Friday, January 8, 2016

The Franchise Awakens: The Goddess and the Temple

As Episode VII continues, we begin to see more and more that Kylo Ren is no Darth Vader. Vader lashed out at subordinates and prisoners alike, but he did it with an ease that illustrated just how powerful he was. He may have been consumed by hate, but he didn’t appear to be controlled by his anger.

Kylo Ren’s anger finds interesting moments to manifest, and I think we can learn a lot about his character from those moments. When he is informed of Poe Dameron’s escape with a traitor, he automatically assumes the turncoat trooper is FN-2187 and doesn’t seem particularly bothered by it. His goal is the recovery of the map, so Poe’s escape doesn’t actually matter to Kylo because he already got the information he wanted from him.

On the other hand, when Kylo is told about BB-8’s escape with the same traitor trooper, he is not quite so composed. He slashes his lightsaber wildly at whatever hopefully replaceable control panel is in front of him, only stopping long enough to ask for more information. When he is then informed that the droid and the trooper were also accompanied by a girl, he becomes murderously furious for what seems like no reason.

Kylo Ren is completely controlled by his anger. He lashes out at everything like a disillusioned teen, defying orders and throwing tantrums when he doesn’t get his way. He is desperate to be feared and respected just as Darth Vader was, but it’s clear that this is not likely to happen.

"You could have it all... my Empire of dirt..."

Kylo reports his failure to recover the droid and the location of Luke Skywalker to Supreme Leader Snoke, the Emperor analog of Episode VII. Snoke appears before his subordinates as a giant hologram which looks like kind of a cheesy CGI effect. There’s a lot of speculation about who Snoke is and why he’s represented by such a weak light show when most of the other FX in the film are practical rather than CG. Maybe this masks a less than intimidating person, in a Wizard of Oz sort of turn. The real Snoke may just be a tiny little man trying to control the galaxy from the relative safety of an as yet undisclosed secret location.

Snoke decides they need a change in strategy. General Hux suggests using their new supreme weapon while Kylo Ren insists he can uncover Skywalker’s location. Snoke warns Kylo Ren that Rey and Finn are with Han Solo, his father. Kylo Ren swears that Solo means nothing to him, but Snoke is concerned that he has not yet had to face a test of this kind.

Snoke calls Kylo the Master of the Knights of Ren, a title that is not explained in the movie. It seems to be a throwback to Darth Vader’s title of Lord of the Sith in STAR WARS, but it seems like more than that. I’ll come back around to them later, because there are some pretty interesting possibilities as to who they could be.

Snoke hints at being older than the Jedi and the Sith, or at least predating the current paradigm of Jedi vs. Sith. Some fan speculation is that Snoke is actually the spirit of legendary Sith Lord Darth Plagueis, who was able to create life merely by manipulating the Living Force. It is also possible that Darth Plagueis was responsible for the spontaneous creation of Anakin Skywalker, who was, according the Episode I, conceived without a father.

"Obi-Wan never told you the truth... No one is your father."

There is another possibility that is similar to that theory. The back story in which Luke attempted to train a new Jedi Order but failed when a powerful apprentice turned against him and ruined it all was also explored in the Expanded Universe of the 1990’s. In that story the specter of an ancient Sith Lord, Exar Kun, poisoned Luke’s students and attempted to seduce them to the Dark Side. The most powerful of these was corrupted and became obsessed enough with Darth Vader that he went to Endor and stole Vader’s helmet from his grave.

Kylo Ren has better reason to be obsessed with Darth Vader, once it’s revealed that he is the son of Han Solo and Princess Leia. He is haunted by the idea of his grandfather and what he tried to accomplish, and Snoke uses his anger against his father (the reason for which is not stated in the film) to corrupt him into attempting to take Vader’s place.

