Sunday, January 31, 2016

EXPANDING UNIVERSE - STAR WARS: The Franchise Awakens - Family vs. Destiny

Rey and Finn’s trip to Maz’s magic castle is important because at this point in their mythical journey, they have both received their call to adventure. For very different reasons, they will each offer what Joseph Campbell refers to as the Refusal of the Call.

In stories and fantasies, we expect characters to jump at the chance to be a hero because we want to experience that vicariously through them. That’s because we can enjoy the adventure from a safe vantage point, in part because we have some assurance that they will succeed, but more importantly because we know that none of it is real and that no one is ever in any actual danger. But in our real lives if someone were to confront us with the opportunity to leave all safety, comfort, and responsibility to put ourselves in the way of life-threatening peril, our natural response would be to refuse. Luke Skywalker initially refused to help Obi-Wan Kenobi with good reason, just like Bilbo Baggins refused to accompany Gandalf and the dwarves on their suicide mission to rob a treasure from a dragon. 

"Okay, pretty standard so far... Leave my life of luxury to help a bunch of strangers 
steal the gold out from under a dragon... What's the worst that could happen?"

Even in the ultimate nerd fantasy, The Last Starfighter, Alex Rogan declines a perfectly polite invitation to fly off into outer space and fight an alien war against an evil empire he’d never heard of. 

"You're pretty spectacular at playing video games, kid! How'd you like to get shot at for real?"

And why? Because in the story, we need to believe that the characters at least think they’re real, with real lives and goals that were already happening when the story began. The refusal in classical myths happens for the same reason: To show us that all heroes in some way begin as flawed imperfect people.

Finn’s refusal is more immediate and overt. He’s terrified of being captured by the First Order and does not believe they can be stopped. He’s basically like a child who’s been raised by a cult and taught their entire lives that the cult is omnipresent and all-powerful. No reasonable argument can be presented to Finn that the First Order is an enemy that can be battled. 

"You've seen what their trash compactors are like, Solo. 

Would you want to go back to doing their sanitation work?"

The only reason he’s resisted them at all thus far is because he found himself in human situations that presented him with a moral imperative to act. Now that he is free of that immediate imperative, Finn’s instinct is to put as much distance between himself and the First Order as he can. He tries to convince Rey to run away with him, but she refuses. 

Rey’s refusal will happen on a more fundamental level than Finn’s. She has accepted the current adventure, but her experience in the temple will serve to show her that she has a greater destiny. Here is where Rey’s arc echoes Luke’s training on Dagobah.

A lot of people have complained about Rey displaying Jedi ability without having any formal Jedi training. I think it makes more sense story-wise if we see Rey following Luke’s arc throughout the entire first trilogy and not just through the first movie. Throughout the course of this film, we see Rey discover the Force, experience a Force vision that outlines her hero’s journey for her, all the way through to a confrontation with her opponent on what is at this point assumed to be the opposite end of the moral spectrum. As a matter of construction, Rey’s progress is accelerated because the movie is attempting to cover more ground in terms of her character development.

In the framework of the story, I don’t have a problem with Rey exhibiting Force ability without the benefit of training. First, the Jedi philosophy is not the only path to developing these skills. Jedi and Sith both have separate forms of training that teach students how to harness the natural connection they feel with the Force. Training helps you hone skills and focus energies, but it’s not the key to having those abilities. Luke himself only had a couple of weeks of formal training in the original trilogy, consisting of a little basic history and lightsaber instruction by Obi-Wan Kenobi on the way to Alderaan and followed up with a crash course of swamp jogging and rock lifting with Yoda on Dagobah. Most of his power came from his acceptance of his connection to the Living Force, not his education on the subject of Jedi traditions. 

The Jedi are always insisting on training children at a suspiciously young age, but if we watch this in the prequels and in the Clone Wars TV show, this seems to be more for the purpose of indoctrination than anything else. The training is meant to instill you with an innate belief that the Jedi way is the sole path to the Light Side of the Force, which is the only good and proper use of the Force. That is not necessarily a message this new trilogy is intending to communicate.

