The Hero’s Journeys in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”

Now that the enthusiasm has cooled down, the questions remains: is Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Episode VII) cool or not?

The film has been released on December 2015 and has achieved an impressive number of records (stuff like being the highest grossing movie of 2015). It is now the third highest grossing film of all times, after Avatar and Titanic.

Of course, box office isn’t everything. While the vast majority of critics and fans were satisfied (I was delighted: my out-of-the-theatre comment is here) it isn’t exactly groundbreaking a few criticisms are legitimate. Mainly, some were disappointed by it not being “braver”, and because it was sticking too faithfully to the formula set by the first trilogy.

Agree? Disagree? I don’t really care will not enter that argument here. I think that Ep VII is a “fresh” story, that brings to screen more than its share of new elements. And that wasn’t easy, since dealing with a franchise like Star Wars feels like walking on eggs. The true glory of “The Force Awakens” is not in its main plot, but in the finer details, and mainly in the way the smaller, individual stories intertwine.

In other words, this post is about why Episode VII brings some fresh air in the Hero’s Journey model.

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I think that the characters are the best part of the story. The ones from the Classic Trilogy open the ground to a host of new heroes and villains. And these are, in my opinion, the most interesting feature of the latest Star Wars movie.

(By the way, you can read my first “Why I really love Star Wars” post here).

Warning: this post analyses The Force Awakens in detail, and therefore contains an awful lot of spoilers. If you haven’t seen the movie, or if you watched it but forgot it, make sure you see a doctor and DON’T READ BELOW.

Ready? I warned you :)

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Kylo Ren (played by Adam Driver) – begins the story right in the middle of his personal journey as a Fallen Hero. That’s something new already, since his development will be asymmetric to that of his counterparts.

Kylo is determined to become a Sith Master (the champions of the Dark Side of the Force) by continuing the mission that Darth Vader, his grandfather, had not managed to accomplish. He faces challenges that represent obstacles on the road to becoming a grown man, one who has made his choices and is ready to face the consequences. He is essentially an adolescent archetype, still in transformation. Meets his Dark Cave in the crucial meeting with Han Solo, his father, and he kills him in a fashion that would have made Sigmund Freud giggle with pleasure.

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Even with the SPOILER alert, this scene is too big to be showed. So I use the Lego version for it.

We see him torn between two life paths and two Mentors. The light side, to which he still feels attracted (represented by the connections to his family); and the Dark one, with the Great Leader Snoke coming forward.

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A new, opposing, figure of a (corrupt) Old Wise Man.

As to the Antagonists, he has already one in his own ranks (General Hux), which opposes him with strongly diverging opinions on leadership and how to fight the Rebellion; but when he later meets Rey his life becomes a lot more complicated, because of the complex relationship that starts to develop between the two. Audience wonder what is the exact nature of the bond between the two, and it is clear that this will not be a classic Duel of Fates, like the ones we have seen before.

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Kylo makes Rey realise her connection to the Force. It’s a beginning, or an end?

His reward – so he believes – will be to step completely in the Dark Side and achieve unlimited power following Darth Vader’s steps. But his visions will be put to the test when he meets Rey, who proves to be much more focused on the Force even with raw powers and no training.

This infuriates Kylo and undermines his resolve with doubts. At the end of Episode VII, he is left on the edge, is fate is still very uncertain.

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As always in SW, legacy is one of the main topics. Kylo dreams to live up to Darth Vader’s greatness.

To summarise, Kylo Ren:

  • his Call to Adventure takes place before the movie, and drives him away from his family. He is still having second thoughts though (Refusal);
  • chooses to follow a new Mentor to step fully into the Dark Side (his Threshold);
  • has more than one Antagonist, one in the Empire side and (at least) one between the Rebels;
  • has his Dark Cave when he kills his father, and then experiences his Death and Rebirth as he chooses to fulfill his destiny as an independent man (and to embrace the Dark Side);
  • is not able to claim his Reward: in fact he awakens a powerful enemy (Rey) and loses his crucial battle, so we leave him when his development is still incomplete;
  • acts as Herald (or Guardian of the Threshold) as kicks off Rey’s real journey, the transformational journey;

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Let’s see Rey (Daisy Ridley) – many hardcore fans regret that her storyline carbon-copies that of Luke in “A New Hope”. It’s not quite like that, and a closer look at her narrative arc will clarify what I mean.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens Rey (Daisy Ridley) Ph: David James © 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. & TM. All Right Reserved.
A classic beginning for Rey, just on a new desert planet.

Her beginning is very similar to Luke’s and this, true, can be misleading: scavenger on a desert planet, missing family, dreams of travelling to distant worlds with her starpilot helmet on.

BB-8 and Finn, acting as Heralds, kick her into the heat of the story.

 

But then when her real Journey starts, things change a lot. She is basically stormed into the action and has a chance to prove her skills as a pilot, but when the real Call for Adventure arrives (Maz Kanata handing her Luke’s lightsaber and asking her to accept her legacy), she Refuses.

