The one unified complaint from Star Wars fans about The Force Awakens seems to be that it spent most of the film paying way too much homage to the original trilogy, mostly episode 4.
I mean, we start on a desert planet, with a nobody living on it. A droid has a message to deliver. Someone in a stormtrooper outfit tries to rescue somebody. Millennium Falcon on a desert planet. Han deals with people he owes money. Jedi mind trick. Alien-filled cantina. This was someone else’s lightsaber, now it’s yours. Trash compactor joke. An old mentor dies at the hand of the villain. There’s a round space station. We discuss blowing it up. We do. With the best pilot in the galaxy. Use the force, protagonist!
Is J.J. Abrams trying to hard to fill his predecessor’s shoes, or to make the new film seem like the old? I think it’s the latter, but I think he has perfectly good reason. In fact, three good reasons:
- The old fans, not all of whom are smug, want to feel something familiar, like what they felt the first time
. This means not just seeing another Star Wars movie (as Episode 1 taught us won’t necessarily happen), but seeing another Star Wars actually like Episode 4. Every familiar moment is like a connection to that first time, especially for those who saw Episode 4 in theaters for the first time (no, I’m not one of them). This was Abrams’ way of nodding not just to Lucas, but to these fans.
- Newer generation fans (and not-yet fans) like puzzles and references. If they just went through and watched Episode 4,5, and 6 for the first time—have patience with them and let them into the world of Star Wars—they want to see the continuity you’ve been talking on for years. If they didn’t, now they can go back, watch the originals, and say, “ooooohhhhh!” Let them have the joy of getting in to Star Wars, and be a part of it too. There are pop culture phenomena out there for you to get all ostentatious about. No reason to do that with Star Wars.
- (Most importantly) Look, Star Wars is Star Wars. The motifs we see in the original were themselves quite original. If you want to do right by the series, you feel tempted to ditch the prequel garbage and do what went right the first time. To me, the opening title and screen crawl with theme song are motifs you can’t do without, and the same applies to the other elements in the story. The story is supposed to follow a certain pattern. Lucas borrowed from an ancient, almost primitive mythos, and was a student of Joseph Campbell. An origin story, and even a re-origin story, will follow a predictable pattern. That’s ok. It’s Star Wars. It may have been a surprise to many that Darth Vader was Luke’s father, but aside from that, the basic plot of the original films was not full of original twists. What made the story original was the world in which it was told, and the technology used to tell it. We want the same world, and we expect some different technology, just not as abused as the prequels. We want to be faithful not just to the spirit of the originals, but also to the motifs of the originals. It goes back to points 1 and 2, experiencing that familiarity of Episode 4. It’s an ancient story cycle, one that repeats itself anyway. Why not have fun with it?
And there’s one more thing:
I don’t think this is going to happen in Episodes 8 and 9. First of all, different directors. Secondly, the first film did its job of re-establishinf that feeling.
But more importantly, consider the final scene of the movie. Normally, scenes in Star Wars, even the slow ones, move fairly quickly and with creative lens swipes, ending in some tableau of the heroes standing and facing directly to or from the camera.
But here, just when you think the movie will end like that, we see Rey, in what almost feels like a post-credits scene, journeying up a hill, and up a hill, and up a hill. You see a cross-dissolve or two and you begin to feel that you are stepping into a different kind of movie. This slow climb is like the force awakening into a new kind of storytelling. Maybe Episode 7 is a final farewell to the old way of telling the story, a shift, an awakening, but one done in a reverent way. Maybe Abrams wanted to tell one last old-school story before moving into two final episodes of Star Wars told in a far different, maybe even darker, fashion.
When you see Rey meet Luke, there’s this unnaturally long lingering moment, as if to say, “now we’ve completed the circle, and things are going to truly surprise you from now on.” Maybe, maybe not. But I don’t expect Episodes 8 and 9 to be mere rehashing of the same themes. It’s almost like we just watched Spectre and are waiting now to see Casino Royale and Skyfall. We are going to resemble the originals one time before departing into a different mode. It’s a hello and a goodbye all at once.
An awakening means a goodbye to whatever sleep we were in. That’s the balance of the force.
So here are some options for what the next one will br called:
Star Wars Episode VIII: The Force Yawns
Star Wars Episode VIII: The First Order Returns a Blow
Star Wars Episode VIII: Attack of the Inter-textual References
Star Wars Episode VIII: A New Set of Motifs
Star Wars Episode VIII: Revenge of the Phasma
Star Wars Episode VIII: Return of the Jarjar Bi—No! Don’t you dare! Don’t you even dare!