The greatest criticism levelled at ‘The Force Awakens’ is that it is entirely derivative. Glen Falkenstein explains why that isn’t a bad thing.
Note: Contains major spoilers.
J.J. Abrams has comfortably transitioned the Star Wars saga to a new generation of films with an entry that is in every sense thrilling, highly nostalgic and fan-safe. Watching Episode VII will be a readily familiar experience to every Star Wars fan, even more so upon repeat viewings, given almost every plot point and characterisation have been drawn directly from the original trilogy.
The opening shot itself mimics that of A New Hope with a battleship eclipsing the frame and wordlessly establishing dominance in war-ridden space. A droid is entrusted with data essential to the rebellion and let loose on a desert planet, only to find a loner, longing for escape with Jedi powers yet unknown. A dark, masked antagonist emerges from a smoke-filled bay, apparently conflicted but resolutely stoic with a yet to be seen tumultuous father-son dynamic eclipsing his story-arc. The loner, after having her home destroyed, escapes with the droid in the Millennium Falcon.
From there the similarities pile up. The Force Awakens’ three central characters, Rey, Finn and Poe are a pastiche of the original trio Luke, Leia and Han who themselves have almost entirely reverted to their roles at the beginning of A New Hope. Their adversary, the malevolent, now more explicitly Third Reich-style First Order have deployed Storm Troopers throughout the galaxy, led by a mysterious hologram obsessed with the dark side of the force.
The heroes visit a cantina-style setting, without as memorable a score, only to discover a vast weapon that obliterates planets to be destroyed by an X-Wing trench-run reminiscent of both A New Hope and Return of the Jedi. A pilot from Episode VI also participates in the run on this latest genocidal monstrosity which concludes with the Millennium Falcon and various X-Wings outrunning the blast.
Han and another character raid a fortress to rescue the central female character, only for the mentor figure, Han, to be tragically killed by the film’s antagonist in a scene eerily reminiscent of Obi-Wan Kenobi’s death in Episode IV, made all that more emotive by Kylo Ren being referred to by his father as Ben and ostensibly named after the legendary Jedi Knight himself.
In the final and most powerful moments of the film, we discover Luke has reverted to the Yoda role as an isolated hermit, only to be discovered by Rey. The Force Awakens’ completes the transition with a clever, literal inversion of the passing of the torch between both the old and new trilogys’ central characters.
Reverting to a tried and true formula works, and rather than attempting to drastically innovate, is very much the norm. Jurassic World, previously the most successful 2015 release, was in almost every respect a rehash of its hugely successful predecessor(s) and despite being overly familiar did the trick, delivering two hours of rollicking entertainment. Spectre did the same, as argued by this author, as did Creed, not even pretending to be anything but a new-age throwback to Rocky, premiering to universally positive reviews and sharing with The Force Awakens the rare honour of being the seventh film in a successful series.
An oft-favoured criticism, this is by no means a new trend in filmmaking, with George Lucas himself acknowledging that Star Wars is a mishmash of Flash Gordon, 1930’s adventure serials, the Arthurian legend and any number of other influences.
The Force Awakens is just as beholden to these influences as its predecessors, with Ren’s crossguard lightsaber, the castle-setting and even the dress worn by Ren and Captain Phasma evoking the entire series’ most visceral images of Arthur’s England. Containing Star Wars’ most explicit reference to the legend itself, in the film’s penultimate scene, Ren, raised by widely-recognised royalty, attempts to retrieve the sword-like lightsaber from the earth, believing it is his by right, only to have it drawn to his disbelief by a commoner who wields it against him.
Notably, each successive Star Wars was derided upon its original release by various critics for being entirely derivative of long-established stories, with significantly greater criticism levelled at them than anything hurled at Episode VII since it hit cinemas, which has achieved a near-universal consensus as a spectacular new iteration.
Defying criticism in both cases, fans have flocked to see each new Star Wars upon its release. Rather than view each entry as a new stage in unoriginal storytelling, The Force Awakens is just the latest version of a primal tale that has been told successfully by previous Star Wars entries and long before that. It is thrilling because it is something we know as familiar to which we can instantly relate, yet can be envisaged and understood in so many different ways, as was thrillingly achieved for the first time in decades by The Force Awakens.
A legitimate criticism nonetheless, the new trilogy still has space to develop itself as a distinct entity with new story arcs and not be entirely dependent or derivative of the original series as so many films are, lest Episodes VIII and IX fail to distinguish themselves, as the original trilogy did so well, from what came before. Mad Max: Fury Road, a reiteration of the classic series and identified by the International Federation of Film Critics as the best film of 2015 achieved this with aplomb and there’s no reason the later sequels can’t veer a little more off course while staying true to Star Wars’ origins.
Glen Falkenstein on FilmInk