I think that Snoke seduced Kylo Ren by posing as the Force Spirit of Anakin Skywalker. We know that Kylo wants to be like Vader and that he looks to his Grandfather’s spirit for guidance. Kylo later appeals to the spirit of his grandfather to help him resist the call to the light so that he can finish what Vader began. He does this by talking to what’s left of Vader’s helmet, which he apparently stole from Vader’s grave on Endor. Maybe he’s just symbolically appealing to his Grandfather’s spirit, but how that conversation is playing out in Kylo’s mind is between him and the voices in his head.

It’s Snoke’s appearance that seems curious to me. Most importantly, Snoke’s scars. He has one scar on the top of his bald scalp, cutting across the left side. Also on the left side of his face, his cheek appears to have been burned. This very specific combination of wounds can also be found on the face of Anakin Skywalker in Episode VI. When Vader is unmasked at the end of the film, he is revealed to be bald with a scar across the top left side of his scalp and burns on his left cheek. Cosmetically, Snoke’s avatar is a stylized version of the unmasked Vader. Just a thought.

Meanwhile, Han takes Finn and Rey to the lush green world of Takodana to see his old friend Maz Kanata. At this point it’s strange that they kind of all at least implicitly agreed to take BB-8 to the “secret” Resistance Base, but instead Han makes a detour to get a clean ship that can’t be tracked by the First Order. This might not be as conspicuous if Han had ever done this in any of the myriad prior situations where the Empire was chasing the Millennium Falcon, not the least of which was the time he knowingly led the Death Star to the Rebel Base on Yavin 4. Han is wiser and not quite as attached to the Falcon these days, so maybe he’s just playing things smarter, but it feels more like he has a different agenda in mind. Of course, the obvious reason Han is taking them there is because he's planning to ditch them with Maz Kanata. Ostensibly Han has no interest in connecting with the Resistance or re-connecting with Leia.

On their approach to the surface of Takodana, Rey says she’s never seen so much green before. Han looks guilty to hear her say this. Maybe he’s just sympathetic because he’s come to like the girl, or maybe there is a deeper sentiment that drives him to look almost regretful at hearing how limited Rey’s life on Jakku was.

There are a couple of times here that Han balks at his own identity. When Rey remarks that he is definitely Han Solo. Han answers that he used to be. Probably because he doesn’t feel he’s the same man anymore. More suspiciously, at one point Finn calls him Solo and Han balks at that. It doesn’t come to anything and doesn’t seem to mean anything, but Han doesn’t like being recognized. Maybe because reminders of his past are just too painful.

Some wounds run too deep.

After Rey leaves the ship, Finn tells Han he’s a big deal in the Resistance and can’t risk being discovered. Han warns Finn that women always discover the truth. What exactly does this line mean? Ostensibly, Han is telling Finn that he knows Finn is lying, and Rey will find out too. But it also suggests that Han has tried to deceive a woman in the past and gotten caught doing it.

This next sequence is Episode VII’s cantina scene. Before entering Maz Kanata’s castle, Han tells them not to stare at anything. This is necessary because Rey is a backwater bumpkin and Finn’s experiences in the First Order were apparently so racially exclusive that he’s never even heard of Wookiees.

Mythologically, Maz’s castle is a threshold in the same sense Mos Eisley was in Episode IV. It represents a much larger world than Rey and Finn are familiar with. Rey has been stranded on a desert planet with limited interactions with galactic society and Finn was raised by the First Order and taught only what he needed to know to be an efficient stormtrooper. Finding BB-8 and each other was their first glimpse at something greater. Now that they have met Han he is once again fulfilling the role fulfilled by Obi-Wan Kenobi in Episode IV. First he explains the scope of the larger world surrounding them, then he takes them to a place that perfectly illustrates the diversity represented in the worlds that lie beyond their own. Leaving Jakku was the crossing of an initial threshold, as was their escape from the belly of the whale in Han’s freighter, but their experience on Takodana will be their first real connection to the more spiritual quality of their adventure.

It’s interesting to note here that Episode VII is on the surface a beat by beat retread of the plot of Episode IV, but beyond the surface it’s actually a lot more ambitious. The overall plot structure is not just reminiscent of the first film, but it also mirrors the basic plot of the entire first trilogy.

