The Force: the source of all power in the universe, the thing that both the Jedi and Sith claim to serve, and presumably the energy that put Rey and Finn where they needed to be at just the right time to kick start the whole shebang.
Basically, it's the best deus ex machina in the galaxy (far, far away).
In symbolic terms, the Force is a quasi-religious concept, standing in for God, the cosmos, and whatever energy put the universe in motion. George Lucas conceived of it as a theological idea: a way to talk about God and the mysteries of creation without getting bogged down in any particular religion. Why not make God a little more tangible and use it to discuss big issues like how hard it can be to do the right thing?
Critics dismissed the idea as pop religion, and they're not entirely wrong. But that also misses the point a little bit. The point is that while the Force gives Jedi cool powers and arranges for convenient meetings that change the galaxy for the better, we don't really know any more about it than we do about God.
It's a great, big mystery, and accordingly, when characters try to follow the Force's guidelines, they can sometimes be led astray, misinterpret what it's telling them, or just generally mess things up good and proper the way we do in our own lives.
And that leads to another key point. Whether you call this power God, fate, destiny, or something else, when it taps you on the shoulder, you need to be ready to go. It's the same with the Force. It wants Rey to get into the game, even offering her Luke's lightsaber to give her a hand.
But she's not keen on it, in part because she's struggling with what it's saying to her and is more than a little afraid of the answer. Turns out it's for the best, though. The Force really does know what it's doing…even if the characters don't.
And that's a comforting thought no matter what label you choose to slap on it.
The first "character" we see from the old movies isn't a person, droid, or even a Wookiee.
It's the Millennium Falcon, rusting in the Jakku sun and ready to rock and roll when the heroes need a fast getaway. We're betting the crowd you first saw the movie with gave out a big cheer when it popped up on screen—and it's not hard to see why.
Star Wars is a universe constantly on the move. New planets, new crises, new giant ships the size of Manhattan running your rebel butt down. Nothing is permanent, and nothing stays the way it is for long...except the Falcon. Its interiors haven't changed, from those smuggler's compartments in the floor to that funky stop-motion chess game we're praying someone's actually developed rules for.
With the heroes constantly on the run, it becomes home for them: the place where they can feel safe and secure, one able to make the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs—you know, should that be needed.
In a universe full of chaos, it represents permanence...and we're betting the new Star Wars superfans will come to love it just as much as the old ones do.
"Wait," we hear you say. "You put Luke here instead of in the character section? You've been smelling too much printer ink, Shmoop people." Yes, it's true: Luke is a character, not a symbol.
But considering that the whole film leads up to his big reveal at the end, and considering that he literally has no dialogue in the entire movie, it's going to be pretty hard to eke out a character description without diving into the earlier movies. (And if you need to do that, we've got you covered.)
Wherever they're going with him in this new trilogy, you need to look to Episode VIII to see it.
For now, Luke is what we like to call a MacGuffin: a plot device designed to move the characters through the story. The joke is that it doesn't really matter what a MacGuffin is; the only thing that matters is that the characters want it. Examples include the briefcase in Pulp Fiction, the black bird in The Maltese Falcon, the jewels in your average heist film, the secret plans in a spy caper, and basically every darn thing Indiana Jones ever went after.
(We'll leave it to Alfred Hitchcock, who seriously loved him some MacGuffins, to describe it best.)
And yes, people can be MacGuffins, too. In this case, Luke is fantastically important to the future of the galaxy. The First Order is on the march, they've killed all the Jedi but him, and if they can settle his hash, then they're sitting pretty. Luke, still reeling from losing his nephew to the dark side—and, oh yeah, watching said nephew butcher all of his other apprentices—goes into hiding to contemplate where it all went wrong and keep himself safe until…
Until what exactly?
Again, that's a question for later films, though we're guessing he figures the Force will provide. What's important is that the good guys want to find him just as much as the bad guys do, which prompts a massive hunt for BB-8 (who has the missing map piece showing where he is).
