Revisiting The Force Awakens

When The Force Awakens came out in 2015, I fell in love. I would have already called myself ‘a bit of a Star Wars nerd’ before the sequel trilogy began, but for several weeks after The Force Awakens, I was obsessed. I talked Star Wars and thought Star Wars and wanted to write Star Wars. I read all the fanfic (old Han/Leia fanfic that had mostly been writing in the 90s, but still. All the fanfic). I loved it.

The Last Jedi came out in 2017, and my response was a resounding ‘not bad.’ I never got around to rewatching it a second time. Then a few weeks ago, I saw The Rise of Skywalker, and my reaction was a ”yes, bad,’ combined with a complete and totally unexplainable reawakening of my obsession. Except this time, all the fanfic is on AO3 instead of old abandoned Yahoo groups, which is a major plus.

So, for the first time since The Last Jedi came out, I sat down to watch The Force Awakens, probably the Star Wars movie that has the most special place in my heart. I wondered, after my disappointment with the conclusion of the trilogy, whether I would still find it as good.

I still think it’s fantastic. It’s well-paced and developed (one of my biggest problems with The Rise of Skywalker), it utilises nostalgia without relying on it entirely, it has some fun and unexpected plot twists, and it sets up lots of interesting story elements for the future, including the battle of Rey vs Kylo Ren.

Honestly, it shouldn’t be a surprise that it’s great. JJ Abrams is great at beginnings. No one’s ever said that LOST started weak but then got stronger toward the end. It hits you immediately with compelling characters, intriguing mysteries and shocking twists. By the end of the pilot, you are invested. It won’t be until a few years later that you’ll realize all the set-up was speculative, and there was never a good conclusion in mind.

The Force Awakens is somewhat the same. Like a pilot for the sequel trilogy, it’s entertaining and engaging in its own right, and it promises a lot for the future. Watching it gets you hyped for this world and these characters, for the movie you’ve just watched and the movies that are promised to come. It’s not The Force Awakens fault that JJ Abrams really can’t end stories, and many of its promises for the future weren’t fulfilled.

Considering how the Internet seems to have pit the perspective of The Last Jedi (nostalgia is pointless and dead) vs the perspective of The Rise of Skywalker (the past is everything), I was surprised to rediscover The Force Awakens’ approach to nostalgia and the past. I’m not, by the way, saying that I agree with those characterisations of the other two movies — simply that that’s the argument I’ve seen laid out, again and again.

Which makes it interesting to me that The Force Awakens sets up an argument for a middle ground. It obviously invokes the past frequently as part of its plot. It’s set forty years after Return of the Jedi, and its world is based in the ruins left by that war. The main drive of the plot is the search for Luke Skywalker. We fly in the Millennium Falcon and get to see Han Solo and Chewie bond with the newbies. It’s (mostly) not that forced kind of referencing, where popular phrases are requoted and nothing is allowed to change or grow. It seems a more natural look at where these characters are now.

And a major message of the movie seems to be that we shouldn’t cling desperately to the past. Rey’s emotional arc is her growing to accept that her parents will never come back for her on Jakku, and that she needs to strike forward and make a life for herself. “The belonging you seek is not behind you,” Maz tells her. “It is ahead.”

Meanwhile, if we view Kylo Ren and Rey as foils (and I think we do need to, after seeing the trilogy as a whole), we see that he, too, is obsessed with the past. He is Rey’s opposite, desperately trying to cut himself away from his family and who he used to be, but, just as Rey clings to her imagined family and their eventual return, Kylo Ren clings to his idea of what Darth Vader was like, searching for his own sense of belonging in the galaxy by following in what he thinks are his grandfather’s footsteps.

So then, according to the movie, both approaches are unhealthy. You cannot cut yourself off completely from the past, and from where you have been before, but you are not necessarily defined by it. You cannot obsess over things that are already gone. You must look ahead.

And then, let’s talk about Kylo Ren, because he was another major reason I wanted to rewatch and write about The Force Awakens again. I wanted to see how I’d react to the movie after The Rise of Skywalker, and four years of becoming a different person, fundamentally changed my opinion on one of my strongest-held Star Wars beliefs — that Kylo Ren was a spoiled brat and should get the hell away from Rey.

