Spoiler warning: As if this isn’t obvious, the feature below contains innumerable spoilers about Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
Having now seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens twice, I can breathe a certain sigh of relief. In a film that has already been judged with a much sharper critical eye than any of the prequels, we, the geeks who love the Star Wars universe, have at least come to the conclusion that the first entry in the new series is very entertaining, if not entirely sensible. But The Force Awakens succeeds where it counts: Introducing new, interesting characters who are immediately engaging. We want to learn more about Finn, Rey, Kylo Ren and Poe Dameron, and we can easily recognize that they’re flying around a universe that simply feels like Star Wars. Making us care about the new characters was the single biggest hurdle faced by the new series—particularly with the presence of old favorites returning and threatening to overshadow everything—so the film’s success here goes a long way.
And yet, there are of course no shortage of nitpicks one can make, even while agreeing with Paste’s positive review. The film has some issues of streamlined storytelling typical of J.J. Abrams’ other movies—a smoothed-over quality that sometimes feels like an overreaction to prequel criticisms of things getting bogged down in “politics” and exposition.
That’s not what I want to talk about here, though. What I want to do here is bring up three specific things I really hope to see in Star Wars episodes 8 and 9 … but don’t expect to receive. I’ll try to make a case for each, and why I believe it would make for a more satisfying Star Wars as a whole, rather than the alternative.
I get it—despite ostensibly being a setting of galactic breadth and repercussions, Star Wars is ultimately the story of the extended Skywalker family, across multiple generations. Grand stories in grand settings need anchor characters to tie them together, after all. But after living through the entire original trilogy and the disasters of the prequels, I can’t help but wish for some ability to step outside that family tree at least a little, if only for some perspective—especially when it comes to the new users of The Force. I don’t need each of the new main characters to be directly tied to the original cast members, as in the case of Kylo Ren. I truly believe Luke doesn’t need a daughter character, nor does the conflict between Kylo Ren and Rey have to boil down to (again) a family squabble. In fact, it would probably be more interesting if it didn’t.
And yet, it seems all but certain that Rey is meant to be Luke’s daughter, one way or another. If that’s the case, it’s the worst-hidden type of secret possible. We’re given so many reasons and so much foreshadowing that Rey is a Skywalker that to not reveal as much in the first movie seems like the series is trying to save that nonexistent revelation for a later payoff that couldn’t possibly surprise anyone. At this point, it might be a bigger surprise if she wasn’t Luke’s daughter, but I’ve long since given up on saying things like “this is too obvious, it can’t possibly be happening.” So then, evidence in favor of Rey being Luke’s daughter includes:
- Obviously, her extreme proficiency in using The Force despite being totally untrained.
- Her upbringing, which, except for a change of planet name and a missing uncle and aunt, looks pretty much exactly like Luke’s in A New Hope.
- The fact that Kylo Ren, Rey’s potential cousin, immediately seems to suspect that “the girl” he’s informed about is much more important than she initially appears.
- Probably most damning, the fact that R2-D2 remains in “low power mode” (whatever the hell that means, by the way) until exactly the moment that Rey arrives at the Resistance base on D’Qar, reactivating himself in the presence of a Skywalker.
Etc., etc. There are countless reasons for the average cinema-goer to suspect if not straight-up assume that Rey is somehow Luke’s progeny, which raises obvious questions about who her mother is/was and how the timeline works alongside Luke’s failed Jedi academy and the fall to the dark side of Ben Solo/Kylo Ren, who is also a descendent of Anakin Skywalker. But it all comes back to that Skywalker name—it’s like every event of any significance in the Star Wars universe over the course of decades has to be directly tied to or caused by a member of the same family, which only serves to minimize everyone and everything else.
