Legends and Legacies in Star Wars: The Force Awakens

This post has to do with the analysis of themes and issues from Star Wars: The Force Awakens, so that means I will be discussing major plot elements. Please do not read further if you do not want to be spoiled about what happens in the movie.

A significant theme in The Force Awakens is how to contend with the legends and legacies of the past handed down to us. On one level, the original trilogy has come to represent for us a cultural myth that has ascended to an almost legendary status. Director J.J. Abrams had to figure out how to take Star Wars in a new direction while respecting the legacy of the original films. I think in that area he generally succeeded.

But another way in which he dealt with this issue was, I think, by incorporating it into the story of the film itself. The plot and the actions of characters are largely driven by their responses to the legends and legacies handed down to them. Just as we now think of the original Star Wars trilogy as a legendary set of films, the characters in The Force Awakens look back at the events of the original trilogy as mythical moments.

Rey exclaims, “I thought he was just a legend,” when she hears that Luke Skywalker is real. Finn and Rey are both excited to meet the heroic, legendary figure Han Solo (just as we are excited to see him again), but Finn knows him as a great general of the Rebel Alliance, while Rey sees him as the famous smuggler. The fact is that he is both, but it seems to be the case that the same myth can represent different things to different people.

One of the central story lines revolves around the search for Luke Skywalker. The Resistance believes he can help to turn the tide in their fight against the First Order, while the First Order seems to think that he is the last one who can threaten their plans. But in actuality, what can he do? He is just one man. But his legendary status as hero of the events of the original trilogy and as a great Jedi makes people believe that he has the power to change the course of the war.

I think this will prove to be an major plot point in the next film. The future right now seems hopeful, with the First Order having suffered a huge defeat, and Luke Skywalker having finally been found. But just as The Empire Strikes Back injected a jolt of reality into the happy ending of A New Hope (by showing that the Empire was as powerful as ever), I think the next film’s jolt of reality will be that finding Luke Skywalker does not completely change everything as we expect.

Sure, Rey now has a teacher in the ways of the Force, but who’s to say Luke wants to come back? He disappeared after thinking he had failed as a teacher. What can he do against the power of the First Order? In the end, seeking out this heroic figure probably won’t lead to much.

Now let’s talk briefly about the First Order. They clearly see themselves as successors to the Empire’s legacy. Snoke seems to be carrying on the role of the Emperor. And the new Starkiller weapon is obviously based on the Death Star–again there is this obsession with insane super-weapons. They seem to be purposely emulating the work of the Empire, just as the Resistance sees itself as the successor to the earlier Rebel Alliance and the New Republic echoes the Republic of earlier days. Everyone is calling on the past to define themselves.

No one does this in the film more than Kylo Ren, who tries to define himself based on the legacy of Darth Vader. He keeps Vader’s helmet as a relic and even speaks to it/him, indicating his deep veneration of his famous grandfather as the ultimate symbol of the Dark Side. But Kylo Ren goes even further in doing absolutely everything he can to emulate Vader, to an absurd level that the film itself states.

Vader is famous for his frightening helmet equipped with a breathing apparatus, so what does Ren do? He wears a scary mask with a similar breathing device, so that he can be exactly like Vader. The ridiculousness of wearing a bunch of stuff just to be a “scary Sith lord” is so absurd that Resistance pilot Poe actually makes fun of Ren, saying that he has a hard time hearing him with everything covering his face.

 Kylo Ren in his “scary” Sith outfit with, of course, a red lightsaber

Most notable is what Han Solo says to his son during their final confrontation: “Take that mask off! You don’t need it!” And it’s absolutely true. He has no need to wear a mask. The only reason he does is his desire to be the one to carry on Darth Vader’s legacy.

But this desire is part of a deeper internal struggle within Kylo Ren, which is what makes his character so compelling. Which legacy should he maintain? Which figure should he look to for inspiration, his father or his grandfather? Should he follow the Dark Side, or the Light Side? Kylo Ren’s story arc is driven by all these questions, and it comes to a frightening and troubling conclusion in The Force Awakens when he kills his father and chooses the Dark Side–and Darth Vader–over the Light.

This is actually quite fascinating, in that this is the reverse of Darth Vader’s relationship with Luke. In the original trilogy. Vader had tried to lure Luke to the Dark Side based on familial ties, but here, Kylo Ren struggles to stay on the Dark Side and has to avoid “falling back” to the Light. His final “test” is, like Luke’s, to “confront his father”–but his killing of Han Solo is in fact a betrayal, not a victory. It is in the inversions like this that The Force Awakens re-invents the old formulas of the original trilogy. 

The film leaves us wondering who Rey’s parents are. The implication is that her parentage should tell us whose legacy she is meant to carry on. Based on her possession of Luke’s lightsaber and her skill not only in handling mechanical things but also in the use of the Force, we might suspect that she is Luke’s daughter. Perhaps she is a continuation of the Skywalker family? There is a certain satisfaction to knowing where you come from and to whom you can look for inspiration and guidance.

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But maybe Rey is from somewhere else. Maybe her parents are truly unknown. Maybe her Force powers are her own, not inherited from a famous lineage. And this would mean that she has a greater opportunity to create her own, unique legacy. She can look to the past and the Skywalker legend for guidance, but she can move forward and make something new of herself.

That is exactly what The Force Awakens tries to do in relation with the original trilogy: it takes its inspiration from the legacy of the past, but it also makes an effort to look forward and move in new directions. So, thematically, it would be quite fitting for Rey not to be a Skywalker or the daughter of a famous Force-user. She would represent the passing of the torch over to a new generation and the end of the Skywalker era, but of course we’ll have to see what happens in the next film.

At the heart of The Force Awakens is the question of how much power the stories and symbols from the past ought to have. Legends have power, but what should that power be? Which legends and myths are important to us, and why? Do we value the correct symbols in our society, or do we improperly follow the wrong narratives? And what is the line between fiction and reality, as far as these legacies are concerned? Does the reality align with our expectations?

I found it very interesting that the issue faced by The Force Awakens of how to handle the Star Wars legacy is echoed by the plot of film itself. As we move forward and the new Star Wars films of this era come out, we’ll have to see what they do to deal with the huge expectations that have been heaped upon them.

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