Rose Tico once said that we’re going to win not by fighting what we hate, but by saving what we love. That wisdom is pertinent for Star Wars fans; amidst seemingly incessant criticism, I want to spend time actually liking Star Wars. I love all Star Wars, so in this series, I’ll walk through each of the films identifying five things I love about it. That’s not to say there are only five, but I’m limiting myself to five here. One note: because I think John Williams’ work on every Star Wars film is fantastic, I’m going to essentially assume that would make every list, thus I’m leaving it out intentionally. But without Williams’ music, we don’t have Star Wars as we know and love it.
We continue today with the first chapter of the sequel trilogy, The Force Awakens.
1. Rey’s introduction
In my opinion, the introduction of Rey might just be the best introduction of any Star Wars character. It’s a masterpiece in storytelling without saying any words, as Daisy Ridley, John Williams, J.J. Abrams, and the team that brought Jakku to life introduce us to our new hero. We meet Rey after an opening conflict between Poe Dameron of the Resistance and the evil First Order, and then we cut to a different location on the same desert planet (Jakku). We see a close-up of Rey’s covered face, but then we zoom out to see that she is just one lone figure inside the remains of an old Star Destroyer. She ventures out and tries to take a drink from her canteen, but only a few drops remain. She’s not living in any sort of luxury; instead, she’s just trying to survive (which is later further established by her getting portions of food from Unkar Plutt). And then, as we see this tiny person standing in front of the giant Destroyer on a Jakku sand dune, we hear for the first time what I think is one of the very finest themes John Williams has ever written for any film: Rey’s theme. He’ll flesh this out a bit more as the trilogy goes on, but here it feels lonely – just like the character. Rey slides down the sand dune and continues on with her life: scavenging for food, all alone, waiting for her family. Though we are eventually told this, we don’t really need it spelled out, because the musical and visual storytelling has already done it for us. It is, simply put, brilliant.
And it speaks on a larger level too. This is the sequel trilogy’s equivalent of the binary sunset, establishing this lonely new hero on a desert planet, looking for more and unaware they are about to be thrust into a thrilling adventure as the hero. And as the audience returned to the franchise for the first time in a decade, and to the original cast for the first time in a lot longer than that, these moments also quickly establish the context. Rey literally grows up and struggles to survive in the ruins of the old war. The Empire fell long ago, and the wrecked Star Destroyer is evidence of that. The galaxy’s new hero, even though neither she nor the audience realizes it yet, was raised literally in its shadows.
This is my favorite introduction of any character in Star Wars, introducing one of my favorite characters in all of Star Wars, while hearing for the first time maybe my favorite theme in all of Star Wars. It’s so tragically beautiful, and it’s just brilliant storytelling at work.
2. The escape(s)
Moving on, I’m going to cheat by including two events here, but they both are escapes in the first third of the film that further help establish the characters.
The first is with Finn and Poe Dameron, fleeing from the First Order Star Destroyer. We know that Poe is the ace Resistance pilot, taken captive while trying to find the map to Luke Skywalker’s location. Finn, meanwhile, is a First Order stormtrooper scarred by what he saw in that battle who wants to defect. So Finn enlists Poe’s help to fly him out of there, and the two hijack a First Order TIE Fighter. Poe’s playful confidence is mixed with Finn’s youthful exuberance, and it’s a perfect match. The two of them have tremendous chemistry together, and it makes the escape so fun and exciting. They get shot down, and Poe was actually supposed to die, but I’m so glad he didn’t. This scene is great.
But thinking Poe dead, Finn heads off and winds up meeting Rey. The First Order tracks them down, and so that leads to the second escape: they steal a ship to try to outrun the First Order – and it’s the Millennium Falcon! Rey struggles to get the hang of flying it while Finn struggles to learn the ropes of manning the guns, but they both eventually get it figured out enough to lead the First Order TIEs away, engaging them in a dogfight above the sandy plains of Jakku, and ending with Rey literally flying the Falcon through a wrecked Star Destroyer.
Both of these aerial escapes are just a lot of fun, but they also help us better get to know these new heroes. Before we ever see one of the original trio of heroes in this film, we are treated to plenty of scenes with this new trio – and these scenes are a great indication that we’re in for a treat with this new generation.
3. Han Solo
One might have thought that Harrison Ford would be the hardest to convince to return to the Star Wars franchise for the sequel trilogy, but that was not the case. In fact, he had by far the biggest role in the first film of any of the original actors, turning in a terrific performance as he earned top billing in a Star Wars movie for the first time in his career. Though the plot of The Force Awakens is very much driven by Luke Skywalker (at least in the first half of the film), it is Han Solo who provides so much of the link between the original trilogy and the sequel trilogy as we kick things off. He’s as great as ever (though clearly left a bit broken by time), and he actually fills the mentor role in this film – which should be a surprise.
