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How does “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” make Stormtroopers human?

[SPOILERS AHEAD]

With Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), director J.J. Abrams goes back to Star Wars basics, giving the (relieved) people what they want. But the new incarnation is not without updates and innovation. The most revolutionary development is the plotline following Finn (John Boyega), a Stormtrooper who escapes from the evil First Order, a relative of the old Empire. When we first see the character, he is just another inscrutable white suit in the opening battle sequence on the planet Jakku. But, after watching a fellow fighter die, this Stormtrooper appears shaken by the other’s death. The dying person puts a bloody hand on this Stormtrooper’s mask, which now bears a bloody handprint. Ordered to massacre the villagers, the shaken Trooper finds himself unable to raise his gun with the others.

The Trooper’s doubts are conveyed to us purely through body language, as his suit remains unreadable as ever. But soon, he removes his helmet. We see Boyega’s face, and we internally gasp. The effect of seeing a human face that has been inside this Trooper (and by extension, all the Troopers, all along) is a visceral shock. He frees the captive Resistance pilot Poe Daemoron (Oscar Issac), on the condition that Poe will fly them both to a safe escape. The Trooper tells Poe that his name is FN-21871, which Poe rejects as a name, suggesting a new name—taking the “F” and “N” of the serial number—of “Finn.” Like a man suddenly gifted an identity, Finn agrees and adopts the name for himself.

Finn tells us that he, like the other Stormtroopers, was captured and enslaved as a baby. In an instant, we see the Stormtroopers in a new light. They are not soulless drones. They are an enslaved, brainwashed people who have been terrorized since childhood.

In Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope (1977) and the rest of the original trilogy, these white-suited goons are just marks for Luke and Han to pick off without remorse. They are worse than robots, because Star Wars androids like C3PO and R2D2 do have souls and personhood. Suddenly, in The Force Awakens, when we see in one former Stormtrooper a potential hero, we glimpse in all the Stormtroopers the seed of humanity. Now the idea of shooting them without moral cost is no longer taken for granted. Finn is not like all the rest—his mind has been liberated. He realizes he cannot or will not conform to the agenda of killing on behalf of the First Order. But if he can come to this understanding, why can’t any of the others eventually do the same?

Even in small ways, the Stormtroopers’ body language becomes more human throughout The Force Awakens. When Darth Vader spin-off Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is in the throws of an anger fit, loudly destroying a room after the escape of our young hero Rey (Daisy Ridley), two Stormtroopers quietly change their direction and sneak away. The small moment of humor expresses how two regular human employees would react when they observe their boss having a tantrum and wish to avoid his wrath.

The earliest shots in the film, too, subtly suggest that something will be different about the Stormtroopers in this story. We see the Troopers packed into a ship, waiting to attack Jakku and capture Resistance fighters who possess a map to the whereabouts of vanished Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). The light flickers on the white masks and suits. The camera shakes and cuts in. The visual signals of movement, of imperfect control, give us an emotional cue that these Stormtroopers may not turn out to be the dead pieces of plastic we once thought they were. We sense, even, that these masked soldiers may be afraid.

The Force Awakens underlines that the Dark Side is propped up by a machine of conformity. The point comes through most clearly during a scene in which the First Order’s General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) shouts in Fascist tones against a backdrop of red and black symbols that evoke a cross between Nazi and Communist imagery, before the army of Stormtroopers all raise an arm to salute him in unison. Meanwhile, the Resistance fighters and sympathizers with the Light Side are champions of individuality and diversity. Tiny, yellow, bespectacled Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o) plays host to a gathering of all shapes, sizes, and species, in a throwback to Han’s usual haunts in the original trilogy. But the importance of building a society that values heterogeneity and individuation seems even more pointedly underlined here.

Fittingly, Abrams’ remix of the old Star Wars elements includes the choice to cast non-white actors in lead roles and make a woman the story’s most central hero and skilled fighter. The New York Times writes that Abrams’ “most far-reaching accomplishment here is casting Mr. Isaac, Mr. Boyega and Ms. Ridley — a Latino, a black man and a white woman — in this juggernaut series… the images of Mr. Boyega and Ms. Ridley each holding a lightsaber are among the most utopian moments in a Hollywood movie this year.”

The decision to make Boyega’s Stormtrooper not just a real character, but a central character, is an innovative narrative choice. Moreover, it is a sign of a more democratic underlying message than the prequels implied when Star Wars: Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace (1999) introduced the idea that the Force is made up of “Midichlorian” counts inherited in our bloodlines, implying that one must be born into Jedi talent, as if the Force were a kind of invisible aristocratic hierarchy.

J.J Abrams said in an interview with Slash Film that he wants us to feel we can all be Luke Skywalker: “To me Star Wars was never about science fiction — it was a spiritual story. And it was more of a fairytale in that regard. For me when I heard Obi-Wan say that the Force surrounds us and binds us all together, there was no judgement about who you were. This was something that we could all access. Being strong with the Force didn’t mean something scientific, it meant something spiritual. It meant someone who could believe, someone who could reach down to the depths of your feelings and follow this primal energy that was flowing through all of us….we would like to believe that when shit gets serious, that you could harness that Force I was told surrounds not just some of us but every living thing. And so, I really feel like the assumption that any character needs to have inherited a certain number of midi-chlorians or needs to be part of a bloodline… that wasn’t where my heart was. And so I respect and adhere to the canon but I also say that the Force has always seemed to me to be more inclusive and stronger than that.”

Choosing to peek behind the Stormtrooper mask is a brilliant means of reminding us of the lesson we first learned from Darth Vadar’s story of redemption: however fearsome or invulnerable any individual may seem, we are all human beings who once came from somewhere. We are all capable of change and surprises. In Finn’s awakening and escape, The Force Awakens challenges us to see the potential spark of humanity even in the Stormtrooper, the once-symbol of terrifying soulnessess. If we come to view the Stormtroopers as an enslaved people, rather than blank machinery, we understand that the potential life and humanity in the universe is beyond what we could imagine before the Force awakens.