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‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens,’ The Legacy-Quel, And The Rising Danger Of Fan Service

‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens,’ The Legacy-Quel, And The Rising Danger Of Fan Service

**Spoilers, obviously. Please don’t read if you haven’t seen the movie.**

This weekend, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” opened to ecstatic reviews, record breaking box-office numbers (it’s the highest grossing domestic and global debut weekend ever) and completely hijacked the cultural conversation in every way possible. The movie, released by Disney and Lucasfilm and directed by J.J. Abrams, was designed for maximum fan satisfaction: There is a delightful new droid in BB-8, a new heroine for the female demographic in Rey (played by Daisy Ridley), a scary new villain in Kylo Ren, and all your classic characters from the lovable droids R2-D2 and C-3PO, to fan favorites like Han Solo, Chewbacca, Princess Leia and Luke Skywalker.

To the cynical eye, it appears that Bob Iger and the execs at Disney had a big hand in shaping ‘The Force Awakens.’ Those studio honchos might have leaned in here and there —Iger supposedly brought BB-8 to Abrams after he had bought the company behind the technology used to create the droid— but the creative decisions of ‘Star Wars’ seem to have been in the hands of Abrams, Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy, writer Lawrence Kasdan, writer/creative consultant Simon Kinberg, writer/actor Simon Pegg, and to a lesser extent Pixar screenwriter Michael Arndt, who parted ways with the company because of creative differences (though he is still credited in the film). In other words, the familiarity and design of ‘The Force Awakens’ was a choice made by the filmmakers themselves, not through studio decisions and interference that botched the likes of “Fantastic Four” earlier this year.

Now, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” (read our review) is an entertaining, sometimes thrilling adventure movie that most importantly nails the tone of the original “Star Wars” movies and excises the terrible aftertaste of the prequels of 1999-2005. But this film is so nostalgia-heavy and perhaps so concerned with tone that it often foregoes story.

“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is incredibly familiar, arguably a remix/mash-up of ‘A New Hope,’ ‘Empire Strikes Back‘ and ‘Return Of The Jedi.’ One only needs to look at the plot. It’s a space opera where a droid contains secret plans and then becomes marooned on a desert planet. A young orphan inadvertently gets mixed up with the droid and other space travelers, and the crew embarks on an action/adventure that culminates with an attempt to destroy a new Death Star. If that’s not familiar enough, the movie borrows from ‘Return Of The Jedi’ by featuring a big contemporaneous subplot —on a snowy Hoth-like planet, no less— where a small squadron of rebels have to deactivate a shield in order for the weak spot of said starkilling machine to be made vulnerable. There is another MacGuffin in the plot: the search for Luke Skywalker.
But that element is off to the sidelines and is hardly the heart of the
movie.

While enjoyable, charming and engaging, Abrams’ ‘The Force Awakens,’ is also a nostalgic, gentle hand-holding built as a bridge to take old and new fans to what is hopefully a new direction. Could there have been another way forward? It’s hard to say. Would a movie entirely based on the search for Luke Skywalker have been as fulfilling for audiences still traumatized by Lucas’ tone-deaf, emotionally barren prequels? Maybe Abrams and co. made the right move by safely putting “Star Wars” back in good shape for the future, but is ‘The Force Awakens’ brand of nostalgic narrative good for storytelling?

Think of how ‘Force Awakens’ copies the earlier films beyond all the aforementioned points. BB-8 is essentially just a younger, cuter R2-D2 and is not unlike the new kid in a waning sitcom when the lead kid in starting to age out. The Maz Kanata character (mo-capped by Lupita Nyong’o) is essentially a mystical stand-in for Yoda, a character that understands the spiritual and celestial in ways others do not. Even Poe Dameron’s (Oscar Isaac) irreverent, brash and joke-quipping character bespeaks Han Solo. The one-note evil General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) is essentially Grand Moff Tarkin, etc. etc.. Though I’d say Finn and Rey are actually the most unique characters within the Star Wars universe —one is living a lie, and the other is suffering from a crisis of conscience (screenwriter John Gary nails exactly the inner conflict of Rey below and blows out any one-dimensional Mary Sue complaints out the window —try looking below the surface, people).


