The Force Awakens is clearly soaked in nostalgia, to the point where some critics allege that it’s little more than a copy of the original Star Wars film. I addressed this claim in my last post. The film isn’t just a remake, reboot, or “requel” of A New Hope. The film mirrors the past, but often does so in new and interesting ways. Other times, the parallels do come across as straight up copying. Here, I attempt to understand what those similarities between the Original Trilogy and The Force Awakens do for the overall story.
Star Wars has always repeated certain ideas, themes, character moments, or even plot points. When The Phantom Menace first came out, critics expressed disappointment that it rehashed so much from A New Hope. Yet, such repetition might be the point. Mike Klimo’s Ring Theory posits that the Prequel and Original Trilogies “rhyme” with each other in very specific ways to allow viewers to compare and contrast the stories. According to this logic, it’s not just a contrived coincidence that both Luke and Anakin grew up on Tatooine and destroyed the enemy ship with a torpedo shot. The film wants to invite viewers to compare the journeys of Luke and Anakin. In an earlier post, I noted that Lucas’ execution of Ring Theory doesn’t always work, but when it does it manages to use structured carefully parallels to say something interesting about both the original movies and the prequels.
Likewise, parallels in The Force Awakens works best when they rely upon audiences’ expectations to do something new, or at least in new ways. The parallel between Darth Vader’s reluctance to kill his son Luke Skywalker and Ben Solo’s willingness to kill his father Han does more to establish Kylo Ren as a villain than any number of battle scenes. Kylo Ren can’t control his emotions and feelings of inadequacy. As Rey notes, he’s haunted by the fear that he will never be as powerful s Darth Vader. He performs an action he clearly doesn’t want to just to prove that he’s not burdened by the same sentimentality that afflicted his grandfather. In that sense, Kylo Ren is trapped deeper in the Dark Side than Vader ever was.
Another interesting parallel comes from the obvious similarities between the protagonists in A New Hope and The Force Awakens – Luke and Rey, respectively. Both live on a desert planet. Yet, their dreams are quite different. Like many kids stuck in small town America, Luke wants more than anything to get away from Tatooine. When he answers the call to adventure, he quickly forms a bond with Han, Leia, Chewie, and the droids, who become his new family. This becomes an issue for Luke in The Empire Strikes Back when he has visions of Han and Leia being tortured on Cloud City. Yoda warns him that his emotional attachment to his friends will be his undoing. Sure enough, in rushing to save his friends, he falls into Darth Vader’s trap.
By contrast, despite her miserable life on Jakku, Rey initially wants to stay on the planet because she believes her family will one day come back for her. In fact, she seems unable to imagine a life outside Jakku. When she sees the forests on Takodana, she says she’d never imagined so much green could exist in the galaxy. Rey is also much more reluctant to lower her guard and make new friends. Finn finds her attractive and Han offers her a job, but she rejects both men. Maz Kanata encourages her to try to find belonging amongst her new comrades. Unfortunately, before she can do so, she loses both of these new friends (Han to death, Finn to a coma). When she disembarks the Falcon at the Resistance Base, she looks lonely. Leia offers her a hug, but it can’t undo the fact that everybody who has so far gotten close to Rey so far has been grievously wounded. The character clearly has abandonment issues.*
* Prediction: Rey’s biggest struggle in Episode VIII will be that she somehow feels responsible for the death of Luke Skywalker.
Unfortunately, The Force Awakens doesn’t work as well when it parallels the original films without adding anything new. For example, Starkiller Base is essentially Death Star 3.0. One Resistance general actually projects a hologram of the original Death Star next to Starkiller Base. It’s bigger, but otherwise serves the same purpose in the story – to raise the stakes of victory to existential levels. At the same time, because we’ve already seen the good guys – and, in the case of Han, Leia, and Chewie, the same characters – already blow up two Death Stars, it’s impossible to take this new threat seriously. As Han said, “So, it’s big?”
Nothing about the final battle changes up the formula from the original trilogy, except for the setting (the battle takes place over a snowy forest rather than in the coldness of space). A Resistance starfighter flies down a trench and destroys a weak spot. The film even uses X-Wings and TIE Fighters again, albeit new variations on the original designs. Nothing about the attack sheds new light on the characters or the saga. The bad guys are still evil enough to destroy planets, while the good guys are still courageous (and lucky) enough to destroy planet-sized superweapons. In fact, the paralleling undermines the original movies by suggesting that destroying such superweapons has become so easy that Han can crack jokes about it.
We won’t fully know or understand the full extent of internal rhyming within the Sequel Trilogy until we get Episodes VIII and IX. As such, it’s a bit too early to tell if the Star Wars saga will still maintain the same Ring structure that Klimo argues shapes the first two trilogies did. But I’m glad that Disney and Lucasfilm seem to understand this aspect of Star Wars storytelling. As much as I’d like future installments of the saga to take risks and be more creative, I also don’t want them to lose sight of the fact that some repetition within the saga can enhance the story.
Dom Nardi is the Contributing Writer for Star Wars at Legendarium Media. He has worked as a political scientist and as a consultant throughout Southeast Asia. In addition, he has published academic articles about politics in Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. You can find more of his writing at NardiViews.