Like many millennials, I eagerly awaited and followed news of the Star Wars film, Episode VII: The Force Awakens. Having now seen the film, I affirm that its ethos is more Jewish even than its predecessors. J.J. Abrams' newest installment moves and inspires us with its vulnerability and its lack of artifice. Unlike Episodes I-III (released in 1999, 2002, and 2005), which were mired by CGI, whiny protagonists, offensive racial caricatures, and garbled plots, this episode returns to a mythos steeped in the work of Joseph Campbell and Kurosawa, granting the film a timeless quality that appeals to multiple generations. Most importantly, this film, like Episodes IV-VI (the original three films), grapples with the ideas of human nature and free will.
Prior to release, there were many rumors regarding the new film, directed by our coreligionist Abrams, speculating that Luke had succumbed to the dark side of the force, following in the footsteps of his father. Those circulating this theory asserted that Luke’s transformation would be linked to his incomplete training. In the Return of the Jedi (Episode VI), he departs from his teacher, Jedi Master Yoda in order to come to the aid of his sister Leia and friends Han and Chewbacca. Yoda warns him that this will ultimately lead him to his own destruction. I hoped that this was not Luke’s “destiny."
As a father, a Jew, and a human, I have been deeply moved by Lucas’s insistence that children are not obligated to follow the paths of their parents and by his very nuanced and authentic idea of the duality of human nature. I hope that my son will always love and honor me, but I also have to believe and affirm that he has the freedom of choice to walk his own paths. Though all humanity is of “one mint” [to paraphrase our rabbis], every coin, every individual is unique and important. I yearned for a new Star Wars film that celebrates these values.
In this spirit, The Force Awakens celebrates the theme of free will in a most insistent and daring manner. It seems that both Kylo Ren, a Dark Sith who styles himself after Darth Vader and Rey, an “orphan” who takes up cause with a stormtrooper turned rebel, are the progeny of Princess Leia and Han Solo. Ren, estranged from his loving parents, is tempted by the light inside of him and seeks ever to squelch it with heinous acts violence, including the murder of his fellow jedi apprentices and (spoiler alert) patricide. He has recovered the charred remains of his grandfather Anakin/Darth Vader’s helmet and literally worships it, trying to channel Vader’s energy. Ironically, Vader chose the path of light in the end, giving his life in order to save his son Luke from Emperor Palpatine. Moreover, at the conclusion of Return of the Jedi, we see Anakin standing beside Jedi masters Yoda and Obi Wan Kenobi, smiling at the triumph of his son’s better nature and the rebel alliance.
Rey, who was separated at some point from Leia and Han, is selfless, strong, and compassionate, despite her poverty, loneliness and lack of familial presence. When confronted with the power of her lineage she rejects it and only picks up the lightsaber of Luke Skywalker in order to defend herself from Kylo Ren. Even after she realizes her extraordinary abilities, she seeks not to rally those of the light to her, but to find Luke, who has become a recluse, in penitence it seems for his failure in regard to Ren. Without any words, but with a most plaintive and sincere gaze, Rey offers Luke his lightsaber, in the final and most powerful gesture of the film.
Cantor Michael McCloskey