As a Star Wars fan, I loved the fact that The Force Awakens recalls the original Star Wars trilogy in so many ways, from the cinematography and art direction to the plot and dialogue. But George Lucas, who created the series, was disappointed because he saw the new film as re-treading old ground and playing to the fans.
But perhaps the many echoes of the earlier films aren’t just about paying homage or appealing to the original fans of the series. They could also be seen as a narrative device, facilitating interpretation of The Force Awakens.
The audience that pushed The Force Awakens to the top of the box office isn’t entirely the same audience that fell in love with the original films when they first came out. Some of us have been fans ever since the first film hit theatres; but some of us were born later and heard of them first from our parents, seeing them first through the eyes of our parents’ enthusiasm and finding our own reasons to love them as well.
A new Star Wars film would always be embedded in a different cultural and cinematic context. We live in a different world with different problems. Star Wars is no longer a new screen adventure: it is now a cinematic legend with a huge presence in popular culture.
And now a new director seeks to make a film that will make the legend live again.
Through the references to the original, the makers of the new film are actually acknowledging their distance from it. This is a film about growing up in the shadow of legends. It continues the narrative of the original films, but it also lets us into it, not just as a good work of art always does—by showing us characters we can relate to—but also through the positioning of its narrative. The echoes of past films do not constitute a secret joke between the director and the original audience, with the characters at a distance. The characters mirror us: they are aware of and rooted in their past while au fond separate from it. To Kylo, Rey and Finn as to us, the Force and the Jedi are legends of a different time they heard about growing up. Their different stories play out complex relationships with the past.
Far from contending ambitions and ideologies, a young person leads a lonely life of habit on a sandy planet. But this life is shattered when she finds a forsaken droid carrying an important message from the heart of the conflict. Though Rey’s old life is ended, it has fitted her, technically, intellectually and morally, for the new; and instead of living for the day, she is now an important part of the central conflict of history and legend.
Perhaps the textual and visual parallels between the stories of Rey and Luke are meant to highlight the sense of moving back, and the ineluctable past that shapes both their lives. Rey has a destiny written for her in the sand, a lightsabre that calls to her; she is attracted to it even as she is afraid to sever all links with the old life and let the currents of time bear her where they will. But as Maz Kanata tells her, the belonging she seeks is not behind her: it lies ahead, in being part of the ageless humanitarian quest. Stepping into her heritage of legend and destiny is actually about moving ahead, embracing her individuality, doing what she was meant to do and only she can do. Relinquishing control over her life in one sense will give her much greater control over her world in another. The past is both ineluctable and liberating.
To Kylo Ren, on the other hand, his heritage of legend is also his personal heritage. He is the son of legends, and they loom large on his mental horizon. His past has made him what he is, even as he struggles to free himself from it.
Kylo’s struggle is personal, against his genetic and psychological inheritance. He is actually crying to be freed from his inheritance of conflict: both from the relentless pull to the light and the unforgiving ambitions of the dark side, the twin aspects of his heritage from his family. As the grandson of Anakin Skywalker, this conflict is an essential part of him, but he believes that the solution lies in the dominance of one side over the other. His struggle to free himself from his Solo-Skywalker destiny leads to him re-treading, in heart-wrenching antiparallel, the paths of the Luke-Darth Vader struggle: from “You killed my father!” “No, I am your father!” we have moved to “You are my son!” “No, I killed your son!” The destiny that he struggles against is fulfilled in his very struggle against it.
Finn seeks to get away from the past and its wars, but he realises that there are higher claims on him: his affection for Rey, though grounded in the present, brings him to a realisation of the ideals that inspire her, the ideals that older generations have fought to pass down to them; and he gradually embraces the world of legend, declaring that he will ‘use the Force’ (even if that isn’t quite how the Force works) and using a lightsabre with considerable skill.
Poe Dameron is at home in the fight against the dark side from the very beginning, flying an X-wing fighter for the Resistance with courage and joyous élan. When he trusts Finn at the beginning and later welcomes him to the Resistance base, he is letting him be part of the conflict, making the past accessible.
The film explores how the past defines us in ways beyond our control, but sets us free in other ways to do what we are meant to do. And like its characters, the new series will probably move forward the narrative and conflict of the original films, but in its own way.