Editor's note: Spoiler alert!
If I told you that Star Wars: The Force Awakens
is the best Star Wars movie ever made, you wouldn’t want to believe me.
The original trilogy of films, the first two especially, have become so
sacrosanct in the memory of many, nothing could ever rival their
But the new Star Wars film from J.J. Abrams is a
beautiful achievement, and not just because it returns the saga to
perfectly paced, fast-moving fun, propelled by plenty of humor. In a
deeper way, it explores the mythology of Star Wars by asking us to
consider the meaning of our memories of the original films.
As Fr. Robert J. Spitzer argues in his new book, The Soul’s Upward Yearning: Clues to Our Transcendent Nature from Experience and Reason
(Ignatius Press, 2015), Star Wars is technically a myth. Myths, due to
the way they address the transcendent nature of human beings, are a
unique form of story-telling.
“Though a myth is fictional, it is
not fiction,” writes Spitzer. “The objective of myths is to express
ultimate truth and meaning … and reveal the source of truth and
meaningthat is, ultimate reality. Not only this, but myths must also reveal how and why ultimate reality connects with this worldand the people within it.”
As its title might suggest, The Force Awakens
lays claim to definitively showing us how the Force works. It does so
by taking the filmmakers’ biggest disadvantage the fact that Episode
VII comes after the hallowed originals and using this to its
Thanks to its conscious repetition of the immortal
story elements from the best Star Wars movies a close family member
has gone over to the Dark Side, and a planet-destroying technological
threat must be resisted by rebel underdogs we are invited to consider
more deeply how the Force actually works in the cycles of history.
every generation has to contend with an adjacent-generation family
member going over to the Dark Side, and if every generation has to
defeat an existential threat of Death Star-sized proportions, then
either nothing is new under the sun (on Jakku or Tatooine), or else the
Force is somehow perpetually able to awaken that which is new and
beautiful and good.
People may criticize this new movie on the
grounds that it has far too little that is new. The easiest critical
remark to make is that it recycles too many beloved plot elements from
the first two Star Wars movies. It is a blatantly overindulgent, hugely
expensive exercise in nostalgia, they may say, trying to relive what can
never be relived. Its repeated acts of homage to the originals
overwhelm whatever initially promising innovations it may offer. It is
finally crushed beneath the burden of everyone’s impossible
expectations. Or so they may say.
If so, then I believe they are missing the point. The Force Awakens
is not yet another example of Hollywood, in search of audience
attendance of repeated size, cynically recycling whatever worked last
time, while simultaneously grossly inflating it and thereby ruining it.
In perfect self-awareness, The Force Awakens subtly mocks this
Hollywood tendency by taking us at breakneck speed through the set-up
for the attack on Starkiller Base the new threat just like the Death
Star, but even bigger.
Han Solo absolutely nails it with his
perfect tone of subtle mockery when, in a hilariously flippant way, he
sums up the plans for the assault on Starkiller Base. This is a telling
indication that the filmmakers know full well what they are up to. The
perfectly pitched tone of the self-parody here is a wonderful hint that
the filmmakers are, yes, knowingly delivering what our nostalgic
expectations want, and yet are also inviting us to look beyond whatever
is apparently being repeated.
Unlike the prequels, with their cold reliance on too many special effects, The Force Awakens
returns to the real source of Star Wars’ popularity. The truly massive
appeal of stories like Star Wars, or Harry Potter, or The Lord of the
Rings, writes Father Spitzer in The Soul’s Upward Yearning, is due to the fact that they affirm what our own souls quietly tell us.
transcendent reality has imparted to our souls “numinous feelings,
religious intuitions, and the contents and feelings of conscience,” says
Father Spitzer. This is the real meaning of Obi-Wan’s exhortation to
the young Luke Skywalker: “Luke, trust your feelings.” And it is the
real source of Star Wars’ profound appeal.
J.J. Abrams has said that, in the making of The Force Awakens,
he was concerned above all with getting right what he wanted the
audience to feel. On this crucial task, I believe he has succeeded
because, beyond the cyclic repetitions of history in his Star Wars, he
has shown an understanding of how the Force works nonetheless behind the
scenes. There is a hidden drama going on inside Starkiller Base, the
new Death Star, as the new rebels make their assault on it.
By this transposition of a scene that resonates with the Empire Strikes Back
encounter of Luke with his father, placing it now inside Starkiller
Base and juxtaposing it with the requisite assault of the Resistance on
the new Death Star, Abrams is giving us a truly “inside” look into how
the Force works. In its own way, it is a deeper exposition of the
meaning of Obi-Wan’s crucial self-sacrifice in A New Hope.
are attractive and fascinating,” writes Father Spitzer, “because they
draw us into our numinous feelings and religious intuition; they tell us
about the truth of ourselvesthat we are called to be heroes (or
helpers of heroes) in a most noble mission: the defeat of cosmic evil
and the restoration of cosmic good. Myths tell us that our lives are not
purely mundane, but rather involved in matters of the highest
consequence: eternal consequences.”
