The Planetary Romance of Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Star Wars: The Force Awakens features some of the most dazzling setting in the saga's film history. Let's take a look.

This article contains SPOILERS for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, specifically the different locations in the film. 

One thing that struck me about Star Wars: The Force Awakens is its renewed interest in the exotic locations of its universe and the mysteries waiting within them. From a graveyard world to a weaponized ice planet, the latest installment in the Star Wars film saga gives us some of the most interesting locations to date. It brings back the tradition of planetary romance to the franchise in a big way, something that was severely lacking in the Prequel era’s cardboard settings.

Planetary romance has always been deeply rooted in the franchise’s DNA because of its pulpy space fantasy influences, such as Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials, which were often concerned with exploring exotic planets. These stories feature adventurers on strange worlds, which have their own unique species and cultures. And the stories are always driven as much by the characters as their settings.

While not all locations in The Force Awakens are on a grand scale, they all introduce larger implications for the story and the future of the galaxy. Consider that each planet formally introduces a new element to play with in future films: a place for the ruins of a forgotten age, a world full of space pirates, a planet turned superweapon, a new Resistance base, and the first Jedi Temple in the universe’s recorded history. All of these settings work to induce an emotional response from the characters and the audience. And they all tell their own stories, too. 

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Let’s take a look at the exotic locations of The Force Awakens and how they inform the film’s story:


Unlike the dangerous sand dunes of Tatooine, the place we all default to when we think “desert planet” (unless you’re a huge Dune fan), Abrams has done something quite interesting with Jakku by giving it a very deep history and the epic sights that weren’t immediately apparent in Tatooine’s introduction in A New Hope. For a desert planet, Jakku doesn’t quite feel as barren as its Original Trilogy counterpart. It’s not exactly populated with tons of cities or even many villages for Kylo Ren to massacre, but yet you feel the weight of its architecture.

I’ll make the case that, for as interesting as Mos Eisley, Mos Espa, and Jabba’s Palace are, Rey’s AT-AT carcass house is just so much better. Because we see the implications of all of it. It’s mythical, like Egyptian ruins. The remnants of a fallen Star Destroyer in the middle of a desert could easily become this film’s most iconic image in the same way that we remember that first shot of Cloud City in The Empire Strikes Back. And Abrams exploits the hell out of the view, scaling the film’s characters down to size when next to the once-mighty Imperial fleet.

That distant shot of Rey’s robes blowing in the hot desert wind while the Star Destroyer’s thrusters lie dead in the sand is just gorgeous. And quiet. The film could have easily incorporated something loud for these shots, as if we’d stumbled into a hidden city full of secrets. But expertly, Abrams shows us that the majesty (and the treasures) have been stripped away. Rey rips mere trinkets from the guts of these dead titans. 

Perhaps the planet’s only fault is that it’s population isn’t as interesting as the one on Tatooine. While we’re shown a bustling little village of scavengers and scum, there’s no Mos Eisley waiting in the dunes. No Sand People ready to pick the characters off in a cavernous valley. But Jakku more than makes up for that in its surroundings. 

In Star Wars: Aftermath by Chuck Wendig, Jakku is described as “a dead place” in a brief interlude. It makes me wonder if anyone ever thought of a desert as a symbol of life in the first place? Jakku takes the meaning of a desert, the feelings it instills in those who walk in its sands, and becomes this galaxy’s first graveyard planet.

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Maz Kanata’s Castle on Takodana

Takodana, like its scummy counterpart, Mos Eisley, is meant to open up the galaxy for the young hero. Rey points out, as she steps onto a new planet for maybe the second time in her life (Jakku’s not her home, either), that she never knew there was so much green in the galaxy. It’s a fantastic juxtaposition to Maz Kanata’s castle, which wears the peculiar look of rusting majesty that has always been a signature of Star Wars‘ visual style. 

Inside the castle, we’re meant to see the Mos Eisley Cantina, full of criminals, outsiders, and those who don’t want to be found. And space pirates! Maz’s implied history as a space pirate opens up yet another facet of this universe that hasn’t been explored on screen yet. Pirates run rampant in the books and comics, of course, stalking the Kessel Run for spice freighters. And in Maz’s hideout, we meet a merry bunch—including that infamous grasshopper alien from A New Hope—that might as well be singing “Yo Ho.”

But for all its overt seediness, the castle is also a place of secrets. We’re shown an archive full of old chests, forgotten loot from another time hidden within them. In one of those chests is the most important relics of the Jedi: Anakin Skywalker’s lightsaber, passed down to his son Luke, and now in the hands of Rey. Maz points out that the lightsaber is calling to her and that she must now take the weapon. It’s like Arthur pulling the sword out of the stone—I can’t image Abrams and co-writer Lawrence Kasdan didn’t see that comparison. 

In the same way that the castle on Takodana opens up the galaxy for Rey, it also sets her on the adventure. It’s at the point of finding that lightsaber that Rey becomes the most important character in the film. She is given the noble quest of returning a powerful lost artifact to its rightful place and restoring the galaxy’s fallen idol. Like an ancient temple after the adventurer has found the treasure he seeks, the castle crumbles to the ground, having served its fateful purpose. 

Starkiller Base

Starkiller Base is one of the coolest, most original things I’ve seen in a Star Wars film. While the comparisons to the Death Star will be inevitable, due in part to the superweapon’s overall look, Starkiller Base is not just a big space station that floats through galaxy, ready to pulverize planets. The design is a bit more intricate than what you see on the outside.