And yet, at the same time, Luke is more than just a means of moving the story forward. As we talk about in the "What's Up With the Ending" section, it's possible to pack a whole lot of character into one little scene. All Luke has to do is turn around and show us that haggard, grief-stricken face to let us know that he's felt every agonizing thing he's seen.
MacGuffin he may be, but prick this one and he most definitely bleeds.
In some ways, the entire Star Wars saga is bound up in this lightsaber. Anakin gets it sometime between Episodes I and II, Obi-Wan claims it as swag after turning Anakin into a red-eyed charcoal briquette in Episode III, he gives it to Luke in Episode IV, Luke loses it in Episode V, and somewhere between then and now, it falls into the spindly hands of Maz.
The screenwriters cleverly deflect how, exactly, at the start of the attack on Maz's place:
HAN: Where'd you get that?
MAZ: A good question for another time.
Way to Jedi hand wave that one away, guys.
In any case, the lightsaber has seen a lot of miles. And clearly, it plays a big role here since it's calling to Rey, used by Finn and Rey, and coveted by Kylo Ren. When your three main characters have the hots for a specific object, you'd bet it's going to be important.
In this case, it's a question of the saber's legacy. It was previous owned by the two biggest heroes in the saga, and arguably the two most powerful Jedi who ever lived. And it's calling to Rey, specifically, which suggests that she's going to be just as important as they were. Kylo Ren wants it, too, but it will never be his…quite literally, since it actually flies straight past his outstretched hand in the final fight.
That's a significant snub, and getting snubbed by the Force is kind of a big deal. In that sense, the lightsaber is reinforcing both Rey's and Ren's characters. Ren is the prima donna, the weaselly middle manager who suspects he isn't quite up for the job. We imagine that losing the lightsaber popularity contest to Rey isn't going to help him much on that front.
As for Rey, she's always been the outcast, the lonely one, the one who never got any attention. She doesn't think she's very special…but she is, and the lightsaber actively goes out of its way to tell her that.
And the name is key. This is Anakin's lightsaber…not Vader's. Vader's is red and menacing and no doubt fed by the blood of small children. Anakin was a much different person, and his lightsaber reflects that. It's a symbol of the better man Anakin used to be and, while yes, he did actually butcher a whole school full of kids with it, he also lost it a short time later, suggesting that the lightsaber (or at least the Force) was not down with being used like that.
We're pretty sure Kylo Ren doesn't understand that. He wants the saber because he thinks it's another connection to Darth Vader and will help purge him of those pesky ethics the Jedi keep going on about. Frankly, he's not paying attention.
Vader eventually returned to the light, after all, and while Ren keeps looking to him to provide "clarity" toward the dark side, he misses the fact that even Vader lost that clarity in the end.
That's why the lightsaber finds its way to Rey instead of him, and why Rey eventually returns it to Luke. Luke lost it in part because he needed to be his own man, but Star Wars knows better than anyone that you can't outrun the past. You can atone for any mistake, as long as you remember who you are.
Both Rey and Luke seem to need reminding of that…and Anakin's lightsaber is the perfect way to do it.
Kylo Ren keeps the charred skull of Darth Vader in his quarters, along with (so we're assured by the internet) the ashes of his victims.
Yeah, not creepy at all. Everyone keeps the skull of their genocidal grandpa on the dining room table. You, know for puppet shows and stuff.
Ren uses it as his Linus Security Blanket to renew his commitment to the dark side every time he starts questioning the program:
REN: Forgive me. I feel it again. The pull to the light. Supreme Leader senses it. Show me again the power of the darkness, and I will let nothing stand in our way. Show me, Grandfather, and I will finish what you started.
The obvious allusion is to Yorick's skull, the most famous stage prop in the whole wide world, which Hamlet uses to meditate on life and death.
Ren is taking the same concept and applying it to the Force: using the skull to see the power of the dark side and remind him why he wears a mask and Force-chokes anyone who doesn't bring him his morning Danish promptly at 9 a.m. (And that Danish better be warm, too. Warm and gooey.)
It's also a reminder of his family's legacy, and the fact that it entails a fair amount of the dark side as well as the light. Anakin fell to his own anger and need for control. Luke passed the test that Anakin failed.