My problem with “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is that, while it’s dynamic and thrilling at times, the incessant winks, nods, and callbacks constantly broke my engagement. There’s another Cantina with space creatures, and there’s a plucky nod to the trash compactors which is practically spoken to the camera. Stormtroopers wipe out another desert settlement, good guys suddenly get reluctant to fight and try to opt-out of the fight (like Solo did in a ‘New Hope’), good guys are tortured for information, there’s a supreme Dark Side leader pulling the puppet strings from afar… I could go on, because that laundry list is very long.

There are ostensibly two “original” storylines in ‘The Force Awakens.’ One is the complex and emotional story of Luke Skywalker, who launches a new Jedi Academy before he is betrayed by Kylo Ren and is so traumatized by the duplicity and his own personal failure that he essentially becomes a Terrence Malick-like recluse on the uncharted side of the universe. But this story isn’t actually told or seen. We read about it in the opening crawl and have zero emotional attachment to it. Even when Rey finds Skywalker in the end, his embittered “What are you doing here? Why have you disturbed by misanthropic exile?” is much more intriguing than it is emotionally moving (yes, this is my theory, it’s Ben Kenobi and Yoda calling Rey, not Luke, who has essentially rejected everything because of his failure to train Kylo Ren and create more Jedi). But again, we actually see none of this story and are left to merely infer.

The second “original” story in ‘The Force Awakens,’ concerns Han Solo and his rebellious son Kylo Ren. There’s a huge backstory here, all delivered in passing exposition. Han and Leia had a son, his name was Ben Solo, he went to the Dark Side and he became Kylo Ren. He also betrayed his uncle Luke Skywalker, killed all his Jedi recruits, and wounded him so badly he withdrew from society. Kylo Ren was essentially the most maladjusted adolescent in the galaxy, bar Anakin Skywalker (there’s even a line where Ren suggests he turned because Mom and Dad Solo argued too much; so sensitive!). There’s massive amounts of emotional and narrative baggage here rife for dramatic storytelling, but again, none of it is seen or felt.

Arguably the two richest and conflict-filled stories in ‘The Force Awakens’ are relegated to expository backstory, either through an opening crawl or explanatory dialogue in favor of the awfully familiar, loose ‘New Hope’ remix/remake that is ‘Episode VII.’ 


So audiences are satisfied, and the box-office is insane, but given that millions of us have already seen ‘A New Hope’ and the original trilogy, don’t we all want to see something new? And as we enter the age of the Legacy-quel (a term coined by ScreenCrush), an era of soft remakes full of warm nostalgia, is storytelling in danger of only looking back? Are storytellers and filmmakers so afraid of backlash that they are they just playing it safe? Or are they just such big fans and so enamored with the material they can’t help but inundate their material with fan-service-y callbacks?

Doing so might prop a franchise back on its legs, but it also might not. Looked what happened with the conveniently titled “Tron: Legacy,” a modern, remake/redo that audiences didn’t cotton to (a mooted sequel was canceled). “Indiana Jones And The Crystal Skull” was loaded with fan service and self-referential nods, but it was so bad it practically killed the franchise. We’ve also seen the legacy-quel at least three times in 2015 with ‘Force Awakens,’ “Creed” and “Mad Max: Fury Road.” The latter two were also successful, entertaining movies, but clearly the boxing drama, regarding legacy and getting out from under the shadow of a previous franchise, never charted its own path. Instead, it uses the very familiar and a few new elements to point towards a new direction —much like ‘Force Awakens.’ ‘Fury Road’ is the most successful as such, taking familiar characters and settings but telling its story in an entirely unique way.

Maybe the legacy-quel is necessary for modern day audiences, who require a recognizable launching pad from which to jump toward new movies. Time will tell what new paths “Star Wars” blazes, if any. Rian Johnson has his work cut out for him in that respect with ‘Episode VIII,’ and the same can probably be said if there’s ever a “Creed II.” I don’t mean to bemoan ‘The Force Awakens’ too much: it’s a movie I enjoyed, but was admittedly often frustrated by. yet with such a vast uncharted galaxy after seven films, I’d like to think audiences deserve something that leans less on the past and attempts to go forward into the bright, unknown future.

For even more thoughts on ‘The Force Awakens’ you can read our review or hear myself and a few other writers discuss it even further in-depth in our Playlist Spoiler Podcast talk.

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