Star Wars is a big deal. Each entry in the series has been a billion dollar industry unto itself. It has spawned three sequels, three prequels, countless spinoffs, merchandising connections, parodies, and the like so as to successfully insinuate itself into the collective cultural consciousness of America, and thereby the world. The net effect is so powerful that I strongly suspect that if the apocalypse were to come tomorrow, Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader would continue to live on in the oral histories of the survivors.
This happened in part because Star Wars was one of the first blockbusters. In 1977, popular culture was still monolithic enough that it was possible for a single movie to lastingly enter the popular consciousness. In part, it was because Star Wars was carefully calibrated for the moment in which it was made. The late ’70s were depressing for many deep reasons, and Star Wars came as a refreshing blast of optimism in those dark times.
But mostly, I think it was because Star Wars was a consciously constructed myth. George Lucas, the creator of the series, famously mashed together Joseph Campbell’s theory of the archetypical hero with Kurosawa’s samurai movies and all his favorite influences from the Hollywood of his youth. It was a science-fiction themed epic that sought to resonate as fairy tale rather than as an engineer’s sterile attempt to predict the future. And given that it still maintains such a hold on the collective cultural imagination two generations later, it is safe to say that it worked.
A few years back Lucas sold the rights to his greatest creation to Disney. Part of the terms of the multi-billion dollar transaction were the complete alienation of all Lucas’s creative rights over the long ago, far, far away galaxy he’d brought forth into the world. And as soon as the ink was dry on the contracts, Disney formally repudiated much of the past ancillary canon (known as the Expanded Universe or “EU” to the fanbase) and then set about creating a seventh installment in the series.
Even if the reader is not a fan of the series, this movie is worth detailed consideration as a source of insight into the modern world. It represents the first revision of the now-familiar Star Wars mythos by the next generation of creatives that is intended for the mass-market. So it can tell us much about how that generation sees itself and how it sees its audience, compared to how Lucas saw the world of the ’70s or the ’90s.
The discussion that follows, therefore. will likely not make much sense unless one has seen the movie at least once. Multiple viewings will likely be required.
The Force Awakens is a deeply derivative movie. Both its vast legion of fans and its few scattered detractors are willing to grant this. But where the original Star Wars stole widely – everything from Triumph of the Will to Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress to Dune was fair game – The Force Awakens steals almost entirely from one source: the original Star Wars itself.
Structurally and thematically it is much closer to a remake of the original than it is to a sequel. Every element in the movie is designed to either elicit nostalgia or to play off the audience’s expectations based in a knowledge of the original. In that sense, the movie is almost inconceivable without the 1977 original.
It is worth mentioning that a large part of the reason why this was done was because Lucas’s prequel trilogy, released between ’99 and ’05, proved to be less popular with the broader audience and the devoted fan base than the original trilogy, which arrived between ’77 and ’83. Each movie in the prequel trilogy was still a financial success, of course. But the movies came to be widely seen as unworthy entries in the series. Entertaining, possibly, but not true heirs to the proud Star Wars tradition.
As an aside, I find myself idly wondering what this movie would look like to someone for whom The Force Awakens were their introduction to the series. Imagine it were somehow possible to raise a child in a laboratory and give him access to enough American culture to make him a typical American while somehow keeping him entirely innocent of Star Wars. Then take this hypothetical person and show him this movie. I really have no idea what he might think of it.
Anyhow, this movie has been embraced eagerly by virtually everyone. J.J. Abrams, the director, has publicly stated that this movie was made primarily for the fans. And many reviewers have commented, positively, that the movie felt like an apology for the prequels. The disappointment that had festered over the prequel trilogy for the past ten to fifteen years has been washed away in an ecstatic celebration that will almost certainly leave The Force Awakens as the highest-grossing film in the history of cinema by the time it passes.
The immediate verdict of both the cultural gatekeepers and the broad public is virtually unanimous. This movie is Star Wars. More specifically, it’s a refined, purified version of the Star Wars experience updated for the sensibilities of the modern audience.
For instance, the central hero of the movie is in fact a heroine named Rey, who rises from a mysterious impoverished background to become a Jedi in the footsteps of Luke Skywalker. Our other two main heroes are Poe, a dashing Hispanic fighter ace, and a black deserter from the evil Stormtrooper legions named Finn. This is a much more palatable array of core heroes than Luke, Han, and Leia from the original movie. To modern eyes, the old version was essentially two white guys fighting to save a space princess from the clutches of darkness. In a word: problematic.
