Light in the darkness & darkness in the light: Yin & yang in The Force Awakens

How many Star Wars blog posts is too many? This is my second about The Force Awakens. If you want my spoiler-free review it’s here, written the day the film was released. The following post does contain spoilers.

Woodblock print from WoodcutEmporium on Etsy. Source: https://www.etsy.com/listing/130958015/star-wars-yin-yang-woodblock-print

Woodblock print from WoodcutEmporium on Etsy.
Source: https://www.etsy.com/listing/130958015/star-wars-yin-yang-woodblock-print

I wrote in my previous post that Star Wars shows its audiences the complexity of people’s capacities for good and evil, kindness and cruelty, bravery and cowardice, zen calm and uncontrollable rage. Episode VII builds on the idea that there is both light and darkness within and around us all.

The stormtroopers are one example of how The Force Awakens teases out the complexity of our inner worlds. The First Order stormtroopers are, like their Galactic Empire predecessors, dressed in yin-yang colours of both black and white, with their white armour over black body-glove suits. I’ve always wondered why the characters who are the living arsenal of the Star Wars ‘bad guys’ wear white armour, when white is so often used in the franchise to symbolise goodness. Rather than being identical clones, the new stormtroopers are shown to have humanity and individuality, even though they are programmed henchmen of the dark organisation within the world of Star Wars.

There is ambiguity in the stormtroopers and the potential for alternate readings of them. A dominant reading might be: fascist ruling government = power-hungry murderous baddies / resistance = goodies fighting for peace and good (and power?). In a more resistant reading, within our current socio-political climate, we might ask what groups we consider to be well-armed governments with supreme power, who are hunting down groups of resistance and rebellion? What does Star Wars have to offer our world about the ways in which we view power and those who resist or challenge it, when the rebels and resistors are presented as the heroes?

In the Star Wars world presented to us in The Force Awakens, stormtroopers might be seen as victims of a dictatorship, loyal foot soldiers protecting order, or well-trained weapons of evil. The character of Finn, or FN-2187 (for fellow nerds, 2187 is the number of Leia’s cell on the Death Star in Episode IV), shows the most human side of the stormtrooper, by showing someone who, like the protagonists of the Bourne movies, despite his mental and physical programming to become a devoted warrior-soldier, rebels against conformity and embraces individuality. Is the message here that goodness can triumph? Or that the instinct for self-preservation trumps all? The first exchange between Finn and Poe is telling. When asked why he’s helping Poe, Finn replies: “Because it’s the right thing to do.” But Poe realises: “You need a pilot.” And Finn admits: “I need a pilot.” Finn wants to run, and to save himself, but, later reflects Han Solo’s reluctant heroism in the original episodes, when he returns and puts his life on the line to save his friend.

In another example of the entanglement of light and dark, in Episode VII we see Kylo Ren, while desperate to embrace his inner darkness, feeling “the pull of the light” and feeling “torn apart” by the struggle within him on his journey to villainhood. Adding to Kylo’s inner good, his real name, we discover, was ‘Ben’, the name that Obi-Wan Kenobi took on when he was in exile on Tatooine. Kylo’s choice to kill his father, to strengthen his dark powers, is reminiscent of Luke’s battle with his father and the Emperor, when the Emperor challenges Luke to strike him down, to give in to anger in order to become a servant to the dark side. In The Force Awakens, Kylo seems to struggle with his decision, but is committed to becoming like Darth Vader, his grandfather, who we know had his final moments as a good man-cyborg. Will Kylo’s fate be similar? (And will the next two movies in the trilogy be as derivative of the originals as The Force Awakens was of A New Hope? Or will there be narrative surprises along the way?)

In the lightsaber battle between Kylo and Rey, Luke’s blue lightsaber is like the sword Excalibur; it won’t budge for Kylo but flies violently past him to Rey. Kylo cannot control his anger (as we are also shown in his lightsaber slashing tantrums), while Rey, an untrained novice, closes her eyes mid-fight to “feel the Force” and strike Kylo. Here, the film sets up our main villain-hero pair, with a villain who has turned away from his family towards a powerful dark master, and a hero who is only beginning to know her own power. Kylo is set up as a baddie-in-training who might yet be saved, despite his murderous decision in Episode VII. The audience is left with the question: Is there enough yang in Kylo’s yin to bring him back to the light?

