Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Franchise Awakens!

SPOILER ALERT! I will be discussing STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS in detail, so if you haven't seen it yet (however unlikely that seems), I would not read this article yet. For now I'm focusing on the opening sequence of the movie to explore what it could mean to the saga as a whole.

As the opening crawl informs us right off the bat, Luke Skywalker has vanished. In the ashes of the Empire, a new set of villains called the First Order has arisen. To fight the First Order, the Republic government supports a Resistance led by General Leia Organa. The First Order is searching for Luke in an effort to destroy the final remnants of the Jedi. Leia is also desperate to find Luke so they can restore order and justice to the galaxy. She sends her best pilot , Poe Dameron, to meet with an old ally, Lor San Tekka, on the planet Jakku. There Dameron is to retrieve the missing piece of a map that will lead them to Luke Skywalker.

Okay, so there’s a lot to process here already. Fans of the Expanded Universe that was developed in the nineties have to make peace with the fact that all those adventures following the original characters after RETURN OF THE JEDI are no longer officially considered canon. This effectively negates the Thrawn Trilogy written by Timothy Zahn, which established the framework for all the challenges the characters would face after the Emperor was defeated. With those stories declared non-canonical (until such time as the new canon chooses to embrace them), the overall story could go absolutely anywhere in this new trilogy. Nothing in the established premise so far contradicts the events established in the Expanded Universe, but the tone suggests a very different history than the timeline established in those stories.

For a while, photoshopping your favorite actor blue was the preferred method of suggesting that Thrawn should be in the new movie. 

Sorry, but it looks like this is not the direction the new saga will take... 

Points for creativity, but... Really? 

Whether you’re familiar with the Expanded Universe or coming into the film after having only seen the other films, the premise immediately raises a few questions and/or eyebrows. First, the basic concepts appear to mirror those explored in Episodes IV - VI, with a few Mad Libs-style semantic adjustments to the nomenclature. Instead of an Empire there is now the First Order. Instead of leading a Rebellion, Leia is now the leader of a Resistance. It feels very much like the original story is being re-worked with new names for everything. But is that the case?

One of the questions that comes immediately to mind is: Why is there a Resistance? That name suggests they’re still rebels and that the First Order has managed to get a strangle-hold on the galaxy just like the Empire did. But the crawl also tells us that the Republic has been re-established, presumably reasserting itself as a legitimate presence throughout the galaxy. If this is the case, why does Leia have to form a separate Resistance in order to defend the Republic against the First Order? Isn’t she already part of the Republic? Shouldn’t the Resistance simply be the military arm of the New Republic? Seems like the reason for this distinction will become an important part of the story later on.

The crawl also says that Luke is still the last of the Jedi, suggesting that he never rebuilt the Jedi Order as he did in the Expanded Universe. The galaxy that we enter as the story opens is one that thinks of the Jedi as little more than a folk tale. So what happened? Why is Luke missing and why did he never rebuild the Jedi Order? And why is there a map to find him, considering that he is a person and not a place? Some of these questions are addressed later in the movie, but none of them are adequately answered.

Leia is not identified as Leia Organa Solo, so we’re left to wonder if she is or ever has been married to Han Solo like she was in the Expanded Universe. No mention of Han is made at all. Poe Dameron is not named in the crawl; it simply says Leia is sending her best pilot, possibly intending for us to wrongly assume it’s referring to Han Solo.

As the opening crawl ends, the shot pans down to a scene of a massive Star Destroyer eclipsing the planet Jakku. Troop transports, silhouetted against the light of the planet, can be seen being dispatched from the destroyer. Inside we get our first look of the First Order stormtroopers (assuming we missed the endless merchandising and promotional tie-ins plastered to every flat surface in the real world).

Like everything else we see in the film, the stormtroopers are analogous to something established in the earlier films, superficially altered to distinguish it from its more familiar counterpart. Much like the Clone Troopers in the prequels, The First Order stormtroopers look just like regular stormtroopers with slightly different armor.

A cynical person might suggest that all these cosmetic variances were made just so they had new designs for the merchandising. 

I'm just sayin'... 

Jakku is also a throwback to something seen in the earlier films but now presented with a new name. It appears to be a desert planet just like Tatooine, but in this story it is a completely different desert planet that serves the same purpose. On the surface of Jakku, Lor San Tekka tells Poe Dameron that the Jedi must return to restore balance to the Force. He does not elaborate and does not explain what that means. He also says that giving the Resistance the missing piece of the map will begin to make things right. Again, he says this with no explanation and Poe does not ask him for one. Poe refers to Leia as General Organa and Lor San Tekka recalls that to him she is royalty.

At this point no one explains why there is a map that leads to Luke Skywalker and why everyone thinks finding him will be of any tactical value. There is also no explanation as to why Lor San Tekka has it. Like a lot of elements established in the story, there may be a very good explanation that will be revealed later on.

From a story perspective, San Tekka’s role is clear: He is there to deliver to Poe the MacGuffin that will drive the story. In this sense the how of it all becomes irrelevant, because his basic purpose is to get the story going.

Like the original trilogy, this movie appears to be drawing on motifs outlined by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. In a mythological sense, Lor San Tekka could be considered a herald. He has knowledge of the larger world in which the story takes place and he offers up the magical boon that will aid the hero in his journey. This is not completely the case, it seems, because San Tekka is aiding Poe, who is not the hero of the story. Lor San Tekka has no interaction with any of the characters who are on the hero’s journey we see in the film, so at this point his role as herald is somewhat diminished unless we later see Poe Dameron personally following the mythic hero’s path.

First Order stormtroopers attack the settlement and Poe has to flee, with the data module that contains the map. Unable to escape due to damage to his X-wing, Poe entrusts BB-8 with the data module and tells him to complete the mission by getting the information to the Resistance.