C'mon, Yoda, how does giving blindfolded kids actual lightsabers teach them the "knowledge and defense" aspect of the Jedi philosophy?

Just as it was with Luke, having a vision of her destiny is an important milestone in Rey’s acceptance of her connection with the Force. This is her cave trial, in which she must face her own fears and accept her path. This trial recalls the belly of the whale imagery just as it did in Episode V. Luke descended into the Dark Side cave on Dagobah to face a vision of Darth Vader. Rey descends into the lower level of Maz’s castle, which becomes a dungeon of magic treasures and dangerous possibilities. 

In the bar, Rey hears a cry from the stairwell and descends the stairs to investigate. She finds a chest with an old lightsaber in it. When she touches the lightsaber, her vision begins.

At the end of Rey’s vision, Maz appears to help her understand it. She explains that the lightsaber belonged to Luke Skywalker and his father before him, so Rey should take it.

It’s important to note that this is not the lightsaber Luke made for himself before the events of Episode VI. This is Luke’s first lightsaber, the one he lost during his duel with Darth Vader on Bespin. It is the lightsaber given to Luke by Obi-Wan in Episode IV, which Obi-Wan told him his father intended him to have. The lightsaber is given the same sense of reverence in this film as it was when it was originally introduced.

"That's the lightsaber I stole from your father the day I set him on fire. Want to go to Alderaan with me?"

There’s a lot of Expanded Universe lore we could get into regarding the significance of this lightsaber. Even though the expanded canon prior to Disney’s acquisition of STAR WARS is now officially considered non-canonical, those ideas still exist and are available to the creative teams producing new stories. Some concepts in Episode VII appear to have been mined from stories in the old Expanded Universe, so there are a lot of interesting aspects of the story this lightsaber may come to represent outside of the fact that it once belonged to Anakin and Luke Skywalker.

In terms of the official canon, the significance of this lightsaber is questionable. Episode VII pays homage to Episode IV by giving the lightsaber itself a relevant contribution to the story. Outside of the story, this lightsaber is special because we as fans remember the way it was presented to Luke in Episode IV.

Inside the story, this lightsaber is not necessarily important to the core canon at all. While Obi-Wan supposedly kept it for Luke and told him his father wanted him to have it, we know that the latter of these assertions was a lie. Anakin may have had knowledge of Luke’s existence after he became Darth Vader, but he showed no actual interest in him and certainly wouldn’t have had any communication with Obi-Wan as to how to bequeath to Luke the lightsaber that was stolen from him while he was burning alive. The only reason Obi-Wan tells Luke this in Episode IV is to manipulate him into joining the adventure ahead.

Further to that point, this lightsaber has absolutely no significance as the weapon of Anakin Skywalker. In Episode II Anakin’s inability to keep hold of a lightsaber is a running gag, so much so that by the end of the film he only has a lightsaber because another Jedi throws him a spare. So the exalted Skywalker lightsaber that Obi-Wan pretended was an heirloom and Maz makes out to be Excalibur is just Kit Fisto’s backup blade, which Anakin happened to have with him when he dueled Obi-Wan on a lava planet.

Full disclosure: Expanded lore states that this lightsaber is not the spare that was tossed to him during the battle on Geonosis, that he constructed this one shortly after that and used it all the way through the Clone Wars, then murdered children with it and lost it to Obi-Wan Kenobi while he lay dying on Mustafar. 

"Your father wanted you to have this when you were old enough... to be stabbed to death."

But from what we see in the movies, Anakin has no special fondness for this particular lightsaber, he did not express any desire for it to be passed down his bloodline, and he certainly did not willingly give it to Obi-Wan Kenobi at all. The only connecting thread this lightsaber offers for its users is that it represents the Skywalker curse. It’s the lightsaber that was used in duels that represented a catastrophic defeat for Anakin on Mustafar and then later for Luke on Bespin. From what we know, this blade is bad news and Rey is right to want nothing to do with it.