Once Rey and Finn leave Jakku, their capture by Han Solo serves the same narrative purpose as the heroes’ capture by the Death Star in the first film. The belly of the whale sequence prepared the heroes for the risks and struggles to come. After that many of the sequences are aesthetic analogues to scenes from the first movie, but thematically represent events that occurred in Episodes V and VI.

While Maz Kanata’s castle aesthetically calls back the Mos Eisley cantina, and helps introduce the characters to a world that is much larger than what they’ve previously known, their trip to Takodana is, in terms of plot, more comparable to the flight to Yavin 4 at the end of STAR WARS. Takodana even looks like Yavin 4, just like Maz’s castle resembles the Massassi temple which harbored the rebels at the end of Episode IV.

The planet Takodana, where Maz's castle is located, has the same basic topography as Yavin 4.

In this sense Maz’s castle is symbolic of the same mythological device as the Massassi Temple. It is a representation of the World Womb. Mythologically speaking, the belly of the whale challenge has two distinct aspects: On the one hand it is about danger – such as when Rey and Finn had to escape pirates and rathtars on Han’s freighter – but on the other, it is about transcendence. The World Womb is like the belly of the whale, but you’re not just fighting for survival. You’re also fighting to prove your worthiness.

In Episode IV the adventure that led them from the Death Star to the temple on Yavin 4 was a belly of the whale trial for Luke and Han. In the Death Star, the situation forced them to act for their own benefit while the situation on Yavin 4 gave them a choice. Luke agreed to stay and fight for what he believed while Han initially chose to leave and continue looking after only his own wellbeing.

The experiences that lead Finn and Rey from Han’s freighter to Maz Kanata represent the exact same trial for Finn and Rey. While aboard Han’s ship, they are both in danger and there is no choice given them as to whether or not they should take action. By the time they reach Maz Kanata, they are given the freedom to choose. Rey remains to see the adventure through while Finn initially chooses to run. This is the exact same choice presented to Luke and Han in the temple on Yavin 4.

At the same time, running from the First Order with Han is also a throwback to their pursuit by the Empire in Episode V. So Takodana doesn’t just represent the temple they encountered on Yavin 4, it also echoes the story arc that Luke played out while training on Dagobah.

Of course, there is no substitute for Yoda or Dagobah.

Like a lot of heralds and sage-like divine messengers in myth, Maz appears to be much humbler than her actual station and character would imply. When they enter the castle they walk in on a bar where Maz is serving drinks. At this point we are given no indication that she is anything more than a bartender, but this is quickly demonstrated to not be the case.

Again we see that BB-8 is the only droid like BB-8 in the universe. Within seconds of their arrival, representatives of the First Order and the Resistance report back to their contacts that they have found the droid everyone is looking for.

Maz and all the denizens of her bar know Han Solo, which we learn the second he walks through the door. She calls Han’s name and the whole place comes to a stop like a saloon in an old Western when a stranger comes around. For future reference, Maz’s place may be a terrible hideout if you’re on the run and trying to keep it on the down low.

Maz and Han come off as old friends. She speaks fondly of Chewbacca, referring to him as her boyfriend. We get a sense that there’s a lot of history there.

Maz looks and acts a little bit like Yoda, not revealing the extent of her knowledge and sizing the newcomers up during their encounter. She laughs that Han has been out of the “mess” for a while and is finally getting pulled back in.

Seeing the conflict in Finn, Maz gives him the requisite moral choice: She tells him about two pilots that will take him to the outer rim in return for work. Just as Han did when faced with the seemingly impossible prospect of fighting the Death Star at the end of Episode IV, Finn chooses to run. He goes to talk to the pilots and Rey follows after him. At this point Rey is not committed to abandoning Jakku, but she is for the moment committed to helping BB-8.

We still don’t know what Han really knows about Rey. Maz asks who she is as though she expects Han to know, but the scene cuts away before Han can answer.

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