This article contains spoilers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens
What is the Star Wars story about? That’s a simple question that lacks a simple answer. If you ask George Lucas – the creator of the series and the man who guided it over four decades, six films, and more than 100 episodes of television – he would almost certainly tell you that the Star Wars story, his Star Wars story, is about the rise, fall, and eventual redemption of Anakin Skywalker. The problem is this answer rings false when you look at the way the series evolved over time. Far be it for me to argue with the author over his intent for the series (and despite the involvement and significant input of other extremely talented creatives, Lucas is definitively the author of Star Wars), but this is pretty clearly revisionist history that reframes the whole arc of the series to favor the story he was most recently trying to tell in the prequels.
If you look at the original trilogy of films, it’s very clearly not the story of Anakin Skywalker – the fact that the name Anakin isn’t even established until the final film in the trilogy is but the least of the evidence for this case. At best, it’s the story of a son having to deal with the implications of his heritage and struggle to overcome the sins of his father. It’s tempting, then, to call Star Wars a story of the Skywalker family; a father who fell to the Dark Side and a son who overcame it, and in fact that’s what the vast majority of people will tell you. However, if you go back, all the way back, even that turns out to not be quite true.
Star Wars – the original Star Wars as a singular film before it exploded out in a million different directions – is a deceptively simple story, and that narrative simplicity is essential to what makes it work. The thing that makes this first film so special is the way it creates a wide open universe full of infinite possibilities. As much as they may try, few stories are able to do what Star Wars did. Countless films since have tried to walk in Lucas’ footsteps by using the Campbellian Hero’s Journey as a story outline to which one must be slavishly faithful, but in doing so they misunderstand the genius of what Lucas accomplished. The power of Star Wars is not in the way it reuses old tropes, but how it’s able to create a galaxy full of possibilities that positively set your imagination on fire. By grounding the film in a familiar story, Lucas was able to provide an anchor for audiences before throwing them headfirst into this weird, crazy world. There are all of these small references to histories and events unseen that are almost offhandedly mentioned, so to keep you grounded, the film relies on an incredibly simple story. This is not a grand story of redemption for a villain, nor a sprawling tale of familial drama – all of that would come later. No, here at the beginning, Star Wars was just about an ordinary kid who is called to fight back against the failures of the past.
Remember that this film arrived during the height of the Cold War, in the wake of Vietnam, and an economic recession not unlike the one we’re still feeling the effects of. The themes of a world destroyed by the past and a future being fought for by a younger generation echo throughout the film. The later stories of a family conflict are merely an extrapolation on the conflict of generations that is – has always been – at the heart of Star Wars.
Even the prequels are more about a struggle between generations than they are about family. Sure, these movies are all about Papa Skywalker, but his kids aren’t born until the final moments of the final film in the trilogy. Instead, the core conflict centers on a younger generation having to deal with the failings of an older one, in this case it’s Anakin having to deal with the return of the Sith after they were allowed to gain strength thanks to a Jedi Order that was too complacent and caught up in their own dogma to realize the darkness rising literally beneath their gaze.* The fact that Anakin dealt with this badly does not negate the fact that his entire story is predicated on having to deal with the mess left behind by his elders.
And that brings us to the newest film in the saga. In The Force Awakens we’re once again dealing with generational conflict, though this time it’s on a few different fronts. You have the failures of the new Republic, which allow the First Order to rise to power; but there’s also the continuation of Skywalker family drama with Ben Solo, the nephew of Luke Skywalker, repeating the mistakes of his grandfather. We still don’t know a lot of the details of these conflicts, but what little we can infer (or read in tie-in stories) echoes with familiar themes. You have a political institution that, in their complacency, allows an old enemy to gain strength at the edges of the galaxy, and you have a son caught between the influences of two competing father figures. But The Force Awakens is not the First Order’s story, or the Resistance’s, or even Kylo Ren’s. It’s the story of an orphan living on a backwater planet, yearning for the parents she’s never known. It’s the story of Rey.
In keeping with the notions of family and cross-generational stories, The Force Awakens is pregnant with the question of Rey’s parentage, though the film never actually answers the question and, in fact, seems to offer contradictory evidence at different points in the story. Her inheritance of the Skywalker family blade, the way in which both her appearance and role in the narrative are designed to mirror Luke, and the final scene in the film all point to the conclusion that Rey is Luke’s daughter, and yet moments like the one in which Maz urges her to move past the parents she’s never known and instead seek training from Luke (which, incidentally, was added late in the process) seem tell a different story. Rey’s backstory is being set up to be the driving question of Star Wars Episode VIII, and while I’m not convinced The Force Awakens is even entirely sure what the answer to that question is, I am sure that Rey winding up as another Skywalker would be a huge bummer.
On the most practical level, nearly everyone already assumes that Rey being Luke’s kid is either or a foregone conclusion or at least the most likely scenario, so what’s the purpose of kicking that reveal down the road? If, after two years of buildup, the answer to this question turns out to be exactly what we thought it was, it’ll have all the impact of a bug splat against a windshield. That’s the problem with making Rey’s past a mystery: in order for this reveal to be perceived as “worth the wait” it will need to be something other than the single most obvious answer. In addition to that somewhat shallow and superficial reasoning it’s more interesting on almost every level if Rey is not Luke’s daughter.