Which isn’t to say that Lucas’s originals were blind to this line of criticism. He introduced Lando Calrissian in The Empire Strikes Back, a strong black character who went on to take a major heroic role in the events of the subsequent movie. And his Imperial bad guys were universally white, human, male, and very Prussian in their military bearing. This was intended to contrast with the more unruly, democratic, inclusive ethos of the Rebel Alliance, with their handful of alien species and female leadership to go along with their stock white males.
Another thing that’s worth noting is just how much faster-paced the new movie is than its source material. There are very few moments available for the audience to stop and catch their breath once the ride gets going. It’s largely action beat after action beat, each coming so quickly upon the last that even an event as seemingly momentous as the destruction of five planets by an interstellar death ray passes by with little notice.
This is made possible largely because the filmmakers can count on the audience’s knowledge of and investment in the background setting in a way that the original obviously couldn’t. So when the previously mentioned series of planets all blow up, the audience is reminded of Alderaan and old Ben Kenobi’s famous reaction to the feeling of millions of voices crying out in terror before being suddenly silenced. The movie doesn’t feel the need to establish the import of this scene because it can rely on the fact that Alec Guinness already sold the audience on it forty years ago.
However, the audience’s familiarity with the source material also implies that if Abrams desires to have the audience feel like they’ve witnessed something just as impressive as the original, he has to raise the stakes. In this movie, he does this by increasing the scale of whatever’s happening. A quantitative increase in the threat is sufficient to signal the audience that what’s happening now is a bigger deal than anything they’ve seen before.
There are lots of examples of this pattern. For instance, Poe shoots down five enemy fighters in thirty seconds where Luke would have been lucky to get one during the climax of the original movie. Or when Rey flies the Millennium Falcon through a wrecked Star Destroyer in suicidally tight quarters where Han was lucky to survive a trip through an asteroid belt. Or the time when the new villain, Kylo Ren, casually uses the Force to hold a blaster bolt suspended in mid-air for a scene where Darth Vader simply absorbed the shots into his robotic hand. And most blatantly, during the briefing where the heroes discuss how to deal with the new superweapon, an image of the new Starkiller Base is depicted next to the old, iconic Death Star as the characters comment about how much bigger the new threat is.
Lucas’s original trilogy of movies clearly focused on building and sustaining the illusion that the places and people depicted were actually real, in order to get the audience to buy more deeply into the fantastic events taking place on the screen. For instance, the design of the Millennium Falcon is famously old, grimy, and lived-in. Similarly, our heroes themselves get dirty. They have a tendency to end up in places like sand dunes, trash compactors, and the insides of beasts of burden. This serves as a very sharp contrast to the clean, polished, and austere aesthetic preferred by the typical science fiction setting.
This emphasis extended into the construction of plot elements and scenes. The starfighter scenes are essentially a sci-fi reskin of earlier movies depicting the exploits of World War 2 fighter aces. That’s why all the fighter combat is taking place in visual range using blasters, against a backdrop of similar blaster fire coming from large ground-based cannons. A movie that was trying to have a more futuristic aesthetic would probably have chosen to feature guided missiles fired against much more distant targets.
This is also why there are so many shots of the Rebel command base intercut with the fighting. On reflection, it’s kind of a weird thing to feature so prominently in an action-packed sci-fi movie. But those scenes were in the the movies that Lucas was copying because they were important in real life. So copying these details has the ancillary effect of making everything feel more grounded.
The Force Awakens makes some nods in this direction. We first meet Finn when he has blood smeared on his helmet from one of his comrades after he gets shot during the opening fight scene. And when he has later crash-landed back on the desert planet of Jakku, we see him forced to march in the hot sun for hours before eagerly drinking from a trough next to a disgusting alien beast of burden. Similarly, Rey spends her time at the beginning of the movie working hard as a scavenger. This mostly consists of digging through the wreck of an old Imperial Star Destroyer for potentially useful recycled components in exchange for food – literal subsistence wages.
But for the most part, the movie moves too quickly and everything in it has to escalate so far that it is impossible for it remain convincingly real. Where Han Solo had to cleverly and ruthlessly escape the clutches of a single bounty hunter in Mos Eisley in the original movie, this time he has to escape two different gangs of criminals who happened to stumble upon his ship simultaneously. Which he manages to do because he just so happens to be transporting three incredibly dangerous monsters that get conveniently loose and eat most of his pursuers. It’s worth noting that Abrams feels the need to have three monsters where one would have readily sufficed in the original trilogy.
