall in love with each of these characters, so much of The Force Awakens was Rey’s movie. After being written off as a scavenger and referred to in almost every scene as “the girl,” she’s the one who pulls Anakin’s lightsaber out of the snow; she’s the one who goes off adventuring while Finn is still recovering; she’s the one who ultimately offers Luke his father’s lightsaber.

It’s Also Not Entirely Star Wars

The Force Awakens spoiler review

We live in a remix culture, in which it’s almost expected that popular works will riff on one another. The Force Awakens certainly felt more like Star Wars than the prequels did, but there were also other small touches and other influences. Take, for instance, the scene with Han facing off the two sets of smugglers he owes. The scuffles among space pirates felt very Serenity, while the rampaging rathgars that Han was herding (which look a bit like Dungeons & Dragons’ Beholders) brought to mind Alien… and did anyone else have that moment where it looked like the rathgar was going to roll after Han à la Raiders of the Lost Ark? And while we never see the Alderaanians realizing what the Death Star was up to in A New Hope, our brief glimpse of the residents of Hosnian Prime watching Starkiller Base’s approaching lasers brought to mind the bombing of futuristic London in Star Trek Into Darkness. And let’s not forget the part that Hamilton‘s Lin-Manuel Miranda had in writing the new cantina music for Maz Kanata’s base.

The Inner Workings of the First Order

The Force Awakens spoiler review

One of Natalie Zutter’s favorite aspects of the movie was how much insight we got into Imperial culture via the First Order. Risen from the ashes of the Empire (according to the opening crawl), the First Order doesn’t clarify what “first” means, but one can imagine its leaders envision themselves as embarking on a new era, by taking the Empire’s best components and enhancing them. They eschew clone troopers in favor of humans who can be so finely conditioned that they answer to designations (like FN 2187) over names and who are indistinguishable from one another. They answer to a strict chain of command; even taking off your helmet requires permission. While you have some individuals with slightly more personality, like Captain Phasma, even she doesn’t remove her uniform.

The First Order is xenophobic—as evidenced by the fact that Finn can’t understand any alien languages, while Rey can speak BB, Shyriiwook, and plenty others—yet there’s no racial inequality, as we see impressive diversity among the officers both in helmets and out. The culture seems very insular, likely to the point where they disdain outsiders who join their cause. You can just see how General Hux dislikes the upstart Kylo Ren for pushing his way into a system in which Hux was likely born. The First Order may not be First, but it is orderly.

Life Imitates Mythology

The Force Awakens spoiler review

By the time The Force Awakens begins, about 30 years after the battle of Endor, that and all of the other touchpoints of the Rebellion’s fight against the Empire have retreated into the fuzzy space of inaccurate memory and hyperbolized (or hidden) stories. It’s a hard reset, putting Rey where Luke was at the start of A New Hope… or even further back, because while he wants to join the Rebellion, her aspirations are nowhere near as lofty. It takes the physical presence of Kylo and the Starkiller, both of which emulate the “myth” of the original trilogy, to spur Rey and Finn into action. With all of Han, Leia, and Luke’s experiences having been nearly forgotten, it is vital to see the new trio retrace the old trio’s steps, in order to establish that emotional foundation and make these events real again.

So much of the movie’s action hinges on characters learning to do things for themselves. While he is a Knight of Ren, Kylo Ren clearly lacks the polish of a Sith Lord. Rey is wholly untrained; their lightsaber fight on Starkiller Base is evidence enough, with her just hacking and slashing, trying to use Anakin’s lightsaber like she would her staff. That’s not even including the various scenes of characters jumping into foreign ships and figuring out how they work through slapping buttons and trial-and-error. It’s one thing to consider myth as a reality, but quite another to realize that sometimes myths need their compressors ripped out before their hyperdrive will work properly.

Where in the Galaxy is Luke Skywalker?!

