WARNING: This article contains spoilers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Please proceed with caution.
A long time ago in a galaxy far away, the original Star Wars trilogy hit theatres and became a cultural phenomenon. Okay, it wasn’t all that long ago — just nearly 40 years ago.
Since that time, the saga of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Princess Leia have firmly entrenched themselves in the hearts and minds of fans of all ages. These characters have returned to the big screen — 40 years older and dealing with new villains that must be subdued.
To put things in perspective, many of the children who saw the original Star Wars: A New Hope in theatres in 1977 now have children of their own — that they’ll probably take to see The Force Awakens. And the parents who likely took those now-adult children to the movies are now roughly the same age as the 60-and 70-something actors who portrayed the famous faces of the Force.
The circle is now complete.
The Overall Portrayal of Seniors in the Media
The newest addition to the Star Wars franchise, The Force Awakens, is emotional in several ways. It’s the first time that the characters from the original franchise have been seen on-screen together in 30 years, reprising the roles alongside a new generation of characters we’re seeing for the very first time.
It’s poignant because fans are now seeing characters they grew up with step into the roles of elder statesmen — like many of the kids who saw the films in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s have seen their parents age.
While aging is a normal, natural part of life, it’s one thing to see actors Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, and Mark Hamill age in the Hollywood spotlight. Yet, if you “search your feelings,” seeing Han Solo, Leia, and Luke Skywalker having aged along with their audience truly brings home the messages of the original trilogy — the values of friendship, family, and learning throughout one’s lifetime from mentors who have a wealth of knowledge to impart.
It’s a novel approach when you consider how older adults are rarely given quality representation in movies, television, and other forms of media.
A Masters thesis written by Meredith Tupper of the University of South Florida School of Mass Communications pointed to the underrepresentation of seniors in the media. Tupper’s research focused solely on commercials, but they’re a telling portrait. By analyzing 278 television commercials, only 15% contained older characters. Out of 42 commercials that featured older characters, 27 of those commercials had them interacting with adults and younger people.
Additionally, a 2013 article in the New York Times lamented that of the small amount of television characters over the age of 50, almost all of them were shown as inept, racist, or obsessed with sex, and with jokes made mostly at their expense.
Old Friends, New Faces, & Timeless Lessons
Star Wars: The Force Awakens is an antidote to this underrepresentation of seniors in the media and the culture of agism. While the bulk of the film is carried by the next wave of characters — Rey, Finn, and Poe — the older generation from the original trilogy play a significant role in setting events in motion and working alongside these new characters.
Harrison Ford’s Han Solo: Still Smuggling After All These Years
Of the originals, Harrison Ford’s Han Solo has the most amount of screentime and plays the biggest role in the film. He’s shown as a multi-faceted character — an older, wiser version of his rapscallion self. Once a general for the Rebel forces that saved the galaxy, Han lapses back into his smuggler ways following his son’s turn to the Dark Side of the Force. His perceived failure as a parents plays a role in the demise of his relationship with his wife, Princess Leia.
The older Han is haunted by regret, seeing an opportunity to make up for it by tracking down his son and also helping young Rey and Finn carry valuable information back to General Organa. Han is still capable of flying the Millennium Falcon fighting alongside his Wookie sidekick, Chewbacca. (Ironically, Chewbacca is 40 years older and sports nary a grey hair on his fabulous pelt. Who knew that Just For Men had a line for Wookies?) Han is not only still an ace pilot and able to fire a blaster with the best of them, he’s resourceful and guides his young charges to get the answers they need.
He’s matured as a character, although he retained the loveable scoundrel persona of his youth. Yet, Han in the current trilogy is a man who is much more conflicted than he ever was, stemming from his belief that he failed as a father and husband.
Carrie Fisher as General Leia: Carrying the Burden of the Galaxy & Family
Similarly, General Leia Organa is also a force (pardon the pun) to be reckoned with in the film. No longer using her former title of “Princess,” General Organa is the leader of a movement to keep the galaxy free from tyranny and destruction. The fate of an entire galaxy rests on her to make sound judgement calls.
Yet, her estranged relationship with her husband Han Solo, her brother Luke having gone missing for several years, and the loss of her son to the Dark Side have all taken their toll on her. Leia was shown as a responsible character in the original trilogy and she’s even more responsible a figure now.
While she continually keeps the greater good in mind, her empathy and maternal instincts are not suppressed in order to do so. She’s a very capable, yet very human leader who operates with wisdom and compassion, despite a reasonable degree of human frailty that comes from juggling a turbulent personal life alongside leading a great cause that impacts the lives of so many.
Actress Carrie Fisher, who immortalized the Princess-now-General, has been vocal in the media about the lack of roles — let alone quality roles — for women over 40. She has also talked about how happy she was to portray a female character who has been allowed to age. Although she was asked to lose weight for the role, she thought it was important to not wear as much makeup to make sure she looked realistic as an aged General Leia.
“I didn’t know if I could still do it,” she said in an interview with USA Today. “It was a young character, but way deep in your head, we’re permanently young. It’s just shocking when you look in the mirror and say, ‘Who scared me?’”
Luke Skywalker: Obi-Wan 2.0?
While Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker had very little screentime in The Force Awakens, the character played a pivotal role. In the years after the events of Return of the Jedi, Skywalker had started a new Jedi order, training a new generation in the ways of the Force. One of his students was Han and Leia’s son, Ben Solo, who turned to the Dark Side of the Force and wiped out Luke’s trainees.
Like his sister Leia and his friend Han Solo, Luke is also burdened with guilt — not just of having failed a younger generation of Jedi, but having failed his family and nephew who he could not prevent from going down the wrong path, kicking off a domino effect.
As a result, Luke goes into hiding. Whereas, in his youth, Luke was keen to face problems head-on, now he’s much more contemplative and cautious because he understands what is at stake. At the end of The Force Awakens, Luke’s whereabouts have been located and it appears he may once again assume a mantle of responsibility, as well as take on a new apprentice.
As an interesting side note, actor Mark Hamill is now 63, the same age that actor Alec Guinness was when he originated the role of Obi-Wan Kenobi, Luke’s mentor in the original Star Wars trilogy.
Mirroring that, whereas Obi-Wan sought out Luke to bring him to his destiny, a younger Jedi now approaches Skywalker, guiding him back to that destiny, as well as help forge the future by training another.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens spans the gamut of emotions and relationships that many older adults have. From complicated relationships with younger members of their family and social circle, to positive relationships with old friends and new, Star Wars has done a great job of showing seniors in the role of capable, multi-faceted adults who have wisdom and experience to offer their own generation and generations to come.