*SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS*
No, really. This is the biggest spoiler in the Star Wars series since No, I Am Your Father, and that’s why I’m typing filler here specifically so that a reader can’t swing by and be spoiled in the three-line preview of this article my site’s going to give. So needless to say, only read this if you’ve already seen The Force Awakens or just don’t care about being spoiled.
Han Solo’s death in The Force Awakens is a shocking moment. In my theater, you could hear a pin drop in the packed-to-the-rafters audience. We sat and paid witness to the death of a character who is unquestionably the definitive renegade-with-a-good-heart, free-wheeling space badass.
And here’s why it was absolutely necessary.
First, there’s the question of Harrison Ford’s age. As of The Force Awakens, he’s in his seventies; they’re going forward with a whole cinematic universe of Star Wars films (if this scares you with thoughts of cash-grabbing, take heed – the House of Mouse also happens to own Marvel, who are doing the MCU, a cinematic universe where – even if you dislike some of the individual films, you have to admit they care about what they’re doing, and I should hope for the same here), and Ford’s not getting any younger.
So at the end of the day, we had two options here: give Solo a dignified death that furthers the ongoing story arc, or keep him on until Ford becomes too old to convincingly play a space badass, and gradually write him out. They went with the more shocking and less-safe of the two options, and I think it’ll work out well for them. I mean, Ford is keeping himself well – I’ve said in the past that he transitioned astonishingly well from “the action hero” to “the guy who mentors the action hero” – but the gears of time grind on. Eventually even Tom Cruise is going to look and feel his age, even though right now it kind of feels like that dude ages in Time Lord years.
Some have also said that they wanted to see Han Solo go out in a blaze of glory, if he went out at all. Well…to this I say, yes and no, situationally. It would have been cool, yes. Perhaps a heroic sacrifice. But what we got, I think, services the themes of the Star Wars series far better than a last-stand blitzkrieg.
At the end of the day, Star Wars is about family: Anakin growing up and breaking from his surrogate ‘brother’, Obi-Wan, and becoming the Dark Father (literally what Darth Vader, two Polish words, mean). Luke realizing his destiny and striving to turn his father back to the light side. And now, Han and Leia’s son Ben Solo falling to dark, taking up the name Kylo Ren and trying to live up to the legacy of his grandfather Darth Vader.
Han Solo dies believing that, as a certain someone else once said, ‘there is still good in him’. As the arc plays out, we’ll see if he was right or not. But his death scene perfectly suits the over-arching series theme of worlds rising and falling on the struggles of family. Not only that, but it adds a certain element of symmetrical closure to his character arc: he’s introduced as a smuggler-for-hire who don’t care nothin’ for nobody, jaded and cynical to the ways of the Force, and dies believing in the power of the Light side, and in the ability of his own son to turn back to good. And earlier in the film, we had the excellent scene of him confirming the truth of the Force to Finn and Rey, in the very same room on the Falcon where he had once dismissed it all as hokum. It’s a great moment.
The death scene itself calls back to Obi-Wan’s death without aping it; if people thought that BB-8 carrying a secret data drive was too much like A New Hope, Solo’s death reprises A New Hope with respect and dignity.
And for what it’s worth, Ford’s role in this film is far from a ‘back for the dead’ sort of deal. He’s the third most prominent character in the film behind Rey and Finn and has a number of good scenes. This is the last stand of perhaps the series’ most beloved non-Vader character, and they got to wring out as much Solo as they could.
Of course, you also have Ford’s on-record reluctance to continue playing the part: there’s the infamous “You can write this shit, George, but you can’t SAY it” line from the set of A New Hope; there’s the carbonite freezing in Empire Strikes Back, done as a failsafe in case Ford didn’t want to return; there’s the fact that Solo was going to die in Return Of The Jedi had the script not been drastically altered to have a happy ending on all fronts. I don’t know if Ford still dislikes the role or if the decades have warmed him to it, but it’s to his credit as a professional that all through this, he played the part with gusto instead of just sleepwalking to the cheque.
But – to step away from the analytical and into the personal – guys, it feels great to be honestly shocked by a Star Wars movie again. With the prequels, going in there was a sense of predestiny to everything: we knew that the Jedi would be wiped out, we knew that Anakin would lose his big duel on a planetary version of Bowser’s castle, it was just the little details that we didn’t know. I’ll go on record as someone who genuinely enjoys Revenge Of The Sith (That film realized that the prequels were at their best when they resembled a high-octane triple-A video game and kept the dialogue to a minimum), but even so, there’s only so much you can do to shock someone when they already know where things end up.
And, no, The Force Awakens isn’t emotionally perfect. We’re at a point where the MCU goes out of its way to avert the ‘million deaths is fine so long as the main characters are okay’ trope (See the Stark vs. Hulk scene in Age Of Ultron), yet the Starkiller’s countless victims are allowed almost no emotional resonance; most people who saw the film probably couldn’t tell you the name of the planet that got obliterated, which is a far cry from the destruction of Alderaan being rightly treated as the galactic equivalent of a crime against humanity. (Salon has a good article about that exact subject, even if I don’t find all the points it makes totally fair) But I really feel like they’re trying, as shown by the amount of thematic respect given to this scene here.
So here’s to the beginning of a whole new chapter in the Star Wars saga filled with twists and turns. Because anyone who’s seen Empire know that when it’s doing it right, this series takes the words ‘plot twist’ extremely seriously. Well, guys, I’m excited. It truly is a new hope.