The Force Awakens is a movie that a lot of people already have seen, and anyone who hasn’t seen it probably knows that everyone who has seen it is talking about it. Thus, I feel that using a SPOILER ALERT is probably not necessary, since you’ve either seen the new Star Wars or you’re not going on the Internet until you’ve seen the new Star Wars.
Regardless, this is the moment to leave if you don’t want to be SPOILED.
Harrison Ford wanted Han Solo dead. The film was Return of the Jedi, and by various accounts, Ford wanted Lucas to kill off Han. It was a way to add some real emotional resonance to the trilogy — and, perhaps, a way for the rapidly ascending Hollywood superstar to avoid ever returning for another film. (Harrison Ford doing Return of the Jedi = Charlton Heston doing Beneath the Planet of the Apes.)
In the fullness of time and the reboot cycle of Hollywood, Ford would return to the franchise that birthed his stardom. The Force Awakens introduces many new characters, but it also rounds out the story of Han Solo, a presence central to the original trilogy. It makes sense. Besides being the most lovably of the lead characters, Solo has become the most obvious symbol of What Was Missing from the prequel films. His presence in Force Awakens is a final celebration of everything he represents.
And I do mean final. Because Han Solo is dead, is dead, is dead. After briefly reconnecting with General Leia — his wife? his ex-wife? they don’t put any label on the relationship in the movie — he sets off to save the galaxy — and possibly rescue their son from the Dark Side. Their son, Ben, is now Kylo Ren, a chief figure in the First Order. Han doesn’t go to Starkiller Base to fight Ben. He tries to free him.
When they finally see each other, it’s on a catwalk overlooking an eternal chasm: Shades of another surprise father-son pairing, on Bespin, long ago. Han tries to convince Ben to come back with him. Ben tells his father that he is struggling, trapped between Dark and Light. He asks Han for help. He holds out his lightsaber. Han tries to take it. There’s a long pregnant moment — and then Kylo Ren activates the lightsaber, impaling his father right through his heart.
Han Solo dies with one last tender gesture, gracefully rubbing his son’s cheek. Then he falls down, down, down, into the depths of a world that will soon explode, casting whatever remains of his body into stardust. Rey is sad. General Organa is sad. Kylo Ren is now clearly pretty far gone to the Dark Side, although Star Wars being Star Wars, one can imagine that the potential for redemption lurks in his future.
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How did you feel, watching this scene? Were you emotional? Did it work for you? It was maybe an easy bet that someone would die in The Force Awakens — but you might have expected a minor character, not the franchise’s most romantic hero. In the Expanded Universe books, they killed off Chewbacca — a “safer” execution, since he’s a beloved character who never talks or really adds anything besides reaction shots. (The Expanded Universe also invented the idea of the son of Han and Leia breaking bad, although there his name was “Jacen” because the ’90s were weird.)
On a gut level, it was hard not to feel something, because Han Solo is Han Solo. The setting for his final showdown was resonant — not just to Empire, but to that fight scene between another Ben and another blackmasked bad guy in Star Wars, when that film’s sage old mentor gets struck down.
Cards on the table: I was surprised how little I was affected by Han’s death. Like, for comparison, I started tearing up during the opening text crawl: When Han died, I found myself wondering why the guy who kept a gun pointed at Greedo under the table walked into a trap so open-armed. The obvious answer is “This guy is his son, and he loves him.”
But it’s a weird moment, because Kylo Ren and Han Solo have no clear relationship in the rest of the movie. This is their first moment onscreen together — and it’s not entirely clear what it was about Han and/or Leia that drove Ren to hating them both so completely. At one point, Han throws out the idea that Ren “had too much Vader in him,” which seems like a cop-out: “Hey, wife! Your dad who you never knew was a bad guy, and that’s why the grandson he never met is a bad guy!”
I guess you could argue that the same is true of Ben Kenobi and Vader in Star Wars — but in that movie, you’re clearly told that they’re former allies turned enemies, and told why Vader turned evil. (Seduced by the power of the dark side, etc etc.) Kylo Ren’s motivation is still kind of a mystery — I guess it all comes down to Snoke being super charismatic? — so it’s not surprising when he chooses Evil.
But it seems obvious that Han’s death will be the motivating factor for Rey and Ren in the movies to come — a variation of the Luke/Vader vengeance rivalry that plays out in Empire, before the Big Twist vis a vis Luke’s paternity. It’s a fine, fitting, ironic end for Han Solo. He was once so dismissive of Ben Kenobi, and how he’s the new trilogy’s Ben Kenobi. He used to not believe in the Force; now, the two young representatives of the Force’s eternal dichotomy will do battle over his metaphorical corpse.