The Force Awakens spoiler review

There’s been debate over whether Return of the Jedi describes the singular (Luke, completing his training) or the plural (bringing back the Jedi Order with this first step). We now know that his next step, after defeating the Emperor and redeeming Anakin, was to start up a Jedi Academy to train the next generation. But history has a tendency to repeat itself, and he lost Ben Solo to the dark side. Blaming himself for the creation of Kylo Ren, Luke withdrew into self-imposed exile… and maybe also to locate the original Jedi temple?

It’s unclear if the islands where Luke is hiding were a premonition of Rey’s or a memory. Could she have been one of the students Luke was training, the sole survivor of Kylo Ren’s betrayal who was then hidden away? (Remember that Kylo looks very interested every time “the girl” is mentioned.) Or did she simply sense Luke through the Force? Is Rey Luke’s daughter? It’s clear that she may be even more powerful than Kylo Ren, but is this a clue as to a possible Skywalker lineage? Or could she simply be a random player whose Force sensitivity draws her to this epic conflict? And which answer matters more to the larger story?

What’s Next?

The Force Awakens spoiler review

The Force Awakens ends with Luke literally standing on the edge of a cliff, forecasting where Rey and Luke’s relationship will go next. But what about all of the other new characters we’ve met, and the classic ones whose return we’re still processing?

  • We never saw Captain Phasma actually die and it seems a shame to waste Gwendoline Christie on only a couple of scenes. We hope that, even with the First Order weakened, she’ll go rogue and chase Finn down, becoming his Boba Fett!
  • What’s Finn‘s next move? Will he take the role that Han did in Empire Strikes Back, ensuring everyone’s survival in insane circumstances, only to be used as a pawn by darker forces?
  • Chewie seems to have been made a widow by Han’s death, more so even than Leia. Is his pairing with Rey a way for him to continue giving meaning to his life? If so, it makes sense that he’d attach himself to a person who Han deemed worthy. (Though Leah Schnelbach really wants to see them bring back Mala and Lumpy…)
  • So they stabbed Han. Then threw him into a bottomless pit. Then threw that pit into the sun. Guess he’s not coming back…
  • Leia‘s part of the movie was rather small in comparison to Han’s—though, damn, when she hugged Rey that got to all of us. Now that Luke is hopefully making his way back, it seems likely that we’ll see more of General Organa, as she faces the brother who blames himself for her son’s turning to the dark side (and now probably also Han’s death).
  • General Hux grabbed Kylo Ren (who got the scar he probably secretly always wanted) and got him away from Starkiller Base before it went solar, which means we get to see more of their prickly rivalry. Maybe now that Kylo Ren has been beaten by a scavenger girl, he’ll actually listen to Hux and be more disciplined for the next showdown?
  • Although Snoke says that Kylo’s training is yet to be completed, so we’re probably in for a terrifying upgrade in the Kylo Ren department.
  • Are we going to find out what exactly is going on with Supreme Commander Snoke, or will he remain a shadowy figure hologram? Is Snoke really C-3PO? He’s probably really C-3PO.
  • What the hell is even going on with Luke? What was this business about going to find the “First Jedi Temple”? How did he make sure R2-D2 knew when to turn on again and show the Resistance his location? How did the final piece of the map get to that old guy in the beginning of the film? And what was that guy’s relation to Kylo? Luke’s past 30 years is one giant, giant question mark.
  • How does the Republic feel about the Resistance blowing up Starkiller Base? Will they align themselves with that victory—perhaps in memory of Hosnian Prime—or will the Resistance continue to exist on the fringes?
  • What happened to Coruscant?
  • BB-8 completed his micro-scale mission, i.e., to deliver the map to Luke. But his macro mission, to be adorable comic relief, will take a long time to complete. Seriously, we need a GIF of his little thumbs-up.
  • We love that Threepio, Artoo, and BB-8 have been friends in the intervening years between trilogies.

Natalie Zutter totally called Han’s death (and really wished she were wrong), but got all teary when Rey grabbed Anakin’s lightsaber. You can read more of her work on Twitter and elsewhere.

Chris Lough‘s boy cat does the same exact headbutting thing that BB-8 does to Artoo and it killed him. Chris exists on Twitter but, you know…why?


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