Now there's Ben, who's clearly still fighting the same battle that they did and is trying to convince himself that Team Evil really is the way to go. That battle is in his blood, and the skull serves as a constant reminder of what the stakes are…for him and for the whole galaxy.
Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.
About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)
When it comes to pop culture, you just can't get any Hero's Journey-er than Star Wars. The interesting thing about this one is—having already seen Anakin and Luke take that journey—we now see them shifting to the role of mentors: moving the journey to a new generation and placing the hero in a new role.
In any case, the "ordinary world" in Star Wars seems to involve a giant quasi-fascist government hell-bent on spoiling the party for everyone and a plucky band of rebels stepping up to stick it to the Intergalactic Man.
All we need are a couple of anonymous souls who have no idea what they're capable of…
For both Rey and Finn, the call to adventure arrives in the form of a new friend (or in Rey's case, two). Finn decides he's had enough of the First Order and springs Poe Dameron to help him steal a TIE fighter. Rey ends up with BB-8 at first, followed quickly by Finn.
In both cases, it's a sign that they need to put on their boogie shoes and split. The galaxy ain't gonna save itself, guys.
Refusal of the call is bad news. Just ask Luke's Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru …or rather, their smoldering husks.
Both Finn and Rey refuse the call at about the same time: in Maz's place. Finn wants to keep running from the First Order and hooks up with the local riffraff to do it. Rey rejects the gift of Luke's lightsaber and insists that she has to go back to the junk heap on Jakku to wait for her family.
You know what happens next? The First Order kicks down the door and starts killing everyone. Way to go, guys.
Mentors…wow, we've got a lot to choose from here, and they don't always arrive in perfect Hero's Journey order. For a while, Rey and Finn are kind of on their own, making it up as they go and unable to turn to anyone for help.
The first one to arrive is Han, and like a lot of mentors, he's a little rough around the edges. Maz certainly has her share of life lessons to deliver, but our heroes don't seem hugely open to her vibe. (Besides which, she doesn't show up until the second half.) Even Kylo Ren offers to act as a mentor to Rey, though she's definitely not buying what he's selling.
They all pop in at wildly different points of the movie, and all of them after our heroes have decided that this adventure ain't gonna get going without them.
In fact, if we're being completely honest, the true arrival of the mentor comes with Luke…whom Rey spends the whole movie looking for and who literally doesn't show up until the last two minutes of the flick.
As part of a great trilogy—one story told over three films—it makes more sense. But if we're looking at The Force Awakens as a stand-alone Hero's Journey…yeah, it gets all kinds of confused.
In some ways, the threshold gets crossed as soon as our gang blasts out of Jakku on their way to the stars. That, of course, predates their appointment at Maz's place, where both Rey and Finn refuse the call and pay the piper.
You might argue that that's the spiritual spot for crossing the threshold, though from a chronological perspective, you have to start with Jakku.
Enemies are pretty obvious to spot in the Star Wars universe: they wear black masks or white armor and say things like "no one can stop the First Order!" Sometimes, they're big and slimy, like those Rathtars that Han is carrying.
But speaking of Han, our gang doesn't have to face these challenges alone, not when there's a devil-may-care smuggler with a crooked grin and an awesome co-pilot around. They join BB-8 and Poe, who were already well-entrenched as sidekicks, to get them through the various challenges the Force loves throwing their way.
Whatever stumbles the previous steps in the Hero's Journey took—refusing the call after crossing the threshold, for example—it's not hard to see where the inmost cave lies: on Starkiller Base, as the First Order prepares to wipe out the Resistance in one genocidal push of the button.
That's where Rey has to face the terrors of the dark side, Finn faces Captain Phasma for the first time since leaving, and oh, yeah, Han calls out Kylo Ren for the worst father-son chat of all time. That sounds like pretty potent inmost cave stuff to us.
Some ordeals go better than others. Case in point: Han getting offed by Kylo Ren.
But strictly speaking, Han isn't the protagonist in this story; Rey and Finn are. His death serves to remind them just how scary Ren can be…which makes it doubly disturbing since they now have to throw down with him in the forests on Starkiller Base.
