Thirty-eight years ago, audiences watched in awe and excitement as one small spaceship on a peaceful mission was captured by a massive spaceship whose intentions were anything but. One month ago they, their children, and even their grandchildren saw another sinister ship cast its shadow on the face of a planet. The saga of Star Wars in between those two points is, if anything, more sweeping and epic off-screen than on. Like that first Imperial Star Destroyer, George Lucas’ creation dominated the business and art of cinema, ushering in a new age of special effects-laden blockbusters, merchandising, and sci-fi action; like the new film’s villain’s spaceship, the franchise cast an immense shadow on our popular culture. No mere set of stories, Star Wars became a brand of its own, one that, after Lucas’s failed attempt at returning to his galaxy far, far away in a prequel trilogy, now lives on under new care. We stole it, all of us; like Jedi, our love and hate gave us power–love for what the franchise was, and hate for what it had become. And once we had stolen it, like our own message in a droid, we entrusted it to the care of someone else. Help us, Disney. You’re our only hope.
The result was the first new Star Wars film in over a decade, and, perhaps forgetful, perhaps hopeful, perhaps even eager to forgive, millions flocked to the theater. As of this writing, the new film holds 41 domestic financial records, from the highest earnings in history to the best opening week, weekend, and single day, as well as a number of records for achieving those numbers as fast as it did. If this truly was high larceny on the part of the fans, the fence who acquired the goods made out like a bandit. But did we? Is the number one film of the year as good as it is successful?
Yes, it is, and for one reason: this renewal of the franchise is mindful of its context–of the place it holds in history, in culture, and in the hearts of those who look to it with hope. The original Star Wars movies were reaching back to Joseph Campbell and the Hero’s Journey–the monomyth. But decades later, those films, vastly influential in both cinema and pop culture, have become myths themselves, stories with the power of archetypes, of grand ideas and operatic movements, iconic characters and plot threads that echo one another across time. J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens reaches back to these new myths, evoking an emotion far deeper and more powerful than mere nostalgia. In crafting a continuation of the story out of the bones of its previous entries–and in daring to change it for the better without losing what makes the series special–Abrams has committed a titanic, even heroic act of filmmaking. Few films are without flaw, and Episode VII is no exception, but great films succeed because their skilled techniques and strong stories sweep us past any such issues. The Force Awakens is a great film, and what it sweeps us up in is the expression of our collective plea for heroes–for myth–and its own sacred promise to redeem. This is The Screening Room. Welcome.
A film about the act of its own creation, Episode VII has been a long time coming. The era after the fall of the Empire has been explored in the Extended Universe of novels, comics and video games for decades, and it was once rumored that Lucas himself would follow up his groundbreaking trilogy with Episodes VII through IX. Unfortunately, Lucas became mired in the narrative cul-de-sac of the prequels, films which tried to mirror the originals’ story of Darth Vader’s evil and redemption with the story of young Anakin Skywalker’s innocence and fall. Typified by poor dialogue, weak performances, obscure plotting, inconsistent characterization, and a filmmaking ethos more interested in digital technology than emotive expression, the three prequels only fitfully recaptured the magic of Episodes IV through VI–a fundamental disappointment that tarnished the franchise for many. Like his own tragic villain, George Lucas had lost his way–and like his heroes, Lucas realized that the best way to redeem a corrupting power was to abjure it. He sold Star Wars to Disney for billions (which, to Lucas’s enduring credit, will largely be donated to charity), trusting that new hands on the tiller could right the ship. Disney turned to J.J. Abrams.
Along with writer/directors like Edgar Wright and Quentin Tarantino, Abrams epitomizes a generation of filmmakers whose knowledge of and love for cinema deeply informs their own work. In a way this is nothing new; artists have been referencing and commenting on each others’ works for as long as there’s been art. Lucas’s generation of filmmakers were the first to come out of film school in a major way, and his Star Wars films are a combination of WWII movies, classic Westerns, old sci-fi adventure serials, and Akira Kurasawa’s The Hidden Fortress. But Abrams’ generation has moved the paradigm from blending influences to openly engaging with them, and have made that conversation with cinema’s past the direct subject of their films. Abrams in particular has earned a reputation for rehabilitating beleaguered franchises. His excellent third Mission Impossible entry brought the series back to its television roots after John Woo’s overwrought (albeit entertainingly camp) MI:2, and since then Abram’s production company, Bad Robot, has kept that series on the straight and narrow, with the fourth and (especially) 2015’s Rogue Nation approaching some kind of Platonic ideal of absurd gadgets, ensemble banter, colorful set pieces, daring physical stunts, and Tom Cruise’s immortal charms.
Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek was less successful artistically, partly due to a fan-pandering, overly convoluted time travel scenario concocted in an attempt to make people invent the word “rebootquel.” But it did make a healthy profit for all involved, and the sequel, Star Trek Into Darkness, also helmed by Abrams, refocused on that franchise’s strengths: the contentious camaraderie between Kirk and Spock as they apply different philosophies to solve a series of moral, logistical, and tactical dilemmas.
Abrams’ cinemaphilia and clarity of insight hasn’t always worked out–his nostalgic take on early Spielberg, Super 8, is a drastic misstep whose tonal issues stemmed from an ill-advised attempt to marry Jaws and E.T. But Abrams is still one of a handful of major voices in the loudest current Hollywood conversation, on how to revitalize and maintain legacy properties. Nolan and Snyder swing for sincerity (and connect more often than not), Marvel seeks to enforce a calculated mediocrity of purpose, but only Abrams has spun literal gold out of thematic threads overtly discussing the audience’s relationship with their pop culture icons. His Star Wars is no different, and in retrospect that vision made him the perfect man for the job.
After a pitch-perfect opening title crawl, the classic John Williams fanfare (the direct audio equivalent of “Once upon a time,” or for that matter, “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away”), and a thrilling variation on the series’ recurring opening shots of space ships moving ominously through the void, The Force Awakens opens its story proper with an old man giving a young man an important object. The image is a potent symbol, as this film is itself a baton-passing from the old to the young, and its story is all about the relationship between the two generations. As he hands it over, the old man promises that this will start to make things better–a promise from Abrams to a world of Star Wars fans that the series can and will be redeemed.
The old man, by the way, is played by none other than Max von Sydow; when writing about his casting in The Exorcist, Ebert wrote that the actor “has been through so many religious and metaphysical crises in Bergman’s films that he almost seems to belong on a theological battlefield the way John Wayne belonged on a horse.”
His presence here, unexplained in a narrative sense, brings up the story’s second major theme, the renewed importance of the conflict between Good and Evil. (1) But it’s the combination of the two elements–this actor making this promise–that get to the core of what The Force Awakens has to say: that the act of cinematic restoration has itself a moral weight equal to that of the wars between Empire and Rebellion, Jedi and Sith. It’s this idea, specifically applied to the towering myth that is Star Wars, that makes The Force Awakens as vital and powerful as any film this year.
Although introduced simultaneously through von Sydow, these twin thematic threads are soon embodied by the film’s two central protagonists, Finn (John Boyega) and Rey (Daisy Ridley). Each compliments the other in personality, Rey’s independence and practicality contrasting with Finn’s idealism and fast loyalty, and the adventures they share authentically build a friendship (and potential romance) between them. Finn is running from a dark past, while Rey clings to her own; and both characters bring a much-needed narrative diversity to the series’ universe. But the two are paired on a deeper level. Along with the film’s third central character, villain Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), they represent different paths the new trilogy might take, different examples it might follow–the original trilogy, exciting and beloved, the triumph of the Jedi and the Light Side of the Force, or the prequel films, so disappointing and enraging, where the Sith got their revenge and the Dark Side held sway over all.
It takes a special kind of chutzpah to look at something as sacred as Star Wars and ask what flaws can be fixed. One of those flaws, it turns out, was the limited perspective of a mostly white, mostly male cast. Finn is the series’ first leading black male, and although Leia holds her own in the original trilogy, Rey is arguably the series’ first female point of view character.(2) Both characters also deepen our understanding of galactic society–Finn gives us the inside view of what it means to be a Stormtrooper, and Rey’s quiet life of poverty on Jakku demonstrates what it’s like for the non-princess, non-Jedi 99%. (She could easily be a player character in the highly economically stratified MMO, Star Wars Galaxies, eking out a living in the desert far from any larger story.) Abrams’ chief achievement, in this respect and many others, is in changing or improving the series’ old ways without sacrificing the certainty that this, too, is Star Wars.
