Note: This piece discusses plot points and bits of fan-candy in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. There are no major spoilers, but the completely detail-averse should start with our spoiler-free review and loop back here after watching the film.
There's a moment in the dim-witted 2010 Clash Of The Titans remake that shows exactly how Star Wars: The Force Awakens could have gone wrong. One of the most memorable features of the cheesy original 1981 Titans is a little golden robotic owl called Bubo. He's the film's version of Star Wars' R2-D2: a cute but plucky little metallic companion who easily wins audience sympathy. In the 2010 Titans, buff hero Perseus (Sam Worthington) finds Bubo the owl in a bin in an armory he and his warrior crew are raiding for weapons. "What is this?" he asks. "Just leave it," snarls a veteran soldier, and on they go, dumping Bubo, and the film that spawned him, in the trash bin of history. The message is clear: the remake is too cool, too self-important to acknowledge fans, humor, cuteness, affection, or anything softer than a calloused, grimy fist. Its only interest in acknowledging the past is to sneer at it for not being as grim, gritty, and "adult" as the present.
There was no chance that The Force Awakens director J.J. Abrams and his co-writer Lawrence Kasdan were going to throw R2-D2 himself in their narrative garbage can. He's too much of a fan favorite, and they're too aware of Star Wars history. But that kind of grim-and-gritty updating wouldn't be completely out of the realm of possibility given Abrams' track record. His Star Trek films have reached for the same cynical, aggressive tone, with their arrogant, entitled Jerk Kirk facing off against a perpetually seething Spock. And they did throw out plenty of other things about the Star Trek mythos, from the austere adult tone to Spock's heroic sacrifice.
The Force Awakens isn't affected by that particular insecurity, and confidently tears off in the opposite direction, at hyperdrive speeds. It wastes no time in introducing a new, younger generation of protagonists — characters with their own agendas, and with relatively little sense of the history that created them. But in spite of the new faces, The Force Awakens worships at the feet of the original Star Wars trilogy on a beat-for-beat, moment-for-moment, even prop-for-prop basis. Much like Abrams' 2009 Star Trek, Force Awakens is a stealth remake, with a certain amount of narrative squirming done to make it into a sequel.
an alternate-universe version of A New Hope that just happens to be set in the same universe
The approach has its problems. It's too easy at times to predict where The Force Awakens is going, because it follows 1977's Star Wars: A New Hope closely enough to tread on its Jedi robes from behind and trip over its own feet. This time around, the lonely hayseed living on a backwater desert planet and pining for escape is a woman, Rey (Daisy Ridley). The adorable bleeping astromech droid carrying crucial data to the Resistance is the globular BB-8. The intercepted-and-captured courier who sends BB-8 on with the data, the black-masked-and-caped villain who captures him, the vast and powerful organization this villain serves — they all have different names now, but they're all fundamentally intact from A New Hope.
And so is virtually every other element in the movie. Luke Skywalker has become his mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi, the bearded old hermit in hiding. Princess Leia has become Mon Mothma, weary leader of the Rebellion. Han Solo ... has reverted to being Han Solo, the rakish smuggler whose mouth and overconfidence keep getting him into trouble. And of course it all comes back down to blowing up another Death Star. Even the effects harken back to 1977, with those corny retro wipes, those familiar music cues, a wide-scale return to physical effects instead of digital ones, and even a Wilhelm scream thrown in. Some narrative elements have been moved around and reimagined, but the spine of the story, and most of its nervous system, are intact from the origin story we all remember. This is an alternate-universe version of A New Hope that just happens to be set in the same universe.
In 2009's Star Trek, the twist was that Spock's time-traveling adventures had created a new timeline, where a new generation of heroes could meet a legendary franchise figure without eclipsing their own developing legends. Abrams is pulling the exact same stunt here, with a twist: in this case, so much history has gone by that the new generation has forgotten the past and is doomed to repeat it. They retain just enough knowledge of their history to get a thrill from meeting Han Solo, or stepping into the Millennium Falcon, or picking up a lightsaber. The new characters are audience avatars, expressing their fandom for everything Star Wars. They're just genre-savvy enough to appreciate their world, but not quite genre-savvy enough to notice that they're caught in a narrative loop.