When The Force Awakens came out, I even wrote an article about Kylo Ren/Rey shipping, and similar ships, where the guy is evil and the female character is forced to see the good in him and turn him back towards the light. I wasn’t a fan. Meanwhile, in my just-returned-from-the-theater review of The Rise of SkywalkerI basically said that my favorite thing about the movie was the interaction between Kylo Ren and Rey, and my history on AO3 since then definitely bears that out. I have fallen for the shippy dark side, and seen interesting things in Kylo Ren and his relationship with Rey that I never saw in The Force Awakens the first time.

Rewatching it? I still think my initial reaction to Kylo Ren makes sense in the context of The Force Awakens. We’re first introduced to him ordering his troops to murder a bunch of innocent villagers for no reason. We see his dramatic fits of anger (or temper tantrums, as I would have called them then), and in the end, we see him murder his own father. It seems to press all the buttons of “a white guy can get away with anything. Even when he’s a psychotic murderer, people still believe in him, and that sucks.” And it is frustrating.

But. But. He does present a really interesting mirror to Rey. I could write a whole post about how they reflect one another, and I probably will, once my rewatch is done. On his own, he was an angsty villain who got way more sympathy than I thought he deserved. In the context of the trilogy as a whole, in the context of the push and pull between him and Rey… what can I say? I’m a lot more intrigued.

So I appreciated the effort here to show him doing villainous things, while also establishing that moral complexity and the reasons behind his actions. “I know what I need to do,” he says, before he kills Han, “but I don’t know if I have the strength to do it.” I think the movie makes quite explicit that he kills Han precisely because he is not the pure monster that Snoke wants him to be. He wants to be committed to the Dark Side, to fulfil what he believes is his destiny, but Leia is right when she says there is still light within him, fighting to get out. He kills Han in an attempt to kill that unwanted past, and all his confused feelings about it, once and for all. He kills him so that he can end his inner conflict and look forward without distraction.

Of course, he makes the evil choice. It is the first in the trilogy, after all. And, of course, it doesn’t work out quite like he’d hoped for him.

But again, that relationship between the past and the future, between who we think we should be and who we actually are… The Force Awakens sets it up as central to the story the trilogy will tell. It’s no wonder, then, that the fight over nostalgia and fresh starts has been so deeply embedded in the discourse surrounding these movies. All those arguments seem to miss that The Force Awakens is insisting that we need both. Rey cannot live solely in the past, waiting for it to come back to her. Kylo Ren cannot cut himself off entirely from the past, and who he used to be. She is supposed to be Light, and he is supposed to be Dark, and yet, as always, reality is far more complicated than that.

On rewatch, I’m not going to say that The Force Awakens doesn’t have problems. In fact, it has many of the problems that made Rise of Skywalker a difficult watch for me. Several elements of the story take a hand-wavey, ‘don’t think about it’ approach, and the main plot is the search for a magical macguffin that probably shouldn’t even exist, because why would Luke Skywalker go into hiding and then set up a galactic scavenger hunt for people to put together a map to find him?

But when watching The Force Awakens, I find I don’t mind. The actual narrative structure is solid, even if the item it’s structured around is total nonsense, but, more importantly, the characters is excellent. The movie gives us chance to get to know them, and for them to get to know one another. Using simple lines like “I didn’t know there was so much green in the entire galaxy,” the movie makes us feel for the characters. It gives them real heart and emotional resonance, and makes them come to life. The only exception, perhaps, is the villain, Kylo Ren — but, as we see at the end of the movie, we’re supposed to hate him now. That understanding is supposed to come later. And honestly, I can’t get too concerned that the quest itself is more than a little shaky, when the characters on the quest promise so much.

Next up, it’s time for me to face The Last Jedi, a movie I had mostly neutral-to-positive feelings about on first watch, and that the internet then exploded about so intensely that I have literally no idea what to expect when I rewatch it. Since I never even reviewed the movie when it first came out (the site was on hiatus at the time)… well. It’s going to be interesting to see it again, and it’s going to be interesting to try to write out my thoughts.

What do you think?

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