A non-spoiler parent's guide to the PG-13 movie.
Are you planning to reach out to your young child and say: “Join me, and together we will rule Star Wars: The Force Awakens together?”
There are a few things you may want to consider in advance. Ever since the film received a PG-13 rating from the Motion Picture Association of America, some parents have wondered whether the movie is appropriate for younger children.
It’s a good question. And everybody may have a different answer.
Most of the earlier films in the saga were rated PG (although the original trilogy came out before the “13” designation was created in 1984), and until now the only one to receive that more mature designation was 2005’s Revenge of the Sith, which featured the deaths of most of the Jedi – including a group of “younglings” – and a major character who was dismembered and burned over most of his body. You know the one.
The MPAA’s own explanation for its PG-13 rating for The Force Awakens couldn’t be more vague and unhelpful: “for sci-fi action violence.” In the vast world of science fiction, “action violence” could encompass anything from blasters going “pew-pew-pew” to Alien chestbursters.
The age designation of 13 doesn’t really help. Every child is different, as is every parent, so this will be a highly individual call for most moms and dads.
Here’s a guide that may help you decide. It’s mostly spoiler free, so no specific plot points will be revealed, but it does describe some of the incidents in general terms. You can read this and still not know where the story is going.
This should help you decide for yourself: “Should I take the kids?”
1) MONSTERS AND EXPLOSIONS
There are some slithering new alien beasts in this movie, and they’re voraciously hungry. We get one pretty scary scene involving them, but it’s actually far less grotesque than the Rancor’s dancer-snacking depicted in Return of the Jedi.
Very young children might become a little freaked out, but honestly, the scares are more along the lines of trick-or-treat than true horror.
The movie also features several elaborate aerial battles between X-Wings and TIE Fighters. Many of these vehicles blow up real good, but it’s basically a fireworks show. Even though there is unseen loss of life, these chases and dogfights aren’t psychologically disturbing.
EW Analysis: Even little kids can probably tolerate these thrills and scares — and there are a lot of them. But there are a few other isolated moments that are more disturbing…
2.) THE GOOD STORMTROOPER
The MPAA ratings board is anonymous and doesn’t explain its decisions to the public, but I’d guess this film got a more mature ranking not because it includes more fighting and death than the other movies, but because those things carry greater weight this time around.
There are a plenty of kids who grew up in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s who assumed that the Empire’s stormtroopers were robots. We never saw one without the white armor and mask, and when our heroes donned the uniforms as a disguise it was still possible to imagine a knocked-out, naked machine somewhere. As stormtroopers were destroyed by the dozens, a fading Wilhelm scream was often the only sign of any humanity. It was easy to laugh and cheer their demise.
Now, thanks to John Boyega’s Finn, we see that these foot soldiers for the dark side are flesh and blood, many of them kidnapped at an early age and enslaved as expendable weapons of war. They’re still the bad guys, but this movie presents the idea that there may be good in everybody, if only they hold on to it. Even an enemy soldier.
As we see in the trailer, Finn’s helmet ends up with a crimson handprint on it. Early in The Force Awakens, we witness how that mark happens. It’s not explicit, but it’s among the very few times we see red blood in one of these movies – and it’s the first time we see fear and suffering associated with it.
The moment comes and goes quickly, but it leaves both a literal and psychological mark on Finn. It might do the same for kids.
EW’s Analysis: We aren’t usually asked to feel for the “bad guys.” For children younger than 5, it may be a bit overwhelming, but the violence isn’t gruesome – it’s just sad. That’s not a terrible thing. Finn doesn’t want to hurt people, and he comes to that decision after watching others like him get hurt. Kids won’t watch this movie and say, “I want to be a stormtrooper,” but they may absorb the idea that even a stormtrooper can change and become a hero.
NEXT PAGE: Here’s where things get a little more questionable …
3.) NO MEANINGLESS DEATH
In 1977’s original Star Wars, the entire planet of Alderaan was obliterated, but the only human agony we witnessed played out on Princess Leia’s face as she watched her homeworld turn into an asteroid field.
In The Force Awakens, The First Order has a weapon similar to the Death Star – the planet-sized Starkiller Base, which can send similar beams of destruction through the galaxy. (This is on the poster and in the trailer, so I’m not counting this info as a spoiler.)
