ONE OF THE MOST common criticisms of The Force Awakens (2015) was that it was essentially a redux of A New Hope (1977) with new characters and slightly different situations but with the same basic storyline:
Bad guys have superweapon. Unsuspecting hero who lives on desert planet gets caught in middle of plot to thwart superweapon. With struggle good guys destroy superweapon. Hero basks in glory and gets whiff of personal destiny.
(And there are even more specific similarities beyond the plot.)
This could be because The Force Awakens is a textbook ‘soft reboot,’ which sacrifices creative/risky storytelling for conventional, repeated ideas (probably in order protect investment). Much of Hollywood now relies on continually reasserting brands instead of writing new stories because people go out in droves to see their favorite stories reprised.
The Force Awakens though and the next two movies in the new Star Wars trilogy (The Last Jedi and the as of yet untitled Episode IX) are in a unique position following up one of the most groundbreaking movie franchises of all time.
IT’S NO SECRET that the original Star Wars trilogy was heavily influenced by Joseph Campbell and particularly his book Hero with a Thousand Faces which is an account of ancient hero stories all around the world. A New Hope especially is structured like an ancient hero-myth. A regular farm boy goes on an adventure, gets magic sword from wizard, and goes to save the princess trapped in the castle.
It’s a simple tale of good and evil.
But then The Empire Strikes Back & Return of the Jedi went on to complicate things. Focus was shifted from the universal hero story of Luke to include more of Darth Vader. George Lucas famously decided last minute during the later drafts of Empire to rewrite Darth Vader as Luke’s father.
Whatever began to endear Darth Vader to George Lucas as a character, the prequels—however clumsy—placed Darth Vader squarely in the middle of the whole saga as ‘the chosen one.’
The villain turned out to be the one to bring balance to the force.
THEREFORE THE SEQUEL TRILOGY (The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi, and Episode IX) has a big job to do, especially in its treatment of evil.
And The Force Awakens already showed some weaknesses in this regard and was particularly bland in its handling of what is supposed to be the absolute threat to peace in the galaxy: the superweapon Starkiller Base, which is just a bigger Death Star. Han Solo even cracks jokes about it in the middle of the climactic action sequence:
Also, the only really distinguishing characteristic of Supreme Leader Snoke—the new Emperor Palpatine—is that he’s really big version of Gollum.
Making the new villains and superweapons so blatantly derivative of the past trilogy—basically the same but only bigger—shows a lack of creativity but it also shows how thoroughly the original Star Wars trilogy maximized dramatic PG-rated villainy, leaving little room for future installments to up the stakes.
The Death Star, a destroyer of entire planets, pretty much maxed out the villainous possibilities of the Empire:
The only way the First Order seemed to be able to distinguish itself by way of originality was to make Starkiller Base capable of destroying more than one planet at once:
But scale is not the only issue.
As was discussed earlier Darth Vader’s story as a villain is given depth and intrigue by his being the real hero of the story. That’s what makes him interesting. He is the last person we would expect to soften. Any villain character reversals in the new trilogy (from Dark to Light, Light to Dark) would feel too ripped off from Darth Vader’s story, even for a soft reboot. Kylo Ren is made somewhat interesting by being Han and Leia’s son but even this revelation felt reminiscent of the ‘I am your father’ reveal from The Empire Strikes Back, harkening back to and possibly re-instantiating familial betrayal and redemption as key themes for the sequel trilogy.
It will be interesting to see what The Last Jedi and Episode IX do to expand on the characters of Supreme Leader Snoke, Kylo Ren, and General Hux; what type of threat the First Order will present to the galaxy; and whether or not it will be very different from the old Empire. Will there be a new superweapon? If not, how will the First Order menace the Republic? If there is a new superweapon, how will it be different than the Death Star and Starkiller Base?
Is Snoke actually a very tiny evil Yoda?
In short, as a first step towards a new villainy The Force Awakens represents a safe reprisal, relying heavily on previously existing elements.
It was not bad but not great either.
THE LAST JEDI comes out December 2017. Episode IX is tentatively slated for May 2019. If they are going to be as entertaining and lasting as the original trilogy (no easy task) they are going to have to know how to handle their antagonists, break new ground, and ultimately do better than The Force Awakens.
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