But Finn and Rey are not just important as well-conceived characters and new perspectives; they also embody The Force Awakens’ complex sense of its own place in the series. Finn represents Star Wars‘ state of sin, the existence of the prequel trilogy. He’s a Stormtrooper, and the origins of that military force were one of the major subjects of the prequel films–their fall into misuse by Chancellor Palpatine mirror not only Anakin’s fall but also, metatextually, Lucas’ descent into creative failure. More than that, though, Finn is specifically trying to avoid returning to the terrible life from which he’s escaped–a life where he is in danger not of dying so much as of becoming morally compromised. There he had no identity of his own (just as the earlier films eschewed the racial and narrative alternatives his perspective presents), and now he is on the run, desperate to find a new way for himself to be. It’s important that he keeps lying, about his involvement with the Resistance, his friendship with Poe, and so on; we establish our identities first by making them up, and only then by living up to the promises we’ve made. The key tension of Finn’s character is whether he can become the person he wants to be, a hero who fights for what is right, or whether his past will drag him back down into servitude and villainy. The parallels with the potential pitfalls of a new entry in the franchise are clear.
The specific organization trying to bring him home is the First Order, Episode VII‘s answer to the Empire. To its credit, Lucas’ tale of Good and Evil has always featured some subtle shadings to its Evil characters, from the political in-fighting of the original trilogy’s Empire to the intersection between religion and trade disputes in Palpatine’s prequel trilogy plots. The First Order is no exception. If Finn’s story pulls the young man forward to heroism (and wonderful new entries in the series) and backward to villainy (and the prequels), the First Order represents one particular dark path the galaxy (and the series) might take–a return to the days of the Empire. It would be a sad state of affairs if Star Wars were in its new incarnation to succumb to mere nostalgia, to include elements and characters from the original trilogy solely to capitalize on the audience’s love for them. An Episode VII like Jurassic World, shamefully, pointlessly pandering, would be a disappointment–and one we’ve seen before, as the prequels made it their mission to shoehorn C3PO, R2D2, Boba Fett, and many other characters into the story without any reason or purpose beyond, “Hey, remember this? You loved this, right?” The First Order embody this potential by acting like the very worst Star Wars fans.
When The Force Awakens opens, it’s been 30 years since the fall of the Empire, long enough that the man who saved the galaxy, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), has passed into legend. The military and political situation is a little unclear in this film, let alone how it got there, but a little speculation is not undue. It’s clear at the very least that the lopsided conflict in the original trilogies between the massive Empire and the stalwart guerrilla Rebellion has become a more even contest in the decades following the murder of the Emperor and the destruction of the second Death Star. Now there are three factions of roughly equal power–the nascent Republic (and reconstituted Senate), the First Order (whose force seems to consist of a single Star Destroyer, a decently-sized contingent of troopers, Kylo Ren, and the secret Starkiller weapon/base), and the Resistance, which seems larger, more experienced, and better equipped than the old Rebellion. Or maybe they’re just facing better odds. Regardless, the movie makes it clear that the Resistance is roughly the equal of the First Order in military strength, give or take a Sith and a weapon the size of a planet. The real question is, where did the First Order come from?
Their behavior is all we have to go on, but it speaks volumes about their place in the galaxy and in the thematic structure of the film. Like the Empire, they’re led by a Sith master and his apprentice, a troubled man in a dark cloak and cruel mask.Like the Empire, they use Stormtroopers, although these are not clones but child soldiers stolen from their families and brainwashed into obedience–a crime that calls to the unacknowledged flaws of the corrupt Jedi council in the prequels, who likewise took and indoctrinated new recruits at a very early age. Like the Empire, they pour all their resources into a giant superweapon for the purposes of intimidation on a galactic scale, and then seek to use it to crush their enemies at a single stroke. Thirty years after Luke saved the galaxy, the First Order isn’t the Empire. They’re like the Empire, and that is deliberate. They’re a cargo cult. In that respect they also resemble the Empire; both forces remind us of the Nazis, in this instance because that regime began by revering the German military’s last misadventure, World War I. Consciously or unconsciously, the First Order seems to be attempting to recapture the Empire’s strength and power by recreating it down to the last visual detail, just as a filmmaker might study the production design of a series he is attempting to reboot.