This weapon of solar systemic destruction is actually a giant ice planet that has been turned into the ultimate death ray by the First Order. How did the entire equator of a planet become a massive cannon capable of destroying an entire star system in one shot? I have no idea. Because science isn’t all that important to Star Wars

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Starkiller Base’s very existence adds yet another layer of complexity to the Star Wars film universe and shows how galactic villains can exploit planets for more than just their people and their resources. This development also shows just how dangerous the science of this universe has become. In the same way that we worried about “the bomb” in the 20th century, Starkiller Base demonstrates technological and atomic ingenuity at its very worst.

Somehow, the scientists and engineers of the First Order have figured out how to harness the energy of stars and turn it into a deadly weapon. As we see in the film, the weapon sucks up a sun’s energy while charging…which is actually pretty goddamn deadly to begin with, since putting out a star system’s sun will pretty much destroy any planet depending on that energy. That means that the First Order is practicing the double-tap in The Force Awakens. Knocking out a planet’s sun can easily destroy its atmosphere and ecosystems, not to mention that it would completely disrupt the planet’s rotation, sending it hurling through space. But that’s probably too subtle for Star Wars, which loves its lasers. 

All that said, Starkiller Base still manages to maintain an atmosphere and ecosystem for the planet-weapon’s occupants. We know, for example, that sentient beings can breathe on the planet, since several characters walk around without any respirators in the film’s third act. Also in question is how the hell can it possibly snow on the planet when there can’t possibly be a stable atmosphere without the presence of a sun? The planet’s atmosphere should be going batshit crazy every time the First Order turns a star on and off. Perhaps it’s some kind of massive force field or artificial atmosphere that keeps the planet in line. Surely, a planet that can eat a whole sun also has enough energy to produce gravity…

My point is that Starkiller Base raises so many questions about the way this new Star Wars universe works, how massive its scientific ventures are, and how unexplored it probably still is, that it’s impossible not to nod your head at the merit of this new superweapon…even if it will inevitably remind you of the Death Star in the end. 

Resistance Base on D’Qar

The Resistance Base is the least remarkable of the five locations in The Force Awakens. But perhaps that’s by design. It is understandably lowkey, like the Rebel base on Yavin 4, even though that was actually an ancient temple left behind by an ancient Sith race. The Shire-like structures of the Resistance Base are even more on the subtle side, probably completely blending in with its surroundings, as long as all the ships are in their hangars. 

The “Hobbit hole” design of the base is surely to emphasize the Resistance’s status as an underground movement, a check against the First Order in the outskirts of space. If I had to describe the Resistance, I’d call them a paramilitary force sanctioned by the government to fight the bad guys. It doesn’t seem that the Resistance boasts that many men nor a very big fleet—the number of X-Wings in the Battle of Starkiller Base is comparable to the Battle of Yavin.

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Maybe it’s a small operation because the people of the New Republic aren’t quite as up to speed with the First Order threat as some of its officials. Large parts of the galaxy have always seemed strangely out of the loop, no matter what government is calling the shots. So the existence of the Resistance could be even more secretive than we think. 

I like the fact that the base is hiding behind an asteroid field in the same way the fourth moon of Yavin is hidden behind the red gas giant. You really have to go looking to find this place. 

The Resistance Base lacks the flash and size of the the First Order’s superweapon, which is the way the stakes have always been set in Star Wars. It’s always the oppressors versus the little people, and it works. It was always the same basic principle of freedom fighting that carried the epic battles of the Original Trilogy. And believe it or not, the same can be said of the Prequels, even though we follow the Imperialist point-of-view for that entire trilogy, which doesn’t help it none. But behind the make-up, lavishness, and corruption is the same story of the disenfranchised fighting the powerful. I like the overt allegory of Coruscant, for example. Below the bright towers of the thriving city planet are the impoverished and rotting subterranean levels—a perfect place for someone like Darth Sidious to set up shop and cause a stir.

The humble Resistance Base shows us that Star Wars is back to its old ways. People fighting the only battle there ever was, as Maz Kanata eloquently puts it in the movie. The light versus the dark. 

Luke Skywalker’s Hideout

Star Wars has never shied away from mystical places that might hold the greatest secrets of the Jedi, and this new uncharted planet might be the biggest tease of all. While we only see this island world for about five minutes at the end of The Force Awakens, it is quite the pill to swallow. Luke has been hiding out in the first temple of the Jedi, the place where we can logically assume the Jedi were born. Rey, Chewie, and Artoo might in fact be joining Luke at the epicenter of the Force.

It’s quite interesting that Rey doesn’t have quite as much of an interest in the unknown as Luke did in his first outing. He’s always been curious about the Jedi and the way the Force works. But Rey seems more bound by adventure and duty than curiosity. She knows that destiny has led her to Luke, but has not yet considered what’s beyond the veil. 

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Luke, on the other hand, has had a lot of time to think and meditate prior to and during the events of the film. Who knows what he’s discovered about the nature of the Force on these islands. 

It’s fitting that Rey would return to such a lonely place at the end of the movie, after being stuck on Jakku for so many years. It’s perhaps some sort of allegory about the path of the hero, that he can only rise so high before he eventually falls, whether defeated by man, creature, or death. It happens to Arthur and Beowulf in their legends. Yoda falls and chooses exile as his penance. And now Luke has arrived at his ultimate failure: his inability to pass on what he has learned and keep the galaxy at peace. It’s a nice touch to have Luke standing on a peak, looking down at the dark water, when we catch up with him. 

Yet this nameless planet looks so renewed and lively. Lonely, sure, but also full of green. Abrams used the Irish island Skellig Michael for this final scene, and I wonder if he chose it because of the steps. In the end, Rey climbed to the top of the island to join her Force-sensitive predecessor. I think when Abrams and Kasdan came up with the gathering of heroes on this beautiful backdrop, they meant for it to symbolize hope. And it does. 

John Saavedra is an associate editor at Den of Geek US. Find more of his work on his website. Or just follow him on Twitter.