How to play Star Wars

December 21st, 2015

The Force Awakens has a message for you, and it’s about toys. Now, that sounds cynical, but believe me: it’s really kind of wonderful.

The Force Awakens - Kylo Ren, Poe Dameran, Finn, and Rey figurines standing in tableau.

Playing with Star Wars: are you doing it right?

More specifically the message is about how you choose, and how you encourage your kids, to play with toys. And believe me, the movie has opinions about it. Since the very early days of the franchise, Star Wars has had a deeply enmeshed relationship with the little plastic figurines that accompanied it into the world. Sure, they were a major source of income for LucasFilm, but in an entirely unexpected way they also became the primary medium in which Star Wars was experienced.

I was seven years old when The Empire Strikes Back was released, too young for A New Hope on release. Back then there was no way to access the movies on any kind of demand. You had to wait for the networks to screen them on television. And at that age, with commercial breaks included, those films always ended way past my bedtime. So I had never seen the original movie back in 1980. But by the time I went into the packed cinema with my best friend and his parents to watch the second film, I had been immersed in that universe for many years. I cherish clear memories of scuffing friend’s borrowed Star Wars toys around in the dust against the back fence of my pre-school yard, enacting battles with their un-bendable arms, and losing forever their tiny black phasers. I had never seen a frame of the first film, but when I sat down to watch Empire,  I knew ever one of them. I had fought countless battles alongside Han and Leia, flown X-wings with Like and R2, and watched C3PO battle fiercely with Darth Vader. (My understanding of the exact events of the story might have been a little confused. But it was a golden robot fighting a black robot – it was pretty clear who was the good guy.)

In a very real sense, the figurines have become the single largest screen on which Star Wars is seen by its audience. And even with the advent of the VHS, the DVD, and Streaming on Demand, that remains the case. Kids will play for hours on end, dancing through galaxies far, far away with the villains and heroes of their imagination, far in excess of any hours they could possibly spend watching them on screens. This will be true for the new films, as well.

The Force Awakens wears its heart well and truly on its sleeve. Everything part of it is a love letter to the original trilogy, and J.J. Abrams makes no bones about it. And at this point, the obligatory warning: Here be Possible Spoilers. (Although seriously, if you didn’t get out and see it on opening weekend, then don’t get too upset. The Statute of Limitations on this is rapidly expiring.)

Every part of the film, from its plot to its character archetypes, grows directly out of A New Hope, and it frankly celebrates that. The characters know about their history, treat it as legend, try to emulate it, and are at times as giddy and enthralled by it as we are sitting in the audience. Visually, Abrams even has Ray – the desert planet scavenger – living in the wrecked hull of a fallen AT-AT walker. And there’s your first clue. She is living in the body of one of those toys, fallen into the dust of her planet. She scavenges in downed Star Destroyers, literally picking over the broken and discarded icons of the previous movies, in search of valuable nic-naks on which to survive.

Then of course there’s Kylo Ren – overtly collecting relics of the past in order to build his vision of the future he intends to rule. Modelling his life, and the culture he immerses himself in, on the image of the great dark lord of the original series. The helmet of Vader that he reveres could well be the discarded and ruined remnants of the figure I played with as a child; savaged by the family terrier.

Poe Dameran

Abrams is deliberately crafting a cast of characters that echo the lived experience of Star Wars, for all its childhood fans. He opens with Poe: the smart mouthed ace fighter pilot of the Resistance. This is the kid who loves all things space, and sci-fi. He’s not necessarily committed obsessively to Star Wars alone; he’s mostly interested in exciting space battles. As a child, he prefers the most emblematic toy of the line, but notably one which is not personal. He’s happy imagining himself in the role of an X-Wing pilot, flying alongside Luke and Wedge. He’s probably just as big a fan of Abrams’ Star Trek re-boot, frankly. And as a character, this leads to a certain genre-awareness: “Are you talking first? Or am I? Who’s supposed to talk first?”

Finn

Finn is an interesting one. He emerges from the ranks of anonymous storm-troopers, when marked with the human cost of the First Order’s actions. He appears unaware of much of what makes up his world, and we later learn that the mission we meet him on was his first. Notable then, is the fact that he comes into this world through the mask of a New Storm-Trooper. A re-design of the the original iconic helmets. Finn is a kid who is kind of new to the whole franchise. Who hasn’t really been involved before, and who is just learning about all this for the first time.

Kylo

So what kind of kid is Kylo Ren? As already noted, he’s diagetically an obsessive collector, but specifically of all things from the series’ past. He’s been spoiled. He has every toy of the Empire in his box to play with, and actively collects items of Anakin’s. He is slightly older than the other leads, and while some of them have been getting on with their lives he’s been keeping up to date on all the back story and legends revealed in all of the tie in animated series. He is obsessively committed to his vision of the universe, thinks he knows better than all the other kids about how things work in these stories (see – not grabbing the droid because he can torture the map out of Rey with the Force), and throws tantrums when the other kids don’t let him play the way he wants to.

So, who is Rey? The lead character of the film, its hero, and its emotional heart? She is the kid sitting in the dust, long forgotten by the other more up to date kids. She tinkers around in the broken and abandoned discards of other kids’ toys. She doesn’t have the latest stuff – she scavenges for lost items of value, compelled to try creating her own story out of the things that are left over. And importantly, she is a girl. The gender who these toys were not intended for. My wife still remembers not being “allowed” by her male cousins to play with any figurines other than Leia, because she was a girl.

Rey and BB8 figurines

And yet it is Rey who is revealed to be the true spirit of Star Wars. Rey who gets to fly the Millennium Falcon, Rey who inherits Luke’s father’s light sabre.  And this is the message that J.J. Abrams has for us all: there is a right way to play with the Star Wars universe. And it doesn’t involve obsessively collecting merchandise. And it doesn’t involve obsessing over continuity in a fetishistic way. You don’t need to have all the details right, and you don’t have to be the intended audience. Star Wars is your playground. It is for you. No one person owns it; we all get to scavenge around, and discover, and invent our own myths. We all get to be heroes.

If you are a parent still collecting Star Wars toys (or holding onto your old ones) keeping the plastic people pristine in their boxes, buying every new thing that comes out, and telling your children what you know about Star Wars … then you’re doing it wrong. But instead, if you are letting your child sit on the floor and worry away at your old, battered, faded Star Wars figures and toys; letting them tell you how they get to be a hero, adventuring with these new people that they can introduce you to, rather than explaining it to them … then Abrams and Star Wars welcome you back to the fold.

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