Updated: Aug 11
As is the case with any work of art (popular or otherwise), the latest episode of the Star Wars saga rewards subsequent viewings. Recently, I watched The Force Awakens for the second time, and the experience of seeing the film without the burden of “first screening jitters” (worrying it might not live up to my expectations and all that) illuminated a fascinating visual motif: all three major characters initially wear masks.
Of course, simply noticing a recurring storytelling device does not make it significant; if one cannot discern its intended purpose, it has no real meaning, and might as well not be present at all. Fortunately, that is not the case here, as Abrams’ artistic choice serves a vital narrative function: by introducing the main characters with their faces obscured, the filmmakers force viewers to define them by their immediate actions, rather than relying on more superficial visual cues–thereby allowing them to play off of, and even subvert, our expectations.
For example, as I mentioned in my previous Episode VII post, Rey wears large goggles and heavy rags when she first appears onscreen, stripping her of any identity beyond “scavenger that sells scrap metal for food.” However, when we first glimpse her face completely unobscured as she cleans her haul, her gaze lingers on the withered visage of an old woman going through motions that mirror her own; the sad gleam in her eyes suggests what Maz Kanata will later confirm: despite her pretense of optimism, she secretly fears that the family she awaits so patiently will never return for her. From there, co-writers Abrams and Kasdan fill in the smaller details of Rey’s day-to-day life beyond her profession, culminating in her refusal to sell BB-8–a droid she’s known for a single day at most–in exchange for several months worth of rations.
Finn (or, more accurately, FN-2187) first appears as a similarly anonymous Storm Trooper. He distinguishes himself from the rank and file when he stops to aid a mortally wounded comrade; the bloody handprint he receives on his helmet for his trouble marks him as an individual, allowing the audience to easily spot him when he refuses to fire on unarmed civilians. Later, when he first removes his helmet, he is reprimanded for his nonconformity; thus, it is appropriate that his second, more permanent unmasking accompanies an act of deliberate treason: freeing the captured Resistance pilot, Poe Dameron. Humorously, however, Finn finds it much harder to hide his intentions with his face thus exposed: Poe immediately realizes his rescuer is only using him to facilitate his own escape from The First Order (though he holds no grudge), and Finn’s inability to be honest with his allies becomes both a running joke and a central component of his character arc.
Finn’s introductory scene also heralds the arrival of the villainous Kylo Ren, who inherited Darth Vader’s penchant for dramatic entrances. His establishing moments, which gradually build over the course of the narrative, revolve around incredible shows of power. When Poe Dameron opens fire on him, Ren freezes the laser bolt with minimal effort and casually interrogates the pilot as it hangs in the air. After Poe endures repeated torture, steadfastly refusing to divulge Resistance secrets, Ren simply uses The Force to pluck the information directly from his mind–an agonizing process, by all appearances. Later, when an officer reports yet another failure to recapture the fugitives and their new allies, Ren ignites his light saber and vents his fury on a nearby computer console (though not, it must be noted, on his subordinates themselves, unlike his predecessor).
Amidst these earth-shaking displays, it’s easy to forget Ren’s comparatively subdued, but far more significant, interaction with the former Rebel Lor San Tekka. Throughout their brief dialogue, the wizened fighter repeatedly emphasizes that he knows who Ren is under the mask, and that no matter how far he falls, he will never escape his family’s legacy–in other words, he equates Ren’s efforts to hide his face with an attempt to hide his humanity. From the instant Ren cuts him down, the old man’s words resonate throughout the film. When he learns that completing his mission will require murdering his father–none other than Han Solo–his insistence that the man “means nothing” to him lacks conviction. Indeed, in the privacy of his quarters, Ren begs the spirit of his grandfather, Darth Vader, to grant him the strength to resist the temptation of the Light Side (fittingly, his departure reveals that his prayer was addressed to the Dark Lord’s charred helmet). And when he finally–inevitably–runs Solo through during the movie’s explosive climax, he punctuates the violent, decisive deed by discarding his mask–in order to sever all ties with humanity and cement his devotion to the Dark Side, he must slay The Father as his Son, with no barriers between them.
By incorporating literal masks into the arcs of The Force Awakens’ central players, the filmmakers also externalize the story’s recurring theme of characters hiding–from their pasts, their destinies, and themselves. Before we know anything concrete about them, Finn and Rey perform multiple selfless acts of heroism, yet they flee from their greater potential at every opportunity, motivated by blind fear and blind hope, respectively. Kylo Ren, meanwhile, hides from the inherent goodness that lingers within him, which only fuels his internal conflict as he strays ever deeper into the darkness. This “symbolism” may seem obvious and unsubtle, but considering George Lucas drew his inspiration for the Original Trilogy from mythology and fairy tales, isn’t that appropriate?
[Originally written December 24, 2015.]