We Need To Talk About Han
So, The Force Awakens sure happened.
It’s taken me three months and countless attempts to fully understand my thoughts on Episode VII, which I’ve tried to keep as objective and fair as possible. Damn straight if that wasn’t difficult to do though; this is Star Wars we’re talking about. It’s been emotional.
Welcome back to Green Card Back.
Remember the Battle of Endor?
At the end of a long civil war, the Rebel Alliance had emerged victorious against the evil Galactic Empire and restored freedom to the galaxy. The Emperor had been killed, the Sith destroyed. Darth Vader had been redeemed.
We only saw key fragments of that war as viewers, our focus instead on the personal journeys of our heroes – Luke Skywalker’s ascension from naïve farm boy to the last Jedi Knight; Leia Organa’s journey from rebellious princess to rounded war leader capable of love; Han Solo’s transformation from self-serving scoundrel to responsible leader. I love the films for this as much as the lightsaber fights and space combat, and it’s the aspect that made me the most excited for The Force Awakens. Where would these characters be 30 years later? How would their stories have progressed?
As you may have guessed, my excitement for the continuation of the Skywalker saga is precisely why I found The Force Awakens to be a resounding disappointment.
Now don’t get me wrong, I didn’t hate it. The merits of The Force Awakens are many, and they include the genuinely funny dialogue, the superb cast and incredible production design. In Kylo Ren the saga has an outstanding new villain, and as long as Rey’s sudden mastery of the Force is given adequate explanation then she will make a compelling main character.
My problem with The Force Awakens is that it calls itself a sequel. It assumes the title Episode VII and takes place in a time frame that would make it a natural successor to Return of the Jedi. Yet if we consider this to be a true sequel to Return of the Jedi, it is at the cost of the characters that we have known and loved for decades. It makes all that they fought for during the OT redundant, and when there were a wealth of different story options open to the writers, that’s a sacrifice that I’m not comfortable with.
The Coward Luke Skywalker
We’ll start at the end. As a young man, Luke Skywalker may have been stupid at times but you could never call him a coward. From when we very first meet him Luke ascribes to hating the Empire, and his own journey is the mechanic that ultimately brings Palpatine’s rule to an end.
The Force Awakens reveals that Luke went on to establish a new Jedi Academy, with pupils including his nephew Ben Solo. When Ben turned to the Dark Side and killed his fellow students, we’re told that Luke simply… hid?
This is Luke Skywalker. The boy who became a Jedi by battling a Galactic Empire to redeem his own father, who has now gone into hiding because his nephew has fallen in turn. This does not correlate to the Luke Skywalker that we knew before.
Whose Mission is it, Anyway?
General Organa, a leader of the Resistance, is more consistent with how we left her on Endor. It’s the situations that we find her in that make it hard to view this as Episode VII. Why is there a Resistance, exactly? What happened to the New Republic that the Rebellion fought so hard to achieve? Why, 30 years on from Endor, is the Resistance still flying only slightly modified X-Wings?
The Force Awakens explains none of this in an attempt to blindly recapture the sense of adventure of 1977. An admirable intention maybe, but not, unfortunately, how sequels work.
If the meta-textual elements were all that bothered me about Leia in The Force Awakens I could be more forgiving. However, she still acts like an idiot.
Her one mission, established in the opening crawl, is to find Luke. The last of the Jedi, the only hope against Empire 2.0 and her brother. It’s her main motivation in the film. So at the end, after Han has been skewered and the Death Star 3 destroyed… she allows Rey to track him down instead. Not Leia herself, nor Resistance hotshot and family friend Poe Dameron – Leia sends someone she’d never even met before.
This decision only compounds her earlier call to send just Han, Chewie, and Finn to disable the Starkiller Base shields, rather than, say, a crack team of Resistance Commandos. The direct in-canon point of comparison we have is the Endor mission in Return of the Jedi, where the size of the Rebel squad makes a lot more sense for the task at hand.
The Force Awakens portrays Leia as far from her level-headed self of the OT. No wonder Chewie ignores her at the end…
The Road to Immaturity
Of course, the most egregious wrong of The Force Awakens is the one that cannot be undone – the cold-blooded murder of Han Solo’s character arc.
I’ve written about my admiration for Han Solo’s character arc before. His isn’t a hero’s journey in the same Campbellian way as Luke Skywalker’s; it carries more nuance and less contrast. Luke’s sacrifices feel inevitable, unstoppable even, whilst with Solo, you never knew if he was going to duck out of the fight or not. It was his willingness to stay that made him a hero.
Han Solo had fought his battles. He had come out of the smuggling life in the boldest way possible as an established hero of the New Republic and a family man. There is no way he would turn his back on all of that to return to a criminal lifestyle just because his son took after the screw-up side of the family. I doubt his reputation by that point would even allow for it. He was long past that life by the Battle of Endor, and his portrayal in The Force Awakens is nothing short of character vandalism.
And yes, it is still the best performance that Harrison Ford has played in years.
Rian Johnson and Colin Trevorrow can fix some of these problems. Episode VIII may allow Luke to reveal why he has been in hiding, and why he, a Jedi Master, was unable to confront Ben and Snoke. The explanation does not need to be complicated as long as it is satisfactory.
The issues with Leia are almost as easy to resolve – establish that she knew (or at least knew of) Rey from before the events of Episode VII which is why she allowed her to go to Luke instead. And then take a minute out of the plot to at least explain what the heck a ‘First Order’ is as well because The Force Awakens sure didn’t care to reveal that crucial detail.
There’s still hope that Luke Skywalker and Leia Organa can make it out of the Sequel Trilogy with their characters intact.
Poor Han Solo never stood a chance.