I don’t know how many fans shared this particular hope of mine, but when I first heard that the next Star Wars film would be titled “The Force Awakens,” I was quite excited about the prospect of learning more about the mysteries of The Force. I hoped to see a wizened but incredibly powerful Jedi Master Luke Skywalker establishing his Jedi “praxeum,” as he did in the Extended Universe novels, ready to rear a whole new generation of not one but many potential Jedi. The possibilities are so endless—Jedi with unique abilities and proclivities toward different aspects of The Force. Jedi from different alien races who have attitudes toward The Force we haven’t witnessed before. An expansion of the simplicity of “light side vs. dark side.” And obviously, at least one student (or their master) falling to the dark side, but perhaps in a way that didn’t have to directly involve association with the Imperial remnant.
Instead, The Force Awakens suggests that many of these things did happen—only they happened before our story takes place. Granted, we’re likely to learn much more about this period in Episode 8 from Luke himself, but the fact that his academy was already a catastrophic failure has likely robbed the final trilogy of a chance to diversify its Force users in any really meaningful way, unless we get some additional Force users into the story immediately. But I digress—what’s clear in the meeting between Rey and Luke at the end of Force Awakens is that Rey most certainly does not recognize Luke as “Dad.” Luke’s look of anguish, on the other hand, could be interpreted in so many different ways that I don’t even want to get into it.
Our takeaway is that Rey doesn’t know this guy at all, and if Luke is her father, that’s at least somewhat problematic. We see a young Rey very briefly in her Force vision/flashback—a girl who is young, but certainly old enough at five-years-old to remember the traumatic whole of being left behind on Jakku. Unless she received some kind of Force mind-wiping, she should really remember at least who she’s waiting for—and if she didn’t, why would it be so important to her to keep on waiting? This is something we could easily have more information on if any of the characters in The Force Awakens probed Rey more in-depth about WHY she thinks it’s so important to get back to Jakku, but no one does. It’s classic filmmaking contrivance—keep the audience in the dark about a character’s background by having none of the film’s other characters ask the obvious questions the audience so desperately wants to have answered.
I personally have a problem with Rey being left on Jakku as a child, however, if she’s meant to be the child of Luke, and I’ll sum it up as bold-faced as I can:
Let’s consider the reasons that would likely be advanced for Luke doing this.
1. After the Jedi academy slaughter, Luke wants to “keep his daughter safe” by hiding her away.
So he strands her in a junkyard, in the hands of a taskmaster who doesn’t care if she lives or dies, to eke out a living as a near-starving scavenger of used parts? It’s needlessly cruel. Even if Lor San Tekka, the old man character in the beginning of the film who happens to also be on Jakku, was left there to “look after” Rey in the same manner as Obi-Wan Kenobi on Tatooine, he’s sure as hell not doing a very good job of it, and he doesn’t even live in the same community or region. How would that arrangement possibly serve Rey as a child better than being placed in foster care in some peaceful corner of the New Republic? Remember: This isn’t like Luke, who had to be hidden away on the Outer Rim, outside the clutches of the Galactic Empire, which had near total control of the galaxy. Rey was born into a time of peace, post-Return of the Jedi, and could have been well cared-for practically anywhere. And by the way; where is “safer” to be than traveling into exile with a Jedi Master?
2. Luke wants to completely shield his daughter from knowledge of The Force after seeing Ben Solo fall to the Dark Side.
If Luke’s #1 priority is keeping Rey from somehow falling to the Dark Side by leaving her unaware of her latent powers, perhaps it might be best if she lived in a setting that didn’t involve fighting for her life on a daily basis. You know what kind of setting is really conducive toward discovering and utilizing Dark Side powers? Being raised in an arena, which is pretty much the life Rey has on Jakku.
3. Luke doesn’t know Rey exists.
Do we really want a film setting where Jedi Master Luke is clueless to the fact that he knocked up a woman, and a setting where Rey’s mother (our Mara Jade equivalent in this universe) has ditched her in a junkyard? I’d rather see a flashback in The Force Awakens where Rey wanders away from Luke and Mom in a Bed, Bath & Beyond and accidentally boards a tramp steamer bound for a distant edge of the galaxy while they inquire about her whereabouts at the lost children corral. It could be Star Wars meets Baby’s Day Out.