But very few audience members or critics have seemed to notice this lack. There are a few reasons for this. First, the acting is compelling. Our heroes seem to genuinely like one another. When they get a moment to celebrate their successes, they really sell it. And people will generally forgive a lot about a movie if they are emotionally invested in the lead characters.
Second, the movie gets going so fast that by the time it reaches the second half, the viewer doesn’t really have time to think about what’s going on. Let alone to try to figure out why anything is happening. It’s hard enough to just process all of the main beats. Repeat viewings are required to pick up many of the nuances.
And probably most importantly, Abrams takes as many shortcuts as he can through references to the original trilogy. Much of the movie consists of pointers to things the audience is expected to remember and therefore have no need to question. For instance, no one needs to explain the nature of the Force or any of the cool powers a Force user can call upon to our presumably untrained heroine. The audience already knows all that. So even though Rey has little in-universe reason to even know that she can attempt the Jedi mind trick, the audience accepts this without question because they remember Obi-Wan demonstrating this power to Luke.
Similarly, the Resistance base is under threat by the evil Starkiller Base as it charges up for a second shot for no particular established in-universe reason. We see that the Resistance X-Wing fleet can instantly fly in hyperspace to engage the distant target, so there’s no established reason why they couldn’t just abandon their base and continue the fight from the shadows. Such an evacuation was prominently featured in The Empire Strikes Back, so it isn’t even as if there wasn’t precedent for such a thing.
But Abrams is largely remaking the original Star Wars here. So he needs the drama of a desperate attack on the weak point of the enemy base at maximum stakes. And that means that the weapon has to be about to fire again, and it needs to be aimed at the Resistance base where Leia is waiting. So Abrams just sets up the parallels to the original movies and then counts on the audience to fill in the gaps. This is the Death Star trench run all over again for a new generation: compelling, fun, and above all, familiar. So the audience naturally cheers in all the right places.
Interestingly, though, this devotion to the original movies does not extend to what one could fairly term their major theme. The Force was originally intended to be a fundamentally spiritual phenomenon in a rather ’70s New Age Buddhist sort of way. Obi-Wan Kenobi is an old hermit keeping alive the ancient wisdom in a dark age of unbelief. Later, Yoda serves the same role as he tries to further initiate Luke in the mysteries of the Force.
Darth Vader, in contrast, is the terrifying, efficient, mechanical avatar of pure evil. In the Star Wars universe, evil is the inhuman denial of the value of life and the freedom it requires to flourish. Somewhat paradoxically, this cold, mechanistic abrogation of wisdom turns out to stem from an unwillingness or inability to keep one’s wilder desires in check.
Very little of this philosophy is evident in The Force Awakens. The obvious source of such things – the mature Luke Skywalker – has been missing for many years as the movie begins, having gone into self-imposed exile in reaction to a disastrous failure to train a new generation of Jedi knights. Kylo Ren is a Darth Vader fan who is intellectually convinced that the Dark Side is morally superior while admitting temptation toward the Light, while Rey shows no signs of being tempted toward darkness. This is obviously a complete inversion of the original pattern.
Rey’s growth in her Force powers is also quite different than Luke’s. Where the original trilogy went out of its way to tie power with spiritual growth and self-command earned through long periods of training and contemplation, the new movie shows Rey making outstanding progress in the course of mere minutes.
Intriguingly, this rapid growth seems to be expected. The bad guys mention that she must be recaptured quickly, for somehow each moment she remains at large means she will grow more dangerous. By the end of the movie, which can’t be much more than an hour of in-universe time from when she escapes her bonds, she has grown powerful enough to win a lightsaber duel with Kylo Ren, the established Dark Jedi. This is a feat that Luke only managed at the climax of the original trilogy.
I believe that this shift reflects the mores of the current times as closely as the old-fashioned vision of the Force aligned with Lucas’s post-’60s California milieu. Nowadays, goodness and wisdom are much more likely to come from the innocence of youth than the contemplation of the old. And the key lesson people are generally expected to learn is the courage to just be one’s true self. Virtue isn’t carefully cultivated; rather it is the hero’s natural birthright. It needs only to be consciously embraced.
By its own unique standards, The Force Awakens is an exceptionally well-crafted movie. Abrams shows a great understanding of the wants and desires of his audience – including those that lie outside of the movie’s fictional universe. And he skillfully and eagerly pushes every emotional button available to fill that order. It is best seen as the self-conscious heir to the culturally significant legacy that the original earned in what seems like a comparative accident.