Those with fond memories of the original Star Wars — which to some degree includes just about everyone who loves movies — will find much to like about The Force Awakens, the latest entry in the series.
Beyond the inclusion of most of the core cast of the original film, the movie is replete with references to the first Star Wars film and its two sequels, from subtly rhyming images and stylistic choices (the movie was shot on real film rather than digital) to locations that mirror the original sets and the very structure of the plot itself.
Indeed, as many others have already pointed out, The Force Awakens is practically a beat-by-beat reworking of the original, complete with a third-act X-Wing trench run, a planet-killing superweapon used to destroy a peaceful society, and a diminutive droid carrying secret plans to help the hero Rebels fight what’s left of the Empire. Even the movie’s newest, freshest element — its trio of appealing young leads — feels like a mix-and-match creation built from the various personality traits of the original characters.
But for Star Wars fans, there’s an awful lot to love, and part of the point of The Force Awakens is to demonstrate that it was made both for and by fans — and, in the process, to distance the new entry from George Lucas’s prequel trilogy, which often came off as dismissive of the fan community.
Throughout the film, director and co-writer J.J. Abrams (who is now overseeing the franchise creatively for its new owner, Disney) takes just about every opportunity to not only acknowledge Star Wars' vast fandom but openly celebrate it. Indeed, he hardwires that idea into the story by making the new protagonists, Rey and Finn, obsessed with the events of the original trilogy. Star Wars fans are, in an almost literal sense, the heroes of this movie.
I’m a lifelong Star Wars fan myself (here’s some evidence), and I appreciate the gesture. But as much as I enjoyed the acknowledgement, I also found the movie’s near-total reliance on elements recycled from the original somewhat disappointing. At times it felt like I was watching the cinematic equivalent of a very polished Star Wars cover band — playing all the old favorites, but without adding anything beyond a few clever riffs.
Hollywood is growing increasingly infatuated with the halcyon blockbusters of yore
Abrams has done this before, of course, with his two recent Star Trek films, which are packed with fan-friendly but mostly meaningless Easter eggs, and with Super 8, an obsessive but ultimately empty tribute to early Steven Spielberg. The Force Awakens is far better than those films but still feels like a product of the same creative sensibility. Its greatest ambition is to appeal to nostalgia for the widely beloved original, and it plays directly to that nostalgia — arguably at the cost of anything else.
And in that sense, it’s part a wider trend in Hollywood, which increasingly seems to be pining for the glory days of blockbusters from the pre-internet era: You can see that in projects as lowly as the Expendables series, which trades mostly on fondness for musclebound 1980s action stars, and the sad procession of increasingly pathetic Die Hard sequels, which continue to squander the legacy of the still-potent original. It's also visible in higher-profile but still lackluster films like this year’s thoroughly unnecessary reboot/sequel Terminator: Genisys and the bland-looking Independence Day follow-up that's set for next summer.
Not all of Hollywood’s recent nostalgia projects are quite so dispiriting: This year’s Mad Max sequel, Fury Road, was both a thrilling contemporary spectacle and a delightful throwback to the days of in-camera physical stunt work, and Jurassic World managed to channel the spirit of the original Jurassic Park better than any previous sequels. And, of course, there’s The Force Awakens, which is, at worst, an incredibly effective crowd pleaser.
Each of these films, however, is in some way an attempt to cash in on decades of built-up goodwill toward their predecessors — to monetize the love that people have for the still-resonant originals. And more than a few of them do so more or less explicitly. The first half of Terminator Salvation was basically a walkthrough of the first two movies in the series. Jurassic World cribbed many of its beats and plot points, from the dying apatosaurus to the kids-in-trouble subplot, from Jurassic Park; its final dino brawl, between a classic T. rex and Jurassic World’s genetically modified Indominus rex, is staged as a metaphorical showdown between the Jurassic Park of old and its modern, computer-enhanced spawn.
Nostalgia is a lucrative — albeit risky — cash cow
From a studio’s perspective, this approach makes a lot of sense: Even the cheapest of these movies is incredibly expensive to make, and the bigger productions cost hundreds of millions to produce and market. Plus, with films like Jurassic World and The Force Awakens, there’s even more on the line: Studios also have to worry about ensuring that the popularity of these incredibly valuable cinematic brands endures. And the easiest way to do that, of course, is to stick with what already works, which means hewing closely to the original works.
Every time Disney puts out a Star Wars movie, the studio isn’t just betting a few hundred million dollars; it’s risking the entire future of the franchise — and the billions of dollars in potential revenue it represents. In other words, films like The Force Awakens and its ilk represent an incredible financial risk. And that’s why studios generally choose to play it as safe as possible.
Pop culture nostalgia isn’t just a feeling — it’s a business strategy. And as the mammoth box office returns for both Jurassic World and The Force Awakens suggest, when it’s executed reasonably well, the payoffs can be huge. But while it’s understandable, it’s also disappointing for fans who want something new, not just more of the same.
Why sequels must expand worlds instead of just revisiting them
Star Wars and Jurassic Park became such massive cultural forces in large part because they showed us things we’d never seen before. They were originals, not cover songs. Simply mining the same material over and over again, in slightly different combinations, is a recipe for long-term creative drain.
That doesn’t mean successful movies should never be allowed to spawn sequels or franchises. But the best and most memorable genre sequels take their characters and stories in new directions rather than stick to familiar territory. Think of Aliens, or The Dark Knight, or The Wrath of Khan, or even The Empire Strikes Back: All of those sequels are deeply respectful of their source material, but not slavishly so. They build new stories and offer new payoffs, in the context of earlier material — expanding their worlds rather than merely revisiting them.
Nor does it mean that movies should never reference earlier works and influences. After all, as Slate’s Forrest Wickman wrote last week, the original Star Wars is in many ways just a dense and cleverly layered collage of references to earlier movies. The Force Awakens, by contrast, often feels as if its only reference points come from the world of Star Wars itself.
In the two films, you can see both the promise and the peril of cinematic nostalgia, its possibilities and its limits. George Lucas drew upon his personal nostalgia to create something that, in its particular combination of references and allusions, felt thrillingly, excitingly new. J.J. Abrams, by contrast, drew upon Star Wars fans' collective nostalgia to produce a film that is expressly designed to feel like something we’ve all seen before.