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Star Wars: The Force Awakens: 5 ways the new movie copies the original film

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Rey is basically Luke Skywalker, for one.

Everybody's running from explosions nowadays.
Everybody's running from explosions nowadays.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

By far the most consistent criticism of Star Wars: The Force Awakens has been that it's a baldfaced rip-off of the original Star Wars, now known as Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope. (I'm going to refer to it as A New Hope from here on out, to avoid confusion.)

This is more or less true. The Force Awakens essentially retells the story of A New Hope, beat for beat. It inverts some things here, gender-flips some things there, and tweaks a few other things. But this is a movie about a child of mysterious parentage who grows up on a desert planet and proves essential to blowing up a massive, planet-destroying space station. Rewriting the Star Wars saga, this is not. Instead, it's a bit of a remix.

On one level, this is fine. Most sequels riff on the story of their prequels in one way or another, and by far the most important part of building a popcorn film is finding characters worth caring about, which Force Awakens has in spades. But on other levels, it leads to some weird storytelling and questionable choices.

What's even harder to parse is how this movie will ultimately play. If the next two films break off in their own direction and tell exciting, original tales, then this one will be seen as leaning on familiar beats to set up new characters worth following through a new trilogy. If, however, Disney just remakes The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, then the copycat moments here will be, retroactively, seen as even worse than they probably are.

But not all copycat moments are created equal. Let's take a look at five of them from the new film to see how they either did or didn't work. It should go without saying, but many spoilers follow.

1) Rey is basically Luke Skywalker all over again

Rey goes on the run.

The new trilogy's hero, the plucky desert planet dweller Rey (Daisy Ridley), is basically Luke Skywalker with one character trait changed — instead of wanting to leave her planet of Jakku, as Luke wanted to leave Tatooine, she wants to stay, for reasons that are never quite made clear. Even as she gets sucked off into a life of adventure, she keeps trying to find a way to return to Jakku. Arguably, this prevents the film from having a clear narrative arc, since the thirst for adventure is pretty different from the desire to return to the status quo.

But all the other major beats are the same. She's an untrained young woman, powerful in the Force, who turns out to be naturally gifted at a bunch of things. The handful of times we see human failings in her involve points where she seems to be overcome with anger, which is something Luke struggled with as well (albeit more in later Star Wars films). Rey even has mysterious parentage — something I'm betting will come into play in future films, because at its heart, Star Wars is a saga of one powerful family (the Skywalkers).

The similarities run deeper than that, even. If you lay A New Hope alongside The Force Awakens, Rey meets Han Solo roughly when Luke meets Obi-Wan Kenobi, and her one-woman escape from the clutches of the First Order turns her into the imprisoned Leia and the Luke who rescues the princess all in one character. Rey's story and Luke's mirror each other almost exactly.

The complaint that's been leveled against Rey is that she's a "Mary Sue," a term from fan fiction that refers to a character who enters an established universe and is suddenly the best at everything/key to the salvation of all who live there. Yet looking at her as a redo of Luke Skywalker reveals just how faulty this line of reasoning is — Luke, too, was a Mary Sue, as The Verge's Tasha Robinson points out.

It's easy to understand this choice. The kids who make up much of Star Wars' audience can use a self-insertion figure, someone they can easily imagine being if they were plopped into this universe. Force Awakens has just made that figure a woman, instead of a man, and Rey is instantly the most compelling new character in the film. More power to both Ridley and Rey.

2) The First Order is basically the Empire. Or maybe the Rebels?

Star Wars Force Awakens
Watch out for that First Order.

You'll be forgiven, when you watch this film, for rolling your eyes at how readily the movie sets up another "evil Empire versus plucky Rebels" conflict, right down to a scene where Domhnall Gleeson addresses Stormtroopers in front of a giant, Nazi-style banner.

What's crazy about this is that the movie makes next to no effort to explain its political reality. You don't need to know anything to appreciate Rebels versus Empire in A New Hope, because it's your basic underdog tale. But here, we know the Rebels defeated the Empire. Yet now the Empire appears to have risen up again? What gives?

This is easily the weakest part of Force Awakens' remix strategy. Devin Faraci at Birth Movies Death dug into the movie's backstory — much of it from adaptations of the film aimed at young readers — and figured out that technically, the First Order fulfills the role of the Rebels, and its strike against the Republic is the equivalent of, say, a terrorist cell nuking a major American city. The Republic is in charge; the First Order aims to depose it. But you can't really figure this out from watching the movie, especially because Leia's group is known as "the Resistance," which implies fighting back against the established order. It's a mess.

