Among the many motifs in the Star Wars universe, one that plays a prominent role in the deeply nostalgic Star Wars: The Force Awakens is an element of costume design. Specifically, the use of masks. This seventh episode in the ongoing space saga could hardly be told without them.
Although the series’ heroes have donned masks on occasion (recall Luke posing as a Stormtrooper in A New Hope or Lando Calrissian wearing a toothy faceguard to infiltrate Jabba the Hutt’s lair in Return of the Jedi), masks are typically reserved for villains. After all, the series’ most iconic visage — that of Darth Vader — is the glossy black facsimile of a face.
In The Force Awakens, the movie’s Luke Skywalker figure — a desert scavenger named Rey (Daisy Ridley) — at first appears hidden in a wrapped cloth and goggles while combing for junk amidst an abandoned Star Destroyer. But once she unveils her face, it remains uncovered for the rest of the film. More intriguing — and I’ll tread lightly for fear of spoilers — is how the helmeted mask of a certain Stormtrooper comes into play. During an early battle sequence, a fellow soldier is shot and reaches out to the trooper, his hand leaving a bloody streak across the front of the iconic white helmet. This sends the trooper into a panic. Upon returning to base, he desperately removes his helmet and takes gasping breaths, clearly suffering from post-traumatic stress. A commanding officer passes by (wearing a platinum variation of the same mask) and demands: “Who gave you permission to remove that helmet?” The implied question: Who said you could be human?
Masks are referenced elsewhere in The Force Awakens, more so than any of the other Star Wars films. What are we to make of all this veiling imagery?
It’s true that masks can provide protection from the elements, as they do for Rey. But they also dehumanize, thereby making it easier for their wearers to act inhumanely (ergo Stormtroopers) and the audience, in turn, to vilify them. Even more, they mythologize, allowing us to present a face to the world that is far grander, impressive or intimidating than the one with which we were born. This is why we get a tingling shudder from the cameo by Vader’s mask in The Force Awakens. It seems to hold real power.
Star Wars is a work of myth, remember, much like C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces, which retold the tale of Cupid and Psyche. Till We Have Faces partly uses mask imagery to explore questions of representation and identity, especially in terms of the mortals’ relationship to the gods. The Force Awakens, an even more modern myth based upon yarns of old, similarly uses masks to expose the gulf between who we want to be and who we really are.
Masks are referenced in The Force Awakens more than any other Star Wars film.
Consider another prominent figure in the film, one I’ll also discuss vaguely for fear of spoiling anything. There is a new villain, called Kylo Ren, who models himself directly on Darth Vader — even “praying” to Vader’s melted mask and asking for help in resisting “the call to the light.” Ren dons a helmeted visor of his own, dominated by angry silver lines along the forehead and an implacable, black-steel snout. Yet that call to the light still seeps through the metal, as Ren’s connection to one member of the resistance haunts him in the same way that Vader was haunted by Luke. At one point in The Force Awakens, Ren is directly challenged about the identity he’s trying so hard to adopt: “Take off that mask. You don’t need it.”
There’s something incredibly freeing in that line. (I’ll leave it for you to discover if Ren acquiesces.) When Jesus spoke of the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, which Eugene Peterson translates in The Message as a “religious mask,” He was speaking both of their misguidedness and the way they were trapped by their stiff, self-righteous identities. Our masks — whether they’re grade-point averages, job titles or inflated social media profiles — similarly encase us in selfhoods that can be as burdensome and ill-fitting as helmets of steel. You may be more vulnerable when you take your mask off and stand, just as you are, before God, but that’s also the best way to feel the light of grace on your face.