Star Wars: The Next Generation
Here be spoilers. Ye have been warned.
So the first Star Wars film since Disney’s acquisition of Lucasfilm in 2012 and the last prequel, The Revenge of the Sith was released in 2005, came out just before the holiday weekend on December 18, 2015. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the first chapter in a new trilogy and a brand new universe of Star Wars media helmed by the House of Mouse. And as could be expected with a franchise as huge and beloved as this, the film is inspiring a wide range of reactions. People seem to either love or hate The Force Awakens, and a major factor in this disparity is due to the fact that the plot nearly mirrors that of A New Hope, the first Star Wars film released in 1977. I can understand the complaints of those who were hoping for something newer and fresher, but I thoroughly enjoyed Episode VII and hope to argue that a film does not necessarily have to be original in order to be good; that is, entertaining, effective, and well-made.
In The Force Awakens, we are greeted by old and new faces alike, as the original trio of Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa, and Han Solo pass the torch to the next generation of heroes. The first we see, Poe Dameron, is a pilot with the Resistance, obtaining what we will learn is a piece of a map to Luke Skywalker, the last Jedi, who has disappeared. The next is Finn, a Stormtrooper who, on his first mission, finds himself unable to act on his training and slaughter a village of innocents simply because Kylo Ren and the sinister First Order command it. Finally we meet Rey, a scavenger in a desert outpost on the planet Jakku, who runs into Poe’s droid BB-8 and decides to help it. There is little we know about any of these characters’ pasts, but through the events of The Force Awakens we get a sense of their personalities and character, and I personally was captivated by all of them, and feel confident that they will see very interesting arcs throughout the upcoming trilogy. The one member of the new cast who we learn the most about in this movie is not a hero, but a villain. Kylo Ren, of the Knights of Ren, who has not completed his training and finds himself conflicted about his commitment to the Dark Side, is obsessed with finding Luke Skywalker and proving himself to Supreme Leader Snoke, the new Sith Lord pulling the strings of the ruthless First Order.
The son of Han and Leia, Kylo Ren was born Ben Solo, and throughout the film he is frequently reminded of his family and their legacy (though others refer to his parents, he prefers to look up to his grandfather, Darth Vader.) Though he clearly draws great power from his rage and fear, he appears to struggle with committing fully to the Dark Side. Ren’s actions in The Force Awakens lead me to believe that his character will prove more similar to Darth Vader’s than even he realizes, in that he will eventually reconcile with his family and seek redemption.
The basic plot of The Force Awakens is a race for information on Luke Skywalker’s whereabouts, using the map that Poe Dameron gave to BB-8. Rey, Finn, and Poe work to get the map to the Resistance, while Kylo Ren and the First Order attempt to get the map for themselves. In the process of doing this, the First Order destroys the five planets of the Republic with their new giant weapon, the Starkiller (which is basically a Mega Death Star) and threatens the Resistance base with the weapon before a team of pilots take it out with a precision airstrike. Sound familiar? Yes, it’s basically the same story as A New Hope, I even thought so to myself while watching it in the theatre. But The Force Awakens taps into the right amount of nostalgia and does just enough differently that it still managed to engage and impress me. Not to mention I’m now pumped up for a brand new generation of Star Wars media, which is quite a feat in this era of scheduled blockbusters and franchise fatigue.
For one thing, the new trio of heroes benefits from increased diversity; Rey and Finn are both such refreshing characters to see in the Star Wars universe. Rey is independent, self-sufficient, capable, and compassionate, and Finn is kind-hearted, protective, funny, and sweet. Women and people of color have unfortunately not had much representation in science fiction, so it is important to see faces like these front and center in such a huge franchise as Star Wars. Giving these characters the opportunity to shine means expanding the pool of potential heroes for young men and women growing up and seeing Star Wars for the first time, and that fact alone is enough for me to forgive the film’s plot being so familiar.
But even if this were not enough for me, I think it is important to remember that at its core Star Wars is a classical, cyclical narrative. The Hero’s Journey, a narrative framework as old as The Odyssey, is the backbone of this expansive space opera. And when the story is so well-known, the real question is, what is different this time? And in the case of The Force Awakens the answer is essentially, Rey, Finn, Poe, and Kylo Ren. The plot of The Force Awakens absolutely has been seen before, but that does not mean the entire film is stuck in the past. The old ushers in the new, and what these new characters do with the lessons of the past and how they choose to shape their world will make all the difference in whether or not this new trilogy will stand the test of time.
“But,” I can hear the disappointed fans cry, “it’s not enough! I still wanted something new! Something more!” And believe me dear ones, I understand. But as informed consumers we must also consider the fact that as far as Hollywood is concerned the film industry is a money-making business, especially when we’re talking about a franchise film produced by Disney. There has been so much money riding on this movie for so long, it would have been a terrible gamble to give audiences something unfamiliar, especially when the most recent memories of Star Wars in the collective subconscious are the near-universally-panned prequels. In other words, the last time we got something new and different, everybody hated it, and we didn’t shut up about how much we hated it for ten years, so I’m not surprised or bothered by a return to form. By starting anew on established, solid ground, Star Wars has an opportunity to leap to even greater heights than when it first captured the imagination of an entire generation. It’s time to let the next generation take the lead and imagine their way to the future.
*The one thing that I am still rather salty about, is the casting of Lupita Nyong’o as Maz Kanata, an old alien ally of Han’s who is clearly filling the “Yoda” role this time around. One group that has consistently gotten the short end of the stick in terms of sci-fi representation is Black women; it’s disappointing that a Black actress who is hands-down one of the most beautiful and talented of this generation was covered up and turned into a cartoonish creature. There are plenty of shots of strange looking aliens in the film to remind us of the original trilogy, and it seems to me that Maz could have been just as effective a character if she looked like Lupita instead of a diminutive alien. It’s not exactly a deal breaker for the whole movie, but it is something I believe deserves to be called out. Here’s hoping future films will bring more opportunities to see Black women in space!
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