Sunday, 3 January 2016

The Force Awakens is not a sequel

The Force Awakens' title seems to imply that the Force is something new in the galaxy. But when you wake up, you tend not to be particularly different from when you went to bed. This is a short review with maximum spoilers.

All I can say is that if they had done to any of my fandoms what they did to Star Wars in Episode VII, I'd be cross. I don't think it's a particularly worse film than any of the previous 6, although it does have massive dramatic flaws, but rather for me the huge glaring issue is that it's so similar to them, or at least to Episodes IV through VI. To the point where it's essentially a remake of the original trilogy.

Said trilogy famously made free use of ancient story structures and archetypes. A pure-hearted Chosen One, who leaves their unremarkable home and learns to embrace and control their high-stakes destiny during a series of ever grander adventures guided by characters good and evil. It's the same structure used in hundreds of films. But each one recreates the hero's journey in a particular way, with its own unique take on monomythological tropes. So why did Episode VII feel the need to deploy these tropes in exactly the same way as its predecessors from 40 years ago?

Let us review. For each point below, see if you can tell whether it's referring to the original trilogy or Episode VII:

-Main force-wielding villain, wears all black, sinister mask/voice distortion, close family ties to Good characters, was seduced by dark side and is basically totally evil but has some residual goodness. First showed evil by killing younglings.
-Old/withered/white-faced master villain who lurks in shadows, gives instructions via hologram
-Slightly more mundane British Nazi-style villain who is nominally in command of fleet but basically takes orders from villain one
-They operate out of an enormous spherical planet-destroying weapon, protected by shields the resistance can’t penetrate and featuring one single weak spot for easy detonation
-use stormtroopers and TIE-fighters as endless cannon fodder

Good Guys:
-Are rebels, operate out of ramshackle base using desperate guerrilla tactics against more powerful foe
-Are not morally compromised in any way. Unambiguously good.
-Film opens on brave resistance/rebel fighter being captured by villains, but not before s/he sends trusted (and cute) little droid off with Vital Information.
-Hero - grows up scratching a meagre living on desert planet not knowing real parents
-Accidentally comes across/rescues the droid.
-Various action sequences as they attempt to take the Vital Information back to Good Guy HQ
-is mentored by an older fellow who was in the wars/had his heyday back in the previous trilogy
-this older fellow dispenses wise advice and then sacrifices himself, without putting up a fight, to the main villain (who he has a long history with) at a climactic moment near the end
-on the way to find Good Guy HQ, hero encounters:
-roguish/comic/loveable guy in a leather jacket who isn’t technically resistance but is clearly a Good Guy despite past behaviour
-and: stops at a space canteen, where violence eventually ensues
-and: gradually learns that s/he has a powerful connection to the Force; slowly begins to master it
-final showdown with villain ends without clear victory/defeat, paving way for sequel
-on finally reaching Good Guy HQ, heroes go into Act 3 with plan to destroy planet-killing spherical weapon by sending a small team to take down the shields and then hit the weak spot with X-wings. A stressed admiral akbar is there for some reason but no one cares about him.

Also occurring:
-Young beautiful female captured by villains and held on death star; other heroes mount rescue by basically creeping through corridors and shooting loads of stormtroopers
-escape via space hangar
-At one point, heroes are completely cornered/at mercy of a group of minor bad guys, only to have them eaten by giant monsters with teeth/tentacles
-There’s a little shrivelled old alien who is incredibly wise and knows all about the force/the history of the force, guiding the hero towards what s/he Must Do
-the good guys are looking for the last jedi, who has retreated to some remote hiding place that nobody knows: only the Chosen One is able to find them
-The millennium falcon negotiates improbably tight spaces at high speed and appears indestructible, despite being constantly referred to as a piece of junk

A couple of these duplications are fairly minor, like the last one. But most of them are central plot points, structural cornerstones or character traits and motivations, things that are absolutely key to how the story functions and how the audience experiences its drama.

I say again: Episode VII is not a sequel but a remake. It feels like the filmmakers were so terrified about another phantom menace-style backlash that they simply refused to deviate in any respect from the original formula. I was excited in the run up to the film, because I assumed that we would finally get a new story from a decent story-teller set in a universe full of telekinetics - a perfect recipe for success in my book. I was worried that the story we got might turn out to be bad or boring, but it never crossed my mind that we would simply get A New Hope with names swapped around. And remember, A New Hope was already super-derivative.

Most of the reviews of The Force Awakens have been positive, but even among those who disliked the film, complaints have (with good reason) centred around about the very poorly-drawn characters, unearned dramatic beats, relentless/unstructured pacing and - inevitably - the boundless plot holes. In contrast, I'm stunned that so few have focused on the fact that the whole thing is just one giant re-hash.

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