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Movie Review: “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” – A Search for Identity

Dec 21, 2015 | Movie Reviews

I do not review movies often, but Star Wars has a special place in my heart. The original was my favorite movie as a child, and it maintains that status to this day. Imagine my delight when I went to summer camp for the first time and my cabin counselor was a Star Wars freak. We spent the week quoting lines and challenging each other with obscure trivia. I was seriously questioning and considering my Christian faith, and my counselor used Star Wars references to help guide me. He compared the Holy Spirit to the Force and the responsibility for living a Christian life to the Jedi. In a very real way, Star Wars became part of my faith story.
Like many other fans, my reaction to the prequel movies was lukewarm, at best. I took particular offense to the demystifying of the Force (midi-chlorians do not fit with my pneumatology). There are many other aspects of the prequels on which I could vent my frustration, but that is no longer necessary. Why, you ask? Because The Force Awakens pretends that the prequels don’t even exist! J.J. Abrams understood the problem with clarity: Star Wars itself was having an identity crisis. Fans were confused about what the Force is and who the Jedi are because the two trilogies are shockingly inconsistent. Rest assured, the original trilogy is the only one that matters. With that, strap yourselves in, and if you have not seen the movie, stop reading right now. SPOILERS AHEAD, there will be!
Let me put all the Sabacc cards on the table: I really like this movie. I actually enjoyed it even more the second time I saw it (probably because I was no longer anxious about being let down). The story is fun and well written, and the actors are superb. Harrison Ford puts in a performance that could easily carry this movie, but it does not have to because everyone else is amazing. Adam Driver, Oscar Isaacs, and John Boyega are solid, but Daisy Ridley’s performance is out of this world. I still have not decided if Domhnall Gleeson overacted his role as General Hux, but it really doesn’t matter because everyone else is so good.
The Force Awakensis a great title because much of the movie is focused on remystifying the Force. It once again moves in mysterious and unexpected ways. We saw a blaster bolt frozen in mid-air, memories extracted, and an inanimate object somehow containing the presence of the Force (sounds almost sacramental)! Most importantly, we saw the Force working in and through the lives of individuals as they try to discover their place in the universe. It is a movie first and foremost about identity. With the mystical identity of the Force reestablished, we turn our attention to our six main characters, who are each having a crisis of identity.
The opening crawl begins with the crisis: “Luke Skywalker has vanished.” This event has set in motion a new crisis for the entire galaxy. Since the end of Return of the Jedi, Luke has been busy trying to train the next generation of Jedi Knights, essentially taking on a responsibility that was thrust upon him as the last of the Jedi. We do not know how many students Luke was training, but we know that one of them ran away to follow the dark side. This was Ben Solo, the son of Han and Leia. His defection causes a rift among Han, Luke, and Leia. What I ultimately like about this plot point is that it makes our characters so human. Han and Leia are parents who lost a child, and this crisis causes them to question their identities and run back to a life that they felt was secure. Han returns to smuggling, and Leia returns to military planning. Notice their identity struggles throughout the movie. Is Leia the princess or the general? What happened to her Jedi training? We have to assume that she was one of Luke’s students. It appears that she has renounced following the Force in the wake of Ben’s departure. This certainly resonates with human experience. Losing a child causes her to question her relationships and to question her faith. When we first encounter Han, he is literally reentering his old role in life as he steps on board the Millennium Falcon. Finn and Rey immediately put his identity crisis into words: is he the famous smuggler or the famous rebellion fighter? Remember that Han Solo was the great skeptic of the Force in the original Star Wars movie. Now he is a firm believer in the power of the Force, and he becomes an influential mentor to Rey as she struggles with her beliefs. It seems that Han has found his faith, while Leia has lost hers.
Luke, on the other hand, has taken a step back. Viewers know that he is hearing echoes of Obi-Wan from the original Star Wars: “I thought I could instruct him just as well as Yoda. I was wrong.” The details are a little unclear, but it appears that he has left behind clues to his whereabouts as a sort of quest. He knows that people are looking for him, and he leaves it up to the Force to determine whom he will encounter at movie’s end. Remember that both the First Order and the Resistance have the larger piece of the map. Luke knows that he could face Kylo Ren or a new student on that island. His essential question of the Force is, “Who am I?”
Kylo Ren is a great character. Ben Solo has renounced his family and taken on a dark moniker. Throughout the movie, he is trying to convince everyone around him (but most importantly himself) that he is pure evil. But he is a complicated and conflicted character. I loved the scene of him talking to the melted mask of Darth Vader, asking for forgiveness that he feels the call to the light. We as viewers understand the irony of this, since Vader is the one who was redeemed from the dark side and ultimately destroyed the personification of evil (the Emperor). Good and evil are not cut and dry. People are complex, and Star Wars tells us that even the most evil people can be redeemed. We desperately wanted this redemption for Kylo Ren at the end of the movie, even though we knew that Han’s journey down that bridge was almost certain to be a one-way trip. Han knew it, too. But he went anyway. Han is the only one of our characters who ultimately had to make a choice about his identity, and he decided that he was neither smuggler nor soldier. He was a father.
FN-2187 is one of our new heroes. He was taken from his family as a child and given an identity as a storm trooper. He rejects this identity and runs away from it, but it takes someone else to tell him who he really is. Poe Dameron, upon hearing the name FN-2187, refuses to call him that. Instead, he gives him a new name: Finn. This renaming has a profound affect on Finn. Throughout the movie, we see him living into this new identity and coming to realize who he wants to be. It is overly simplistic to call his a story of self-determination. He rejects certain paths, but others guide him into an understanding of who he is. This is true to how life works. We do not determine our identities on our own. We are profoundly shaped by our relationships with those around us.
Rey’s story is the most intriguing in the movie because we are left with the most questions. She was abandoned on Jakku, and she is convinced that her family will return. She even keeps a tally of the days she has spent there. Her identity is the great mystery of the movie, especially as the Force awakens within her and she proves considerably stronger in the Force than Kylo Ren. She is the one to complete the quest and locate Luke, confirming his identity as teacher. I love the last scene, as he looks intriguingly at the outstretched light saber. I look forward to discovering, along with Rey, who she is and who she will become. I have some guesses, and I hope they are all wrong. I am convinced that Han knows who she is (watch it again and see if you agree), so that could prove interesting.
The Force Awakenssees the Star Wars franchise return to its roots. In case we are too dense to realize this, Abrams throws in so many echoes and references to the original movie that we almost find ourselves shouting, “I get it!” The most important thing for me as a fan is that we are back to focusing on compelling characters. The role of fantasy is to give us a reflection of the real world. It allows us to look at ourselves and the world around us in new ways. Star Wars did this for me years ago, as I began taking ownership of my Christian identity and understanding how God is at work in the world. I am still discovering who I am in relation to God and the world. I think that is true of all of us, as we ask the question, “What is a lifetime and why do I live it?” Maybe this movie can help us consider that identity a little bit deeper. Or, at the very least, it is a ton of fun to watch! Enjoy the movie, my friends, and may the Force be with you!


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