Most of us have seen the Original Trilogy so many times, it’s taken on a life of its own in our memories. Beyond the fact that we can all quote Yoda from memory, there’s also the weird distortion that happens when every single cute moment has become a T-shirt or a meme. You’ve probably attended a Star Wars wedding. The Force Awakens is as much a sequel to our collective memory of those films as it is to the films themselves.
In that context, a lot of The Force Awakens is about revisiting the big ideas of the Original Trilogy through the eyes of a new, younger set of characters, and rediscovering them. There’s no way to strip away the cultural baggage that’s accrued to the first three Star Wars films, and get at the essence of what they actually were—so instead, this film aims to connect to that collective miasma of shared ideas, while making it all new again (Anders)
Fan-service and shout-outs to the original movies are constant. To some extent this is acknowledging this world’s history – legends of Luke and Han, with the Millennium Falcon or Darth Vader’s skull as souvenirs of the earlier adventures. Other callbacks continue the original aesthetic – use of scale to emphasize the vastness of planets and ships beside personal fliers and tiny individuals. The Force Awakens specifically offers the grungy looking “used future” rather than the shiny CGI droids and intricate costumes of the Old Republic. Nonetheless, technology has both aged and advanced, in small, subtle ways that feel believable, such as X-wing upgrades and the mobile BB-8. There’s the feel of Old Star Wars, from the designs to the vanished racist aliens, cloying children, pod races, painful dialogue, and midichlorians of the prequels. Instead, humor and camaraderie are central, to the point of lots of hugging.
“If we got intoxicated by the nostalgia of what we were doing, the movie was gonna suck,” Abrams admitted (“Director J.J. Abrams” 66). It’s a risk the film frequently takes. In particular, he has recycled the entire plot. Plans hidden in a droid, a Death Star equivalent, three young heroes who mirror the original ones out to save the galaxy.
The Force Awakens essentially retells the story of A New Hope, beat for beat. It inverts some things here, gender-flips some things there, and tweaks a few other things. But this is a movie about a child of mysterious parentage who grows up on a desert planet and proves essential to blowing up a massive, planet-destroying space station. Rewriting the Star Wars saga, this is not. Instead, it’s a bit of a remix. (VanDerWerff)
The similarities run deeper than that, even. If you lay A New Hope alongside The Force Awakens, Rey meets Han Solo roughly when Luke meets Obi-Wan Kenobi, and her one-woman escape from the clutches of the First Order turns her into the imprisoned Leia and the Luke who rescues the princess all in one character. Rey’s story and Luke’s mirror each other almost exactly. (VanDerWerff)
Abrams has also brought back many of the emotional resonances. The conflict between father and son in this film is different from the one in Empire, yet startlingly similar. Like Luke, Rey seeks the truth of her parenthood and has (possibly) an evil relative in a mask tempting her to the Dark Side.
Abrams notes, “George Lucas told a story about everyman, everywoman characters who were nobodies who had to step up and become somebody. The idea that there would be a new crop of nobodies in the Star Wars universe who didn’t realize yet they would become somebody, that was a very powerful feeling” (“Director J.J. Abrams” 66). Some of the elements and characters are flipped, as Rey definitely doesn’t need a rescue, allowing the audience a moment of fun.
The visual message is clear: Don’t take anything at face value, because you’re never seeing the whole picture. Abrams loves to surprise and startle his audience, but he also goes into this movie with a laundry list of things that we’re expecting to see, because Star Wars. Instead of simply setting up expectations within the narrative and then playing off them, he’s in a position of having to play off our pre-existing expectations—so he gives us what we expect, but still tries to keep us off guard.
But at times, nostalgia definitely overwhelms storytelling, and at times the determination to give us the “greatest hits” of Star Wars is a little too ingratiating. (Anders)
Of course, a valid point is how derivative it all was the first time around. Even without this major commentary on how life works, it was still recycled storytelling. The heroic space melodrama appeared in Flash Gordon, also a story of a young hero mixing space and fantasy while rescuing his heroine from the Dark Lord. There’s a heavy dose of old radio dramas, too, where superheroes flew into space in great genre mash-ups. The plot is pure hero’s journey as everyone has noticed – King Arthur in space. The other stories follow this as well. Critic Chris Taylor notes: “Spoiler alert: Every Star Wars trilogy is going to follow the arc of the hero’s journey. As did every work of fiction from Gilgamesh to The Hunger Games. As will all the spin-off Star Wars movies” (Taylor).
