Opening weekend for Star Wars: The Force Awakens is over, and fans everywhere are beginning to dissect the popular blockbuster as they try to make sense of it all. (You can read my formal, spoiler-free review here.)
This article is my own attempt to breakdown the central structure of Episode VII, what it reveals, what that means for the next two episodes (that’s right – predictions!), and some random additional thoughts on this spectacular return to a galaxy far, far away.
Major spoilers ahead. Buckle up. Here we go.
THE OBI-WAN KENOBI OF THE FORCE AWAKENS
To understand how Episode VII fits into the broader saga, as well as what it could suggest for VIII and IX, one has to look at the film’s core framework, which is this:
Han Solo is the Obi-Wan Kenobi of The Force Awakens.
This goes far beyond the most obvious moment, i.e. Han’s death at the hands of Sith-in-the-making Kylo Ren (which mirrors Obi-Wan’s death in A New Hope). The Han/Obi-Wan parallel is woven throughout Episode VII’s entire narrative. It is, by design, the intentional continuation of a motif.
Director J.J. Abrams uses a sleight of hand twist here (a trick he’s known for) to put Han in that Obi-Wan role. Since we all perceive Han Solo in one particular way – which is the opposite of how we perceive Obi-Wan – masking the Obi-Wan archetype under the guise of Han Solo helps to hide his actual purpose to the movie (and, possibly, the new trilogy) in plain sight.
Here’s a breakdown of the recurring motif as revealed in 4 key examples, followed by their implications.
Creator George Lucas followed writer Joseph Campbell’s extensive mythology template, which included the wise old mentor. That stock character, as Lucas defined it, would first appear to the story’s main heroes as a nobody before revealing himself to be a person of mythic importance. Yoda, for example, filled that role in The Empire Strikes Back. This is how Obi-Wan – who went by Ben – first appears to Luke Skywalker in A New Hope, and it’s also how Han Solo first appears to Rey and Finn in The Force Awakens. Sure, we all know who Han Solo is, but they just think he’s some old smuggler – until he reveals himself.
In A New Hope, R2D2 would only play Princess Leia’s secret transmission (and deliver the secret plans) for Obi-Wan Kenobi. In The Force Awakens, BB-8 does not reveal the secret map of Luke Skywalker’s possible location to anyone until he meets Han Solo.
In A New Hope, Obi-Wan Kenobi became a mentor to Luke Skywalker, training him in the ways of the Jedi. While not as explicitly stated, Han Solo serves the same purpose for Rey. There’s a fantastic, at times endearing, “master/apprentice” dynamic at play between Han and Rey, from flying the Millennium Falcon to the moment when Han literally asks Rey to work for him (i.e. be his apprentice). Later, under interrogation by Kylo Ren, we learn that Rey has actually come to see Han as a father figure (i.e. mentor).
This is, of course, the Han death scene. In witnessing Han’s murder (which, mirroring Obi-Wan’s, is really a form of a willful sacrifice), Rey is shocked and grieved to see her mentor killed. This tragic moment then forges Rey’s purpose and destiny within the mythos, as she embraces the Force like never before (just as Obi-Wan’s death at the hands of Darth Vader did for Luke, and Qui-Gon’s death at the hands of Darth Maul did for Obi-Wan). And as we eventually see, Rey takes her place as the Jedi’s next hope.
It’s time to lay down the gauntlet, go on record, and make some bold predictions.
So, if Han is the new Obi-Wan, what might that mean for Episodes VIII and IX? Let me start with this first common suspicion:
Rey is the long lost daughter of Han and Leia (and therefore the sister of Kylo Ren).
We learn in The Force Awakens that when Han and Leia’s son Ben turned to the Dark Side and became Kylo Ren, the devastated Han Solo dealt with that heartbreak by leaving Leia and the entire rebellion; it also sent Ben’s master-and-uncle Luke Skywalker into seclusion. Han then returned to what he knew best: smuggling, and taking care of himself (along with Chewie, of course).
I suspect that when Han left, unbeknownst to him Leia was pregnant. She bore a daughter, Rey, but never told Han of her existence. Leia’s reasons for not telling him would be tied up in the mystery of why Luke (yes Luke, not Leia) abandoned Rey on the desert planet Jakku, an event we caught a glimpse of in Episode VII that’s certain to be explained in one of the two remaining episodes. I believe it will show us that Luke decided he must hide Han and Leia’s secret daughter from the rising power of The First Order (and may have even instructed Leia to not tell Han, so as to further protect Rey as best possible).
(UPDATE: After reading this theory, Facebook friend Jeffrey Chen wrote me this: “One hitch in your theory: if Rey is Han and Leia’s daughter, secret to Han after Kylo Ren goes to the dark side, then shouldn’t Rey be significantly younger than Kylo Ren? As it is, they look about the same age.” A great question. Look for my reply in the UPDATE at the end of this post. But for now, continue on.)