(An aside: What is Rey’s parentage? Is she Luke’s daughter? -“Rey, I am your father” – Is that why her power is so strong and why Luke’s lightsaber calls to her? Perhaps her mother was also a Jedi, which might explain why she is so intuitively powerful? Was she hidden on Jakku to protect her, as Luke was hidden on Tatooine? So is she related to Kylo? Are they cousins? Could they be brother and sister, somehow? What’s with the hug Leia gives Rey? It’s a familial kind of an embrace, complete with Skywalker family music.)

So the characters of Star Wars continue to show us the power of both the individual and the collective, and remind us that we all have choices to make about the paths we choose for ourselves. About whether we embrace darkness or light, but that both exist within us and around us. About whether, in times of stress and conflict, we choose to search for calm and goodness (the light side, the bright side, kindness, compassion, forgiveness), or we give in to negative feelings. Roll on Episode VIII.

The Force Awakens: What Star Wars tells us about humanity

This post doesn’t contain spoilers regarding what happens in Star Wars Episode VII. I promise!

I could have titled this post ‘Why I’m a big Star Wars nerd’, but it emerges from my reflections around the pro- and anti- Episode VII hype. As the film was released today, social and traditional media are filled with cries of ‘I can’t wait to see it’, ‘I’ve got no interest in seeing it’ or ‘I’d rather scratch out my eyeballs than see it’.

Why is Star Wars a franchise that people either love or dismiss? What is it about the series of films (especially Episodes IV, V and VI, and now VII) which drew so many of us in and continues to capture imaginations, 38 years after Episode IV was released? Why did I choose to go alone to the cinema (for the first time ever) to watch Episode VII today (apart from that my children were in school and I was on holidays, so I could)? Why did I watch the new episode with simultaneous anticipation, nostalgic joy, emotional investment and white-knuckle excitement?

One answer is that Star Wars films, like Shakespeare’s plays or Orwell’s novels, communicate the universality of humanity; the essence of what it is to be a person in the world. The films talk of the light and darkness within us all; our capacities for good and bad, kindness and cruelty, bravery and fear. In Star Wars, these struggles are internal and external; they happen within characters and across galaxies. Within the action-packed, emotion-charged fantasy world of Star Wars, we see the complexities of being human. We are shown the power of looking out for others, and of gaining self-control and self-awareness. We see people’s capacities for good and evil, quests for power, journeys of identity-becoming or identity-unravelling. The ethics of technology and the use and abuse of power are questioned.

Star Wars creates a universe in which heroes, male and female, ‘feel the Force’ and ‘search their feelings’. They are sensitive to the shared energies of the world around them, as well as a having a keen awareness of inner self and deeply felt emotion. It’s a world where heroes can be small, green creatures which speak in confused syntax, tall furry ones, or robots. Where mentorship and courage are found in unlikely places and anyone can save the galaxy, as long as they’re in touch with their senses and their feelings, and they have friends to support them on their journey.

At the beating heart of Star Wars is not the special effects, which have often been cutting edge for their time, but the relationships. We see the connections, compassion and conflict between friends, strangers, enemies, lovers and family, and combinations of these. These are underlined by the movies’ familiar scores, recognisable leitmotifs and iconic costumes which help to embed viewers in, and propel viewers along with, characters’ story arcs.

This time around, in Episode VII, The Force Awakens, battles for power re-emerge, but there is a little more 21st century diversity of gender and race. There is a female villain, a female heroine, a female general and a black hero, as well as the usual array of characters of various species, languages, sizes and levels of machination. While the film can be seen as an escape from reality, the universal themes of goodness, family, friendship and courage to do what is right or fight for those about whom you care, continue to resonate and have something to say about the world in which we live.

Fans of the original trilogy will be satisfied by Episode VII. It’s a fan’s film, a reawakening of the original spirit of the series, with plenty of recognisable hat-tip references. The movie brings together familiar Star Wars characters with new characters and modern special effects. It is funny and emotional. Fast paced and with enough unanswered questions to leave the audience intrigued for Episodes VIII and IX. The film doesn’t carve a new path for the Star Wars brand, but it does take its audience forward by embracing its past. My nerdy child-of-the-80s heart was bursting with old-school-meets-new-school Star Wars love.

Postscript: This post, written after a second viewing of the film, DOES contain spoilers.