The first thing I want to say about Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens is this: the movie is just plain fun. It’s delightful. It’s fun in that giddy way that leaves a person breathless because Did you see that? That was so cool!
The characters, especially our new young heroes Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Finn (John Boyega), openly express amazement at the impossible things they see. They shout to one another in sentences they can’t even finish. Even Han Solo (Harrison Ford) cracks a half-smile. Their excitement is infectious. This galaxy is wonderful to be in.
In this movie, the Force calls out to characters in powerful ways.
In both philosophy and theology, wonder at the world is the beginning of knowledge. Wonder is the provocation just before the question, the staggering something that draws us nearer to what we do not grasp. Philosophers like Josef Pieper insist that wonder is the basis of what is really human. That is to say, one of the things that marks us as human beings is our ability to ask questions simply because we are amazed. Or, to be more precise, our humanity is in our ability to be amazed.
Still, wonder is not the same as naiveté. When we meet a war-weary General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) or watch Rey scavenge from the hollow wreckage of a Star Destroyer, we see the ways that The Force Awakens quotes its own past not only out of joy, but also out of sorrow. Decades after the events of Return of the Jedi, we must ask if anything in the galaxy has changed. Here is the new desert planet Jakku, but who can tell the difference in the faceless sand?
The arc of Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), our central antagonist, offers a poignant gesture toward evil of the past, and evil as goodness gone very wrong. He bears a mask because he wants to be like Darth Vader. He is not quite like Darth Vader, and his rage over this terrifies us as it sympathizes him.
I loved the ways that the new movie quoted the original trilogy, particularly A New Hope. Not every reviewer has been so enthusiastic about these frequent allusions, and I admit a reference or two became too much. But I love repetition in itself, and I know that creativity is in repetition. I’m a Catholic, a creature of liturgy and sacrament, and repetition is my primary language. Here is the secret to the grammar: doing the same thing does not make it the same thing. We have celebrated Christmas before, for example, and we will again. Next year, the Church will again act as if Jesus has yet to come. And the truth is that he already has and he hasn’t yet, and both are true in the repetition of the same thing. God is with us; God will be with us. Or again, the baptized child is marked with the same permanent character that all the baptized bear, and yet this is a particular life that God has intended to live as no one else ever has or ever will. We all are called to be Christ; we are all called in ways unique to us. The same baptism, the same mission, and yet different in the repetition. Only you are you.
Personal uniqueness is less vivid in the case of Star Wars, which is rooted in an eternal conflict between light and dark. There will always be the rise of evil and the emergence of a hero. If there is not Luke – wherever he is – there is Rey and there is Finn. Good and evil will not cease their struggle. Essentially, Star Wars suffers from the deep fracture of dualism, which is to say that it posits good and evil as equal qualities of existence. They are different “sides” of the Force, and the Force is not itself without both sides. Many beautiful thought systems and stories presume dualism, and most modern thought bases itself in a dualism of one kind or another.
Christianity is not dualistic, though, and in a certain respect this position is unique to it. Early Christian writers such as Irenaeus and Basil the Great insisted that God – who is good – created ex nihilo (out of nothing). That is to say, there is no entity or reality opposed to God or outside of God. God created everything that is. If something or someone is opposed to God, still God made it and still it is fundamentally good. Evil, in this way of thinking, is more of an abuse of the good rather than a thing in itself. There is no “Dark Side,” only the use of light to do dark things. It is more threatening in its way, and more heart breaking, and very difficult to write.
Dualism is not the only problem in Star Wars. I hate to level a critique this serious against my beloved Star Wars, but its own dualism basically means that its universe has no eschatology. No end and summary and fulfillment of all things. This is, rather, a galaxy forever long ago and forever far away, and in that it is a sense history-less and a future-less galaxy. Light and dark press against one another forever. Theological hope is, then, impossible in Star Wars. There is no finality in which hope can be founded. I am regretfully admitting that the Star Wars universe does not reference real transcendence. Even the Force is not especially supernatural, though it is especially awesome.
But here we arrive at my favorite part of The Force Awakens. In this movie, the Force calls out to characters in powerful ways. By calling out to others, the Force poses the question – to the characters and to the audience – of who particular characters are really, and what they might end up doing. Or what they are resisting.
The Force begs the question of what is missing in Star Wars. It points toward a transcendence that it does not quite express. To be called, after all, is always to ask a question of transcendence: who are you, and what are you doing? It is the question fundamental to the Gospel (“will you follow?”).
There is a moment near the end – I won’t spoil anything – but there is a moment near the end when a character is reminded of the Force. It is perhaps the one moment of contemplation in the entire movie, and it’s in the middle of an act of violence. Everything stops, and the character struggles in an invisible search. Pauses enough to be (desperately) amazed.
Anne Carpenter is a professor of theology at St. Mary’s College of California
Watch the trailer here: