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 definitive status.
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 meaning—that is, ultimate reality. Not only this, but myths must also reveal how and why ultimate reality connects with this world—and 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 advantage.
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.
If 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.
A 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.
“Myths 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 ourselves—that 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.
The 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 coin?
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.
There’s 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 generation.
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.
“Our attraction to and love of myths comes from within us—or better, from the presence of God within us—inviting us into His noble mission, into Himself, and into His destiny,” writes Father Spitzer in The Soul’s Upward Yearning.
The 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 universe.
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 nature.
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.