What I Found Going Frame by Frame Through 'The Force Awakens' Like a Lunatic
Seeing Star Wars: The Force Awakens in a movie theater was a cultural event. Purchasing a copy of the movie -- on Blu-ray, iTunes, or the like -- may turn Star Wars into a mainstream religion. (Apologies to actual practicing Jedis.)
With The Force Awakens, director J.J. Abrams paid respect to the legacy of George Lucas' franchise, rejuvenated the space opera for the 21st century, and dotted each frame with intrigue. If it's not a creature going to work in the background, it's a well-placed prop speaking volumes about the universe's history -- geekery as pointillism. The special features and "making of" documentaries accompanying The Force Awakens' home release are absorbing, but the delight of watching it at home is the ability to devour it at whatever pace one's heart desires.
Personally, I wanted to flip through it like a picture book, because I'm an insane person. Here's what I discovered.
Let's start with the sequence most in need of being scrutinized, one that J.J. Abrams kept intentionally murky: Rey's Force vision. Spurred by the discovery of the Skywalker lightsaber -- previously seen plummeting out of Luke's severed hand down a Cloud City well in The Empire Strikes Back, and throughout Anakin's prequel-trilogy journeys -- the fever dream first transports Rey to a haunting corridor.
Watching the movie in theaters, I assumed this was a grimmer glimpse of the Death Star, or a flash-forward to Rey's time on the Starkiller Base -- it crumbles into rocks in a flash. But when I let it linger, I realized it was a throwback to...
... a certain Cloud City corridor, just moments before Darth Vader cuts off Luke's hand and tells him who his father is. The Force is strong with this call-back.
When The Force Awakens opened, Abrams clued obsessives in to the vision's soundscape. The disembodied voices we hear were none other than Yoda's and Obi-Wan's (both the Alec Guinness and Ewan McGregor editions). Damned if I could make their words out. Not only were the voices whispering through a torrent of ambience, I was screaming, "OH MY -- WHAAAAT! WHAT IS THIS!?!" at the top of my lungs.
Luckily, the Blu-ray offered a perfect sound mix, and Yoda's words, yanked from Empire, came in crystal clear: "Its energy surrounds us and binds us." Yes, even if you have a metal hand.
The vision flashes to the murder of a could-be padawan, before revealing a soaked Kylo Ren. Is this a flashback to the end of Luke's training program? A glimpse of Rey's eventual showdown with the brooding Skywalker descendent?
That's maddeningly unclear, although whenever this takes place, we know ol' Kylo had his Knights of Ren with him. Rain makes them hard to discern, but his pack appears to include a samurai, a biker from Mad Max, a member of Daft Punk, and O'Bannion from Dazed and Confused, who kept his paddle, but now wears a hood. #SquadGoals
The question that burns with the fire of Tatooine's two suns: where does Rey come from? Is she connected to the Skywalker lineage? Abrams insists upon the mystery with a spritz of Rey's backstory. During the vision, we see a young Rey dropped off on Jakku. Off-screen, keeping her firmly in place, looms Unkar Plutt, previously seen trading for portions and griping about the stolen Millennium Falcon.
Anyone could have done the drop-off but I'd put money on Luke not being involved. The reason: Les Misérables. Stay with me. In Victor Hugo's novel, the struggling Fantine drops her daughter Cosette off with the miserable Monsieur Thénardier until she can scrape together some cash. After caring for the ailing Fantine, Jean Valjean comes to the girl's rescue.
But what if Cosette found Valjean? Unkar Plutt is Thénardier, a money-grubbing arse; Luke is Valjean, a man looking for redemption; and Rey is Cosette, a surrogate daughter with a hunger for the truth -- no blood relations needed to carry the torch. Now about that Fantine...
Rey looks back from her young reflection to catch the Ditcher taking off. The ship isn't recognizable to my Star Wars-attuned eyes. But it does look similar to...
... one of the First Order transport ships, as seen here during the invasion of Takodana halfway through the movie. Connecting the two shots might be the work of my yarn board-prone psychosis. Maybe Abrams is just infatuated with people looking up. But wouldn't it be an interesting curveball if Rey were born to the Dark Side to contrast with Kylo Ren, a noted son of the Light?
Star Wars' continued appeal can be chalked up to the richness of its creators' imaginations. Writers, directors, designers, and special-effects artists go hog wild filling the series' frames with details.
Which is why I found myself dwelling on Max von Sydow's Lor San Tekka, a Jedi acolyte who throws Oscar Isaac's Poe Dameron the Luke Map in the first scene of the movie. I couldn't help but admire the man's style. According to the official Star Wars Visual Dictionary, he wears a "Chain of Wisdom," which I assume is the Jedi equivalent of a puka shell necklace.
Is that a USB port on top of the redesigned Stormtrooper helmets?
With a pause button handy, we can now enjoy John Boyega's baby photos, projected in hologram on board the First Order's Star Destroyer.
I formally request from Marvel a prequel comic chronicling the events that led to the dent in Rey's speeder. Was it hit by a meteorite? A piece of fallen TIE fighter wing? It's a nasty mark.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens offers viewers little time to luxuriate. A fleet of practical aliens were designed and built to populate scenes on Jakku, but we only see them in passing. But thanks to the power of the freeze-frame, we can more fully admire this ostrich gorilla with mecha-arms.
Who are those chaps in the back? Steampunk Twi'leks? Har!
Rey's yarn action figures rival everything Kenner released after the original Star Wars. Cross your fingers her knitting skills come back into play in Episode VIII.
