The Force Awakens

Star Wars: The Force Awakens movie poster[Warning: The following post contains spoilers for Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens, along with serious references to the geography and religions of the Star Wars universe.  Caveat lector.]

I saw The Force Awakens opening night. I liked the movie a lot, but as the credits rolled I was pensive and troubled.

Don’t get me wrong. Unlike so many outspoken critics, I wasn’t bothered by the many parallels between the original Star Wars and this latest installment. Sagas, after all, are often iterative. That’s the nature of human storytelling. I quite enjoyed the mixing of familiar characters and tropes with new characters and twists. So what was my problem?

Viewed in episode order, the first six Star Wars films chronicle Anakin Skywalker’s journey to the Dark Side of the Force and back to the Light. The Special Edition of Return of the Jedi ends with Palpatine’s demise, the destruction of the second Death Star, and the celebrations of multiple systems now freed from the clutches of the Empire. A restored Anakin makes a cameo with the Force ghosts of Master Yoda and Obi-Wan Kenobi. All is right with the galaxy. Good triumphs over evil.

Force ghosts from Return of the Jedi

Finis.

But fast forward 30 years and what do we find? Luke’s attempts to raise a new generation of Jedi are thwarted when Ben Solo turns to the Dark Side  and slaughters the new recruits. Supreme Commander Snoke now masters the renamed Kylo Ren, while the the moffs have regrouped and built a new “Starkiller Base” capable of destroying an entire planet and its moons.[1]

the destruction of the Hosnian systemA sense of dread set in for me when the fully charged Starkiller Base launched a deadly barrage that destroyed the entire Hosnian system,  the seat of the New Republic. And once again, there was a great disturbance in the Force, as though millions of voices cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced.

It was about here that I began to wonder…

The Old Republic, the Empire, the Rebel Alliance, the New Republic, the First Order, the Resistance… Is there any end to this struggle? Or are we all stuck in an endless cycle of death and destruction?

The First Order dispatches Starkiller Base to finish off our heroes. The Resistance scrambles everything they’ve got, but they’re vastly outnumbered. The sky grows darker as the Starkiller siphons away the plasma of the closest star. But then Poe Dameron reminds us all:

“As long as there’s still light, we’ve got a chance.”

And against the odds, the Resistance pulls it off![2]  A planet-sized weapon, staffed and maintained by untold legions, is destroyed in mere moments. The important members of the First Order manage to evacuate, but the death toll is truly catastrophic. (Though I don’t see any force-sensitives out there swooning and weeping over the loss.)

When I was a kid (and, to be honest, probably many times since then) I experienced a thrill as Luke Skywalker blew up the Death Star. With two photo torpedoes, he saved his friends, the Rebel Alliance, and the Yavin system. But now, as a theologian, all I could think of as Episode VII unfolded was the eternal Manichean struggle between Light and Darkness.[3]

In the days after seeing The Force Awakens, I pondered Luke’s earlier question to Yoda during the training scenes on Dagobah in The Empire Strikes Back: “Is the Dark Side stronger?”

Yoda training Luke on Dagobah

“No, no, no,” the Jedi Master replies. “Quicker, easier, more seductive.”

And for the first time I realized that while Yoda denies the primacy of the Dark Side, he never actually ascribes superiority to the Light.

I no longer see Episode VII as the latest chapter in the Manichean struggle between the Dark Side and the Light. Although the plots of A New Hope and The Force Awakens share many parallels, the magnitude of the carnage is exponentially greater in this latest installment:  From Alderaan to the entire Hosnian system.  From the Death Star with its full complement to the planet-sized Starkiller Base.

As the Force awakens, we witness an escalation in violence, coupled with greater loss of life on both sides. A Manichean tale might begin with “All of this has happened before, and it will all happen again.” Instead we witness firepower of a magnitude heretofore unknown…

I’ve seen the film three times, and I’m sure I’ll see it many more. My Blu-ray copy ships in three days. And I must admit: I’ve shed tears of joy and relief three different times as X-wing fighters fly to the rescue on Takodana to the swell of the “March of the Resistance.” 

March of the Resistance

But mixed with my elation is a knowing dissonance…

Slip's bloody hand print left behind on Finn's stormtrooper face mask.The black-and-white world of my childhood is gone. In that world, the Empire was evil, the Rebel Alliance was good, and the destruction of the Death Star was a righteous act. But that narrative is complicated by the opening scenes of the latest installment when  the dying Slip[4] touches a bare hand to his friend’s facemask, leaving a bloody print in the wake of his death. Beneath the armor of each nameless stormtrooper beats the heart of a living person. And that is something that I cannot simply un-know.

It’s okay, I tell myself, to enjoy good story-telling, to visit again with friends old and new. But I’m no longer able to surrender to the us-vs.-them narrative and the powerful sense of peace at the destruction of the enemy. For that, as it turns out, leads to the Dark Side.


 

[1] A shout-out to my friend, Konst, who many years ago pointed out that only in myths do the “bad guys” refer to their ultimate weapon as something like the “Death Star.” Real fascists, he noted, would instead call it something like the “Star of Glory.” ^

[2] If you stop and think about it, who’s going to kill off Princess Leia and C3PO and the entire leadership of the good guys in the installment meant to revive a franchise? ^

[3] The Jedi actually lend themselves quite nicely to Manichean values with their dedication to celibacy and plant-based diets, as well as their characterization of bodies as “crude matter” that encases “luminous beings,” and their general regard for the Light. ^

[4] Slip was the nickname for FN-2003, Finn’s comrade-in-arms who died in the assault on the village of Tuanul on Jakku. And speaking of hands, I found it significant that after Slip’s bare hand leaves its mark on Finn’s helmet, we later find Finn back on Jakku, constantly grabbing Rey by the hand as they run from First Order troops. While stormtrooper armor is meant to reinforce anonymity, the hand and subsequent handholding can be seen as acts of resistance that defy the dehumanization of the First Order. ^