Star Wars: The Force Awakens
The hinge on which the Hero’s Journey turns is the Crossing the Threshold. The moment the hero makes the choice to answer the call to adventure. This is dramatically compelling. A character, having already refused this call due to fear or some other impediment, actively chooses to engage danger and adventure. This choice is often muddled with the notion of destiny. How can our hero refuse the call if it is their destiny to embark on this adventure? This is has become a narrative shortcut for the current tentpole blockbuster.
Then it is remarkable that Star Wars: The Force Awakens isn’t about pre-determined events. It isn’t about the Force willing its dualistic balance through its avatars. SW:TFA is about people who want nothing to do with a cosmic and ancient struggle but choose to get involved nevertheless. Why? Because it’s the right thing to do. Or they just need a pilot.
This manifests through tremendous characters struggling with the will of others imposed upon them.
It’s about Rey, a young woman who was told she was nothing, that she must patiently and silently wait for a family that will never come. She has been convinced that she will not be whole until that illusory moment comes. It’s about how she decides that no one is in charge of her fate but herself.
It’s about Finn, a boy who was ordered to slaughter innocents and how he rebels against that programming by being kind and helpful. How he discovers the depths of his heroism through that empathy.
It’s about Kylo Ren, a tortured young man convinced that he must eschew these qualities in order to fully realize his power. He believes that his strength is muted by empathy. Despite his doubts the imposed will is so strong he embraces the darkness.
Outside of these newcomers Han Solo has is running from his true heroic nature by returning to his smuggler lifestyle. Meanwhile after a tragedy Luke Skywalker has vanished and turned away from his responsibilities as a Jedi leader
This theme permeates the film.
Indirectly this is rebellion against the notion of destiny. Destiny is being told who you are, and what you will do, and the inevitability of it all. Our heroes oppose this. The central villain struggles to accept this. The conflict hinges on how they suppress, eschew, or accept who they’ve been told they are.
SW:TFA director JJ Abrams surely was subject to the will of Disney overlords. Is this a metaphor for his experience? Perhaps. Or more likely it is a very fundamental experience. What could be more universal than the struggle between who you believe you are and who someone has told you to be?
This is why SW:TFA works, alongside its skillful application of weaponized nostalgia. The characters are immediately lovable and their core conflict is personal as well as universal. It is a film where the interpersonal drama and character work triumph over the noticeable flaws.
We could talk about the silly plot, how it relies on coincidence more than it should. How JJ’s penchant and skill with shorthand characterization is double edged (we feel characters and their arcs despite all the pieces not quite being in place). Or maybe we should discuss the blistering pace, which never lets the exceptional photography and performances the time to breathe. I’d talk your ear off about how the assault on Starkiller Base is at best a perfunctory and at worst a distraction from the film’s true climax.
The biggest weakness of SW:TFA is that it knows what you expect and it operates with that knowledge. Of course Rey is a Jedi-to-be. Of course she will be the one clutching Luke’s saber in the finale. The film takes narrative shortcuts to get us to those moments, because they are the important ones. So we lose connective tissue and the plot muddles as a consequence. The film’s greatest strength is that these moments that we expect are not only imbued with the aura and magic of cinema, but they are borne out of that core and personal conflict. These moments are focus on the humanity of the players of this galactic struggle Without that humanity, without the personal drama, these moments would be nothing but callbacks constructed of cheap nostalgia.
There is no greater moment in populist cinema of 2015 than Rey igniting that familiar and elegant weapon to the fanfare of John Williams. For the devoted that image is transcendent. Within the context of the film, it is Rey’s triumphant evolution. I felt something click open somewhere in the vicinity of my heart and I fell apart into a puddle of joy.