Therefore as the story unfolds as a development of her character, she meets two strong Mentor characters: Han Solo (acknowledges her skills as pilot and mechanic, proposes her to join his crew on the Falcon) and Maz Kanata as mother and in a Oracle function (Divine intervention, or Deus ex Machina, is an old narrative trick: the lightsaber appears in her vault and we are not even explained why, at least for now).

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Solo acts (yes, shortly) as father surrogate for Rey.

She meets Kylo Ren, is confronted by him – and since that’s how she unlocks her potential as a Jedi, Kylo acts also as her (unwilling) Threshold Guardian. When she later witnesses the murder of Han Solo – just as things were going to develop so nicely for her! – she finally decides to step up and accept the challenge. It’s her moment of Decision: again, Death and Rebirth.

In the final duel with Kylo Ren she finally picks up Luke’s lightsaber and embraces her destiny, (almost) beating Kylo in duel! Fans will argue this for decades, but again, I think it serves the story nicely and am not particularly interested in discussing the technical aspects of lightsaber fighting (as if anyone could).

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And the scene is as epic as it could be, really. So stop complaining and shut up already.

Her story closes with another journey opening, as she goes to find Luke Skywalker in his solitary confinement. The meeting between the two (with all the wild speculations that follow: father and daughter? Family? Not related at all?) is a classic Meeting the Mentor, and it ends the Episode – therefore setting the scene for the following chapter of the saga.

Summarizing Rey:

  • experiences two Calls to Adventure. The first, more “classic”, takes place on Jakku when she dreams of the stars. The second, stronger, happens when she is handed Luke’s lightsaber, which she Refuses;
  • her Messenger-Herald is embodied by BB8 first, and Finn later (who literally takes her by the hand and leads her to adventure);
  • chooses (and is chosen by) Han Solo as Mentor (who also acts as surrogate father figure), but then witnesses his death;
  • meets Maz Kanata as Oracle, who reveals her destiny (meeting the Divine, also acts as surrogate mother);
  • after her Refusal, she meets Kylo Ren – who will be her Antagonist, but acts also as Guardian of the Treshold (he unlocks her Force awareness and actually introduces her to the second layer of her Journey);
  • experiences Death-and-Rebirth together with Kylo, but from opposite sides when Han Solo dies: this is a moment of change, when both realise that dice are cast;
  • in a very interesting twist from the Hero’s Journey classic structure, looking for a new Mentor she also becomes Herald and goes forth to call Luke to his new Journey (which will take place in Ep VIII).

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And finally, what about Finn (John Boyega)? I will only spend a few words on him since his character seems still a bit underdeveloped. We will possibly see more of him in future chapters of the story.

His “call” is rather clear and straightforward, and it is actually the event that puts the main story in motion. Facing for the first time the horrors of war and of the duties of the service with the First Order, he decides to defect.

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Finn has the merit of showing for the first time the “human side” of Stormtrooper service.

Helped by Dameron Poe (who in Ep VII has a marginal role of support character and mostly acts as a Deus-ex-Machina… or X-Wing) he crosses his first threshold, manages to escape from the Star Destroyer, gets to Jakku, meets Rey and BB-8.

He is the engine of the story and keeps it moving, but besides this role functional to the plot, his arc is still somewhat underdeveloped. His challenges are more typical, as he starts from being the “Average Joe” in the stormtrooper sanitation service, later to realise that he can be competent as a gunner on a starfighter (first) and on the Millennium Falcon (later). This is his Road of Trials.

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He meets his Cave when Rey confronts him on the real essence of their mission, and he seems determined to walk away but the Imperial attack on Maz Kadan forces him back in the heat of action. But he still lacks a powerful moment of Transformation, and hasn’t really met a Mentor yet. This is what makes me conclude that while he gets a lot of screen time, his character is not getting developed yet. He gives it a try with the lightsaber even if he has never seen one before (provoking point-of-the-rulebook desperate outcries from radical fans all over the world) but the experiment doesn’t end well – and twice.

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Fans complain because Finn, who is not trained in the Force, shouldn’t be able to use a lightsaber. But he doesn’t know, and does it anyway.

So EP VII ends with him on a hospital bed, and his personal storyline yet to unfold. Which way will it take? Sidekick or main hero?

Summarising Finn:

  • has a clear “Call to Adventure” when he meets the battlefield for the first time and experiences its horrors;
  • steps over the Threshold when he escapes the Star Destroyer, with Poe acting as his Herald (but not a Mentor);
  • acts mostly as Trickster (Messenger? Friend or Foe? Love interest? For Rey or Poe?) and comic relief;
  • faces his moment of doubt in Maz Kanata’s Cantina, and Refuses his adventure;
  • is in the Dark Cave when is defeated by Kylo Ren in lightsaber duel (twice: he is a slow learner – was a stormtrooper, after all);
  • hasn’t met a Mentor yet, one who will unlock his true potential and guide him deeper into his Journey;
  • hasn’t met his Antagonist yet.
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“Am I gay?”. We will learn much more about Finn in the coming episodes!
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