Consider Kylo Ren’s role in all of this. As far as we know right now, Ben is the sole heir to the Skywalker lineage, and as the heir he has vowed to follow in his grandfathers footsteps and finish the work that Vader started. If Rey turns out to be Luke’s daughter, suddenly she becomes the true heir and Ben’s claim to the proverbial crown is weakened. That itself is a fine story, in fact, some might even call it classic. The rightful king returning from exile to banish the interloper from their kingdom. I’m not opposed to having a little Hamlet in my Star Wars, but I’d prefer if it wasn’t just Hamlet. It’d be a much more exciting twist on the story if Ben was, in fact, the rightful heir, but because he’s made such a mess of things we’re rooting for the kingdom to be reclaimed by the interloper. If Rey, by her training from Luke, is adopted into the Skywalker family, that makes everything so much more thematically rich and vibrant than if this was something she has inherited by birth.
Think about the symbolic importance of Anakin’s lightsaber: this family heirloom, thought to have been lost, suddenly returns, but instead of Ben reclaiming that which he believes to be his birthright, it finds its way into the hands of some nobody. The Skywalker torch is passed not to the biological son who is forwarding the darkness and evil that corrupted the family name, but instead to the adopted daughter who represents the true heritage of the Skywalkers. This is a blade that belonged to heroes, and when those heroes tasted the Dark Side it was lost to them; now in a time when there are no heroes left among the Skywalkers, it choses someone outside the bloodline to carry on its legacy.
This is all metaphorical, of course, because lightsabers do not actually choose their owner (this is not Harry Potter), but it plays into a bigger issue that I have with the way the Star Wars saga has evolved over seven films. In discussing this newest film online, I’ve come to find that a large number of Star Wars fans simply don’t believe that Rey could be strong in the Force unless she was a Skywalker. I’ve even argued with someone on Twitter who went so far as to say they’d be offended if this “legendary” lightsaber called a non-family member its owner, and it’s all the result of Star Wars‘ small universe syndrome.
The thing that made the original 1977 film so special was the way it presented a massive universe with seemingly endless possibilities. Re-watching it recently, that’s what I was most struck with; even though I’ve seen all seven movies, watched both television series, and read dozens of tie-in comics and novels, none of that matters when watching that original film. It still inspires me to imagine countless stories – stories that are wildly different from the established canon. In many ways, it’s the establishment of that canon that has spoiled the very thing made Star Wars special in the first place. Starting with The Empire Strikes Back, every piece of media in the series has served to limit those possibilities; to take this wide open universe and build walls to confine it.
Instead of simply being some ordinary kid who is called to a greater purpose, Luke becomes the son of the galaxy’s most notorious villain, and not only that, but he’s the twin sister of the person who sent the message to Obi-Wan Kenobi that set this whole adventure in motion, and oh, don’t forget that Darth Vader was literally immaculately conceived by the Force and has more Force bacteria in his blood than any other being that has ever lived, and was prophesied to bring balance to the Force and die on the Death Star for our sins. Over the course of 40 years, everything that made Luke heroic in that original film has been stripped from him until he’s now nothing more than a preordained piece in some cosmic game of chess.
That, quite frankly, sucks. I hate the idea of the Force being something that is inherited, that the only people who can make a difference in this story are the ones who were born into the family with the best midi-chlorians. If Rey is just another Skywalker, then this new trilogy will have fallen victim to the ever diminishing scope of this narrative world that was once as vast as our imaginations.
That’s part of the reason I love Star Wars Rebels so much. Ezra – the series’ protagonist – isn’t a Skywalker, in fact, his parents weren’t even Jedi. He’s the orphaned son of a couple of idealists who were captured for speaking out against the Empire, and yet he’s allowed to be strong in the Force, he’s allowed to be a hero without anyone feeling the need to see if his midi-chlorian count is consistent with the Skywalkers. Star Wars Rebels is as Star Wars as any piece of media that’s ever existed and (a few Vader cameos notwithstanding) there’s not a Skywalker to be found. It’s a story of one generation fighting to correct the mistakes of their predecessors, and it’s a story of a family united not by blood, but by dedication to a shared cause.
That’s what I want from this new Star Wars trilogy. I want Star Wars to take its first step back into a larger world and remember that it’s not your blood that makes you a hero, but your willingness to take a stand and do the right thing when called upon to do so. These new films have the potential to break free of Star Wars‘ small universe syndrome and open up the door for endless possibilities again, to reassess what is required to participate in this story of generations and of families. It’s time that Star Wars remembered that the Force can call to anyone if they’re willing to just let it in.
*Though never mentioned in the films, the Jedi Temple on Coruscant was built atop the ruins of an ancient Sith shrine. The Jedi arrogantly believed that they could snuff out this darkness, but instead it slowly permeated the temple eventually causing the Jedi to become blind to the return of the Sith.