Again, not giving anything major away, but if you think a movie would present such a thing without showing it in action, well …
Seeing a few strangers look up into the sky as a death ray approaches doesn’t carry much emotional impact, however. It’s like the chilling quote attributed to Joseph Stalin: “One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic.”
Most children should be able to tolerate a planet melting without melting down themselves.
But there’s another moment in The Force Awakens that is smaller in scale, but truly haunting. I’ll say it again, no spoilers, so I won’t specify exactly where or when this happens, but we do watch a group of innocent, unarmed people rounded up as someone gives an order for them to be killed.
At still another point in the movie, we hear about – but don’t see – another such incident involving a group of innocents, so this is a pervasive undercurrent to the story: The powerful dominating and destroying the weak.
EW Analysis: As far as planets being destroyed, kids will get the plot significance, but they won’t be distressed by it. And that’s okay. No little kid should feel the full gravity of something like large-scale genocide. For me, the up-close threat against huddled innocent civilians was more painful. There’s no gore, but for a brief moment we see close-ups of some very frightened people and aliens in what may be last moments of their lives.
So will your kid be able to handle this? Ages 10 and above, probably. Younger than 6 – probably not. In between…? That’s a judgment call. But here are some things to consider as you make that decision:
Don’t underestimate the mature things your child already has to consider in real life. If he or she is enrolled in a school, they are very likely being taught “intruder drills.” Sometimes, teachers make a game of it to hide the sickening reason for their existence. My children learned to play “rabbits in the hole,” which involves a whole classroom of little ones trying to hide together in a closet without making a sound.
But as much as we try to shield them, 6-year-olds see and hear more than we think. They absorb details from the news and overhear hushed conversations between adults. They already know that sometimes a deeply disturbed person with a powerful weapon can hurt a lot of people before anyone can stop him.
What happens in this movie is pretty mild in comparison, and actually, it seems rather poignant to think about given the tragedies we’ve been forced to endure. A mature-minded grade-schooler can probably handle these parts of the film. They’ve certainly been asked to handle worse.
4.) A HOLE IN THE HEART
In the intrest of continuing to be spoiler free, I’m going to keep this as oblique as possible. No names or clues. But… something bad happens to someone we come to know and like in this movie, and it’s both painful and shocking.
Frankly, this one is going to be hard for kids to deal with. It’s not the same as Obi-Wan getting struck by Darth Vader and turned into a pile of laundry. This moment looks you right in the eye and grabs you by the throat, then makes a hole in your heart.
It’s cold-blooded. That’s why parents of little kids should keep their guard up. It’s not a masked soldier being ordered to take the lives of random strangers. It’s — to keep it general — an act of deliberate anger and cruelty.
It might make little kids cry — even the tough ones. But it is followed by a profound act of tenderness that will definitely make you cry. That’s what makes this scene not just evil, not just terrifying, not just heartbreaking, but meaningful and powerful.
And to me, that’s something remarkable about the script by J.J. Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan: It truly does balance the light and the dark sides. But this part… This is a tough one for those planning to bring anyone under 13.
EW Analysis: You may want to say: “Hey, let’s go get some Sour Patch Kids” when this scene comes up. Anyone with kids younger than 10 may want to see the movie alone first so they know when it’s about to happen.
If you’re rolling the dice and going into the movie cold, you should prepare to talk about this scene with your child after the movie. Why does it happen? Can you get so angry that it blots out any other emotion?
Any lingering sadness in your child might be resolved simply by saying: “Who do you think lost more in that moment?” Let the kid know that even when good guys don’t win, there’s victory in simply being good. That might make them feel better. (It makes me feel better.)
My 3-year-old will have to wait for the Blu-ray, when we can skip certain scenes. But I’ll be taking my 6-year-old to the theater to watch this alongside me.
Stories are how we deal with our fears as well as our dreams. They’re like a rehearsal for how we hope we’ll respond when called upon to be brave.
I know my daughter will feel sadness at some of the darker corners of this otherwise fun adventure, but as we all already learned from Inside Out, it’s okay to feel sadness sometimes. Sadness is how we know something mattered. In general, I think The Force Awakens will be a funny and exciting ride. In its darker moments, I believe it will evoke empathy instead of despair.
And at least this time, the terrible things that happen aren’t real.