A month after its release, there continues to be much discussion about Star Wars: The Force Awakens having borrowed multiple plot elements and devices from one of its predecessors, Episode IV: A New Hope. Fans aren’t denying it, and Director J. J. Abrams concedes that this was his initial plan to reintroduce the property to a new generation of fans. It’s easy to dismiss The Force Awakens as an A New Hope rehash again, but then easy to get excited for Episode VIII, which most fans are assuming will be the Empire Strikes Back (or “the dark one”) of the new trilogy. However, to reduce The Force Awakens to this narrow an interpretation isn’t fair at all, and in terms of darkness of material, it’s much ahead of any expectation developed by the introductory 1977 film. The climax alone illustrates a sadness that separates itself from the triumphant, space opera found in A New Hope.
It’s probably safe to assume that a little part of everyone died the moment Han was stabbed through the chest by his son Kylo Ren. He was the scoundrel that came back to destroy the Death Star, the rebel soldier that got shipped off in carbonite, and in his final moments, he was the dad that tried to make amends with his son. He isn’t Obi-Wan, who sacrificed himself to become an even more powerful spirit in order to train Luke to take down his former partner. Han died still rather hopeful that his misguided son could be saved. The scene illustrates the severed bond between the two generations, and acts a perfect lead-in to the climactic battle of the movie.
After Han’s death, Rey and Finn encounter Kylo in the woods, and a lightsaber battle ensues. Finn is knocked out during the battle, and his first film conclusion is a distinct echo of that of Han at the end of Empire Strikes Back – unknown but hopeful. Kylo and Rey then fight, but what makes the fight interesting is how low the stakes are. The First Order has already been defeated at this point, with Poe already starting the chain reaction of explosions. Kylo himself doesn’t even want to kill Rey. He just wants the lightsaber and for Rey to join the dark side (a la Empire Strikes Back). The stakes are so low that it’s not really important to the outside narrative which character defeats which, given their respective backgrounds.
The battle exists to emphasize the desperate isolation of the characters and the overall burden placed on to them. Kylo taunts them at the beginning of their encounter, saying that they’re all alone and that Han isn’t there with them anymore. It’s worth noting that his taunts are the truth. Ultimately, the duel boils down to lost/conflicted characters, left behind by the generation prior, fighting the battles that that, because of their history, are greater than the whole of themselves, bigger than they are capable of comprehending. These characters have no business fighting each other, but after getting caught up in Han, Luke, and Leia’s baggage (broken family, Luke hiding in shame), the new generation is basically burdened to deal with the old generation’s problems for them.
It’s a pretty dismal climax for a supposedly fan-appeasing movie, but it’s not just the climax. The whole film hammers home the same recurring theme of lost, lonely characters carrying the burden of the generation before them, just through the guide of a familiar structure. The opening crawl of the film distinctly points out that although our heroes totally saved the day a couple decades back, they didn’t really think a lot of things through, so the galaxy is still basically in turmoil. And the first two characters the film introduces are only where they are because of original trilogy characters, Han and Leia.
There are undoubtedly many interesting parallels between A New Hope and The Force Awakens, but in no way are those parallels a sign of laziness or a failure of tackling new material. It’s crucial that viewers aren’t so readily dismissive of the familiar, for engagement with context is extremely fruitful. A sword duel could mean so much more than who has more strength, and a film about the glorious return to a galaxy far, far away could follow lost and confused characters fighting in situations that are beyond them. The text is there, engagement is all that’s necessary.
Featured Image: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures