Like Flixist EIC Matthew Razak said in his review, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the Star Wars sequel you’re looking for. It’s not flawless, obviously, but it does what it has to do. (It’s a little unfair that every movie in the series has to stand in the shadow of The Empire Strikes Back, which isn’t just the best Star Wars movie but also one of the best movies ever made.) If anything, the prequels set a low bar, and The Force Awakens merely needed to be decent. It’s more than that, and much of it has to do with the new characters, who are well-rendered and have loads of story potential.
Yet the new characters seem a little hemmed in by the familiarity of the plot, which borrows the majority of its story beats from the original Star Wars trilogy. If George Lucas’ models for the first Star Wars were Akira Kurosawa, John Ford, and Flash Gordon, J.J. Abrams’ models for The Force Awakens were clearly A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and The Return of the Jedi.
Then again, The Force Awakens isn’t just a set-up and sequel, it’s also a Star Wars movie about Star Wars movies.
MAJOR SPOILERS BELOW
We’ve seen a few soft reboots and sequels this year that take familiar elements from earlier entries in a series to move in their own directions. The better models of this are Creed, which builds off the Rocky movies to tell its own story, and Mad Max: Fury Road, which uses recurring elements like the other sequels in the franchise. Jurassic World was a middling model of this, albeit a highly lucrative one. The nadir might be 2006’s Superman Returns, a sequel that was basically a joyless rehash of Richard Donner’s 1978 film.
The similarities between A New Hope and The Force Awakens are plentiful. Important information is stashed inside of a beep-booping droid (a distress message to Obi-Wan Kenobi in R2-D2, a map to find Luke Skywalker in BB-8). The droid wanders a desert planet (Tatooine, Jakku) and is eventually found by an unassuming person (Uncle Owen and Luke, Rey). They leave the desert planet in The Millennium Falcon. Both movies have their own cantina scene (Mos Eisley Spaceport, Moz Kanata’s bar). Both movies have a weaponized planet (The Death Star, The Starkiller Base) that blows stuff up real good before getting blowed up real good. Both movies feature the lightsaber death of a fatherly figure (Obi-Wan, Han Solo) at the hands of a bad guy in black (Darth Vader, Kylo Ren). There are fan service-y moments throughout as well, from the hologram chess board to the remote training ball to mentions of a trash compactor. And yes, there is a Wilhelm scream, and someone has a bad feeling about something.
I missed some, and there are loads of allusions to Empire and Jedi as well, but you get the picture. The Force Awakens follows a lot of A New Hope, which in some ways confirms many of the biggest fears fans had about Abrams being on board. His two Star Trek films were full of fan service and repeats of familiar ideas, and Super 8 was a riff on Steven Spielberg’s early output and the misfit kid movies of the 80s. All creators are swayed by their influences, but the work usually suffers when slavish devotion to influences becomes more important than using those influences to create something new. It’s why The Wrath of Khan (inspired in part by A Tale of Two Cities and Moby-Dick, among other works) will always be better than Star Trek Into Darkness (a joyless rehash of The Wrath of Khan)–Wrath of Khan gives itself room to play with its pastiche, which yields something new.
There’s always an underlying question of “How much is too much?” when it comes to homages, and with The Force Awakens it seems like the “too much” threshold is crossed in the second half once we see The Starkiller Base. As The Resistance plots how to blow it up (a rehash of the Death Star plan of attack in A New Hope and Return of the Jedi), one of the fighter pilots shouts out almost mockingly, “It’s another Death Star!” Either Han or Leia then quips, “Where’s the weak point?” Even the characters in the film seem to be saying, “Christ, a third time? Wasn’t this freakin’ silly enough when we re-used this plot device in Jedi?”
Death Star 3.0 is lazy, sure, and it makes all the other original trilogy references seem glaring (it’s a fish head in your soup–suddenly all the other ingredients taste like fish head), but maybe there’s some meta-commentary on Star Wars here. The film seems to be aware of its role as a reintroduction to Star Wars for a new generation of viewers and a show of good faith to an older generation of viewers who suffered through the prequels. The Star Wars Trilogy became one of the primary models for rollicking cinematic adventure. It’s an international cultural phenomenon, it’s a point of comparison for other major films, it’s an inescapable force in its own right. And here are some characters of a new generation who get to experience that moment for themselves. Lucas invented a model from previous models, while Abrams inherits and riffs on the ubiquitous influential model that Lucas invented and failed to improve upon in the prequels. (They seem to blow up Coruscant or an analog for Coruscant in The Force Awakens, as if to say, “Yeah, we’re getting rid of that prequel stuff, guys.”)
Over at the AV Club, A.A. Dowd and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky had a brief discussion about The Force Awakens. Rey, Finn, Kylo Ren, and Poe are new Star Wars characters who are aware of the legacy of Star Wars characters of the past. They know the stories, the players in the fictional history of the world they inhabit. These are Star Wars movie characters in a post-Star Wars cinematic world. Rey speeds by the husk of a Super Star Destroyer, and she eats lunch in the shadow of a collapsed AT-AT. It’s like kids playing Star Wars in a Star Wars movie, or as Dowd put it: “We’re essentially watching a bunch of Star Wars nerds in a Star Wars movie.”
