Thoughts on Aging Characters in Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Warning ***** Minor spoilers below*****
Much is being made of the new Star Wars and the overwhelming success that it is in restoring the legacy of the franchise. I agree wholeheartedly. I felt like a 9 year old watching the film. So much was done right. The “feel” was there. Everything great about 4, 5, 6 was present and everything awful about 1, 2, 3 was gone.
I’m sure there are people who are qualified to discuss why this works from a film-making perspective better than I can. But the element of the film that continues to play over in my mind is wonderful handling of the original cast’s aging and how it stirs up some core truths of a human life to the surface for exploration.
We met the original cast nearly 40 years ago, during their epic adventure that is certainly the highlight of their lives. We all remember Luke as a whiny kid who becomes a hero. Han Solo as the wise-cracking adventurer and Leia as the strong leader of the rebellion. And they were frozen there for us. We watched them over and over again. They looked the same every time. They had their strengths and clear weaknesses. They never changed. We knew them as they were in their 20s.
J.J. Abrams brings them back as supporting cast to new main characters. Sure, they each play a major role in this movie, but it’s in context to the new character’s experiences. The fact that these characters are older hangs heavy in the air.
At first, that they are so clearly physically aged is striking. Han Solo is gray and wrinkled. Leia is older and heavier (by they way, I can’t believe she is getting shit for this. She had poise, class and authority. She was a legit badass and I’m glad my daughter got to see her play this role exactly the way she looked. /minor rant). Luke looks worn down. Even Chewbacca has somegray hair.
But focusing on their physical appearance is just scratching the surface of meaning. What we are treated to is the life stories of Luke, Leia, Han, Chewy, C-3PO, and even R2 being filled in beyond that initial snapshot we had of them as young adults (or younger droids).
Some bad stuff has happened to them. Some good stuff too. But their lives have progressed beyond what we knew of them. They aren’t just the heroes that produced action figures, lunch boxes, countless spinoffs and billions of dollars of merchandise. They are now fully-formed characters in a story that spans decades. In an instant we confront their mortality and worthiness of their lives. And with that, our own lives too.
Being presented with this underlying theme really added to my enjoyment of the film. I loved the action, the story and the excitement of the plot. But meeting these characters again allows me to glimpse and ponder something deeply inside that is a core truth; what it means to live a full life beyond the highlight reel.
Toying with the idea of mortality and the passing of time isn’t easy. Of course, you may want to shutter these thoughts away and never confront them. I can understand why. It’s hard to think about the fact that we are growing older. However, to do that leaves you with a less rich understanding of what life is. And in my opinion attempting to deeply understand life, even if it can be sad to think about it’s fleeting nature, is better than going through life at the surface level. It makes life mean more.
In this particular case, the film reminds us that after we have our wild times, make our money, have our successes, and raise our families we continue to grow and add new chapters. We have joy and we have pain. It’s the entirety of those experiences that forms what we are and tells the whole story of our lives.
When a film reaches that deep into core truth and helps you ponder the meaning of life, it’s not just a great movie. It’s great art.