So if Rey is Han and Leia’s daughter (I thought Leia’s hugs and looks to Rey were very maternal), and Han is this trilogy’s Obi-Wan Kenobi, then that must mean…
EPISODE VIII’S “I AM YOUR FATHER” MOMENT
Heartbroken, we left The Force Awakens assuming we’d seen the last of Han Solo. But if he’s the trilogy’s new Obi-Wan (i.e. mentor to the hero), then we will see Han Solo again in the form of an apparition from The Force. So far, only Jedi have appeared in this way, but I’m going to take a leap and say that J.J. Abrams (as head of the Star Wars brain-trust) decided to expand that possibility to non-Jedi, having The Force allow Han be for Rey what Obi-Wan was for Luke.
With that in mind, one of two things will happen:
1. As an apparition from The Force, Han Solo will appear to Rey. One of those appearances will be this trilogy’s “I am your father” moment. It’ll go down something like this:
HAN: Rey…I am your father.
REY: My father? But why? Why didn’t you tell me?
HAN: Because I didn’t know. I suspected it, from the moment I first saw you, but I wasn’t certain until it was revealed to me by The Force…after Ben betrayed and murdered me.
REY: Wait, then that means…
HAN: Yes, Rey. Kylo Ren is your brother.
This would likely play out during Luke’s training of Rey (assuming part of Skywalker’s purpose in Episode VIII is to be Rey’s Yoda). It would also allow Luke and Han to share screen time again (which would be totally cool) and, if so, then Rey’s “Why didn’t you tell me?” would probably be directed at both Han and Luke (which would also be kind of cool).
2. If my first hunch isn’t true, then I suspect Episode VIII’s “I am your father” moment will instead be tweaked into an “I am your brother” reveal. Like the Vader/Luke scene in Empire, it’ll take place in a lightsaber duel between Rey and Kylo Ren, a duel that Rey rushes to face despite Luke’s plea for her to not make the same mistakes he did. Then, in Episode IX, Rey will have the “Why didn’t you tell me?” conversation with Han’s ghost.
Having that reveal during a lightsaber battle may be too obvious, but if most people aren’t expecting it (safely assuming this article maintains a low profile, and nobody else’s head ends up where mine’s at) it’ll still play as a big surprise. It’d likely be smart to play that reveal in a different way (even early on, just as Han being Kylo’s father was), but given the importance of recurring motifs within this saga, a lightsaber showdown would be the appropriate place for it.
THE CIRCULAR NATURE OF THE FORCE
(or, What People Who Complain About The Force Awakens Having Too Many Similarities With Other Star Wars Movies Don’t Get)
As with the Han/Obi-Wan parallel, The Force Awakens has a host of recurring motifs placed throughout – both big and small, clever and substantial – but a few people have been complaining that the new movie is little more than lazy fan service. Putting aside the (very important) fact that Abrams’ spin on these callbacks are inspired (not carbon copies) and come alive through thrilling characters and performances, there’s a reason these familiar beats aren’t lazy but, rather, represent the very lifeblood of the entire Star Wars mythos.
The foundational undercurrent of George Lucas’s saga is The Force, a mystical spirituality that’s based on an amalgam of our real world religions – Eastern mystic religions especially (hence the reason that the Jedi are a monastic order). One religion that Lucas pulled a lot from is Hinduism. A major tenant of Hinduism is that time is not linear; it’s a circle. In its cyclical nature, there’s no beginning and no end, and time repeats its own formula.
And so ultimately, that’s what these callbacks are: the cyclical, echoing nature of The Force. Whether it’s a little robot carrying stolen data, a mammoth weapon that can destroy planets, or a young nobody from a distant desert planet whose destiny lies along a different path, these callbacks are as important and fundamental to the saga’s themes as they are to its general narrative structure. Things don’t just happen by coincidence; they repeat by design. (If there ends up being Episodes X, XII and XII, you can bet X will involve the death of a key mentor, just as I, IV, and VII have. It has to.) These recurring motifs aren’t “lazy fan service”; they are the very fabric of The Force itself.
(To further bolster this point, here’s a lengthy essay (that I’ve yet to read) called “RING THEORY: The Hidden Artistry of the Star Wars Prequels“. Thanks to my friend Aristibule Adams for sending me the link after reading this blog post.)
(For more on the cyclical, echoing nature of the Force as seen throughout the first two trilogies, click here – which includes a video essay matching scenes and shots throughout the six films.)
Or perhaps the most practical – and important – way to look at these motifs isn’t to ask how often we’ve seen them before in the Star Wars universe, but rather this: who’s done them the best?