This is all to say that I can’t envision a scenario where Luke stranding his daughter on Jakku would be more reasonable an action than simply taking her along with him wherever he was headed. And thus, for the sake of a character I love in Luke Skywalker, I hope Star Wars ep. 8 doesn’t ask me to accept a forced explanation for why he would do such a thing. We as an audience are better off if Rey is coming to Luke in the style of a classic kung fu film—Gordon Liu arriving at the Shaolin temple in The 36th Chamber of Shaolin—as a student seeking the famed, reclusive master.
By all means, let me know in the comments if you think there’s a great reason that Rey should indeed be Luke’s daughter.
Next: Thoughts on Kylo Ren
Kylo Ren is, without a doubt, the most fascinating new character in The Force Awakens, and he’s also the one who receives the best overall depth of characterization. As Ben Solo, the son of Han and Leia who rebels against Luke’s Jedi academy and presumably slaughters its other students, he’s the impetus that sets most of the human events of The Force Awakens into motion, and the film’s emotional core pivots around the conflict we are immediately aware of inside of him, even though other characters such as Finn and Rey know nothing of his multifaceted nature.
What I love about the “light vs. dark” conflict of Kylo Ren, though, is that it’s an inverse of almost every experience we’ve ever had with The Force in the Star Wars cinematic universe. Kylo Ren is a young man who consciously wants to grow deeper in the Dark Side while being “tempted” by what he seems to view as the duplicitous wiles of the Light Side. It’s not quite like Vader, who had a kernel of compassion within him that was only exploited by the near-death of his son at the hands of the Emperor. Kylo Ren struggles with this in a much more active, divisive way. He even describes it as something tearing him apart from the inside, while suggesting deeper meanings for “light” and “dark” that aren’t inextricably linked to “good” and “evil.”
Kylo’s complicated relationship with The Force also reveals how other characters of the Star Wars universe don’t truly understand its workings—particularly his parents, Han and Leia. As mother and general, Leia specifically tasks Han with “bringing him back” from the Dark Side. She wants a literal renouncement of that side of the Force from him, and her thinking is ultimately both naive and overly simplistic. She sees her son as a victim, an innocent baby she once knew who somehow got involved with a manipulator (Snoke) and was seduced or tricked into becoming the person he is today. That’s a natural thing for a mother to assume—”My kid is a good seed, but he got mixed up with the wrong crowd.” But what if he was never tricked?
Kylo Ren could be the first character we’ve seen in the Star Wars cinematic universe who has consciously and willfully chosen the Dark Side of the Force without apparent aims to “rule the galaxy” or otherwise be a megalomaniacal dictator. What if he sought out Snoke to further learn the mysteries of the Force? What if he truly believes that the Dark Side is the more pure, honest or correct path to take for his own purposes, whatever those may be? Is that not more interesting than simply having him as another deluded pawn of the archetypal evil master?
We have, after all, seen this structure before. Characters who become Dark Side Force-users in the Star Wars universe have a tendency to be portrayed in either two ways: Either pure, 100% evil masterminds (Sidious/Palpatine, Snoke) or as “good kids who got seduced,” which absolves them of some level of blame and conditions the audience to want to see them redeemed and brought back to the light, seeing as they never meant to “fall,” because even if they made the choice, they weren’t aware of the consequences.
That’s why I don’t want to see Kylo Ren get redeemed by Luke, or by Rey, or by whomever. If that’s what the screenwriters narratively feel has to happen for a conclusion, then you’re robbing the Kylo Ren character of any chance to truly choose his fate, which he embraces by killing Han Solo to more fully bond with the Dark Side. Turning away from the Dark Side is presented as a choice for someone like Vader, but really it’s simply accepting the instruction and conditioning of the opposite side rather than the one you’re currently taking instruction from. It’s better if Kylo Ren gets to make the choice of who he is without our takeaway being that he was simply manipulated by either side, or that everyone else can simply fix or undo his choices. Who wants a character who simply ping-pongs between controlling influences?
