We think it’s safe to say, at this point, that Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens has successfully transcended all our (enormously high) expectations. We’ve got the best thumbs-up scene of 2015, the most badass random stormtrooper of 2015, the best score, the best new characters introduced to a series. But then, is it just us? While a huge part of the fanbase has expressed their love for it (we’re in it, obviously), a vocal part have dismissed the new movie as being a rehash of the very first Star Wars ever released.
And you know what? They’re right. And that is exactly what makes it transcend its potential and become so great.
Let’s get to why, but first, SPOILER ALERT. Bookmark this link for later if you haven’t seen it already.
Nostalgia’s a powerful thing in stories. Used wrongly, it can feel like exploitation - look no further than the Star Wars prequels for example, where they just had to squeeze C3PO in as Darth Vader’s childhood project that just happened to look like language droids. Used in the right way, though, they can make us recall age-old feelings of awe, wonder and excitement, and blur the lines between our past and the present, making us feel, if only for a moment, that we’re reliving the best parts of our past again.
Sure, it’s a shorthand technique for evoking strong reactions without much effort, but it can also be used to prepare us for new themes and characters very easily.
Take the very first shot of A New Hope. A Rebel vessel is chased by a massive Star Destroyer, and we see it via a backwards pan from the tiny frame of the ship being chased, to a slow pan of the humongous chaser, to show us a sense of scale.
Now, take the very first shot of The Force Awakens. We see an unidentified planet, followed by a similar glimpse of scale of another Star Destroyer. However, here, the camera isn’t the one moving to the ship - the ship itself slides into view, eclipsing the planet itself.
We’re seeing the same iconic shot, with similar intent to put us in a state of awe, but we’re watching it from a different angle, a different perspective. By the first shot itself, we’re subconsciously alerted to the fact that our memories of the movies WILL be revisited from a whole new context.
It’s quite interesting these days to look back at the original trilogy. We’ve remembered and slated the movies as the cool western, the dark tragedy, and the light, neat conclusion. So when we rewatch Episode IV, it’s quite surprising to see how dark it was. Planets get destroyed to force fear in the Empire’s subjects. Political prisoners get tortured. Luke’s uncle and aunt aren’t just killed, they’re barbequed.
Now take Episode VII. The very first action scene shows the First Order invading a village to look for secret plans. Parallels can be drawn with Leia’s vessel being boarded, of course, and that is the intention. However, we have a vastly different setting here. It’s a small hamlet consisting of civilians instead of an embassy ship, and the scene ends with the stormtroopers slaughtering all of the villagers. If that wasn’t enough, the filmmakers also decide to humanize one of the Stormtroopers, who are, till then, simply a faceless army of evil for us, the audience.
Next, of course, we have the BB-8 stranded on a sandy planet, meeting up with Rey. The parallels with Luke finding R2D2 are obvious, but their characters are sketched differently enough for them to react to the same situation differently. Luke’s a naive young farmhand with a relative life of luxury, while Rey is a poor scavenger barely eking out rations, waiting for a family that has long abandoned her. Luke takes up R2D2 for his farm and takes him to Obi Wan purely out of curiosity, while Rey sympathizes with BB-8 and refuses to sell it out, even if she doesn’t quite care about leaving Jakku to help it out.
The replacement for the Empire itself, the First Order, doesn’t seem to be much more than a more overtly Nazi-ish oppressor, down to the Death Star replacement they have (even Han calls the Starkiller Base nothing more than a bigger Death Star) but their ubiquity here feels much more sinister. We know the people they’re trying to defeat, and we know that the New Republic they seek to destroy was the direct result of the conflict in the original trilogy. Here, the First Order feels much more like a secretive, oppressive invading force than an established totalitarian government, and their decision to annihilate the capital of the Republic for secretly aiding the Rebellion, therefore, feels like an act of war.
And then, of course, we have Finn. He may have the Han Solo-ish “I’m looking out for myself but actually I’m not” demeanour, but his origin as a brainwashed Stormtrooper reclaiming his humanity recontextualizes his attitude. He may try to win Rey’s affections by lying to her, but he’s doing so because no one has ever seen him with the sort of awe as she has, on hearing that he’s a rebel. He may try to leave to suit himself, but it’s only because he doesn’t want to have anything to do with the people who took his identity from him. And when he comes back to help, it’s not because he realizes being a hero isn’t all that bad. He suppresses his fear of being hunted down by his former masters to rescue Rey, and even risks his life to do so.