Furthermore, while the First Order enact their plot to use their secret superweapon to destroy the Resistance, our heroes acknowledge that they’ve seen this all before. Here Abrams gets to have his cake and eat it, too–transplanting familiar and successful elements from A New Hope while tying that impulse into his thematic structure. He and his film get to benefit from giving fans what they remember while blaming it all on the bad guys, who themselves are desperate to reclaim past glory by aping the people and events who came before them. We all have our own relationship with myth, and as much as Abrams is a fan, as much as the protracted marketing process for The Force Awakens made a careful attempt to please and entice fans of the series, it’s telling that the film’s villains are the most obnoxious fans of all–the kind who insist that nothing ever change. For Finn, who himself represents the possibility of change, the recurring shout of “Traitor!” is one that echoes with racism, fascism, and all other systems of control, a call to stop becoming who he wants to be and return to who they want him to be: as faceless, voiceless and powerless as the Stormtroopers have previously always been.
Likewise, this film’s Darth Vader, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), does not wear a mask out of necessity, but out of a kind of fan worship, and when he struggles to hold to his path of evil, he prays to the ruined, melted, skull-like helmet of Vader himself. As the third member of the new film’s trio of perspective characters, (3) Kylo is not quite successful in his attempt to mirror his grandfather’s role in the story. In A New Hope, Darth Vader is never less than imitating, imposing, and alien, more monster than man. But Ren is younger and more human (figuratively and literally); he takes off his helmet partway through the film, partially demystifying his status as the series’ new villain. And unlike Vader’s cold anger, Ren is ruled by shifting emotions–doubt, fear, and uncontrollable rages, as when he lashes out and destroys a computer console with his lightsaber. In truth, although he idolizes Vader, Kylo more closely resembles a young Anakin: arrogant, insecure, frustrated by his surroundings. He’s the new trilogy’s attempt at retelling Anakin’s story, and getting it right this time; at making the story of a Skywalker’s struggle between the two sides of the Force finally as compelling as it should be. Of the configurations Lucas tried, each were hampered by their necessary role in the saga. Luke was destined to be a hero, Anakin was fated to fall, but Kylo’s future is not yet written. For the first time since 1983’s Return of the Jedi, it is possible for audiences to hope–but not know–that a villain might find redemption, to feel that there may yet be some good in him. The promise that Ren may be redeemed goes hand in hand with the franchise’s wish to be forgiven for the sins of the prequels, and in no greater way does it vie for that forgiveness than by taking that trilogy’s most important failure and making that element’s success the cornerstone of the films going forward.
If Kylo Ren represents the series’ dark past, and Finn its attempt to run from that, chased by avatars of the worst kind of fan love, Rey is Star Wars‘ fear of and hope for the future, and her actions demonstrate what fandom should be. Like us, Rey lives in a world where the original Star Wars trilogy is its own myth. To her, Luke is a legendary figure, the Force just a story. She lives literally in the shadow of a Star Destroyer crashed to sand, the great ruined ship towering above her; later, in another ship whose mere shape conjures the feeling of wonder, she flies through the downed Destroyer like a woman driving the chariot that pulls the sun. Living on a junk planet surrounded by the detritus of myth, Rey is a scavenger by trade, an occupation ringing with meaning. Like this film, her job is to look through that which has been discarded to see if anything valuable remains.
It’s not an easy life. Like many fans, Rey finds a little handful of worthwhile odds and ends each day, waiting for the return of something lost and treasured, yet half-remembered. She enters into the story when she runs into a hunted droid–the very same droid who, remember, holds and therefore stands for the sacred object that will “make things better,” that will redeem the franchise–and her first moment of heroism is turning down the small fortune her buyer offers her for it. Some things are more important. While Finn reminds himself of the ideals he wishes to live up to, Rey simply and instinctually has a hero’s heart–one only lightly buried by all those sandy days spent fending for herself and scratching off the days like a fan waiting eagerly for this film’s release. True fandom, this film argues, is made of loyalty and patience, not entitlement or slavish devotion to the past. Like The Force Awakens, Rey is willing to leave her home when greater need arises, and the film is made in her spirit.
But Rey’s most important function in the film is to be the key that unlocks the past. She discovers the Millennium Falcon, fixes it and gets it flying again. She befriends the series’ new droid, BB-8; encounters a new cantina filled with alien life, like the one in A New Hope‘s Mos Eisley; teaches herself a Jedi mind trick; has a vision of her own destiny; and duels a masked villain with a lightsaber. When “The Force Awakens,” it awakens within her, and in her path the movie rediscovers old wonders.
