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Like just about everyone else in the world, I rushed to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens as soon as it was out in theaters.
The Force Awakens hits a lot of home runs: a diverse cast, depth, and a surprisingly unique villain. But most of all, what it gets so wonderfully right is the tone. This is the first time that Star Wars has truly felt like Star Wars since Return of the Jedi. While I never actively loathed the prequel trilogy—though I did find it tedious and underwhelming—I think that the one area where it most missed the boat was that it lost the stunning combination that made the original trilogy so potent: that combination of a mystical, spiritual backdrop (the force, the Jedi) with a rugged, rebellious cast of outlaw characters. If anything, Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy felt more like Star Wars than the prequels.
And one thing that The Force Awakens definitely knocked out of the park was how it used the character of Luke Skywalker.
From the first words of the opening scroll—Luke Skywalker has vanished—we know that, despite Luke’s absence from all the marketing, his existence is going to be the crux of the entire movie. What we couldn’t have predicted, of course, was that Luke only actually appears at the very end, and that for the majority of The Force Awakens he is an unseen enigma, casting his shadow over the proceedings.
It’s perfect. And here’s why.
It Cements His Legacy
It would have been one thing to say that Luke was a mythical legend. But by keeping him offscreen, only hearing about him through other characters, the movie shows us that he’s a legend, and makes it believable. Because we don’t see Luke, the mere mention of his name is enough so stir up deep emotion, recognition of the farm boy we once knew, who has now disappeared somewhere unseen—much like the fictional character has disappeared in our world, until now.
Consider real life inspirational figures like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Abraham Lincoln. We’ve never met them, never will meet them, and they seem like legends—but they were actually real people, with real flaws and real struggles. In the galaxy that Star Wars takes place in, Luke is the equivalent.
The reappearance of all of the other original cast members is exciting, but the absence of Luke makes him the one who we really want to see. And by using this approach, by focusing so much on Luke without showing him, The Force Awakens beautifully reestablishes the fact that Luke Skywalker, not Anakin, is the true iconic hero of the Star Wars universe.
It Gives Us a Chance to Love the New Characters
If Luke had appeared in the first scene of the movie, then he’s all we would have focused on. It would have been hard to see the terrific new characters of Rey, Fin, Poe and so on as anything other than substitutes for “the real thing.”
Instead, by giving us time to really appreciate these new characters before any of the original cast is reintroduced, it allows us to connect to them as audience stand-ins, ala Hurley from Lost. This means that when Han Solo and Chewie first reenter the scene, Rey and Fin feel just as amazed as we do, and ask the questions that we might ask.
Speaking of Han…
Because of Luke’s Absence, Han Solo Gets to Shine
If there’s one thing that almost everyone can agree on, it’s that Harrison Ford was the unexpected star of this movie in a big way. Han is still the same Han, just as quick-witted and rebellious, but older and wiser with age. There’s a certain gravitas that’s new to the character, and that now-famous scene where Han speaks about the force—“It’s true. All of it.”—is destined to be one of the most iconic scenes of the entire series.
Now consider: if Luke had a physical presence in the movie, he would have clearly had a fatherly/Obi-Wan-type relationship with Rey. Because he wasn’t, it allowed for Rey to instead form this relationship with Han, and thus show us a brand new side of a classic character who, in the past, has always taken the backseat.
Though Han was the cult hero of the original trilogy, he was still a side character. In The Force Awakens, Han powerfully takes center stage in a way he never has before, solidifying the character’s legacy.
The Slightly Post-Modern Touch Makes the Whole Thing Just Perfect
At the beginning of the movie, Max von Sydow says, when giving Poe the map to Luke, “This will begin to put things right.”
Even though the prequels made millions of dollars, they also damaged Star Wars as a brand. The prequels, in many ways, replaced the original trilogy in the public consciousness, and while many new fans were created, many of the older fans lost their love of Star Wars.
So consider this: in the universe of The Force Awakens, Luke Skywalker is to the characters what the original trilogy is to us.
Luke is the elusive beam of light that everyone once loved, just as fans of the original movies loved them. Luke is the past, he is the Star Wars that we all remember from our childhoods, that has been hiding somewhere for the last few decades—certainly remembered, but hard to pinpoint and even harder to find.
By finding Luke at the end of The Force Awakens, our new heroine Rey can “begin to put things right.” And hopefully, with The Force Awakens, the Star Wars franchise can do the same.