Finn is awesome, but he's not the Special on this one. That role lies with Rey…who seizes the sword quite literally when Luke's lightsaber goes flying past Ren and into her hands.
Time to show that whiny little emo twerp whom he's messing with.
The road back, in this case, is actually the road forward. We know, it's confusing, so let us explain. Having awakened the potential of her own power, Rey has finally accepted that she's not doing anyone any good while hanging around on Jakku.
That sends her further forward down the road—the road everyone in this movie was trying to find—leading straight to that island where a certain one-handed Jedi waits.
We have a couple of resurrections, mostly symbolic in nature.
Rey returns from the symbolic death of her capture at the hands of Ren. Finn gets knocked unconscious, but we're informed he will be all right (and which ends with a nice platonic reversal of the classic Sleeping Beauty image as Rey gives him a kiss on the forehead).
And there's Luke, who has been living in exile since the whole snafu with Rey, but who—in a giant symbolic lowering of the hood—looks like he's ready to get back into the game.
The formal elixir is the map to Luke, which we finally put together to lead us to that awesome closing scene.
But in truth, it's not the map so much as it is Luke himself. Leia (as the opening credits remind us) is hoping to "gain his help in restoring peace and justice to the galaxy." That makes Luke what everyone is waiting for, and while we need to wait for Episode VIII to see it, we're betting that he's going to change the game in a big way.
Well, it's set a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. We're pretty sure everyone's figured that out by now.
Beyond that, though, things get a bit more complicated. One of the rules with the Star Wars universe is that every planet is basically a single environment, providing convenient "themes" for us to follow the action. We start on Jakku, a desert planet…where either a major battle was fought or someone dumped all the garbage afterward.
We then move to Takodana, where Maz hosts her Zen-and-the-Art-of-Bartending rumpus room. It's green and moist and has a lot of lakes. The Resistance Base is pretty similar: so much so that you may wonder if they're not the same place.
Then we're off to Starkiller Base, which is itself a planet...full of trees and snowy tundras in addition to the whole planet-swatting death beam.
Finally, we arrive at the mystical home of the Jedi, where Luke Skywalker has holed up to meditate on his mistakes and maybe come up with a plan for the future that doesn't involve the First Order tromping through everyone's living room. In between, we're on various flavors of starship, from the good old Millennium Falcon to whatever creepy Star Destroyer Kylo Ren ended up on.
Again, that all provides a nice visual tag to help keep the different scenes clear and to provide convenient visual cues to help us get centered. When a new part of the drama starts, we move to a new planet, complete with new environments and an overall vibe that helps keep the drama together.
Some have noted that Jakku bears a suspicious resemblance to another sand-swept intergalactic wasteland where a possible messiah grew up lonely and forgotten: Tatooine.
Part of this was because director J.J Abrams wanted to leave some nostalgia in the air before plunging into these all-new stories with all-new settings. But they also wanted to evoke the fondness people felt for the original trilogy, serving as a transition from the first set of movies to the new one, in J.J. Abrams's words.
Hence, Jakku, a planet that feels a whole lot like Tatooine, even though it's no such thing.
Or Starkiller Base, which is pretty much just the Death Star 2.0. Fans complained about the resemblance, but Abrams wanted to evoke that throwback feeling before Episodes VIII and IX presumably send us all careening somewhere entirely new.
It's also interesting to note that, while the movie is clearly set in the Star Wars universe, and with the aforementioned Tatooine cribbing noted, almost none of The Force Awakens takes place on any planet we recognize.
Even the Republic's capital, destroyed by Starkiller Base, isn't Coruscant like it was in the prequel trilogy, but somewhere entirely new (and seen for about 30 seconds before getting turned into a brand-new asteroid belt for harried rebels to zip through). The only exception is the Falcon, which doesn't seem to be going anywhere and which provides the one piece of real estate we genuinely seem to have seen before.
It's an entirely new part of the galaxy, which not only tells us how stupid big the galaxy is, but how much of it we still have to explore. That vastness means that the producers can go almost anywhere with the story, which is part of what makes Star Wars so exciting.