What is the meaning of the
apparently cyclical battle between good and evil in history? And how is
good able to defeat evil, by bringing good out of evil?
The structural integrity of The Force Awakens
is how it answers these questions: not by telling us, but by showing
us. Its repetition of familiar Star Wars story elements is done in the
most intelligent way: that is, by asking us to revisit our memories, to
think again about how the Force really works.
One of the very best
lines of the film is when Han Solo cries out in exasperation over Finn
not understanding how the Force works. In fact, it is my favorite line.
Next to the title itself, I believe it is our best clue about the
filmmakers’ deepest intentions.
The disappearance of Luke
Skywalker (both in the trailers and in the movie itself, which makes his
absence into the very premise that propels its plot) explicitly calls
into question the meaning of his original story. Is he just a myth? And
are myths by definition nothing but gigantic lies?
The delicious irony of The Force Awakens
lies in its central lesson about the Force being taught by Han Solo,
whose youthful self once ridiculed “hokey religions and ancient
weapons.” But now, the aged smuggler, lovably unchanged in so many ways,
tells Rey and Finn about the Force and the Jedi with a perfect economy
of words: “It’s true. All of it.”
In this film, Han also shows us with a perfect economy of action how the Force truly works. In this regard, The Force Awakens contributes to the Star Wars saga in an integral way both that is both fitting and just.
idea that the Force maintains the balance between good and evil is more
fully explained here. If this balance were simply the affirmation of a
cyclical dualism of good and evil in which, at least from the standpoint
of the endless cycle of history, the two sides were morally equivalent,
then the Force would be an almost nonsensical idea. Why fight for the
good, if the Dark Side is nothing but the other side of the same cosmic
The delightful surprise of The Force Awakens is
that an ordinary Han teaches us more about the Force than any George
Lucas-trained Jedi did. Han shows us how, in every generation, the Force
can use us to awaken a new hero: namely, by the loving sacrifice of a
parent for their progeny.
It’s no accident that Kylo Ren’s
lightsabre is an inverted cross, just as his own name is a diabolical
inversion of his original name. The Dark Side thinks that power and
dominance is everything. Because the cross is a symbol for how the
apparent triumph of evil most notably, in the crucifixion can be
transformed into good through a new spiritual awakening, it is most
fitting that the cross finds its place right here, in the saga’s most
explicit exposition of how the resurrecting Force works.
even a nice bit of foreshadowing of the Dark Side’s apparent triumph on
Starkiller Base. A twice-expressed admiration for Chewie’s bowcaster
weapon, his cross-bow shaped blaster, hints at the crucifixion
to come. But even if he who lives by the blaster must die by the
blaster, the Force can still use the power of love to awaken the next
After yet another human sacrifice is cast into the
abyss of the Dark Side, the power of the cross is the real Force that
gloriously re-emerges. After his murderous betrayal, note how Kylo Ren’s
sinister stature is diminished, especially vocally. When he locks
lightsabres with Rey, the camera gives us lingering close-ups of the
cross pattern formed in the eyes of both Rey and Ren. The Force then
fully awakens in Rey.
Further, despite Ren’s desire to be her
teacher, the dream that he saw earlier in her mind is about to come
true. She will travel to that monastic island to meet the father-figure
mentor she has been longing for her entire life. At the end of her
journey, she will learn that the dreams of myth are not false but true.
attraction to and love of myths comes from within usor better, from
the presence of God within usinviting us into His noble mission, into
Himself, and into His destiny,” writes Father Spitzer in The Soul’s Upward Yearning.
deepest lesson of myth cannot be that good and evil are morally and
metaphysically equivalent. Rather, it is that the enhancement of good,
the bringing of good out of evil, in which the good grows and is
enhanced, and evil is thereby defeated and diminished, is the hidden way
by which the Force restores the balance of peace and justice in the
Beginners in the ways of the Force think that its ways
are in fact nothing more than mind tricks and telekinesis and dueling
lightsabers. But you can take a movie and stuff it full of all those
kinds of things and yet still fail to speak to our soul’s transcendent
Yet The Force Awakens is perhaps the greatest
Star Wars film ever made because, using all the Star Wars symbols so
familiar to us that they will be forever part of our memories, it
invites us to look at an unfamiliar truth hidden behind all the bluster
of Hollywood’s biggest box-office battles.
The way the Force really works is through the quietest sacrifices which are the ones that really shake the world.