Back when it came out, Star Wars: The Force Awakens played like a straightforward homage to 1977’s Star Wars. It was plenty fun, but wasn’t all that deep. Now that I’ve seen its follow-up, The Last Jedi, The Force Awakens seems a lot more interesting.
I’ve seen The Last Jedi twice now. I liked it the first time, and my appreciation only grew on my second viewing. I was just as aware of its problems, but I also developed a better appreciation for what the movie does right and how intentionally it does those things. I’ve said it before: Most things are better the second time around.
On my initial viewing of The Last Jedi, I found the first half of the movie to be enjoyable but a bit rote, largely because I was assuming that the good guys’ plan would work in the end. Second time around, I knew that their plan would not only fail, but fail so spectacularly that hundreds of Resistance members would needlessly die. Other things I knew going into that second viewing: Snoke was kind of a joke, Kylo Ren was a mixed up dope, Poe needed to drop the hotshot bit and become a better leader, Rey was not descended from Jedi royalty, and Luke largely saw himself as a failure. Once I knew all that, it made the movie’s initially less gripping first half a lot more interesting.
A couple days after my second viewing of The Last Jedi, I rewatched The Force Awakens. Unsurprisingly, I found that just as I liked parts of The Last Jedi more once I knew what was going to happen, I also liked its predecessor more now that I knew what came after it. Here are a few things from The Force Awakens that felt interestingly different after watching The Last Jedi.
I had forgotten how laden with mystery Rey was in The Force Awakens. Characters spend the first half of the movie asking “who is that girl?” We in the audience are meant to ask the same thing. Who is she? She’s gotta be someone, right? This is Star Wars!
Star Wars is dominated by this pervasive feeling that everything you’re watching has been rehearsed ahead of time. It’s not a bad thing; it’s just part and parcel with the hokey space opera of it all. The Force has chosen these people to be in these places at these times, all so that they can play their roles in a carefully staged contest between light and dark. When a Star Wars movie introduces a new character like Rey, we’re conditioned to assume that she’s going to have a surprising backstory linking her with the main Star Wars cast.
There are those who doubt Kylo Ren’s Last Jedi revelation (confirmed, more or less, by Rey) that her parents were no-account losers who sold her for drinking money. I’m firmly in the camp that believes he’s telling the truth, which makes Rey’s scenes in The Force Awakens much more interesting. She really is just some nobody scavenger, chosen by the Force for reasons she doesn’t understand. That fact, along with the hint at the end of The Last Jedi that other random people around the galaxy are developing Force powers, changes my read on what “the Force awakens” even means in the first place.
At the outset of TFA, Rey is clearly a huge fan of the legendary heroes of the original trilogy. She eats dinner while wearing an old Rebel helmet, is amazed when she hears the name Luke Skywalker, and has a fan freakout upon meeting the Han Solo. She generally spends most of The Force Awakens acting surprised to find herself as the Force-imbued heroine of a Star Wars movie. But she isn’t Ben Kenobi’s granddaughter, nor Kylo Ren’s cousin, nor anything like that. She’s just some person who up until now has sat alone on a planet, finding shade in the wreckage of an AT-AT, dreaming of a lost age of heroism and lying to herself about her sad, unremarkable life. It makes her much more relatable, and renders her bravery and heroism throughout both films all the more remarkable.
Finn’s arc in Force Awakens also benefits from a viewing of The Last Jedi. In the first movie, his character’s development mostly involves him overcoming his (understandable) fear of the First Order. Maz Kanata immediately pegs him as someone who wants to run, and for most of the movie, that’s just what he does. It isn’t until the First Order captures Rey that Finn finally finds his courage and does something brave (and stupid) by lying to everyone about his firsthand knowledge of Starkiller Base, trusting that the Force will see him through. (Han, furious: “That’s not how the Force works!”)
The Last Jedi continues Finn’s arc in a way that feels organic and true to his character. Immediately after waking up from his coma, he continues overcompensating for his past cowardice. He sets out on one dangerous mission after another, with his new friend Rose following and, gradually, helping him see how he’s swung too far in the other direction. By the end of the movie, even Poe is holding him back from dashing off yet again into danger.
As I rewatched Finn’s early, terrified scenes in The Force Awakens, I kept thinking how cool it was that the most recent major plot turn for this character involved a heroic, thwarted suicide run on a New Order battering ram. I’m interested to see where everyone winds up by the end of Episode IX, but I’m probably most interested in what happens to Finn.
Early on in The Last Jedi, Supreme Leader Snoke mocks Kylo Ren’s helmet, telling him to “take that ridiculous thing off.” Kylo subsequently throws a humiliated elevator temper tantrum and destroys the helmet. In that moment as in the rest of the film, The Last Jedi pitilessly exposes Kylo Ren as the pathetic Darth Vader wannabe he is. He spends the movie stomping around with all the rigid self-loathing of a young person unsuccessfully willing their phony self-image to stop disintegrating.