Rey tosses on this fallen Rebel helmet for some post-dinner daydreaming. Any nod to the past is an Easter-egg siren. So what does it mean?
Maybe the "73" on the side is a nod to 1973, when Lucas wrote his first treatment for Star Wars. A fan well versed in the franchise's alien languages believes the markings translate to "RHAE." Or maybe we'll learn more down the road -- this year's Rogue One is a big war movie set before the '77 Star Wars, after all.
This is just a fantastic riff on the Star Wars wipe transition that I only caught by watching under a microscope.
The blurry dude in red is Sarco Plank. You can buy his action figure! This is his only appearance in the movie. I'm glad I confirmed his existence because, as Finn and Rey run past him, he looks like an Abrams-approved lens flare.
Jakku's professional lacrosse team practicing for the big game or scavengers jumping on the latest TIE fighter crash site? OK, the latter, but what a wonderful detail to fill out a propulsive action sequence.
Snoke, Supreme Leader of the First Order, appears in The Force Awakens as a hologram shrouded in shadows. His backstory remains a mystery, and his Kissy Grandpa expressions keep those searching for answers at bay.
Looking up close, Snoke bares a striking resemblance to The Grand Inquisitor, a Galactic Empire henchman seen in the LucasFilm/Disney-approved Star Wars Rebels (and a figure killed during Rey's vision looks a lot like his cronie The Fifth Brother, while we're at it).
Does the cartoon series reveal all the secrets? Not all -- we're still wondering how you keep a cheek wound like Snoke's bacteria-free.
Most (cool) people caught The Force Awakens' call-back (above) to Chewbacca and C-3PO's "Dejarik" game onboard the Millennium Falcon during the first Star Wars (below). What I didn't notice: Abrams gives the first game's winner its comeuppance. In The Force Awakens, the yellow monster from the first movie pounds his reptilian adversary into the ground. He had time to practice.
I've been staring at this map for three hours hoping to catch Kashyyyk or Hoth or fucking Naboo. Please send help.
The entrance to Maz Kanata's castle is a treasure trove for Star Wars iconographers. In the middle of this scene you'll spot Boba Fett's "Mythosaur Skull" symbol, a handful of pod-racing banners (and you thought you were done with The Phantom Menace), as well as a Stormtrooper emblem (on the left) that looks like the Empire's version of the Uncle Sam "I want you for the Army!" poster.
Maz Kanata's cantina is another location deserving of frame-by-frame observation. The designs are radical and the activities are straight-up bizarre. Here, a trio appear to be betting on a Star Wars-friendly cock fight -- but with robo anal beads? Unclear.
I deem the guy to the left "Max 'Poochie' Rebo."
This droid's old-timey microphone mouthpiece raises serious questions about the connection between Earth and the galaxy far, far away. The Force Awakens does not answer those questions.
One of the few cameos that wasn't masked with a Stormtrooper helmet: 30 Rock's Judah Friedlander, ladies and gentlemen!
The only person in the bar who doesn't really care that Han Solo showed up still looks to see what all the ruckus is about. That's the real Force at work.
No more emoticons. Only General Huxicons.
Members of Hosnian Prime's newly formed Galactic Senate, we hardly knew ya. The Starkiller Base's first action of destruction is such a flash-in-the-pan moment, I felt compelled to capture the victims in this shot as an act of remembrance.
Why does the man in the yellow poncho have blood on his hands?
Wait, EVEN MORE PRESSING: why is this smoking chimp-man so chill when the First Order just blew up an entire system? Strong herb.
Maz Kanata has a bust in her basement and, for the life of me, I can't figure out who it depicts. A balding, bearded Star Wars character? Emotionally shattered Luke doesn't fit the bill. Not cone-headed enough for Ki-Adi-Mundi. Lobot with facial hair? Update: A reader points to the Visual Dictionary for answers. That's Jedi Master Cherff Maota, a character I only imagine will turn up in one of the next 37 Star Wars spinoffs.
Even after three in-theater viewings of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I could not have told you Kylo Ren spikes his helmet into a pan of ashes. But enough people caught the weird torture-room installation that Abrams was compelled to explain this design decision.
"Sometimes bits and pieces of one scene end up being something that you use in another scene that you didn't expect," Abrams explained in a recent interview with Entertainment Weekly. "The backstory is, that that table has the ashes of the enemies he's killed. That moment was actually shot for, and meant to be used in, the scene where he was talking to the Vader mask."
The last face Han Solo made.
Even in the umpteenth viewing, Rey and Kylo Ren's lightsaber duel is a heart-racing splash of hand-to-hand combat. But like the Force vision, there are audio details I only picked up on a home viewing. Listen carefully when Rey stares Kylo down. There's a whisper, sounds reminiscent of her own voice... or is it the voice of The Force itself?
The "Is it a rock or a headstone?" debate will rage on until Episode VIII opens on December 15th, 2017. I'm taking a hard stance: rock.
If Luke fled the scene after Kylo's attack, it stands to reason that he would have gone alone. Han and Leia couldn't locate Luke. You think he'd bring a friend to Jedi island? That's a rock, unsculpted, and a bump of soil -- a picturesque tableaux.
Try not to let it keep you up at night.
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Matt Patches is Thrillist’s Entertainment editor. He previously wrote for Grantland, Esquire.com, Vulture, The Hollywood Reporter, and The Guardian. He's team Nien Nunb. Find him on Twitter: @misterpatches.