The much anticipated next installment to the Star Wars saga, Episode VII: The Force Awakens, has finally made its way to video. The film, carefully and effectively piloted by director J.J. Abrams, crossed the $2 billion mark worldwide at the box office only two months after its December 2015 release. Of course, no one is surprised. Disney spent $4 billion dollars acquiring the franchise and they knew—without any doubt—that they would earn their money back and then some when all three films were said and done. No force required to see this one.
Overall the film garnered positive reviews. The biggest criticism, with which I’m partially sympathetic, is that it was too redolent of A New Hope: an obscure, though unknowingly gifted desert-dweller, the Death Star-esque weapon with the capacity to obliterate entire planets (or in this case planetary systems), the sinister—though vastly less iconic—relative of Vader with the same propensity to force-fully threaten his incompetent underlings. Still, and maybe because there is nothing like sitting in a packed theater, the smell of buttered popcorn and Milk Duds thick in the air, and having that famous score burst in my ears while watching bold Franklin Gothic Demi typeface glide out into space on the screen, I enjoyed it. I just can’t shake its nostalgic charm, I guess.
The film takes place thirty years after The Return of the Jedi. A new, nefarious organization, the First Order, has risen from the ruins of the fallen Empire set out to do what any evil institution—whether in fiction or reality—is ever interested in doing: achieving complete and merciless reign over everyone else. The Resistance, led by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), stands athwart the corrupt order like the rebel fighters before them. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has gone into hiding after one of his Jedi trainees, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), turned on him and joined the Dark Side. Oh, and that treacherous trainee, well he so happens to be Han and Leia’s son. Cue dramatic interest.
Both the Resistance and the First Order are after a small droid, BB-8, which is safeguarding a piece of a map detailing Skywalker’s whereabouts. After a special effects-packed first couple of scenes, the endearing BB-8 ends up in the hands of a defected stormtrooper, Finn (John Boyega), and a wandering scavenger, Rey (Daisey Ridley). Soon after, they run into Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and everyone’s favorite Wookie (Peter Mayhew), setting the stage for the rest of the film.
As I watched the film a second time, I couldn’t help but notice similarities between the force and God’s providential will. The force serves as an omniscient intelligence that guides the lives and actions of many of the characters in the film while still respecting and working within the confines of their individual freedom. Now, I do not mean to mistake the force with the grace of God. The force serves as a magical power with two opposing sides: the light and the dark. In fact, there is something of Gnosticism in the portrayal of these two sides. One could argue that they are equal forces in opposition. Such a belief applied to good and evil would fall under the heretical philosophy of Manichaeism. With God, good is not evil’s equal, even though evil may appear victorious temporarily. As we know from Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, God will ultimately have his way in this world: the war has already been won. And the victor? Love. Yet I think it’s safe to say we can glean similarities between the way God works in our world and the portrayal of the Light Side in the Star Wars universe.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church has this to say about God’s providence:
“By his providence God protects and governs all things which he has made, ‘reaching mightily from one end of the earth to the other, and ordering all things well’. For ‘all are open and laid bare to his eyes’, even those things which are yet to come into existence through the free action of creatures.”
We believe that God works through his creatures while fully respecting their free will and self-directing agency in order to fulfill his perfectly willed cosmic plan. It’s a mystery, as the interplay of God’s providence and our creaturely free will is not fully understood, though nevertheless present. The Catechism continues, fleshing out this truth:
“Though often unconscious collaborators with God’s will, they can also enter deliberately into the divine plan by their actions, their prayers and their sufferings. They then fully become ‘God’s fellow workers’ and co-workers for his kingdom.”
We see this idea echoed right from the start of the film, as Finn, not so affectionately referred to by the First Order as FN-2187, demonstrates moral heroics by helping one of the Resistance pilots Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) escape. However, the escape proves a tad bumpy, hurling them onto the Tatooine-like Planet of Jakku. Finn, now separated from Poe, runs into BB-8 (the most sought after droid in the galaxy) and the lissome Rey. By following the promptings of what he felt was “the right thing to do,” Finn enters into the grand narrative of good versus evil. As God calls us by name through baptism and the entering into the life of grace, so too is Finn given an identity when he chooses to cooperate with the Light Side. He is no longer a cog in an intergalactic machine—a sterile serial number—but rather, as Poe later calls him, a “good man” who deserves the dignity of a real name: Finn.
The similarities between the force and God’s providential will are also conveyed through the types of characters that are chosen to bring about this greater plan of goodness. Like an unnamed ex-stormtrooper, Rey serves as an undistinguished scavenger on a fringe desert planet. In Rey’s case, it becomes evident that the force is strong with her—even miraculously strong—and so something seems to be working behind the scenes in bringing her to the fore of this grave battle of light versus dark. Of all the millions of planets for BB-8 to be stranded on, it ends up with Rey, who might be their only hope against the Dark Side. At one point, Han Solo even says, “Do you think it was luck that we found the falcon?” No. Luck isn’t the entity operating behind the scenes and using seemingly nondescript individuals to oppose the burgeoning Dark Side.
Does not God do the same with his saints? From twelve ordinary apostles to humble saints like Saint Thérèse of Lisieux to the Mother of God herself—God delights in fulfilling his purposes for good using the lowly, weak or forgotten.
“And His mercy is from generation to generation
on those who fear Him.
He has shown might with His arm,
He has scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart.
He has put down the mighty from their thrones,
and has exalted the lowly.”
However, even though the Light Side is orchestrating something, the characters still must freely choose to cooperate with one of the two forces that are battling for their allegiance. In one scene, Kylo Ren, fuming with Sith-appropriate rancor—not the behemoth creature from “Return of the Jedi”—petitions his grandfather for help before a melted Vader mask (which is odd, since he surely must have known growing up that Anakin managed one of those “lucky” death-bed conversions, right?). Kylo Ren can feel the “pull of the light,” and he is clearly haunted throughout the film by fear, anxiety and distress. As St. Ignatius describes in his famed and revelatory Spiritual Exercises, “it is characteristic of the evil spirit to harass with anxiety, to afflict with sadness, to raise obstacles backed by fallacious reasonings that disturb the soul.” Kylo Ren, like all of the film’s characters, is caught smack dab in the middle of a spiritual battle between light and dark, good and evil.
To no one’s surprise, Rey, Finn and the Resistance prove victorious in the film’s finale. Yet, we’re left in cinematic limbo with several questions remaining (whetting our anticipation for the next two films). We’re also left with an underlying sadness due to a tragic loss (I won’t spoil it for the two or three people left in the world who still haven’t seen it) and there remains a tone of unrest, disquieting tension. However, the film still manages to leave its characters—and us—with a vague but visible hope. The light has not been fully overtaken by darkness, and there is, shall we say, an even newer hope in the air. The forces behind the Light Side are up to something, even though we don’t know exactly what. As the credits roll and we depart from the fictional dream and enter back into our own lives—filled with real forces of light and dark—we recall that like these far off and ancient characters, we too aren’t left without hope—for we know God’s loving providence is working ceaselessly behind the scenes for our eternal good.
“Everything comes from love, all is ordained for the salvation of man, God does nothing without this goal in mind.”
St. Catherine of Siena
This post was first published at Bishop Robert Barron’s Word On Fire blog.
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