The Force Awakens was also happy to undercut Ren’s seeming badassness on occasion. But for the first half of the movie, he mostly gets to come off as the scary monster-man he so clearly wishes he was. He freezes a blaster beam in midair, and pays Poe back for his insolence by ripping into his mind and stealing the truth about BB-8. He force-chokes one of his officers just like gramps used to do. He stores his cool-guy helmet on a pedestal holding the ashes of the people he’s killed. Oh, you big, scary man!
Snoke’s cutting remark about the helmet in The Last Jedi laid bare something we already knew: that Ben Solo is basically just a punk. That knowledge dramatically undercuts those early Force Awakens scenes where he’s meant to be an imposing, Vader-like figure. Right from the start, he’s just a kid in a costume, playing at being tough. In some ways, it makes him pathetic. Considering the body count he racks up over course of the movie, it also makes him extremely dangerous.
Snoke’s first appearance in The Force Awakens is meant to be awe-inspiring. He appears to be this chamber-filling monster on a throne, and only at the end of the scene is his holographic trickery revealed. That flickering led to plenty of fan speculation about Snoke’s true identity (and size) over the intervening years. The Last Jedi reveals him to be… basically just kind of this dude.
Snoke is a disappointing villain in The Last Jedi. That’s partly because of his dull character design, but partly, I think, because he was meant to be disappointing. One of The Last Jedi’s main themes is that at some point, disciples outgrow their mentors. The flip side of that theme is that all mentors will eventually disappoint their disciples or, at the very least, be unable to teach them anything more. Almost every mentor figure in the film fails in some way or another, and Snoke is no different.
For most of The Force Awakens, Snoke was this unknowable menace lurking in the shadows. It’s pretty enjoayble to rewatch those scenes with the knowledge that, in truth, he’s just some knobble-headed jabroni who’s gonna die like an asshole.
No one sequence in The Force Awakens set more fans theorizing than the vision Rey receives when she first touches Anakin’s old lightsaber. The Last Jedi makes the whole thing make much more sense, in part simply because it seems to indicate that all three movies have been planned out in advance, at least to some extent. It seems likely we’ll see the rest of those scenes as flashbacks in Episode IX, but even if we don’t, it’s all but confirmed that they aren’t just abstract visions: they actually happened.
In the vision, Rey gets a quick teaser from The Last Jedi featuring Luke and R2-D2 watching as the Jedi temple burns. We see Rey seemingly being torn away from her parents, and we see Kylo standing in the rain alongside some hooded figures that we can only guess are the still-mysterious Knights of Ren. That’s all plenty interesting, especially knowing as we do now that Rey’s parents were just some jerks who sold her off, and that Kylo spared a few of his fellow trainees at Luke’s temple. The vision is also interesting because it tells both Rey and but Kylo’s stories, and because it was sparked when Rey touched Anakin’s lightsaber—the very lightsaber she and Kylo snapped in two at the end of The Last Jedi.
The Force Awakens was an unusually self-referential movie. The main characters tended to mirror the audience’s excitement that there was a new Star Wars at all, regularly exalting in the fact that they were flying the Millennium Falcon, or meeting Han, and Leia, and Chewie. That excitement—Star Wars is back! Hooray!—worked fine on its own. But it’s much more interesting now that I know it was setting up the failure, disappointment, and subverted expectations of The Last Jedi.
In one of The Force Awakens’ most rapturous early scenes, the normally jaded Han Solo looks at Rey and says, “Crazy thing is, it’s true. The Force. The Jedi. All of it… it’s all true.” It’s a good scene that’s made better by the knowledge that in the next movie, Kylo Ren will turn to Rey in much the same way and say, “The Empire, your parents, the Resistance, the Sith, the Jedi... let the past die. Kill it, if you have to.” The obvious, intentional parallel between those two conflicting sentiments further underlines the notion that this new, self-regarding trilogy has more to say about its legacy than simply, “Wasn’t Star Wars cool?”
The Force Awakens was about the joy of discovering that the legendary stories you grew up on were getting a new chapter. The heroes you worshipped as a kid were still out there, fighting the good fight. The Last Jedi is about the perils of that same fandom, and the fallibility of the idols you were initially so glad to see return. It’s a more complex and thematically interesting film, but it wouldn’t work nearly as well without the setup provided by its predecessor.
I recommend rewatching The Force Awakens after having seen The Last Jedi, even if you’ve watched the former film a half dozen times. Like many trilogy openers, it works better once you know what comes after it. Hopefully it’ll work even better once we know how it all ends.