Note: This piece may contain spoilers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
Let me start by saying this: Ostensibly, I was seeing this movie for my kids. Ostensibly, my wife and I were going to scope out the new Star Wars movie to decide if it would be appropriate for our daughters to see in the theater.
But let’s be honest. When I sat in those cushy seats (what have become wide recliners in a stadium seating set-up unlike the cramped ratty flip-down seats of my childhood), suddenly I was ten years old again and anxiously about to see Return of the Jedi. Oh yes, when I was a kid I owned Star Wars pajamas and bedsheets, a suitcase full of Star Wars cards, a case crammed with action figures (I still remember my irrepressible glee when I finally got Yoda with the little orange snake around his neck) and the various and sundry sites for the figures to play on (the Hoth base, the Jawa’s Sandcrawler and, of course, the wild Cantina).
And I still have them all.
But, regrettably, it is no longer I who play with them. I am too old. But my daughters now engage the figures in lightsaber battles and reproduce dizzying scenes of Tie Fighters chasing X-Wing Fighters. Their fantasy world is populated with the old standbys of Han Solo, Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, but have added the latter day likes of the sinister Darth Maul, the dashing young Obi-Wan Kenobi and the nefarious Emperor Palpatine. I still remember that after having these figures for thirty-six years, my five year old succeeded in snapping Darth Vader in half in less than one hour. Ah, c’est la vie. At least she gave him a brilliant death.
But as the lights dimmed, the film rolled and my wife squeezed my hand, I knew and she knew that tonight there were three kids in our family, not two. The long awaited seventh chapter of the Star Wars series was about to begin.
Let me first say that the movie is as good as everyone says it is. The film is filled with characters old and new, populated with scenes alien and familiar, punctuated with moments of classic humor and surprising poignancy, and respectful as it moves the grand narrative forward. It seems that Disney and J.J. Abrams have lived up to the impossible expectations that came with continuing a multi-generational, multi-billion dollar enterprise.
Many have said (and I would agree) that there are tremendous similarities between the original Star Wars: A New Hope and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. A dark leader well-versed in The Force, a malevolent army intent on universal domination, a fledgling rebellion trying to stay alive, a young hero (heroine) increasingly aware of his (her) power of The Force, and even a Death Star with another pesky vulnerability that just might help the rebellion win. These similarities and the fact that the movie was produced and directed outside of the creative watchful eye of George Lucas (who received $4.1 billion for the franchise) have led some die-hard fans to grumble a little. But overall, the story is a winsome, suspenseful, action-packed experience that didn’t let this ten year old boy in a forty two year old body down.
But as often happens when I see engaging movies or finish compelling books, I can’t help but turn the experience over and over in my mind during the many days (and sometimes months!) that follow. And I was stunned. I was stunned by what I took away from this movie (and frankly from the entire Star Wars series) when I really started to think about it.
Let me explain.
In seven movies we see the creation of the strangest of worlds, the oddest of creatures and the most brilliant of technology. But the drama lies not in the nasty worminess of Jabba the Hutt or the technological armageddon that could be unleashed from the Death Star or the unforgiving landscapes of Tatooine, Hoth or deep outer space. We only think that’s where the drama lies. But in fact, that is all a backdrop for the real story, the real plot, the real narrative.
The real story, plot and narrative is about human fallibility.
The story especially finds its breath in human fallibility with respect to the fate of families…from the fallout of dysfunction to the joy of reconciliation. From Anakin to Luke, from Padme to Leia, from Han Solo to Fin, (even C3PO and R2D2!) we find deep strains of the fallible human condition and its impact on the most important of relationships. Fear, worry, anger, greed, dishonor and betrayal are forever at odds with courage, peace, joy, selflessness, honor and fidelity. And these vices and virtues don’t simply play out between the evil empire and the rebels, or one character and another. They are part of the intimate battle within each character. The questions that plague us from one movie to the next is not only whether the rebellion will defeat the evil Empire, but whether Luke and Vader could ever truly reconcile as father and son, whether Anakin and Padme could find love and peace in marriage despite the swirl of temptations and pressures around them, whether Han and Leia will finally overcome pride and admit their feelings for each other, and whether Han and his son will bridge the horrible rift that has grown between them before one or both is consumed. And let us not forget the heartening family-like bond between friends such as Han and Chewbacca, Han’s betrayal and reconciliation with Lando Calrissian, and the fatherly guidance Obi-Wan provides Luke. If there can be peace and reconciliation between these characters (and within these characters), we feel all will be well. And if not…then we wait anxiously for another chance in the next movie.
The fallibility of man happened.
A son succumbs to temptation. A husband walks away in grief. An uncle flees in shame. Humanity happened. Curiously, in a world of the most advanced lifeforms and sophisticated technology, man is still a sinner. Long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away, of all the mysteries we see on the screen, man and woman are still the most mysterious. That’s why what this Catholic dad saw at the new Star Wars movie was fallen man hungry for (even craving) redemption, for reconciliation, for peace. In Leia’s tired eyes, in Han’s pained grimace, in Luke’s haunting gaze there was a poignant sadness, a sadness of years. But it was tinged with hope, tinged with faith that somehow things could be made right again.
And we, the viewers, get that. We feel it in our marrow. Because we, too, are fallen and hungry. We, too, believe.
The final scene of The Force Awakens is a powerful one. Rey, the main character, is a poor young woman from a desert planet, orphaned as a child and painfully waiting for her family to return for her. After finding what is sought throughout the movie – a map to locate the missing Luke Skywalker – she stands on the top of a grassy, craggy island buffeted by crashing waves and voicelessly holds a lightsaber (Luke’s lightsaber, to be sure) out to the bearded, robe-wearing, and similarly orphaned Jedi Luke Skywalker. Rey has recognized that she is not strong enough to fight evil alone. She needs Luke’s help. Luke, pulling the robe’s hood away from his head and staring back at Rey’s outstretched hand shows that he understands. He understands. And that in his weakness, he needs her as well. Perhaps most importantly, these two broken and fallible figures, realize that they both need Something larger than themselves, Something even greater than their new-found bond. That Something is The Force.
How about that?
A story of fallen humanity trying to make things right, but knowing they can’t do it alone…their salvation depends on Something larger than themselves.
I think I’ve heard that story before.
My girls are going to love this.
Photo credit: http://www.vulture.com/2015/11/retro-star-wars-force-awakens-posters.html