Abrams and company get some especially clever mileage out of baiting the audience's nostalgia. When Rey brings up how many parsecs Han Solo took for the Kessel Run, she isn't just offering the audience an inside joke, the writers are doubling down on a decades-old frenetic fan debate. (Harrison Ford might as well be wearing a "Damn right I shot first" shirt for that scene.) When Kylo Ren says he killed the man he once was, he's echoing and reinforcing an old Star Wars sticking point, about whether Obi-Wan Kenobi openly lied to Luke about his father, or was just being metaphorical. When two characters meet on a dark catwalk at the end of the film, in a sequence openly patterned on Darth Vader's final showdown with Obi-Wan Kenobi, the fans hold their breath, because they know someone's about to die.
But at some point, nostalgia has to give way to a desire for something new. One skeptical character calls out that Yet Another Death Star business at a Resistance briefing, but that doesn't make the whole business of a third X-Wing attack on a planet-sized, planet-destroying weapon feel any fresher. There's a warm, fuzzy feeling when runaway Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) runs across Luke Skywalker's old target drone in the Millennium Falcon, or accidentally activates the hologram game board Chewbacca and R2-D2 played on in A New Hope. But just paying homage to the past over and over isn't enough to carry the film past the initial rush of lizard-brain fan euphoria.
Let's be clear: if anyone made this movie without the Star Wars name, no one would accept it for a moment. It'd be universally derided as the thinnest, most obvious plagiarism. But because it comes with George Lucas' blessing, and because it's so obviously made by Star Wars fans expressing their joy at being given the keys to the kingdom, and because it invites viewers to become kids seeing A New Hope for the first time again, the critical community has largely greeted it with a sigh of collective relief and welcome.
And there's nothing wrong with that response. The Force Awakens is a payoff older fans have been waiting decades to receive. For them, the prequel trilogy failed because it pulled that Clash Of The Titans trick, and contemptuously discarded too many things from the original trilogy. The Phantom Menace and its sequels replaced the lived-in, physical feel of the Star Wars universe with slick digital effects. They reduced the mysterious hints about a vast, powerful, mystical Force down to silly-sounding science about blood midichlorians. They eclipsed the grandeur and dignity of Obi-Wan Kenobi fighting Darth Vader with the comic fumblings of Jar Jar Binks. They were openly for a new generation of children, rather than for the generation of children that grew up with A New Hope.
The Force Awakens has it both ways. It recreates A New Hope for its original fans, but bigger and faster, with plenty of fan-friendly in-jokes, and a more diverse, inclusive cast. But it also uses the original trilogy the way the original trilogy used initially undefined elements like the Clone Wars — to provide compelling mysteries for the characters, and to hint at something larger beyond their initially narrow worlds. By turning the original trilogy into mostly forgotten history, and focusing on the rush of the new — Rey's desire to get off her sandy planet and find her family, Finn's desire to escape his overlords — Force Awakens becomes just as accessible to young viewers seeing their first Star Wars movie as it is to their parents or grandparents. There's plenty of excitement, energy, and fan fulfillment in the film for people approaching it from any level.
The wholly original elements are the most satisfying
But at some point, the constant thrill of recognition — the "Hey, I remember that, and I loved it" feeling — isn't enough. The Force Awakens lovingly evokes the past, and jokes about it, and blatantly copies it. But by the end of the film, the formula that works for so much of Force Awakens is already faltering, as it asks viewers to get on board for a fight they've seen twice before in previous movies. The film's final moment, when one of the new characters confronts one of the old ones, is a thrill for nostalgic reasons, as well as dramatic ones. But it's also a symbol of the film's divide between past and present. Any other movie would frame the passing of the baton as a move toward the future. The final shot of Force Awakens does the opposite, calling the past to take over from the present. Which would be more thrilling if it were the first time the film pulled that trick, not the fiftieth.
But that last scene is also a jumping off point for the next two episodes, leaving plenty of mysteries and potential still on the table. And the fact that The Force Awakens' wholly original elements are its most satisfying shows great promise for what's ahead in Episode VIII and IX. Abrams and Kasdan do an earnest job of earning fans' trust, never sneering at what they love. But their successors need to escape the opposite trap: selling fans the same things they love, over and over again. Here's hoping The Force Awakens is not so much a template as it is a launch pad.