“Star Wars: The Force Awakens”: Flight and Empathy
Here’s the one with all the spoilers!
Because you love me, you’ve hopefully read my generalized, vaguely non-spoiler review of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”, in which I spoke lightly about the movie’s flaws and even lighter about the film’s greater triumphs. But here, we bring you the real deal.
There are two things at battle in Star Wars, and it’s not just the Light and Dark side of the Force. I’m talking about flight and empathy.
More often than not, flight has to do with the running away from something, either out of legitimate fear or a more psychological aversion to the truth.
Somewhat more mundanely, and in a positive sense, it can also be the flying towards something, the actively pursuing a goal. And fittingly, it’s sometimes about the kind of flight that leaves characters soaring, succeeding and winning for the side of goodness by virtue of fulfilling themselves as individuals and fully realizing their destiny. This is a franchise, quite literally named because its wars are fought not just in the hearts of men and aliens but out in the skies and amongst the stars. It comes as a masterful stroke of irony that in a story like this, so many of the greatest heroes not only come from earthly, humble beginnings, but they fight not with a futuristic laser blaster or that badass new Stormtrooper vibroblade thing, but with a sword literally made of light.
In “The Hero With a Thousand Faces”, Joseph Campbell talks about the format for an epic, the universal plot structure that governs everything from the ancient Mesopotamian story of “Gilgamesh” to “The Matrix”, and yes, Star Wars. In it, he breaks down the steps that heroes must go through on their journey. In every one, the hero is seen running away from something, refusing the call to their epic journey. We see this at Maz Kanata’s castle, where Finn tries to run away to the outer rim with a pair of smugglers out of fear of what the First Order might do. Similarly, this is when following a confusing vision of the past and future, Rey literally flees into the woods, despite the raspy voice saying “These are your first steps”. Much like in “The Matrix”, however, it’s the refusal of the call that leads the hero directly into a situation that compels them towards heroism.
Rey is capable of great things, and this is something we realize before she even speaks a line of dialogue. She’s talented, brilliant, capable; we see this with her scavenging. It is ironically her stagnancy that represents her flight from the truth, a truth Maz is wise enough to point out to her: Rey’s family is never returning. By lying to herself, Rey is only holding herself back. Of all the characters, her start is the most humble, yet she has the highest peaks to soar.
When she sees the overwhelming vision after touching the lightsaber, Rey might quickly flee, but it’s the same empathy that prevented her from selling BB-8 for food that makes her willing to sacrifice herself to ensure that the droid is safe. This forces her into a hopeless confrontation with Kylo Ren.
If flight is on one side of the cosmic battle in “The Force Awakens”, then empathy is on the other. In the story, we see a father and son who both run away from their own empathy, who refuse to admit the truth unless told otherwise. This has always been Han Solo’s glaring character flaw, one he has overcome time and time again, and sadly, it becomes a fatal flaw that his son inherits. Kylo Ren’s angst-fueled refusal of the Light will forever only exacerbate his inner turmoil. Vader earned control through years of carrying his loss around like a badge of honor. He truly believed himself too deep into the Dark Side and too regretful of his past sins that there was no hope for redemption. At this point in Kylo Ren’s story, he hasn’t fled all that far from the Light. Leia was right that there was still hope for him, and even though Kylo Ren forcibly killed his father as a means of achieving inner peace in his Darkness, I still find myself questioning how genuine this transformation is.
Ben Solo was no doubt always overburdened by expectation. He felt called to greatness by both his grandfather and uncle. In a series where lineage and legacy mean everything, Ben was a warrior born during peacetime with so much expected of him. Rather than obey his Master and uncle, he attempted to emulate his grandfather without ever stopping to become his own man, be it for the Light or Dark. Think about that ridiculous mask he wears, so obviously riffing on Vader’s mask. In both scenes in which he removes it, the helmet drops with a massive thud. Its weight is a symbol of his burden, a thick veneer of Darkness he wears over his true self. Vader’s mask, and his Darkness, were worn out of physiological necessity. For Kylo Ren, it’s purely theatrical, and even a point of amusement for Poe Dameron in one of the first scenes of the film.
In all this inner turmoil, Ben has been fleeing from his own innate empathy. The empathy he got from both parents, the fleeing from it he inherited from his father. And I think we should find it fitting that it wasn’t Kylo Ren that killed Han Solo, as a villain might slay a hero, but it really was Ben Solo killing his father in an attempt to rid himself of that call to the Light. We ought to be struck by the parallelisms at work when a dying Han Solo strokes the face of his son, anointing him with the Light, even, in much the same way that Finn’s wordless, nameless comrade smears more than just blood across his helmet in that opening battle.
As Han points out, after losing his son, he himself resorted to coping by going back to what he was always good at: running and smuggling. In every film Han Solo appears, he spends a majority of his screentime running not from commitments or responsibility, but from his own deep sense of empathy. He’s a man of goodness, whose hardened lifestyle has made him the sort of cynic who might think his son was as good as dead upon turning to the Dark side. It’s Leia as always, that can show him the Light.