I’ll leave that one unanswered here, particularly since it can be approached both holistically and by each individual motif, but contemplating which director maximized these motifs to their richest potentials is the best question to consider. So instead, I’ll end with one personal sentiment about the film we’ve just been given.
THE MOST POWERFUL MOMENT IN THE FORCE AWAKENS
I’ve seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens three times now, and one moment has stood out from the rest, growing in power with each viewing. It’s a crucial moment (no surprise), and it’s the defining one for our new central hero, on whom this entire new trilogy hinges:
When Rey finally receives Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber.
I’m not referring to the pivotal scene where she first finds the saber in Maz Kanata’s cellar room (another motif, by the way, calling back to the Dagobah Cave from The Empire Strikes Back). I’m talking about when Rey takes the lightsaber – by The Force – in her climactic showdown with Kylo Ren. The first time I saw that moment, it gave me chills. The second time, it put a lump in my throat. The third time, actual tears. (I’ve never professed to be a geek, Star Wars or otherwise, but if this makes me one then so be it.)
A very appropriately – and effectively – timed cue of “The Force Theme” by John Williams sure gave it an emotional wallop, but so too did Daisy Ridley’s performance that crescendoed to its peak, along with how Abrams orchestrated the entire film to peak simultaneously with Rey.
Plus, it was a moment for a heroine rather than a hero, which bolstered its power. It’s the only time in my entire IMAX screening that rousing applause swept the theater following something that a new character did, rather than after the first appearance of an old one. Rey acquiring Luke’s original lightsaber (which was his father’s before him) will stand as one of the most iconic moments of the entire Star Wars mythology.
And for what it’s worth (which is a lot), Daisy Ridley and JJ Abrams have created a truly great, dimensional, passionate, kick-ass inspiring hero in Rey, one that stands equal with any movie hero. PLUS she’s totes adorbs. What other action star can boast that? As bold as it may be to say, consider this: after the new trilogy is all said and done, Rey could be even more mythic than Luke Skywalker himself.
And those are my thoughts – analysis, predictions, and otherwise. Only 18 months until we all know for sure. This episode gives more than enough to tide us over.
Again, Jeffrey Chen’s valid point about my “Rey Solo in hiding” prediction:
“One hitch in your theory: if Rey is Han and Leia’s daughter, secret to Han after Kylo Ren goes to the dark side, then shouldn’t Rey be significantly younger than Kylo Ren? As it is, they look about the same age.”
Here’s my reply:
I considered that, Jeffrey, but three things:
- Ages can be fudged, even making them 10 years apart, and still be able to sell the possibility I proposed. Casting actors with close-looking ages could be a way J.J. chose to obscure the very suspicion I’m proposing.
- My theory also assumes something I didn’t unpack originally because the post was already too long, but here’s that assumption: things went sour with Ben (now Kylo) when he was much younger than audiences are probably assuming. My hunch is that Luke started training Ben at the youngest age possible (as is the norm with Jedi), and that in older childhood – not young adulthood – is when Ben rebelled. He was taught about Anakin and was powerfully, immediately seduced (no doubt Snoke or someone else was pursuing/tempting the grandchild of Anakin Skywalker from the earliest possible moments, too). Ben then trained with the knights of Ren from some point in his childhood to early adulthood, and then once trained by them he returned to face Luke as Kylo, with fellow knights, in that flashback we saw. That would also likely mean that Childhood Ben was actually the more ominous, intimidating piece of work we wanted that whiny Anakin to be. All that to say – Han could’ve left Leia when Kylo was still just a child, and at a time that Rey could’ve also been conceived and born within reasonable age range of Ben/Kylo.
- All that to say – my reasoning/guessing could be wrong, even way off, but the core suspicion remains: Rey is the daughter of Han and Leia. Another possibility: maybe Han has known about Rey all along, and maybe he brought her to Jakku with Luke, agreeing it’d be best for her safety. That event would add a further layer – and motivation – to the fallout between Han and Leia, with Han simply not returning to Leia after abandoning their daughter. If that’s the case, then any age for Rey and Kylo would work, and they could be close together (with Ben’s turn to the Dark Side being at an age just 3 to 5 years older than the little girl Rey we saw in her flashback). Also, her original name may not be Rey, and Han may not know what her name was changed to (again, to protect her), so he may have strongly suspected that Rey is his daughter but he couldn’t be certain – and was likely afraid to broach the topic, given the circumstances (he’s the ultimate deadbeat dad; a lot of shame going on there, most likely), and so instead Han asked her to work for him, and his intent was likely to try and suss out the truth over time. And if all of that is true, he likely knew (or suspected) that Rey was watching when he confronted Kylo, and wanted her to see him reach out to Kylo, regardless of what the outcome might be.
I hope that smooths out the hitch. 🙂