None are more wondrous (or more old) than Harrison Ford, reprising the role that launched his stardom. In a long and storied career, only his Indiana Jones is more iconic and beloved; but Han Solo, the scruffy-looking nerfherder of a smuggler whose reluctant transformation from self-interested opportunist to brave hero was the original trilogy’s most compelling arc, will always be inextricably linked to Ford’s charming smirk and laconic presence. (“I love you.” “I know.”) The Force Awakens examines that character after another thirty years of life, and finds that becoming a hero isn’t something you finish. It’s an endless conflict between the right and wrong impulses–a battle Han Solo’s been losing for a while now. His son’s turn to the Dark Side, his friend Luke’s disappearance, his estrangement from Leia: all of these have taken their toll, and Han confesses to Leia that he went back to what he knew–smuggling, stealing, accumulating trouble and trying to talk his way out of it. By the time Rey and Finn encounter him, Solo has burned every bridge he had left.
Like Finn (who, as David suggested, may be the new trilogy’s Han Solo), like the franchise itself, Han is dealing with an ignominious past. In fact, he’s cornered by it, in a memorable set piece featuring two angry creditors at either end of a long hallway with no exits. It’s Rey’s quest to deliver BB-8 to the Resistance that gives Han a reason to return to his best self. To Han’s credit, being a hero seems to be a role he slips back into easily, feeling at home in the circle of Resistance leaders planning their attack on Starkiller, where once he was the lone wolf who decided the Death Star wasn’t his problem. So, too, does he return to being a father, a role fraught with doom in the Star Wars universe. Even knowing the danger, Han goes to try and talk to his son, because Leia still has faith in her child. Perhaps Han, too, believes Kylo can be redeemed; perhaps it is merely in his nature to attempt the impossible. Solo’s story in this film argues that a man’s nature is essential and unchanging; that a life (or a franchise) is not divided into Good, then Evil, or Evil, then Good, but that one is the sum of one’s division. Han is who he is, and so is Star Wars–no more, but no less.
Like so much else in The Force Awakens, the death of Han Solo is surprising yet familiar–we know the tune, if not the words. Many critics have argued that this is a matter of the film pandering to fans, directly remaking A New Hope, or otherwise attempting to play things safe by going back to the original. They’re wrong, and a counter-example from this year will be instructive.
As mentioned earlier in this review, one other film this year attempted the type of thematic structure I argue The Force Awakens succeeds at, and unfortunately, it also achieved staggering financial success.(4) Jurassic World, director Colin Treverrow’s attempt at rejuvenating the Jurassic Park franchise while commenting on what that means, is an abysmal film. This is due in part to the fact that it’s poorly made, a movie suffering fatally from bad writing, bad performances, and heaps of nonsense. But these issues are exacerbated by the movie’s ideas, which are as incoherent as they are obnoxious, from its ramblings on man’s relationship with nature to, as Atomika will tell you at length if you get her going, the movie’s blatantly offensive sexism. Jurassic World‘s mortal sin, though, is that it has the temerity to pander to its audience by referencing the vastly superior Jurassic Park while deriding itself at every opportunity.
A “What If?” take on the dinosaur cloning-meets-Disney World franchise, Jurassic World asks what would happen if the park actually opened and then went wrong. Mostly the story concerns itself with a handful of people attempting to survive the rampage of a giant dinosaur they (meaning the screenwriters, as well as the scientists in the film) just made the hell up. Through obvious author insert characters (Jake Johnson’s nerdy control room operator, for one) and other techniques, it’s made overtly clear that the fictitious theme park’s dangerous attempts to fulfill the public’s need for ever-increasing spectacle mirror how terrible and overblown modern mainstream action cinema has become. Meanwhile, characters like Chris Pratt’s absurd masculine stereotype, as well as the film’s big climax, seem to argue that the old ways were better. Those old ways being Spielberg’s original Jurassic Park, as indicated when one set of protagonists in World stumble into the old Park sets, the new film here and elsewhere (especially in the score) referencing a movie we all know and love in an attempt to build favor it doesn’t deserve. Because they’re right. Jurassic Park is better, a masterpiece in tension with indelible set-pieces, iconic performances, and innovative dinosaur effects (combining early CG with animatronics) that look better than World‘s fully computer generated creatures 22 years later. Like Star Wars, Jurassic Park also had a timeless John Williams score–the moment in Park when you see dinosaurs for the first time and the music swells is pure cinematic wonder. Nothing sums up Jurassic World for me better than the fact that it takes that same moment from the score and, as the music swells, we see–just some shots of the island. No dinosaurs at all. This is what happens when nostalgia-baiting goes wrong.