3) Kylo Ren is Darth Vader, for no real reason. (And Snoke is the Emperor.)

Kylo Ren and friends.
Kylo Ren and his pals decided to make a shot for shot remake of Michael Jackson's video for "Bad." In the rain.

There's no real reason to have the film's main villain, Kylo Ren, in a mask, breathing heavily, for so much of this movie. There's the suggestion at several points that he really idolizes his grandfather, Darth Vader, but the movie doesn't do nearly enough with it to make it worthwhile. (Maybe the sequels will bolster this point.) Perhaps the idea was to hint that Luke himself was this trilogy's main bad guy, but the movie establishes around its midpoint that, no, Kylo is Han and Leia's son. (Tellingly, we don't get to see his face until we know it's not Luke, however.)

The Force Awakens gets a bit of a pass on so closely aping the Vader/Emperor relationship, however. The prequels set up a situation where the Sith always have one master and one apprentice, and this would seem to copy that almost exactly.

In that event, however, the films have also unnecessarily set up a "Who is Supreme Leader Snoke?" mystery whose resolution is only bound to disappoint, because it's hard to think of an answer more interesting than, "General Snoke is Luke Skywalker," which a) isn't going to happen, and b) would be completely predictable if it did. In the original trilogy, the Emperor was just an extra boss for Luke to fight, and the prequels tried to retroactively make his identity a big mystery. Of all of the things to borrow from the prequels in the new trilogy, this is one of the weirder choices that could have been made.

4) Han's death at the hands of Kylo Ren is very similar to Obi-Wan's death

Harrison Ford in Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Hi, Han Solo. Bye, Han Solo!

Okay, the staging here is much closer to the various times Luke faced off with Darth Vader in the New Hope sequels. But the overall backstory and effect on the rest of this particular saga have heavy echoes of Obi-Wan falling to Darth Vader.

Consider: Obi-Wan and Darth Vader went way back, to when they were best pals, just as Han and Kylo go way back to, uh, Kylo's birth. Han's death is watched from afar by those who've come to accept him as a grizzled old mentor, just as happened with Obi-Wan in A New Hope. And both deaths up the dramatic stakes for the rest of the story considerably. (Also, Chewbacca is there for both of them. Poor Chewbacca.)

But this moment unquestionably works — arguably even better than Obi-Wan's death, which was always fraught with mystery (what with the whole "strike me down, and I shall become more powerful" thing). We've had a whole trilogy to get used to Han, and even if Harrison Ford has wanted out of this franchise for a while, he still sells the hell out of that death scene. It's the movie's most gut-wrenching moment, and it kicks everything into hyperdrive.

5) Lots and lots of other tiny bits and pieces that ape the original film

TIE Fighters
TIE Fighters are known for wanting to take long walks in the setting sun.

A New Hope had a cantina, so The Force Awakens has a cantina (though at least this one is run by Oscar winner Lupita Nyong'o). A New Hope opened with the desperate escape of a couple of droids, so The Force Awakens opens with the desperate escape of one droid, who meets Rey and kicks the story into gear. Leia is in need of finding in A New Hope, so Luke is in need of finding in The Force Awakens, in a fashion that makes less and less sense the more you think about it. And on and on.

There's nothing wrong with any of these choices — though some work better than others. (The new droid, BB8, for instance, is the greatest character in the history of cinema — and that's only a mild exaggeration.) Nor is there anything wrong with leaning on an established classic for emotional resonance. Formulas become formulas for a reason, and as we saw with Creed, a rejuvenated formula can still be incredibly powerful.

But it's not hard to be frustrated that in copying A New Hope so exactly, The Force Awakens doesn't exactly suggest how this trilogy is going to stand apart from the original trilogy. It more or less definitively suggests the franchise has left the prequels in the rearview mirror, but if it's going to establish its own identity, it's going to have to try to be something other than a pleasant reworking of a bunch of movies people already love. The Force Awakens has done the tough work of establishing new characters and a new world order; now let's see if Episode VIII can move out of the original trilogy's shadow.

Agree? Disagree? Let me know in comments. And leave me questions for this week's culture chat.

I'll be dropping by at 12:30 pm Eastern to answer your questions and chat about all things Star Wars (though you can ask me about other cultural topics as well).

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