Narrative Innovations of The Force Awakens

I have mentioned in the past that I really love all of Star Wars, so there was no question that I was going to enjoy The Force Awakens. I could go on for hours about all the wonderful things in it (and I have).

But then people started posting all these complaints about how this movie is just A New Hope all over again. Ignoring for the moment the easy response to this that Star Wars is supposed to be cyclical, I still find this complaint to be extremely superficial. It ignores the amazing new things that TFA brings to Star Wars that none of the previous movies had. Since I am a writer, I am particularly focused on characters, and I wanted to take a blog post to just examine the main characters and the narrative innovations they bring to the Star Wars universe.

Spoiler warning. We are definitely entering spoiler territory.

Rey is the Right Kind of Protagonist (Finally)

It had become kind of a joke for me – we can tell that Anakin is Luke’s father because they’re both so whiny. People complain about the “NO!” at the end of Sith and I remind them of Luke’s “That’s not possible!” in Empire. For six movies, we had gotten used to looking away from the main character in the story because they were kind of painful to watch. Both Luke and Anakin do get a little better in their respective third movies, but that’s only because they switch from whiny to brooding. (And as painful as it may be to point out, that progression works slightly better for Anakin’s arc than for Luke’s.)

The problem with this is that Star Wars is supposed to be a pulp adventure, a space opera. The direct inspiration for the series is Flash Gordon. But Flash is clearly competent and action-oriented, not because he is magically gifted but because he is trained (he’s a polo player in the original comic, a football player in the movie). We have no such sense about Luke, except that he claims he shot at womp rats in his T-16.

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Hero?

Mostly Luke is a learner, not a competent hero. Then we have The Phantom Menace, which tries to convey the idea that Anakin is already experienced through pod racing, but this falls flat because he’s so young. Since he’s the only kid (and only human) who is even able to pod race, we are made to assume that he is able to do what he does because of his connection to the Force, not because of any particular experience.

Rey, on the other hand, has clearly lived a life that his trained her in at least some of the skills she needs. Her mechanical competence, her piloting ability, her skill with the staff – all of these are shown to be necessary for survival in her home environment. She is ready for adventure when it calls to her, and this readiness connects her very directly to the pulp serials that are the source material for Star Wars.

On top of this, Rey is shown to have a moral compass that makes her stand out in that harsh environment – a personal integrity that lets us view her as a classic pulp hero. Luke, by contrast, is governed by circumstance until after the hero’s call. He is not shown to have that integrity prior being thrust into the journey. And again, Anakin only has integrity when he is young and naive. He abandons his morals when they begin to conflict with what he wants. Rey is old enough to know what her morality costs her, yet she holds to it regardless. She is the protagonist role model Star Wars has sorely needed.

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Hero.

Finn/Poe is a New Kind of Friendship

One of the things I love about Finn and Poe individually is that they are characters who are able to show joy that is neither restrained nor cynical. That’s refreshing not just for Star Wars but for movies in general. And when the two of them are together? So good.

But what makes their friendship even more amazing is the fact that it is unique in all of the Star Wars movies. Whenever there has been a friendship or partnership in previous episodes, it was an imbalanced one. One partner was always coming from a position of authority over the other. Han is always calling Luke a kid, right up until Jabba’s palace, and then Luke is all mysterious and powerful and goes his own way. We never really get to see their friendship as equals (if they even have one – perhaps Luke becomes the authority). The Jedi pairings in the prequels always have the master/apprentice structure. Anakin and Obi Wan never quite get to equal status, which is one of the reasons Anakin can never fully trust Obi Wan. Just about every relationship pairing in the six movies has one partner who is clearly in authority over the other.

But Poe and Finn? They accept each other as equals from the start. They immediately support each other, celebrate each other’s successes, and worry for each other’s safety. There is never an implication of hierarchy.

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There could have been. Poe could have held his status as an established Resistance pilot (whose bravery is praised in the opening crawl) over the frightened First Order deserter. But he didn’t. He embraced and accepted Finn from the start. And he never suggests that Finn’s experience is less than his. (By contrast, Finn is skeptical of Rey at first, which is more typical of Star Wars pairings.)

In the same way that Rey can serve as the protagonist role model for a new generation of Star Wars fans, I hope that Finn and Poe’s friendship can serve as a model as well. For one thing, I think we’ll see fewer arguments about who gets to play whom.

