*note: as the title indicates, this post contains spoilers. Not just spoilers, but THE BIG spoiler. The one that you definitely don’t want to read about if you haven’t seen the movie yet. That is, of course, unless you’re that guy who wants to throw all emotional attachment to the wind and watch from a purely academic sense – the all-knowing, all-seeing movie god who scoffs at the little folks surrounding you in the theater and their utter lack of foresight. Seriously, though, don’t be that guy.
Over Christmas break, all of the planets aligned and I was able to take the entire family to see the first Disney-driven Star Wars film: The Force Awakens. My oldest two were able to attend an opening-day showing thanks to some friends who procured advance tickets. However, my wife and I and the youngest two were seeing it for the first time and none of us had scoured the Internet for plot clues or paused/analyzed the trailers on YouTube. In other words, we were blissfully ignorant heading into the film.
Oh, I watched all the trailers, but for the most part I didn’t give the new Star Wars nearly as much thought as some folks did. This is probably another one of those “stage of life” things. I hear about something interesting, I broadly keep an eye out for related material, but I don’t seek it out, and I certainly don’t count down the days until arrival. Life moves fast enough without me wishing time away. It reminds me of the Rush classic Time Stand Still….but I digress.
As I looked up and down the row of seats, it struck me how the Star Wars phenomenon has crossed generational boundaries and managed to remain culturally relevant. I can distinctly remember seeing Return of the Jedi in the movie theater as a ten year old, and now, here I was, some 30 years later, awaiting the start of the latest installment while sitting next to my ten year old daughter.
Because I hadn’t given the film an incredible amount of forethought, I was unprepared for the wash of nostalgia that hit me when the blue glowing “In a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” showed up on the big screen in front of me for the first time in ten years. It was at this moment that the full gravity of my situation hit me: I was about to see Star Wars in the theater. The real Star Wars, not the animated puppet show that dominated much of the oft-maligned prequels. My Star Wars – Han, Chewie, Luke, R2D2, the Falcon…all of the stuff that surrounded us in our imaginary playground worlds in the early 1980’s.
Despite being temporarily transported back in time by the opening theme music and crawl, I was quickly able to distance myself from the nostalgia and enjoy The Force Awakens for what it is: a worthy continuation of the universe we’ve come to know and love. Insignificant characters rising to the occasion as they are caught up in larger power struggles of which they are only slightly aware. Mystical forces that tiptoe the line between science and religion. Creatures and settings that are simultaneously familiar and strange.
JJ Abrams and his team did a great job in both maintaining the feeling of continuity between the existing films and The Force Awakens, and were somehow also able to introduce us to a new struggle with a new cast of characters. They also injected just the right amount of humor. For the most part, the effects were very well done, though I suspect that perhaps the horrible monsters that Han Solo was hauling when we first encounter him might not stand the test of time. The scene where Finn and Rey hijack the Millennium Falcon in order to escape Jakku was one of the best action sequences in the entire film.
Extended roles for Han and Chewie, along with token appearances by Luke, Leia, C3PO and R2D2 were handled respectfully and did not feel in the least bit heavy-handed. New characters Rey, Finn, Kylo Ren, Poe Dameron and of course BB-8 fit right in with the familiar universe. Rey and Ren, in particular, both feel like characters who have much larger roles forthcoming. But I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t also want to see more of the wisecracking hotshot Dameron, masterfully played by Oscar Isaac.
All of the above is well and good, and may have been enough to keep the Star Wars universe humming along, but Disney had one more ace up their sleeve. Throughout the course of the film, we learn that Kylo Ren, the new big baddie who has successfully channeled his anger towards the dark side of the force, is the son of Han and Leia. Not exactly spoilerific if you have any awareness of the once-canon expanded universe. But the real turning point of this film – the one that punches you in the gut in true Empire Strikes Back form, is the bridge confrontation between Han Solo and Ren. In yet another cheery Star Wars father/son moment, Ren struggles with the idea of surrendering his sith saber to Han before ultimately choosing instead to kill his father and continue his journey down the dark path. The look on Han Solo’s face as his son’s light saber skewers him was both shocking and painful to the ten year old me. It hurt my daughter, too. After the movie ended and I asked the kids if they liked it, her first reply was “Han Solo died.”
And yet, it was somehow a heroic and fitting end to the first space cowboy. That the smart-alec smuggler who once cared only about himself would risk his own life for the love of his son just shows how much he has evolved over the entire series, probably more than any other Star Wars character. That the one-time permanent skeptic would place that amount of trust into the power of a father’s love for his son is simply overwhelming, and upon reflection, I can think of no other way that I’d want to see Solo go out.
I’ve since wondered if I would have preferred that they not kill Han off. He’s such a presence, and he means so much to the Star Wars universe. But after thinking about it over the past couple of weeks, it just seems like a good thing for the franchise. While the rest of the movie is good, the Solo death scene vaults The Force Awakens into another category alongside the classic Empire. Something else it allows Disney to do is to begin gracefully handing the torch over to the new cast. Solo is such a larger than life character, he seems to command the screen at each appearance. It would be increasingly difficult to push him to the background in future films. Lastly, Harrison Ford is in his 70’s! I tend to wonder if he would have agreed to a continuous role that must, at this point, seem somewhat unchallenging to him. Writing Solo out in a blaze of glory may have been a good way to secure his presence in at least one of the new films. And really, as difficult as it is to swallow, isn’t it more satisfying to have witnessed Solo’s demise rather than just being told: “Yeah, we miss Han, he died sometime between the last film and this one”?
In summary, when people ask me if I liked the new Star Wars film, my normal response is this: It’s not going to redefine cinematic history, but it’s a very good Star Wars movie. If you’re a fan, it’s a must-see.