The Force Awakens could so easily have fallen into that trap. The film walks a knife’s edge as far as franchise renewals are concerned, avoiding on the one side Jurassic World‘s mix of slavish pandering and self-hating cynicism and on the other side the arrogance of believing that any movie made before cell phones is in drastic need of a modern update (see, or rather don’t, the bevy of films over the past decade that have needlessly remade classic horror movies). Episode VII is properly reverent without losing perspective. It seeks not to worship the series but to honestly and faithfully continue it. Those who deem The Force Awakens mere nostalgia-bait would do well to look closer at the film’s cinematography.
Together, longtime collaborators J.J. Abrams and cinematographer Daniel Mindel craft an exciting new visual language for the films, one that feels just like Star Wars should while also bringing the more visceral excitement found in the modern Hollywood style. Where Lucas’ films might cut from one part of the scene (the attacking Rebels) to another (the defending Moff), letting the editing rhythm imply opposed forces on a fateful collision course, Abrams’ often makes the same point with tracking shots that pan from one plane of action (the attacking Resistance) to another (the defending General). As another example, while the prequels tend to use digital color correction to ‘tint’ entire scenes red or blue (color coding them to different sides of the Force, and therefore positive or negative story developments), The Force Awakens motivates its color shifts with actual light sources within the frame. This strategy is most notable in the scene where Han confronts his son on the oscillator walkway; strong red light engulfs both their faces as Ren prepares to murder his father and cement his turn to the dark side, even as a powerful beam of white light (motivated by Finn and Rey’s entrance on the balcony above) acts very much like a theatrical spotlight, highlighting the importance of the event to both this film and the series as a whole.
In general, however, and in keeping with the film’s progressively chosen protagonists, Abrams’ main tendency is to offer new and more personal perspectives on the franchises’ classic elements. One example: throughout the film, we see multiple in-atmosphere dogfights from the ground looking up, a visual strategy designed to indicate narratively that our protagonists are insignificant compared to the power of the larger galactic forces at play, and thematically that these new characters are overshadowed by the myths that came before them. Lucas’ planimetric compositions and static camera set-ups are replaced by diagonal staging, over-the-shoulder conversations, and other techniques designed to place the viewer closer in the story–to make them more participant than observer. Likewise, this is the first Star Wars film to be offered in 3D, another visual aspect that successfully brings the story “to life” for the audience.
To match these visual elements, Abrams finds new ways to use old material. A Star Destroyer, never before seen outside of space, becomes a place to walk on (and then a tunnel to fly through) in the desert. BB-8’s rolling movements call to R2D2’s form of mobility, but the new droid goes much faster, and his design allows us to see his face even as his lower body rolls. Reframing the Death Star as a station built into a planet allows Abrams to stage a lightsaber duel on its surface–and even better, the “clock” on the entire multi-strand battle is keyed to the status of the sun, so that as the duel goes badly the light can dim and the snow worsen. The weather matches the emotionality of the scene and functions as a reminder of how desperate is the spaceship battle above. But my favorite example of Abrams finding new ways to use elements from the original films is in the very first scene, when Poe shoots a laser pistol at Kylo Ren and Ren uses the force to stop the beam of light in mid-air, where it hangs in impossible defiance of physics. Like Kylo Ren, Abrams controls light, the essence of film, to create effects that are excitingly new to Star Wars, even as The Force Awakens captures the thrill and adventure the franchise has always promised.
For all that Abrams attempts to innovate stylistically, he tilts back toward reverence when it comes to one unique aspect of the Star Wars series–Lucas’ series wide use of ring structure. As this excellent essay argues, Episodes I through VI were designed by Lucas to adhere to a specific kind of rhyming scheme, in which plot points, lines of dialogue, even specific shots call to one another both within and across trilogies, connections which elucidate and emphasize the series’ thematic and narrative concerns. The key is that each trilogy corresponds directly to the other, but also in reverse order. Thus The Phantom Menace is overtly A New Hope but more subtly Return of the Jedi, Attack of the Clones is Empire through and through, and Revenge of the Sith is overtly the original trilogy’s concluding chapter but more subtly a restaging of A New Hope. My own contribution to this theory is that The Force Awakens clearly demonstrates a true commitment on the part of Abrams and co. to make something that does not simply modernize the series in order to cash in on its massive financial potential but which instead sits comfortably alongside those earlier films, the way a new hand will continue an old tapestry as seamlessly as possible.
