This article contains Star Wars: The Force Awakens spoilers.
If you’re anything like me, then you came out of Star Wars: The Force Awakensfeeling satisfied, but with a serious case of narrative deja vu.
The Force Awakensintroduces some amazing new characters — especially in the form of Rey, who, in a braver movie would have been given the story more fully in the same way Luke Skywalker was in the original Star Wars — but it also relies on many familiar narrative elements, like its creators were checking items off a list of structural story beats from the original trilogy…
Desert planet orphan finding the force? Check.
Cute droid carrying the MacGuffin? Check.
Planet-destroying super weapon with one simple flaw? Double check.
The list goes on. Though, let it be noted, these familiar structural elements are not to be confused with the more literal references to the trilogy, such as Rey using the Force to telekinetically grab the lightsaber, a la Luke in the Wampa Cave in Empire Strikes Back. The latter example speaks to the usual fan service to be anticipated in a sequel, while the former, more structural examples tend to bear more resemblence to a soft reboot.
In an age of adaptation, we have so many terms for the different ways of recycling or continuing a familiar narrative franchise or storytelling property. Language evolves where it is needed and, boy, do we need degrees of specificity when it comes to the massive amounts of adaptated works we make as a culture. There are remakes, reboots, soft reboots, reimaginings, sequels, prequels.
Like the concept of “genre,” these classifications are at least partially in place to communicate to the audience a set of expectations. When you are going to see a “reboot,” you are presumably expecting a different relationship between the movie and its source material than when you are going to see a “remake” or “sequel.” The average movie-gover may not actively think much about these degrees of adaptation difference, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t still inform their expectation when walking into the theater…
Reboot vs. Sequel.
The Force Awakens exists at the intersection of two categorizations: the sequel and the soft reboot. This is a pop culture intersection that has been getting some serious play lately. (Think Jurassic Worldor Mad Max: Fury Road.)
The term “reboot” is generally applied to the relaunch of a franchise, especially one that is being reset in some way. A good example is the recent Star Trek films, which includes many of our favorite characters from the original series, but with new actors in the role and a very literal reboot of the entire fictional universe with some alternate universe shenanigans.
Most film franchise reboots don’t go to such lengths to set their stories apart from their original context. And Star Warsis a somewhat unique case in that, in most ways, it is a continutation of the story undertaken in the original trilogy, complete with many of the same actors — i.e. a sequel. However, its ambitions to relaunch the franchise with new (often younger) actors at the forefront are more commonly attributed to a reboot — especially a “soft reboot.”
Because of its sequel status, The Force Awakens does not solely fall into the “reboot” category. However, structurally, it has considerable reboot DNA, borrowing many of the same narrative elements of the original Star Wars trilogy — A New Hope, particularly — and transposing them onto these new characters in pretty much the same order to many of the same results.
In a reboot or remake, this would be expected. In a sequel, it becomes the film’s least-inspiring aspect. It is an issue The Force Awakens shares with other recent sequel-with-reboot-tendencies Jurassic World.Perhaps we should come up with a term for these films: Requel? Seq-boot? I’ll keep working on it…
The entertaining sum of this movie far outweighs its recycled parts.
The Force Awakens’decision to play it safe and recycle so many of the original trilogy’s story pieces doesn’t mean it is a bad movie or even that, as a subjective movie-goer, I disliked it. If you are a fan of the original trilogy, then the wonderfully-crafted nostalgia of this film will make you smile repeatedly in the theater. That is just a fact.
It is a solid, visually-compelling continuation of the story of Han Solo, Princess/General Leia, and (to a certain extent) Luke Skywalker, while introducing new characters to love and ask questions about in a fictional world you may have never left in the intervening decades between Return of the Jediand The Force Awakens (like The Force Awakens,we’re largely pretending the prequels didn’t happen).
This strategy probably makes a lot of sense for bringing in new fans of the film. If you’ve never seen the original trilogy, perhaps you enjoyed this film as something novel. Granted, the storytelling elements of the first Star Wars are especially famous for their relationship to traditional archetypes as laid out by Joseph Campbell in The Hero With A Thousand Facesand, in that respect, it seems silly to debate the merits of recycled story elements when we have seen these characters play out their roles in narrative for thousands of years.
Reagrdless, The Force Awakensis a fantastic, occasionally redundant sequel-reboot. For the most part, the narrative recycling of The Force Awakens is the weakest part of a great movie, but becomes a bigger problem when a specific narrative element obviously inspired by The Empire Strikes Backis thrown in for good measure…
The danger of rushing the nostalgia.
Warning: Here there be major spoilers for The Force Awakens…
I’m talking, of course, about the film’s revelation that Kylo Ren is Han and Leia’s son and, more specifically, the third act scene that shows Ren killing his father. One of the reasons the Darth Vader/Luke confrontation at the end of The Empire Strikes Backworked so well was because we had already been given an entire film-and-a-half to get to know these characters.
The Force Awakensrushes the character arc of Kylo Ren, leaving us without context for what initially caused him to betray his family and turn to the Dark Side (beyond some vague mention that he has both the light and the dark side within him). His murder of his father is obviously still effective — especially because we have such a connection to Han Solo as a character — but felt narratively rushed. And it’s hard not to see that as a result of this film acquiescing to its reboot DNA over its context as a sequel.
One of the (many) things that set the original trilogy apart when it first premiered was its respect for serialized storytelling. Even though George Lucas couldn’t have known that Star Warswould get a sequel, he left many questions unanswered and was obviously looking to tell a larger story. I wish that The Force Awakenswould have had the same patience and trust in its storytelling.
Okay, nitpicking over. The Force Awakens may not have as many fresh narrative moments in its reboot-sequel as I would have liked, but it is a great film — one the Star Wars fandom more than deserves after suffering through those prequels. And, regardless of whether you are new to this franchise or have been living it for decades, it is certainly a great time to be a Star Wars fan.