At this point we see another plot similarity to the original film. Poe is in the role Leia played in the first movie, getting the crucial plans to his droid and setting the story in motion before being captured. That’s why I say he is not on the hero’s path like the protagonists we will be introduced to later in the film. Like Leia in the first movie, Poe spends more time getting captured, tortured, and rescued than he does completing the various trials that Joseph Campbell attributed to the classic hero’s journey.

Lor San Tekka is captured by stormtroopers and confronted by Kylo Ren. We don’t know anything about Kylo Ren at this point, but he looks almost exactly like Darth Vader, with some notable exceptions. His face mask is rougher and doesn’t appear to have any technical function. His clothes are dark leather but he doesn’t appear to have any hardware incorporated into his outfit and he doesn’t have Darth Vader’s trademark assisted respiration. Cosmetically, he is designed to look like Darth Vader, but the similarity does not extend beneath the surface. Like a lot of what we see in the movie, this comes off at first as a failed effort to mimic the first movie but actually represents a significant deviation in the story.

Kylo Ren - Vader 2.0 or fanboy cosplayer? 

Kylo Ren comments on how old San Tekka has become. How does Kylo Ren know Lor San Tekka? How long has it been since he’s seen him? Lor San Tekka says the First Order was born from the Dark Side, but Kylo Ren was not. He knew him before he called himself Kylo Ren and he knew his family. But how does Lor San Tekka know Kylo Ren’s family? How much does he know about the rise of the First Order and its connection to the Dark Side? This is not revealed and it may never become necessary to do so.

Kylo Ren slashes Lor San Tekka with his lightsaber, apparently killing him. Why does Kylo Ren kill Lor San Tekka instead of taking him in for further investigation? He learns nothing from him even though San Tekka clearly knows more than he has said. This could be attributed to a lack of impulse control in Kylo Ren, which is further demonstrated throughout the film.

Stormtroopers capture Poe Dameron and destroy his X-wing. BB-8 escapes on Poe’s orders, hoping to meet back up with him later. This is the necessary handoff of story information that provides plot threading for the story. At least at this point, Poe has fulfilled his function and BB-8 will now lead the audience to other characters who will take up the story where Poe leaves off.

Among the stormtroopers there is one who is visibly shaken by the battle. After a comrade is killed, he freezes and appears overwhelmed by the carnage around him. Kylo Ren orders all the villagers killed, but as the others fire on the crowd this stormtrooper is unable to comply. As Kylo Ren returns to his shuttle he sees the trooper standing like a statue in the middle of the slaughter.

Here’s a little bit of trivia: The stormtrooper’s designation is FN-2187, which refers to the detention area where Princess Leia was being held aboard the Death Star in Episode IV.

Many fans found it conspicuous that FN-2187 was only identified as Finn prior to the film’s release, noting that he had no stated last name. This led to a lot of conjecture that Finn may be related to a known character in the STAR WARS universe. This immediately led to speculation that he must be the son of Lando Calrissian. And by the same logic, Mace Windu would also be his grandfather, if we’re all of a sudden assuming that there is only one black family in the STAR WARS universe.

The Lando rumor gained some traction early on, when an Amazon listing for a 1000 piece puzzle featuring Finn misidentified him as Lando Calrissian’s son. This was posted only by the seller and was not part of the official item description from the manufacturer, so it’s likely the seller had no real basis for saying this other than to bring attention to the item. Which, in their defense, it did.

One very logical argument offered up for Finn not being the intended son of Lando Calrissian (besides the idea being based on no other evidence than skin color) was the original casting of the character. Actor Jesse Plemons, probably best known as one of the villains from the final season of Breaking Bad, was originally considered for the role of Finn, but eventually lost out to John Boyega.

You say Lando's the one, but this kid is not his son. 

The name Finn could be a slight homage to the early Expanded Universe. In the original Marvel STAR WARS comic, the rebels met up with a former Mandalorian soldier named Fenn Shysa, who wore armor just like Boba Fett’s and had – according to that story – fought with Fett during the Clone Wars.

An even more interesting theory about Finn is that he could actually be Han’s son. In the new Marvel comic, which is accepted as part of Disney’s new canon, Han once had a wife named Sana Starros, who was black. This was a sham wedding and occurred before the events of Episode IV, so Finn is too young to have been the offspring of that relationship. That’s not to say Han couldn’t have re-connected with Sana at a later time, which could have contributed to his poor relationship with his son Ben and the fact that Han and Leia are no longer together. But we could assume anything happened outside of the story if we wanted to; that doesn’t make it true. The best theories are the ones that can be supported by what we actually see in the story.

Sana Starros Solo from Marvel's current STAR WARS comic. 

Because Lor San Tekka is portrayed by legendary actor Max Von Sydow, his character is of more significant interest that he otherwise would have been. Why cast Max Von Sydow in such a small role? Fans have speculated that Lor San Tekka is actually a reformed Boba Fett, seeking to make amends for the sins of his past. Nothing in the story supports this claim so far. It seems more likely to me that he was once an Imperial agent of some kind. It is later revealed that the map was recovered from Imperial archives and the portion that Lor San Tekka gave to Poe Dameron was erased from the records. Because of this, it seems more likely to me that he was once an Imperial agent of some kind, seeing as how he appears to have had access to retrieve and delete records from the Imperial archive. That’s all speculation, too, since it’s just an assumption that Lor San Tekka was the one who retrieved and deleted the data from the archives.

Max Von Sydow as Lor San Tekka, seen here playing herald to Oscar Isaac's Poe Dameron. 

In any event, the first few minutes if Episode VII give us a lot to think about as they establish a whole new epoch of the STAR WARS saga.

No comments:

Post a Comment