Welcome to Nick Picks, a regular column by Nick Spake. There are countless important questions regarding the current state of cinema and I’m here to answer them.
If you’re among the two people on the planet that still haven’t seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens, keep in mind that the following feature contains spoilers. So proceed with caution.
In addition to blowing up the box office these past three weeks, Star Wars: The Force Awakens has also merited universal acclaim for its performances, effects, action, humor, drama, and direction. There’s just one little problem that various critics and audiences have with The Force Awakens: It basically repeats the same old formula.
Tell us if this sounds familiar in the slightest: A young person dreams of getting off a desert planet and seeing the rest of the galaxy. Their journey begins upon crossing paths with a droid containing secret plans that will help bring down an evil empire. The story eventually works up to a climax involving a daring rescue, blowing up a space station, mourning the loss of a mentor, and a lightsaber duel. Oh, and there’s even a cantina scene somewhere in there.
Yeah, it’s impossible to watch The Force Awakens without noticing several parallels to the original trilogy. George Lucas even commented in an interview with Charlie Rose that the film was incredibly “retro.” Then again, Lucas is also the guy who thought Jar Jar Binks and midi-chlorians were good ideas. Still, this does bring up a significant question: Is this Star Wars movie too retro and thus too familiar?
While it’s easy to see where some people are coming from, it’s actually quite fitting that The Force Awakens would revisit several beats from previous films. After all, this isn’t the first time a Star Wars movie has repeated itself. What was the big climax in Return of the Jedi? Destroying the Death Star again and another duel between father and son! That’s basically a combination of the climaxes from A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back. The only completely unique thing to come out of Jedi’s climax was the Ewok battle, which ironically gets the most criticism from fans. Still, it’s hard to complain too much about the final act of Jedi because it’s so masterfully executed. The Force Awakens does the same thing, taking old ideas and presenting them is a fresh way.
The first thing you’ll learn in any screenwriting class is that there are only a handful of stories in existence and we’ve basically been repeating them for eons. Even the original Star Wars borrowed heavily from the numerous westerns, samurai pictures, and sci-fi serials. What set it apart, however, were its characters, world, and lore. Although The Force Awakens takes a few pages from the trilogy that started this series, it never feels like it’s simply remaking the original trilogy. Rather, it effectively uses what’s worked in the past to develop compelling new characters and expand upon its universe. That’s what separates the film from Terminator Genisys, which just lazily referenced the original movies without offering anything new.
Where some would argue that The Force Awakens played it safe, you could make an equally strong argument that the filmmakers took numerous risks. For example, we don’t see any old-school Star Wars characters for the first thirty minutes or so. A fan favorite is killed off and one particular iconic character doesn’t even show up until the final scene. Most of our time is dedicated to the new cast. This risk ultimately pays off since these new characters are immediately identifiable and leave you wanting more. Considering that the Star Wars franchise and mainstream blockbusters in general are usually overrun with white men, it’s further encouraging to see the spotlight shined on a woman and an African American here.
Sure, there are still familiar plot points and moments geared towards our nostalgia. After the prequel trilogy deviated so far from what made Star Wars great to begin with, though, a part of us all wanted something a little familiar. It’s like riding a motorcycle for the first time after an accident. You don’t want to immediately step out of your comfort zone, but instead go back to the basics. Once the basics have been re-mastered, you can continue to grow and explore.
Making a sequel is all about finding balance. If you repeat too much from the original film, then you get The Hangover Part II. If you try something totally different, then you get The Hangover Part III. For the most, The Force Awakens finds just the right balance between retro and innovative. This feels like the first true Star Wars movie we’ve seen in over three decades, making it the perfect reintroduction to the franchise. The Force Awakens is a clear indication that this sequel Star Wars trilogy will continue to give fans what they want, but also take us to new places in the process.