The first film in a Star Wars trilogy follows some established patterns: the Force awakens in a young new hero, who is taken on by a wise Jedi Master and trained… until that Jedi Master is killed. In A New Hope, it was Ben Kenobi mentoring Luke Skywalker. In The Phantom Menace, it was Qui-Gon Jinn mentoring Anakin Skywalker. So here, there is every reason to assume that Luke Skywalker will train the new Jedi, who is introduced as Rey. But from the very beginning of the opening crawl, we realize something is amiss: “Luke Skywalker has vanished.” That’s not right. Who will train Rey? Enter Han Solo. He shouldn’t have to do it, because it should be Luke, but he’s out of the picture (we’ll learn more about why in this film, though much of it will wait for the sequel). So Han winds up filling the Ben Kenobi role in this film, which is poetic, since Ben obviously had quite an impact on Solo, given that he named his son after that old fossil. As the Force would have it, Han fills the “Old Ben” role years later for a new Jedi, teaching Rey and imparting much wisdom, before he is tragically killed.
And we shouldn’t miss the fact that Han is killed not only by his son (it’s heartbreaking), but also Luke’s pupil. It’s another reminder that Luke is gone, and something isn’t right (it’s also why Rian Johnson’s only option for The Last Jedi was to have Luke cut off from the Force, but that’s for another time). In this film, Han Solo is the hero that Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi were. He’s the mentor. He’s the veteran. He’s our link between what came before and what will come next. He’s absolutely terrific in this film.
4. It calls to Rey
After the death of Han Solo, Rey and Finn head into the forest on Starkiller Base in an attempt to escape, but Kylo Ren confronts them before long. He throws Rey against a tree with the Force, knocking her unconscious, and then engages the “traitor” Finn in a brief lightsaber duel. The marketing of the film showed this, but by this point in the movie we assume that it’s Rey, not Finn, who will be the new hope of the Jedi… only Rey is unconscious and it’s Finn wielding the Skywalker lightsaber here. Kylo quickly gains the upper hand, seriously wounding him and leaving him unconscious. All that’s left is for Kylo to take the lightsaber that he says belongs to him, and he gets ready to, reaching out with the Force. The lightsaber moves, then flies through the air…
… right past Kylo Ren and right into Rey’s outstretched.
As the heroic Force theme swells, Rey ignites the lightsaber, and her duel with Ren begins. This is easily one of the best moments in the sequel trilogy, and not only that, but one of the best moments in the entire franchise. By this point we’ve been introduced to Rey and come to love her, but she doesn’t want anything to do with the destiny that seems so obviously calling to her. That is, until she calls to it, bringing the lightsaber to herself after earlier rejecting when the lightsaber brought her to it. It builds and builds just long enough to this point, so that when it finally happens, it’s amazing. And, like always, John Williams makes it so much better. Not only does Rey get an epic introduction at the beginning of this film, but she also gets an epically heroic moment at the end of it.
5. Finding Luke
The very first words of the opening crawl read, “Luke Skywalker has vanished.” The event that gets the movie started, and that draws the First Order into open warfare against the Republic and the Resistance, is centered around the map to Luke Skywalker (which, by the way, was never actually a map to Luke but rather to the first Jedi Temple). The central question surrounding the film is not “who are Rey’s parents?” (though the film played that up, it was not the question the movie was most interested in answering but the one fans were most interested in asking), but instead “where is Luke Skywalker?” As already mentioned earlier in this article, there are tons of signs throughout that things are very much not right, if we’re willing to look for them.
In this movie, it should be Luke Skywalker taking up the Old Ben role and training Rey. But he’s nowhere to be found. And if this is really the same old Luke that we grew to love in the original trilogy, he should have rushed in to save the day when Han was in danger. See, we have to fundamentally understand this: it was not The Last Jedi that changed Luke Skywalker from the original trilogy; it was simply The Last Jedi that explored it. In The Empire Strikes Back, Luke dropped everything – even though Yoda warned him that it would destroy everything Han and Leia fought for – when he sensed his friends were in danger. That’s another part of why Han’s death should be so shocking: the entire film has been building up to Luke Skywalker, and if we’re familiar enough with Star Wars, this is the moment that should draw him out. Except Kylo Ren guts his father with his lightsaber, killing him, with the Jedi Master nowhere to be found. Something is very, very wrong. And we should be extremely anxious to find out why.
And so all of this leads to what is, in my opinion, the best closing scene in any Star Wars film. We’ve been waiting two hours to find Luke, and finally, we’re going to. Rey, Chewbacca, and R2-D2 head off in the Millennium Falcon to the remote ocean world of Ahch-To, where Rey climbs the steps of what look like ancient ruins until she comes to a grassy opening overlooking the sea. And it’s here that the girl from the desert world of Jakku sees the man she thought was nothing more than a myth, a legend: Luke Skywalker. He turns and looks at her as she offers him the lightsaber, and that’s how the movie ends. As the Force theme blares, with the galaxy’s new hope holding out the legacy lightsaber to our most beloved hero, standing on the edge of a cliff (talk about a literal cliffhanger!). We must wait two years to find out what is wrong, and what’s up with Luke, but the movie ends on a hopeful and heroic note. Luke has been found. The rebellion is reborn. The war is just beginning. And maybe, just maybe, Luke will not be the last Jedi.