We see Poe Dameron as perhaps the pinnacle of soaring empathy, whose unquestionable caring extends to his droid and a newfound friend in a turncoat stormtrooper (Finn), whose unflinching gallantry is Galahad-tier. It’s only fitting that of all the characters who soar, Poe rules the skies like no other (seriously nobody in the entire canon can match this guy when it comes to dogfighting). The scene in which he seemingly returns from the dead to defeat a dozen enemies in a matter of seconds with graceful ease is not only astounding on a personal level, but on a filmmaking level. Finn whoops and hollers for perhaps the last time, concluding a jubilant first half of the film just as things become more dire.
Finn, however, strikes us as perhaps the most interesting figure of empathy, who grapples with wanting to leave the First Order out of fear, initially. He tells Poe he is rescuing him because it’s “the right thing to do”; Poe half jokes that he just needed a pilot. Finn then later tells Rey that he refuses to kill for the First Order. He’s a man programmed to kill, trained to kill, who has no real qualms with the action of killing in itself. His morality has more to do with a sense of responsibility and agency. “I won’t kill for the First Order,” he says. For him, it’s kill or be killed. He doesn’t necessarily long for the “family he’ll never know” actively, but he does have an innate protective instinct that supersedes his need to belong.
He wants to survive but he also wants to be human. He was never given an opportunity to care and now that’s all he wants. That’s why, especially initially, he bumbles his way through encounters. He’s goofy, unintentionally hilarious, but whereas we aren’t all that impressed by Poe’s bravery in the face of danger — suave, perfect bastard he is — we should all laud Finns courage when he brandishes the blue lightsaber while standing over Rey’s unconscious body and growls at Kylo Ren “Come and get it.” It takes bravery to fight, but true courage to fight the battles you know that you are doomed to lose.
And think again about that moment Finn turned: Poe actually killed his comrade in arms. With his dying breath, the fellow stormtrooper reached out and smeared blood all over Finn’s visor. In that moment, this nameless, friendless, lonely man lost the closest thing he’d ever had to a friend. And in that moment, he realized the kind of fear and brutality he was programmed to inflict upon people. In that moment he made a choice to turn away from that and towards something else, but what exactly?
Finn might run from the First Order out of fear, but it is empathy that starts him on that path, and it is empathy and fear over losing Rey that leads him to join in the Resistance without hesitation after she is taken.
It’s curious in a way that Finn is a stormtrooper programmed to kill that only wants to protect, and Rey is a lonely scavenger who just wants to belong to something. They fit together like two star-crossed puzzle pieces. Though their chemistry is instantaneous, it’s characterized by a sense of childlike, innocent wonder; in their early scenes they act more like giddy, young siblings than they do romantic interests for one another. Finn and Poe’s bromance is more potent, as is the father-daughter dynamic between Han and Rey; and of course, Chewbacca’s chemistry with anything that moves is electric.
It’s in the subtle details of the character relationships that the film truly shines: when Finn first sees Rey, she’s being harassed by two nondescript, sandy thugs (the viewer and Finn don’t even see BB-8 under the bag). Finn rushes to protect her, but before he can even come close to helping, she’s taken care of them, freed BB-8, and goes running straight for Finn, who had presumably stolen Poe’s jacket.
Never is Rey’s character treated as a damsel in distress. Even when Finn leads a mission with Han and Chewie to rescue her, they quickly find that she doesn’t even need rescuing. Twice in their earliest scene, Finn takes Rey’s hand, and twice she tells him not to; she doesn’t need anyone’s protection, but just because someone doesn’t need projection, doesn’t mean they can’t use help. If there is a leader between the two of them, it is undoubtedly Rey, who quite literally winds up as the captain of the Millennium Falcon.
Should Finn and Rey actually wind up romantically entangled, I think the films need to earn it. This first film did a wonderful job at establishing the basis of their friendship, and I’m so glad that it was Rey’s instinct to hug him when she realized he came for her at Starkiller Base and to kiss him lightly on the forehead as he lay in the sick bay. There were chances to throw in a cheap kiss or some hogwash like that, but Abrams didn’t. For that I thank him; he had the good sense to realize that companionship is more important than becoming bf-gf, just like Guillermo del Toro did in “Pacific Rim”.
A sense of genuine authorship and agency is what rests at the heart of this conflict between flight and empathy, a conflict that can be more of a confluence in the right context. The flying, the soaring, away from that which corrupts and destroys, away, away, towards the Light of compassion and empathy and a sense of companionship are all what has made Star Wars have such a lasting impact in our culture. These are the sorts of universal themes that drive religions and the timeless stories we still hear.
Rey’s story is characterized by her passivity, a willingness to wait to do nothing other than subsist is interrupted by her innate sense of justice. It’s why she couldn’t just sell BB-8 for all that food, and it’s why even when she kept saying she had to get home, something was tugging her forward. For the entire duration of the film, every single action she does and every single choice she makes is in response to something else that is happening. She’s reactive, defensive, effective. It isn’t until that defining moment when she is able to turn the tide in the duel against Kylo Ren that she displays true agency, and soon thereafter the first real choice she makes is to find Luke Skywalker. “To finally do what?” is the question, and Episode VIII will no doubt be the answer…see you in 1.5 years Rey.