Even when the fan service and repetition gets overbearing, there’s at least something good to be found, and most of it involves the new characters. That may be a testament to how compelling and likable they are. Even though Poe Dameron is a supporting character who’s only around for a couple of minutes, he makes such a great impression as the cocksure flying ace of The Resistance. His appearance in the mid-film cavalry scene is a fresh bit of derring-do–Finn looks on from the ground like an audience surrogate as Poe loops and dives and swoops to bring down TIE fighter after TIE fighter. It’s a shame that the Starkiller Base sequence at the end doesn’t offer any unique challenges for Poe and his fellow X-wing pilots. All they do is pew-pew-pew the hell out of a target and that’s it.
Finn offers loads of story potential as a First Order turncoat. He’s raised from birth to be a fascist soldier (This. Is. Nazi-Sparta!), and not even given a name. He’s a pawn and cannon fodder and an extension of another party’s will. But despite that, he has a moment of conscience in which he breaks his programming to make a moral choice. He gets to be his own man and define his own identity rather than accept the one that’s been forced upon him since birth. Maybe it’s the sign of a mass defection of Stormtroopers in the next two films, but Finn’s story is about being able to define who you want to be. It’s free will as a part of asserting personhood.
Rey might be the best of the batch, and she’s a compelling anchor for this new trilogy. She’s a hero with limitless potential–she’s compassionate and strong, a force-savvy gearhead, a capable pilot and problem solver–but she’s never had role models to show her the way or any reason to believe in herself. Think about it. Luke Skywalker wanted to leave home and be a great pilot like his father. Rey’s never believed that she could be great at anything. She led a life of limited possibility, one without aspirations. She believes she’s a nobody that no one wanted or cared about, and at various points of her adventure, even though she’s in awe of what she’s seeing, she keeps talking about going home. Yet there’s nothing for her back on Jakku–no future, no hope. She so used to solitude and banality. Rey’s story is about what happens when you’re finally given an opportunity to dream and show your true worth as a person, and more importantly, she finds out what happens when someone says that they believe in you.
Kylo Ren is a counterpoint to Rey and Finn. His parents are Han and Leia, the heroic couple of The Rebel Alliance; his uncle and trainer is Luke Skywalker, a Jedi trained by Ben Kenobi (Kylo’s real name is Ben Solo) and Yoda; his grandfather is Anakin Skywalker, the Space Jesus. Kylo’s got the genes and he’s got the advantages of the family lineage, but he just can’t live up to the legacy he’s part of. I picture him as the child of two great musicians who gets weighed down by the pressure of being as good as, if not better than, mom and dad. He’s a spoiled brat obsessed with outward shows of power, which seems like a mulligan for the botched characterization of Anakin Skywalker in the prequels. Like his grandfather, there’s an expectation of greatness.
I sense a kind of Salieri/Mozart rivalry emerging between Kylo Ren and Rey (i.e., the fictional trope of Salieri’s resentful jealousy of Mozart’s talent). In their force mind battle, Rey bests Kylo even though she hasn’t had the same kind of training; she even identifies his fears of inadequacy. She beats him in a lightsaber duel, scarring his face in a manner not unlike Supreme Leader Snoke’s. It’s Space Daniel crane kicking Space Johnny, but she didn’t even have a Miyagi-figure to show her how to wax-on and wax-off. (There’s already been a backlash against Rey in some corners of the internet calling her a Mary Sue, but like Tasha Robinson wrote at The Verge: “She’s a fantasy wish-fulfillment character with outsized skills, an inhuman reaction time, and a clever answer to every question–but so are the other major Star Wars heroes. Are they all getting the same level of suspicion and dismissal?”)
These three primary characters–Rey, Finn, and Kylo–are legacy-conscious individuals who are trying to assert their own identities and make their own futures. It’s ironic (or maybe fitting?) that they’re all held back to varying degrees by a plot with too many callbacks to the past.
J.J. Abrams might have been given the least interesting Star Wars sequel to direct and co-write. (Actually, the young Han Solo spin-off movie is probably the least interesting.) It’s a set-up movie for a new story that has to revisit an old set of stories and characters. At least the 2009 Star Trek film wasn’t necessarily tied to a pre-existing film and could use existing characters to go on its own semi-original fan-service adventure. It was a reboot rather than a sequel, and the latter can be much tougher, especially when you’re dealing with something as big as Star Wars.
Rian Johnson’s Star Wars Episode VIII will probably be a much more interesting and original movie. He’s got a new set of characters established, a whole lot of relationships and dangling threads to play with, and lots of ability to tell the kind of story he wants to tell. I assume he’ll do his damndest to avoid rehashing The Empire Strikes Back and instead bring something new to Star Wars. Johnson’s got a great knack for mimicking, paying homage to, and reinterpreting different films and film genres to do his own thing, which will be great to see after a very insular Star Wars entry. Even Gareth Edwards’ Star Wars: Rogue One seems like it’ll be more interesting than Episode VII. It’s a prequel about the mission to get the plans for the original Death Star, and yet this could be a different kind of story that doesn’t have to rely on the pre-existing beats of another Star Wars movie. This might be a full-on WWII mission flick, i.e., The Space Guns of Navarone, Where Space Eagles Dare, The Dirty Space Dozen, Inglorious Space Basterds.
So yes, The Force Awakens is too much like A New Hope, but it’s also got enough fresh stuff in there to make it watchable and even enjoyable. It’s nerdy comfort food with a twist, and it’s also nerdy comfort food about the comforts of nerdy comfort foods. (But it tastes like fish heads.) The big takeaway is that the movie gets back to basics, namely that it’s always been the characters that make Star Wars worth watching, not the spectacle. A fresh plot wouldn’t hurt, though. I can’t wait to see what happens when these characters mold their own stories and destinies in plots befitting their potential.