It’s quite a risky move to establish new characters and corporations and motives, and Star Wars has too much of a legacy, too big of a universe to safely break away from while still feeling like, well, Star Wars. However, frame all that is new in the mold of the old, and not only do we feel familiar and happy we’re watching a real Star Wars film, we’re challenged all the more when we do see deviations from the norm.
Let’s take the biggest and best example, taking up Episodes V and VI for comparison as well. Let’s talk about the character of Kylo Ren, and the most obvious point of comparison, Darth Vader himself.
Darth Vader was a very complex villain, born out of Anakin Skywalker, a former Jedi, who could not deal with the pain and loss he faced, and let it get the better of him. He is extremely menacing, powerful and feared all over, and he still has an air of calmness over him, which, coupled with his intense rage and brutality, makes him a force to be reckoned with (pardon the pun).
Kylo Ren is a similar character, using intimidation and ruthlessness to settle situations. However, in direct contrast to Vader, his rage is intense and uncontrollable, and to put it bluntly, childish and misdirected, and we can see that when he goes so far as to use his lightsaber to destroy rooms when angered. He’s what one would imagine a young Anakin Skywalker to be, actually, a man seduced by the dark side of the force, using the rage flowing through him while still unable to master it (I say imagine because the prequels don’t exist), which makes him quite complex and interesting, compared even to Vader in Episode IV.
The biggest reveal of Empire Strikes Back was Darth Vader being Luke Skywalker’s father. Easily one of the most iconic twists in movie history, it shocked viewers, and is the source of discussion and spoofs, even now, almost forty years later. And it is here that Force Awakens makes its two most daring reveals, managing to push the plot forward, AND pay homage to the OT while it’s at it.
In an unexpected turn of events, Han Solo is revealed to be the father of Kylo Ren. All of a sudden, we can immediately guess why he’s distanced himself from the Resistance and returned to smuggling and cheating space gangs again, like he did when our older generations first came across him, way back in 1977. And, this is where, somehow, we start seeing this extremely popular, snarky and able character in a completely different light as well. Han’s a broken man, a failed father, trying to relive his glory years because he feels inept at everything else. And when he decides to confront his son, trying to convince him to come back home with him, Kylo Ren is first seen to listen and even tearfully consider, before tricking and killing his father, in undoubtedly the most heartbreaking scene of the movie. Han Solo, shocked and impaled, slowly caresses his son’s face before falling.
This is where Force Awakens wins the heart of even the most skeptical OT loyal fans. Yes, it was an obvious attempt to move away from the OT and push the plot forward. Yes, it was also an attempt to make things more dramatic, and shock the audience. But it was perfectly executed, and Han Solo’s last action adds a different layer to his personality that we never knew existed. The way he caresses his son, almost affectionately, RIGHT after being struck to death by him, is almost unsettling, and can only imply that even though he was killed by his own son for the most twisted reason possible (to move on and be consumed by the Dark Side and not hang around between the light and the dark), he still understood that Kylo Ren was making an attempt to seal his own destiny, and he accepted it.
The roles are reversed: the son is the one in the dark side and the father, light. And thus is made the most ironic homage-cum-twist in the movie: all those years ago, the son fell on learning that his father was the vanguard of the dark side, and now the father falls, as the son realizes that it’s too late to return to the light.
A case can be made for parallels drawn to Obi-Wan's death as well. Just as Obi Wan let himself die to spur on Luke, Han might have done it for Ren. Maybe he thought it would weigh heavily on his mind, and start his turning to the light. Han did feel responsibility, after all, especially because Leia told him that Luke couldn't have been successful in keeping him to the light as Han would have.
Now, one might say that all these parallels strip this twist of originality, but I’d argue that originality was never the point. We’re seeing the new through a lens of the old, and our feelings about the OT and their characters further bolster our feelings for the new, providing a rock-solid foundation on which to build their new stories, situations and characters.
And why not make a new house on an already existing, tried and tested foundation?
After all, further Episodes are coming. We’ve seen the house being successfully built, now it’s time to see it grow, in directions far beyond our imagination.
And we can’t wait.