Star Wars: The Force Awakens broke numerous box office records its opening weekend, and probably a few hearts along with it. At the press screening I attended several days before the movie's release, a fellow critic harnessed his inner Rey and glanced over at BB-8 me to ask if I was OK. "Yes," I responded. He shook his head, like he was trying to deny a truth, and said, "I didn't see that coming." (Warning: The Force Awakens spoilers ahead.)
Han Solo's Death
While The Force Awakens delivered on the Star Wars staple of surprises, I knew what moment had set him back on his heels: the death of Han Solo. I've watched the movie with full theaters four more times since, and the audience shock never dissipated. Apparently Harrison Ford's appeal for people to not spoil the movie worked.
While Han Solo's role in the movie created most of the surprises for me, his death was not one of them. When Lucasfilm announced the return of the original trilogy Big Three actors, the rules of Star Wars dictated one of them had to die. Many have experienced the saga movies in the order they were released — but imagine starting with the prequel trilogy, falling in love with the character of Obi-Wan Kenobi, then watching your favorite Jedi die at the hands of Darth Vader in A New Hope. The prequel trilogy's opening act, The Phantom Menace, mirrors the original trilogy and kills the hero's first mentor, Qui-Gon Jinn. The only question heading into The Force Awakens was which legacy character would ascend into the position of mentor.
Ford's age (the actor is 73) and his long-publicized desire to see Han Solo sacrificed during the original trilogy made him a likely candidate. Ford had maintained an acrimonious relationship with the franchise, at times dismissing the character's significance. In 2010, Ford told ABC he thought Han Solo "was not so interesting" as a character and that the smuggler-turned-Rebel "should have died in [Return of the Jedi] to give it some bottom."
Although Ford may have struggled with being identified with the iconic Star Wars character, the behind-the-scenes insights revealed in J.W. Rinzler's The Making of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back and The Making of Star Wars: Return of the Jedi suggest he gave the part all he had — including ad-libbing one of the most iconic Star Wars lines of all time: Han's cocky reply "I know" to Leia's heartfelt admission "I love you." The effort paid off: Han Solo tops Luke Skywalker in most popularity polls of Star Wars fans, including Empire magazine's 100 Greatest Movie Characters list, which featured Darth Vader at No. 2, Han Solo at No. 4, and Luke Skywalker over halfway down the list at No. 54.
As The Force Awakens' press tour rolled out the month before the movie's premiere, interviewers seemed particularly interested in Ford's relationship with the character he made famous, including his past desire to see Solo die. Ford used the same casual rationalization in November as he did this week admonishing those inclined to spread spoilers across the Internet: reminding reporters and audiences alike that part of the magic of Star Wars is experiencing the moments along with the characters. When the official trailer hit during Monday Night Football in October, fans were given a peek into the characters' journeys. Rey, who we knew little about except that she would be the movie's hero, stood transfixed beside former Stormtrooper Finn as Han Solo delivered a brief history of the Jedi and the Force. In that one glimpse, it became evident who the guiding mentor and eventual sacrifice of this new hero's journey would be.
The Presence of Obi-Wan Kenobi
Though I wasn't surprised by Han's death, the fateful scene still had the capacity to surprise me. I gasped right along with almost every other Star Wars fan when the reluctant hero strode out on the Starkiller Base catwalk and shouted the name "Ben!" The name isn't new to this era of Star Wars, but in the Star Wars Expanded Universe, now deemed an alternative timeline, Luke Skywalker had a son named after his dead Jedi mentor. Hearing the name used for Han and Leia's son was an unexpected twist for fans familiar with previous Star Wars lore.
Obi-Wan "Ben" Kenobi's presence hovers in the story like a watchful Force ghost in several other ways, as well. His archetype is seen briefly in Lor San Tekka (Max von Sydow), a trusted ally of Leia Organa secluded on a remote desert world. The way Rey shoos off a desert scavenger to save a droid mirrors Obi-Wan's first appearance in A New Hope. As Rey's vision unfolds in the depths of Maz Kanata's castle, the Jedi Master's voice can be heard calling out her name and then uttering the words "these are your first steps." Interestingly, director J.J. Abrams revealed that the spoken "Rey" is snipped from original trilogy Kenobi actor Alec Guinness's dialogue, while his prequel trilogy counterpart, Ewan McGregor, recorded the rest. When Kylo Ren abducts Rey and carries her limp form onto his shuttle, the scene mirrors his namesake carrying unconscious Padmé Amidala — Kylo Ren's grandmother — into her shuttle after defeating Darth Vader on Mustafar.
In a dramatic irony reminiscent of his grandfather's selfish choices creating the sources of his own tragedy, Ren's assault on Rey's mind in pursuit of the map to Luke Skywalker becomes the tipping point that creates a new Jedi foe. Once Rey pushes the bully Ren out of her mind — a very Padmé-like act — she employs a Jedi mind trick to escape, recalling Obi-Wan evading Stormtroopers during A New Hope. For some, Rey's mind trick has become a sticking point, but the movie establishes the origins of her attempt at the Jedi technique. Leia's ally Lor San Tekka follows the dictates of the Church of the Force and expresses to Poe Dameron his reverence for the Jedi Knights of old, so word of their exploits easily could have made its way around Jakku. Rey's dialogue with Finn and later with Han indicates she has heard stories about the Jedi, and even knows the name Luke Skywalker from the myths and tales. Who wouldn't, upon discovering they might have magical powers, try to use one you heard about in a story?
The Fact That We Still Don't Know Who Rey's Parents Are
Probably the biggest question on everyone's mind going into The Force Awakens didn't get answered. Who is this newly awakened Jedi hope, Rey? The leading candidates before the movie were a daughter of Han and Leia or a daughter of Luke, with an occasional voice suggesting a grandchild of Obi-Wan Kenobi or a person with no familial ties to the characters of the saga, known in fandom circles as "Rey Random." As people left the movie, some had been swayed from one opinion to another, particularly because of what went unsaid by Han and Leia. What can't be forgotten when considering Star Wars, however, is just how much of what Obi-Wan Kenobi says in A New Hope is revealed to be lies, or metaphorically accurate from a certain point of view, in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. It would be folly when speculating about Rey to put too much weight on what is said between characters who would have emotionally grounded reasons not to exposition-dump information unrelated to the direct topic of the conversation.
It also is unwise to dismiss the potential contents of conversations that happen off screen, such as when Maz asks Han about the girl and the scene cuts away. No matter what you see written by speculators, The Force Awakens doesn't definitively eliminate any of the possibilities for who Rey is or how she ended up on Jakku as a young child. Yet at the same time, it does an incredible job of foreshadowing any of those possibilities.
What we do know is that Abrams has left the answer to the question on everyone's mind to Episode VIII director Rian Johnson, and in a surprising twist, producer Kathleen Kennedy revealed that all the actors, including Ford, would be back for the next installment. Before Darth Vader strikes down Obi-Wan Kenobi, the Jedi warns that he "shall become more powerful than you could possibly imagine." The bold prediction holds true for Kenobi and his fallen mentor Qui-Gon Jinn during the prequel trilogy. While the possibilities for Rey's parentage circulate in the back of the mind, the burning question is: how powerful can a non-Force user become in the lore of Star Wars?
Tricia Barr is author of the award-winning space opera Wynde and Ultimate Star Wars and is a featured contributor for Star Wars Insider magazine. She cohosts the popular Star Wars podcast Fangirls Going Rogue. Tweet to her @fangirlcantina!