Kylo Ren is a New Kind of Villain

In many ways, Kylo Ren is the Skywalker of this movie. He is both whiny and brooding, demanding instruction and complaining when things don’t go his way. Putting these classic Skywalker qualities into the villain is a fascinating choice, and much has already been made of Ren’s personality. But I want to examine how the writing of Kylo Ren transforms the narrative and even the Star Wars universe itself.

Star Wars was created in the 70s, in the age of the antihero, and Han Solo was the perfect character for that time. In a way, Han’s son has become an antivillain – an antagonist who does not possess all the qualities we expect to be inherent in a villain. He is reluctant, unsure, struggling to maintain his confidence in the face of failure after failure. He is a character who is powerful enough to stop a blaster bolt with the Force but has to build up his anger to fight by punching himself in his wound.

This makes the revelations about Ren and his subsequent actions in Episode 7 important. Vader (the most traditionally pulpy character in the original movies) could wait until the end of his second movie before revealing anything more complex about his background. But we need to know about Kylo Ren right away. We need to grasp his struggle and maybe even sympathize with it. Even if he is redeemed in the end (a speculation some have suggested), his path will certainly be more complex than Vader’s just because Ren does not rest easily in the Dark Side. He is clinging to it with his fingernails.

And that alone is the most surprising new information in The Force Awakens. The idea that the Dark Side is not the seductive, easy path we were led to believe is astonishing. It transforms the Star Wars universe, throwing into question everything that has come before. Are the Jedi really such paragons of self-control? Or are they simply people who find it easy to follow the light? The traditional view of the Force is a classic state-of-nature explanation. But is that explanation flawed?

As much as Kylo Ren is a Vader fanboy, his approach seems to be more in line with the Old Republic-era Sith code. And the implication that the Sith of that era required just as much focus and determination as any Jedi to maintain their control is, quite frankly, revolutionary. I am excited to see where it goes from here.

Kylo Ren Sith Code

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3 thoughts on “Narrative Innovations of The Force Awakens

  1. The better call is this movie is a star wars greatest hits movie instead of a new hope all over again. It’s got a lot of beats that remind us of all three of the original movies and even various shots that are taken strait from those movies and used here. I think it’s a pretty fair assessment to say the film, while doing new things as you mentioned above with Finn/Poe and Rey and Kylo Ren, utilizes nostalgia to help real us in. Those nostalgic elements are also strongly placed in the narrative. They even put Starkiller Base next to the Death Star to make people draw those conclusions. There’s a trench run, omage to Star Wars, flying into the super structure, and flying out of the exploding super weapon, which is a play on Jedi. Even the bridge scene with Kylo and Han has a bit of an Empire feel to it.

    I don’t think you’re wrong. I think there’s plenty of new stuff here and a droid isn’t constantly saving the rest of the characters so that’s a plus but there’s a lot of nostalgia so while it’s lazy to say it’s just a New Hope rehashed it’s pretty dismissive to not put forth how much this movie draws from the original trilogy and uses it to make us feel like we’re watching a Star Wars movie.

    Also Kylo Ren is the Skywalker of this movie. Not in many ways. He is. You don’t need to come at that with any kind of caveat. His actions put that front and center and his lineage helps us viewing it once again connect to something from the previous six movies, playing on nostalgia.

    Like I said I like your take on it with the characters but while those things are new nostalgia plays a huge role in this film and is why some people are lambasting it while others are basking in the nostalgia without realizing how much they’re enjoying the new stuff. The coolest thing about the new characters is we don’t know what’s going to happen next or the kinds of stories they might tell with the next two movies and these characters because they’re not retreads of the previous characters.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh I definitely don’t think it’s completely original. It’s not supposed to be, because Star Wars is cyclical. But I kind of felt like those arguments were already out there and not enough people were talking about what was actually new.

      Like

  2. Spoiler space:
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    All good points! I would add a point that I think is _at least_ as important to the emotional structure of the story. Finn is an actual everyman. He’s not the best smuggler in the sector, captaining the fastest ship in the galaxy. He’s not a princess and head of a galactic revolution. He’s not even an orphan farm-boy about to be revealed as a child of destiny.

    He is, start to finish, a scared, disoriented guy whose whole life has been messed up from day one, who nonetheless _makes the right call._

    None of us know what’s coming in 8 and 9, but in the context of this first movie, his arc quietly undermines the elitist narrative that heroism is the province of a special chosen few.

    Liked by 1 person

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