It's pretty hard to escape third-person omniscient when you're telling a story about the Force. It's everywhere and everything, which means that we, the privileged audience, get to zoom back and forth between characters and places as often as the story needs us to. In fact, the characters sometimes have a hard time keeping up since changing acts requires them to throw their gear into their space ships and zip off to the next planet.
All that zipping illustrates one of the big narrative techniques that all the Star Wars movies have used: cross-cutting. As a way of upping the excitement and generating suspense, the film will regularly switch back and forth between the characters: for example, between Han and Finn with the Resistance and Rey in the clutches of Kylo Ren. It ensures that we don't get bored and helps the filmmakers juggle all of those characters without testing our patience. It also means that third-person omniscient is the only way to go since doing anything else would throw one too many gear changes into a movie that's already full of them.
First and foremost, Star Wars is science fiction...or, more specifically, space opera, which is an epic and more fantastical form of science fiction.
Sci-fi purists would argue that the genre needs to be...well, not realistic, but plausible. For a good example, look at the spaceships in 2001: A Space Odyssey, which were based on actual NASA vessels with just a little speculation thrown in.
Star Wars is dedicated to a practical universe—that is, a universe where everything looks like it has a practical purpose and has been used in practical ways—but with Jedi mind tricks and hyperspace-breaching weapons on display, they don't see a need to stick close to reality. Coupled with the larger-than-life figures and do-or-die heroics on display, it makes space opera a slightly more comfortable fit than pure sci-fi.
That also helps out its other big genre a lot. Nothing says "adventure" more than hopping in a spaceship and seeing what's on the next planet, and Star Wars has always been part of that tradition. Last-minute rescues, impregnable fortresses, alien races with weird customs and mating rituals that will sear themselves into your nightmares? We see those in old-school stories like Tarzan and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Star Wars just adds a high-tech sheen to it all.
Finally, you can't talk about Star Wars without talking about fantasy: ancient worlds full of monsters and magic where some young lad or lassie leaves their humble farm and learns valuable bits of wisdom on the road to defeating a great evil. Like every other film in the series, The Force Awakens actively embraces its inner Tolkien, and underneath those spaceships and lightsabers are the old-fashioned horses and swords that epic fantasy heroes are very familiar with.
Well, we've got the whole Star Wars name to kick things off. All of the other films started with those two magical words—Star Wars—and it helps to keep them all bound up in a neat little bow.
With the Star Wars movie universe looking to become its own genre—with new movies every year or so if Disney has their way—the Star Wars masterminds wanted to draw a clear distinction between the "core" episodes (I-IX) and the outliers. There's an easy way to do that without getting too weird…by making sure Star Wars is in the title.
As for what The Force Awakens means, well, that's intentionally cryptic. Kind of like the Force itself.
It suggests that the Force hasn't been a big player on the galactic stage, letting things play out and possibly costing Luke a whole school full of apprentices as a result. That means what we see here is the start of something: a new era for the galaxy.
We just don't know whether that era is going to be good…or very, very bad.
It also draws a nice parallel between Rey's personal journey and the big, bad universe she may just be on her way to saving. Rey has got some awakening of her own to do: realizing who she can become, finding a larger galaxy beyond her little borders, and twisting those pesky stormtroopers' minds into funny animal shapes. Girl's got it going on, but she's only now starting to realize it.
The Force is awakening all right, but she's the one who's got to decide what to do with it.
We'll start with the whole stunning, shocking awesomeness of what went down in the ending: Rey goes through the wringer, tries to deny her destiny, gets tortured by a freaky emo Sith Lord, almost sees her only friend die, and then gets into a Whack-at-Each-Other-Until-Someone-Falls-Over lightsaber duel in the middle of a crumbling planet-size Starkiller Base.
All to keep one Luke Skywalker safe and protected until she can get to him.
After all that, we finally arrive at Hidden Island Planet to find the guy that most of us are presumably all pumped to see—the last of the Jedi and perhaps the only remaining hope for the new order—found by a young woman who seems destined to take up his mantle.