The original trilogy is also derivative within itself as films one and three have Death Stars, and Luke finishes the fight Darth began with Obi-Wan. In Empire, Luke must choose between the bigger picture and saving Leia and his friends, something the Emperor continues taunting him with in the third film. The prequels, too, are obsessed with the bonds of family and friendship while rehashing character appearances and massive nods to the series that will follow. Taylor adds:
The entire Star Wars series is intentionally derivative of itself. This goes back to The Empire Strikes Back, which reprised Luke’s Jedi training with Obi-Wan — using a creature who grew out of a version of the “Ben Kenobi” character in the third draft of “The Star Wars,” as it then was. The derivative version ended up being better, and darker, with Luke’s vision of facing Vader springing out of it.
Lucas learned a vital lesson: Keep iterating on the same ideas and you’ll strike gold….Say what you like about J.J. Abrams, but there is no greater imitator of George Lucas than George Lucas. (Taylor)
One could even argue that the repeated plot elements each time are commentary on human nature – each time the world is fixed, someone else must invent a new superweapon or try again with plans from the old one. As Gerry Canavan explains:
…while I can certainly understand the impulse to complain about The Force Awakens as derivative, I really think this is more repetition with a difference than mere or base or stupid repetition. One Death Star is a horror; two Death Stars and one Starkiller Base and whatever horrific murder innovation the First Order will come up with for Episode 9 is something more like the inexorable logic of history, grinding us all to dust. Likewise, it’s true that The Force Awakens hits many of the same story beats as the Original Trilogy, but almost always in ways that are worse: the death of Obi-Wan was sad but mysterious, suggestive of a world beyond death which the Jedi could access, while the death of The Force Awakens’s version of Obi-Wan is not only brutally material but visceral and permanent, as far as we have any reason to believe right now. The loss of Alderaan is sad, but the loss of what appears to be the entire institutional apparatus of the resurgent Republic is unthinkably devastating; aside from the loss of life it would take decades for the Galaxy to recover from such an event, even if they weren’t having to fight off the First Order while doing it. (Canavan)
True, but so far, the new film doesn’t have much identity to set it apart – if its scenes, shots, characters and plots mirror A New Hope so completely, viewers could really use a clue what this new story has to offer that’s different from the old one.
If you enjoyed this, it’s an excerpt from a longer book. We’re Home: Fandom, Fun, and Hidden Homages in Star Wars: The Force Awakenshttp://www.amazon.com/Were-Home-Fandom-Homages-Awakens-ebook/dp/B01A59W4XQ/ The book is for sale in paperback and ebook, free through Kindle Unlimited. Also, check out A Rey of Hope: Feminism, Symbolism and Hidden Gems in Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Anders, Charlie Jane. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens Is the Most Fun I’ve Had at the Movies in Ages.” IO9, 16 Dec 2015. http://io9.gizmodo.com/star-wars-the-force-awakens-is-the-most-fun-ive-had-at-1748271186
Canavan, Gerry. “From “A New Hope” to no Hope at All: “Star Wars,” Tolkien and the Sinister and Depressing Reality of Expanded Universes.” Salon 24 Dec 2015.
“Director J.J. Abrams.” People Special Star Wars: The Force Awakens Edition, Dec 2015. 66.
Taylor, Chris. “Questions for Anyone Who Calls Star Wars: The Force Awakens a ‘Remake’.” Mashable 23 Dec 2015. http://mashable.com/2015/12/23/force-awakens-is-no-remake/?utm_cid=mash-com-fb-main-link#Tz7esDdYusqD
VanDerWerff, Todd. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens: 5 Ways the New Movie Copies the Original Film.” Vox, 21 Dec. 2015. http://www.vox.com/2015/12/21/10632690/star-wars-the-force-awakens-spoilers-han-solo-new-hope