It comes down also to how much reverence we’re supposed to place into the thematic arcs present in the original trilogy and in the prequel trilogy. Personally, I’m of the opinion that not every trilogy needs to follow the same arc or hit the same beats, even though I know the writers are attempting to make a point of “history repeats” and motifs reappearing. Consider, though, that we knew on some level how the prequels HAD to go before they were ever written. We knew they had to involve Anakin being trained by Obi-Wan. We knew they had to involve the Clone Wars. We knew that other characters such as Yoda would be there, and that they would chronicle the Republic’s fall and the Empire’s rise. We knew all of those major arcs simply from the offhand comments of A New Hope in particular.
This final trilogy, on the other hand, is a truly blank slate. Just because we’ve gone through the arc of “descent, fall, redemption” before doesn’t mean we need to or should do it again. That’s what Anakin’s story was for. Can’t we allow Kylo Ren to emerge as a character whose development branches out in a new direction? I get that a redemptive quest to bring Kylo Ren back from the Dark Side is meant to mirror the other characters we love in the series and thus stir familiar emotions in us, but at some point it looks less poetic and more derivative.
As with Rey, let me know if you think it’s a better idea for Kylo Ren to be somehow redeemed.
Next: Thoughts on the aliens of the Star Wars universe
This is probably the most unlikely of the three things I’d like to see, given that no alien characters of note outside of Maz Kanata were introduced in The Force Awakens. But really … come on, this shouldn’t be that hard. Chewbacca is a wonderful character, but given his limited ability to communicate in a way the audience understands (and thus limited role as an active rather than reactionary participant in the story), he can never really be on an equal level of characterization in the eyes of the audience. In fact, if you look through all of the Star Wars films to date, there’s exactly two alien characters who could reasonably be construed as “primary” outside of Chewbacca: Yoda (which might be a stretch) and Jar Jar Binks.
Jar Jar fucking Binks, people. Sith lord theories or no, how hard could it possibly be to bring a primary alien character into this storyline who is better than Jar Jar?
The new trilogy is, after all, attempting to present the Star Wars universe from a more progressive perspective without specifically being so blunt as to say “here’s a female Jedi and here’s a black stormtrooper.” An alien member of the cast who accompanies the leads on their journey could be a perfect way to bring a literally alien viewpoint into the story, and it’s not as if there’s a shortage of species in this universe who could fit the bill and speak the language. Bring along a Twi’lek, or a Bothan. Hell, bring a Mon Calamari. Or invent a new species, which might be an even better idea. But it certainly wouldn’t be hard to write such a character; it’s something that all of the Extended Universe materials and various animated series have done quite handily.
Is it a concern of practical vs. computer-generated effects that keeps this from happening? Maz Kanata, despite being received fairly warmly by the fanbase, has received some criticism for seeming fake in a world of otherwise largely practical effects and alien costumes. It could be that, in an era of ultra-crisp HD video, the studio simply doesn’t think the audience would be able to accept a more dynamic, talking alien character in a physical costume as “realistic” enough … which would be an indictment of the creature shop team. And at the same time, the prospect of having a major CGI character accompanying our human heroes may strike the studio as being entirely too close to the likes of Jar Jar.
There has to be a happy medium here, though. Significantly less so than in say, the Star Trek universe, we’re left with very little non-human perspective. For a universe with so many incredible alien species, it seems like a wasted opportunity to not truly get to know any of them.
Jim Vorel is a lifelong Star Wars geek who bemoans the loss of Grand Admiral Thrawn and Mara Jade as characters in the new trilogy. You can follow him on Twitter.