Maz can see Rey’s reluctance. Like Luke at the beginning of Episode IV, Rey doesn’t want to forsake her familial duty to accept more universal responsibilities. This is a common division we see between the heroes and villains in the STAR WARS saga. In the prequels, Anakin actually yells “yippee!” at the prospect of running away with the Jedi and leaving his mother to a life of slavery. Even though he seems a little conflicted about it later, we learn in 

Episode II that he made no attempt to contact or follow up with her until years later. Luke, on the other hand, is offered the opportunity to leave with Obi-Wan and live the life of adventure he’s always dreamed about in Episode IV, but he refuses the call because of his obligation to his aunt and uncle. Only after they’ve been killed does he consent to leave Tatooine. And even then Obi-Wan is manipulating Luke’s sense of familial obligation by pretending that Luke’s father wanted him to follow the path of the Jedi. This is a lie from any point of view, since we learn that Anakin himself had rejected the path of the Jedi.

"Consider this my resignation from the Jedi Council."

The difference between Kylo Ren and Rey is represented by the same dynamic in Episode VII. Kylo Ren abandons his family to pursue the destiny he believes he deserves, but Rey basically dooms herself to exile as little more than a slave on Jakku, with only the vague hope that her family will one day come back for her.

Understanding that this hope is an obstacle to Rey’s development, Maz tells Rey that her family isn’t coming back. In a throwback to Yoda’s cryptic offhand comment in Episode V that there was another he and Obi-Wan could look to should Luke fail, Maz tells Rey that someone else might come back even though her family won’t. At face value, you could assume she’s talking about Finn, but she seems to be hinting at something more profound. Rey assumes she’s talking about Luke, even though Luke’s return shouldn’t have any personal connection for her. Unless there’s a connection between Rey and Luke that has not yet been established in the story.

In any event, this choice prompts Rey’s refusal of the call. Unable to accept that her family is gone and overwhelmed by the sudden responsibility of learning the ways of the Force (and possibly experiencing a genuine intuition that Luke’s lightsaber is more of a cursed object than an enchanted item), Rey vows never to touch the lightsaber again and runs off into the woods. This is probably bad timing on Maz’s part, because she presents the lightsaber and the Force in such a way that they both represent to Rey an abandonment of her family, when Maz is essentially just trying to help Rey come to terms with the truth.

Rey is not ready to trust in the Force yet. When Maz told her to close her eyes (to trust in something more than she saw in front of her), Rey could not bring herself to do it.

The irony is that what Maz is encouraging Rey to do may very well be to accept her familial obligation. What is not overtly stated but is at least implied is that following the path of the Jedi may be an important part of Rey’s heritage. Maz tells her that the lightsaber was Luke Skywalker’s and his father’s before him, and therefore she should take it. There is a strong possibility that we will at a later point in the story (the sequel) learn that Rey is Luke Skywalker’s daughter. 

It may be apropos of nothing, but this theory reminds me of the original teaser for the film. In the teaser Luke explains to someone (presumably someone in the story) that the Force runs strong in his family. “My father has it,” Luke says in a voice-over, “my sister has it, and you have that power too.”

This is obviously a throwback to Luke’s revelation in Episode VI that Leia is his sister and has the potential to become a Jedi. While he uses the words “my family” rather than saying “our family”, it seems like he’s explaining this to someone with the same bloodline, or why say it at all? This could be something said to Kylo Ren during the time that he was being trained as a Jedi, but why say “my sister” instead of “your mother”? It’s also interesting that Luke says “my father has it” (present tense), but that may be getting a little too granular.

Most likely the Luke voice-over in the teaser was recorded just for the teaser to excite the audience’s sense of nostalgia. Even so, it’s interesting that the story being teased here is a story about Luke training a prospective Jedi who may also be a Skywalker.

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