There's the sheer emotional impact of seeing Luke again for the first time since Return of the Jedi. He was the last piece of the original film's cast to arrive (we still have our fingers crossed for a Lando Calrissian sighting in Episode VIII), and considering that the film's iconic text scroll literally starts with his name, he's the one we've been presumably hoping to see the most.
When we last left him, he was still a young man (Mark Hamill was 31 when Return of the Jedi opened). So we spend the movie biting our nails down to nubbins and mulling over a bunch of questions: what would Luke look like now? What kind of secrets is he carrying? Dude, his nephew just iced his best friend (who's also the nephew's dad), and thanks to the miracle of the Force, he got a front-row seat to the whole thing. What's that going to do to a guy whose flirtations with the dark side have gotten pretty intense over the years?
The movie has been letting us stew on that for two hours—building in every frame without any kind of release—then condensing the power of it into a few choice shots. We first see Luke with his back to us and then, as Rey approaches, he slowly turns to reveal his face.
Young Luke got old quickly, and not just because he's sporting a Grizzly Adams beard. His face is cracked and grief-stricken. His eyes hold the pain of having messed up big time and never being able to live it down. The wise, hopeful young man at the end of Jedi has been replaced by someone who couldn't avoid life's curveballs and now has to face the cost.
But in the middle of it all comes this girl, who's got baggage of her own to carry but also has some chips in this game and maybe—just maybe—can make it all right.
The dramatic impact of that comes because we've spent the whole movie building up to it. Orson Welles once talked about how he pulled off that trick for his movie The Third Man. Like Luke, everyone spends the whole time talking about Welles' character, and like Luke, we don't actually see him until late in the proceedings:
What matters in that kind of role is not how many lines you have, but how few. What counts is how much the other characters talk about you. (Source)
You can see that play out here: Luke is quite literally the definition of doing more with less. Brr—every time he pulls that hood back, it gives us chills.
As we've said elsewhere, Luke is something of a MacGuffin in this story: an object being used to drive the plot forward instead of a character in his own right.
Oh, they drop hints here and there about Kylo Ren's massacre of his students, his guilt and horror, and the fact that everyone is desperately looking for him, but by and large, we're focused on the rest of the cast.
That makes him a great way to keep the plot moving forward, but it also helps the filmmakers resolve a key issue in terms of drama. Franchises like this are always trying to tell a larger story—stretching the narrative out over multiple movies, with each movie acting as a single chapter. (Star Wars actually kind of pioneered the format with Episodes IV-VI.)
But in doing so, you need to be careful not to leave the audience hanging too much. The film still needs to have a beginning, a middle, and an end…even if it's leaving a whole lot of story on the table for next time.
Luke's appearance in The Force Awakens hits a great balance between giving us a great stand-alone movie and leaving us ready to go for next time. The whole film is about finding him…and now we have.
So, the narrative tension in this film—as a stand-alone story—is resolved. In fact, the dramatic sucker punch of his appearance provides an emotional release that makes a perfect way to wrap things up. How are you going to top a moment like that? The Force Awakens knows that it doesn't even have to try.
But at the same time, it leaves a whole truckload of unanswered questions to cover in later films—everything from "what's Luke's ultimate game plan?" to "what went so wrong with Ben Solo's training?" The Force Awakens has the good sense to leave those for future entries—not because they don't need answering, but because it already has enough narrative oomph to stick the dismount and leave us hungry for more.
If the shocks here feel a little more intense than they do in previous Star Wars films, that's by design. This is only the second movie in the saga to earn a PG-13 rating, and it feels like it.
Granted, the romance is pretty chaste…and by that we mean nonexistent.. (But stay tuned: we've got leads making eyes at each other all over the place.) And since we're in a galaxy far, far away, those pesky swear words are easily excised.
There is, however, a level of violence that you might not expect from a Star Wars film. We're reasonably certain that we see actual blood spilled for the first time in the saga, for instance, and the whole "poke charred holes in you" thing that the lightsabers have going? That kind of gets cranked up to 11 here.
That comes on top of the emotional trauma connected with a lot of those moments—Han Solo gets spit like a squab by his own son—which means the ratings board is going to err firmly on the side of caution.