Although there are many overt references to A New Hope, I believe the more subtle patterning of The Force Awakens after Return of the Jedi proves that the series’ ring structure is alive and well. Many have established the way Episode VII calls back to A New Hope, from the new Artoo-esque droid and desert-dweller called to heroism to the Resistance’s climactic attempt to use X-Wing fighters to blow up a Death Star-like superweapon. But the film also corresponds fairly well to Return of the Jedi. Take a look at this chart from the ring structure essay:
We could extend this chart for The Force Awakens thusly:
The parallels are rough, but they’re there–and the differences are almost more interesting than the similarities. At each stage, The Force Awakens looks to symbolically integrate the two trilogies. Let’s look at the most important few.
First, there’s the opening scene, which as suggested is not a literal rescue but a symbolic one–again, Poe and BB-8 seek a way to “make things better” for everyone. Menace‘s opening features two humans; Return‘s has two droids; Awakens has a human and a droid working together, indicating a desire to conform to a pattern that combines the original trilogy with the prequels.
Then we have Finn and Rey’s crucial moment of choice. One of the most important stages in the Hero’s Journey is the Call, which is at first Refused. Destiny, the universe, the Force–something calls to the protagonist, urging them to become the hero they must be. Being human and as of yet unactualized, the future hero resists their fate. Finn (representing the prequels) and Rey (representing the original trilogy) are both called to heroism–in our metatextual schema, called to make a new and good trilogy. Both refuse, running from the tasks that Fate (and the audience) need them to accomplish. By reversing the pattern, The Force Awakens points to the idea that both existing trilogies have flaws, and that Episode VII has yet to fully achieve its goals.
Finally, the most distinctive evidence for this film’s inclusion in Lucas’ ring structure, the fact that, unlike A New Hope but definitely like both Revenge of the Sith and Return of the Jedi, this film ends with a multi-strand battle–a space battle (the Resistance ships trying to destroy the thermal oscillator), a ground battle (sneaking through the base in order to lower the shields), and a lightsaber duel (between Kylo Ren, Finn, and Rey). If The Force Awakens were merely reworking Episode IV, it seems likely it would have only concentrated on the space battle (which does mimic A New Hope‘s Death Star battle, including a similar looking trench they fly through), moving the lightsaber duel to earlier in the film (just after Rey escapes inside the base).
I believe the intent of the franchise’s new owners is to not only echo all six existing films by overtly structuring Episodes VII, VIII, and IX like the first, second, and third films of each trilogy, but also to continue Lucas’ ring structure by forming a new palindrome, with Episode IX returning the series to its origin by calling back to A New Hope and turning this thematic structure:
Thus making one nine-film series composed of two complementary rings:
Only time will tell the truth. Once The Force Awakens is available on home video, it will be easier to look for more subtle connections between it and Episodes III and VI, such as repeated lines, similar shot compositions, etc. And the theory will only be fully proven or disproven once Episode IX is released. So we’ll just have to see.
But even if you don’t buy into this ring structure theory, it’s also clear that Star Wars is a saga, the extended story of how one family’s repeated struggle to reconcile the duality of good and evil within themselves alters the fortunes of the entire galaxy. It’s only natural that certain elements will repeat themselves throughout the story. This is especially true of the film’s lead characters: Rey, Finn, Poe, and Kylo are in many ways this new trilogy’s analogues for (respectively) Luke’s destined hero, Han’s self-interested rogue, Leia’s courageous Rebel, and the prequels’ young Anakin, who struggled long with the temptations of the dark side before falling. That The Force Awakens continues to find new ways to echo what has come before is just more evidence that Abrams and co. are trying to strike that crucial balance between changing too much and changing too little. More than anything else, Episode VII is simply trying to be Star Wars–to continue the tapestry.
