The Fear Awakens
As you might gather from the title and the let’s-see-if-I-get-a-takedown-notice promotional graphic, I’m going to discuss the new Star Wars here. Not right away–the first few paragraphs are clean–but after that anything goes. This discussion will not only include spoilers, but will center on them, at least insofar as these blog discussions center on anything; much like the orbit of Pluto around the Sun, or the orbit of a drunken frat boy around the fire at a wienie roast, I suspect it will be highly elliptical.
But you have been warned.
So my son and I went to a Thursday night showing in IMAX 3D AND SAT IN THE SECOND ROW HOLD ON CAPS LOCK…there, that’s better. After eleven previews, taking up a full half hour of waking life neither one of us will get back and I, at least, can’t afford to lose these days, the Lucasfilm logo appeared, followed by those familiar storybook words “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”
What followed was both a pretty good movie and more Star Wars-y in the first half hour than the three prequel films lumped together. It also had some really nice screenwriting tricks at work regarding how one introduces multiple protagonists, but I’ll leave that for other, more seasoned commentators, and proceed directly to the spoiler and rumentation thereon.
Last chance to stop scrolling.
Okay. When Han sees Kylo Ren–that is, his son Ben–carrying Rei’s unconscious figure up the ramp into the First Order shuttle, Harrison Ford does a good job of conveying layered emotions. He’s upset at the action of the moment, obviously, and more so at his helplessness to stop it. But there’s something deeper, something primal at work in his face, because the helplessness runs deeper. It’s the face of a father as he realizes: My child is a monster.
It’s a commonplace that the greatest fear a parent faces–and we do, sometimes on a daily basis–is the death of their child. I don’t think that’s the whole story, though. I think the fear is more complicated. Parents fear losing their children. It’s a little paradoxical, since we know, even hope, that we WILL lose them on one level, when they grow into adults and live their own lives. The loss of death cuts those lives short prematurely, and make no mistake, it’s a dark possibility to dwell on.
But not the darkest. Ford and J. J. Abrams (and Adam Driver, who plays Ren/Ben as a tantrum-prone eternal teenager, pointing up that the Dark Side’s approach is really one of permanent, rage-filled infantilization) conspire to show us the worst kind of loss, where a young life is not so much severed cleanly as twisted off. If the death of a child is an erasure of self–theirs and by extension the parent’s–the child who becomes a monster is a monument to not only our failure, but the hovering possibility of catastrophic failure every child represents. The dead, at least, have the decency to stay dead. Monsters are in our face–and our headlines–all too often.
Which winds us back inexorably to the second spoiler. When Ren/Ben said “I don’t know if I have the strength to do what I must” I knew what was coming, because in the broadest sense, he’s only doing what all children must do–separate themselves from their parents. The problem is that he’s not doing any such thing. He’s killing one father (and in a way that beats back the Oedipal implications a bit, killing a part of Leia at the same moment, as Carrie Fisher’s superb few seconds of reaction back at base show) to get what he thinks is a better one–the Dark Side, represented by Supreme Leader Snoke, but personified by Ben’s grandfather Darth Vader.
(Side note: the Skywalker clan is one seriously fucked-up family. Anyone else notice that? I mean, we’re talking William Faulkner/Tennessee Williams levels of fucked-up here. And now I find myself imagining a scene in a VERY alternate universe where they’re all sitting down for a Thanksgiving dinner, and the cranberry relish is the subject of a telekinetic tug of war…)
In that light, the last gesture Han makes, of touching the face of the man who was once his son and is now a mass murderer, is at once tender and utterly pathetic, a sort of hapless well I tried that’s the only thing a parent can possibly muster in response to a monster.
And yet, there’s Rei. A lot of speculation is floating around about her being another child of Han and Leia, helped along by the resemblance between Daisy Ridley and Natalie Portman. I don’t think it matters, because when the movie makes the point of how easily Han slips into the role of the father Rei never knew it’s only verbalizing what everyone in the audience picked up on already: Han is this movie’s Obi-Wan, to both Rei and Finn. And Mentors don’t generally make it through the story.
(That’s another Skywalker thing…parents missing left and right. No wonder Disney bought the franchise.)
So the question is: how does it work out that the child you raise from infancy rejects you, and the one you pick up en passant as a teen and know only for a few days doesn’t? Guess we’ll find out some of that in the next two movies…as well as how Luke, who seems to have learned all too well Obi-Wan’s patented methodology for screwing up with your best pupil, fits into the whole parent/mentor role. He didn’t seem all that inclined to take his father’s light saber a second time, did he?
Speaking of which, I did extort a promise from my boy, as we drove home at 1:30 in the morning, not to spear me with a light saber when he’s older. It seemed prudent at the time.