The Force Awakens is the first movie that consistently felt like Star Wars since 1983, and it’s all about knowing your tropes and using them as callbacks.
Let me explain.
As a teenager growing up, I read The Belgariad, by David Eddings. It’s a great five book fantasy series which manages to fill all the tropes of a fantasy series without feeling like there was a checklist to make sure all the notes got hit.
A little while later, I discovered the sequel epic, The Malloreon. It too covers five books, and begins to hit many of the same beats as The Belgariad did.
It’s explicitly noted at one point that there’s a cyclic nature to things, and so the similarities (though, it should be noted, not duplications) are a feature, not a bug. The echoes then have the force of callbacks, rather than fan-service or sloppy writing.
The Force Awakens implies that J.J. Abrams knows this as well.
Look, we all know that Star Wars: A New Hope (yes, I’m that kind of nerd) was largely a ripoff of Hidden Fortress, Buck Rogers, and Flash Gordon. And there was a lot of homages (read: borrowed and used techniques) to prior film history in A New Hope. And Lucas got away with it/made them his own (depending on which camp you’re in) and turned both the story arc and the techniques their own set of tropes for Star Wars films. With the strong influence of Lucas’ ex-wife, and Lawrence Kasdan, Irvin Kershner, and Gary Kurtz in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, these three films carved their own path across the world’s psyche.
And then there were the prequels. Y’know, where Lucas pretty much got to do whatever he wanted.
While I don’t hate the prequels, I clearly remember two things from my first viewing of The Phantom Menace:
1. The midichlorians were ripped straight from Madeline L’Engle’s description of mitochondria in A Wind In the Door. (Yeah, George, I preferred gobbledygook to ripping off a SF author and making the Force a purely hereditary thing you can measure with a blood test.)
2. Coruscant is directly ripped from Asimov’s Trantor from the Foundation series.
And that threw me right out of the movie – even moreso than Jar-Jar. Sure, I watched them, and I enjoyed them well enough – but in the way that you enjoy seeing a re-enactment of a story you already know. But between the wincing moments of Anakin’s “love” story, and that Lucas didn’t even follow his own tropes – such as the opening shots of the
films – these didn’t feel like Star Wars movies. Instead, they were movies that had Star Wars moments within them.
So while I was excited to see The Force Awakens, I was also…worried.
I shouldn’t have been.
Much as The Malloreon echoes The Belgariad, you’ll find that The Force Awakens echoes – but does not mirror – A New Hope. Abrams treats the tropes of the series as the necessary tentpoles needed to make it feel like a Star Wars film, but does not stoop to mere fanservice.
You will see characters you know and love – but you already knew that. I found both Finn and Rey (who is a delight!) compelling and interesting. I cared about these characters.
This story is tied to the ones we already know – in tone, theme, and rhythm – but is its own, new thing.
OH SO VAGUE BUT SOMEONE MIGHT CONSIDER IT SPOILERY NOTES AHEAD.
Of course there are plot holes (here’s a good list; don’t click the link if you don’t want spoilers). I suspect many of the mysteries are meant to be. In general, if I’m not thinking about plot holes before the credits are over, I’m okay with it.
Unlike Lucas’ attempts with Jar-Jar, Abrams understands comic relief, and employs it well. THANK FSM.
I will be upset if trend #2 here (don’t follow the link if you don’t want a spoiler) continues.
Nobody mentions midichlorians. THANK FSM. At least in this film, we’re back to the Force being what it was in IV-VI. PLEASE let this continue.
It is a little odd that the Jedi have already become a myth – although it could be explained somewhat by erratic communications tech and re-education and suppression by the Empire.
I don’t mind at all that there are a lot of young and comparatively unskilled main characters. Thing is, it’s the challenge and growth that makes the story interesting and compelling, much as it was for Luke during IV-VI.
I love how Rey is – as The Atlantic puts it – Star Wars’ first feminist protagonist.