Whether people realize it or not, The Force Awakens is not just another Hollywood franchise film. Every part of this film, from the cinematography and score to the characters and conflicts, has been carefully, consciously aligned to create an emotional and thematic message about where the franchise is now and what it hopes to become. Through symbolic and progressive casting, it created characters who not only entertained us but who share on a deeper level our anger at the past and our fears and hopes for the future. By integrating elements and characters from the series’ past, the film sought to remake our relationship with myth, this time characterized by well-meaning fandom, healthy respect, loyal love, and a willingness to see clearly. The film’s cinematography found new ways to tell an old saga, and its intentioned use of story and drama nobly carry on motifs and patterns Lucas began weaving almost forty years ago. All of its heart and soul are summed in the last few shots. At the very end of a quest began with a sacred promise to make things better, Rey finds a mythical man on a lonely island and holds out to him his own lightsaber, a precious relic out of the past. On her face is all this film’s and all the world’s longing for the return of the heroes and the stories we once loved, people to fight our battles for us, tales to let us escape our lives into adventure and awe. And Luke turns to look at her, and in his time weathered face is all this film’s and all it’s makers’ guilt and reluctance and hope and draw to aid. There, at last, is our answer to the promise, your answer and mine.
I began this review right after seeing the film for my first (and thus far only) time in an attempt to explain why I believe Episode VII is not only a great film but a worthy continuation for the franchise. Certainly the latter depends in part on whether the next two Episodes continue to be as skillfully made, as progressive, as courageous, as reverent, and as achingly meaningful as this film. But even if they never made another Star Wars movie, J.J. Abrams’ act of resurrection would still deserve our admiration and our gratitude. What he and his talented cast and crew have accomplished was something I doubted could ever be done, and perhaps those expectations set me up to enjoy this film more than others. But although I have many movies left to see from 2015, Star Wars: The Force Awakens will likely remain my favorite film of the year, a transcendent and resonant experience. This is what cinema should be about.
Many people called Episode VII a remake of A New Hope, and I am adamant in my conviction that the movie is, in truth, an echo, mirroring the starting point of George Lucas’ saga across the decades–even if I might not be able to prove it for years. But what I’m sure of now is that this film’s association with that one is no mistake, because The Force Awakens gives me a new hope–hope for the franchise, hope for big-budget Hollywood cinema, hope that we will have heroes once again and that redemption is possible. For the first time in my life, I think I will get to experience good Star Wars movies as they happen. With the rest of the world, I wait in hope and excitement for the next entry in this long and storied saga of a galaxy long ago and far away.
1 Max von Sydow is far from the only instance of what you might call “thematic” casting in the film, although he’s by far the most noticeable. Among others, Simon Pegg stands for nerddom as the petulant salvage dealer on Jakku; Gwendolen Christie, one of the notable female perspectives on Game of Thrones, plays a First Order Captain who never takes off her mask (perhaps symbolic of the way the earlier films lacked/silenced minority viewpoints); and Daniel Craig plays Stormtrooper JB-007 (and like these stormtroopers, Bond is portrayed in the Craig films as a weapon recruited when he was an orphan too young to know any better). Not to mention the expected bevvy of respectful cameos from minor actors in past films, like Warwick Davis. These are more Easter eggs than text or even subtext to a viewing audience, particularly because many of them are very difficult to identify, hidden as they are behind makeup, costuming, or even CG; but it shows how much thought went into the film.
2 Leia does, of course, have a point of view sequence at the beginning of Return of the Jedi, but I don’t feel like this counts for much, since we don’t know it’s her until the end of the sequence, at which point the POV switches back to Luke. And otherwise the series is devoid of female POV characters–even the wisecracking/wise-beeping robots are male.
3 Poe was originally intended to die in the opening sequence, and may or may not be a POV character in later films. So it makes sense that he doesn’t really fit into anything else the film is doing, either thematically or in terms of echoing the earlier films (he’s sort of the flyboy side of Luke, at most). That said, as fans tend to do, many have detected a hint of homosexual attraction between Poe and Finn, and there are rumors that the series will actually go in that direction in the future. If it does, Poe would at least fit alongside Rey and Finn as another example of adding diversity to the franchise.
4 I admit that I have yet to see a third possibility from this year, Creed, which seems from what I hear to at least have a complex relationship with its own long-running franchise (as well as an even greater emphasis than The Force Awakens on bringing new viewpoints to old stories). I’m excited to see it but it’s a few films down on my long, long 2015 catch-up list.