Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens.
The main criticism against Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens is that it's far too much like the original Star Wars. But quite honestly, I think this whole line of criticism has been overblown.
I won't deny the similarities between The Force Awakens and the original movie. The protagonist is a Jedi from a desert planet who's just learning of her powers. The bad guys have a huge weapon that blows up planets, and it features one small vulnerability that X-wings exploit to blow it up during a trench fight. Han Solo's death is a lot like Obi-Wan Kenobi's, serving the same role for Rey as it does for Luke Skywalker. And so on. The story structure of The Force Awakens is roughly the same as the original film's.
But I also don't care. For me, Star Wars has always been about the characters and how those characters are treated, not the overall story structure. That's why the original trilogy was so good and the prequel trilogy so bad. It's also why, after two viewings of The Force Awakens, I think the new movie is fantastic, and I'm very excited for what's to come in the next two parts of the trilogy.
The Force Awakens succeeds through its compelling new characters
The original Star Wars trilogy had fantastic characters. Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Leia Organa, Chewbacca, Darth Vader, the Emperor, C3PO, R2D2 — whatever you think of the first three films, it's hard to deny the cast was great and the characters iconic. They all had great chemistry, fulfilling different roles that complemented each other and helped drive a fairly typical fantasy story, albeit a genre-bending one, forward.
That's also why the prequels were so bad, from my perspective — their characters ranged from bland to obnoxious. Obi-Wan Kenobi and Padmé Amidala were entirely forgettable. Anakin Skywalker was a whiny twerp. Palpatine's exposition and general overexposure ruined the mystery that made his character interesting in the original trilogy. Everyone was forced to utter terrible dialogue. And the prequels made all these problems worse by spending too little time on the characters and too much time on long conversations about the universe's politics that were good for lore building but ultimately boring.
The Force Awakens is a big return to the original trilogy not just in its plot structure but also with its focus on characters. And the characters are great. Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega), and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) all stand up on their own — even while sharing scenes with characters as iconic and charismatic as Han, Leia, and Chewbacca.
Sure, Rey's introduction feels a lot like Luke's. But everything else about her feels different. For one, she's a woman, and she's a total badass — she's obviously a good fighter and pilot from the get-go, and she devises a lot of the movie's clever, lifesaving stunts. Unfortunately, this type of badassery is still a rarity when it comes to women in movies and television, so seeing this type of character in an enormously successful movie is wonderful.
There's also a lot to build on with Rey. The mystery of her parentage has already fueled a lot of fan speculation. Beyond that, Rey is conflicted over her role in the world in a way Luke wasn't as much. Luke very quickly fell into the role of saving a princess and serving as a Rebel Alliance fighter, but Rey is clearly struggling to both find her place in the Resistance and find her family. How that issue is solved will be an enormous part of the character's evolution, and it's something to look forward to.
This type of badassery is still a rarity when it comes to women in movies and television, so seeing this type of character in an enormously successful movie is wonderful
Poe, although he gets limited screen time, is also great, simultaneously acting as a smart-ass but the one character who's devoted and loyal to the Resistance from the start. The Force Awakens does a great job showing, rather than telling, why he stands out compared with other fighters in the Resistance. In his first few scenes, Poe mouths off to Kylo Ren — someone whom everyone else is clearly terrified of. And during the fight in Takodana, Poe expertly pilots his X-wing to destroy multiple TIE fighters with ease. When he does this, Finn is impressed by and cheers on Poe without even knowing that it's his friend in the Resistance ship; the audience sees, through Finn, that Poe is a great pilot.
And Finn's excitement is contagious. He's a rare character for Star Wars: He's loud, boisterous, and cheerful. This is in strong contrast to the original trilogy, which featured mostly grim characters in a rather dire situation. But Finn pulls it off, helping the audience get amped up right at the start of the movie. (I had a huge grin on my face when he yelled, "Did you see that?" after blowing up a First Order turret.)
Finn's story also introduces a potential plot point in the universe: Stormtroopers aren't clones. Because of Finn, we can see why this matters: It might make for a better, smarter army than the old clone army, but it also makes the soldiers more likely to strike out on their own. This even sparks some banter between First Order officials about the merits of a clone army, suggesting that the First Order is considering using clones. (Update: As a reader noted, and Wookieepedia corroborates, clones had been at least partly phased out by the old Empire.)
This is the kind of character-based storytelling that makes the Star Wars universe feel alive. This was a huge part of the original trilogy: Almost everything that fans learned about the Jedi, light side and the dark side was based on the conflict between Luke and Darth Vader. While there was some exposition coming from Obi-Wan, Yoda, and the Emperor, it was much rarer than the exposition that filled the prequels. The new movie throws back to this style of storytelling that thrived in the original films.
Even the weak link in the cast, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), is promising. While it was a little weird to see the movie's main bad guy throw a couple of temper tantrums, it also established that he's in a unique place for the Star Wars universe: He's a genuinely growing villain who has just begun to try to master the dark side, and he's even seduced to some degree by the light side — a total flip from the typical dynamic in which the dark side turns characters away from the light side. It will take a bit to rehabilitate Kylo's image as a big bad villain after seeing him dispatched by a newbie Jedi like Rey, but at least that puts him in a spot to grow — something that couldn't be said nearly as much of the Emperor or Darth Vader. (As First Order Supreme Leader Snoke points out toward the end of The Force Awakens, Kylo hasn't even finished his training.)
The promise of these characters puts the new trilogy in a very good starting position. It's a fairly different spot than a lot of fans were in after the first film of the prequels trilogy, The Phantom Menace: That movie took so much credibility from the filmmakers by being terrible, and hamstrung its bad characters with such insufferable dialogue, that it was hard to see the prequel trilogy ever recovering from such a disaster — and it never really did. The Force Awakens set a much better base for this new trilogy to build on, in a way that's much closer to what made the original trilogy so good.
Star Wars' story structure was never that interesting
The reason I'm focusing so much on the characters is that I believe that's what Star Wars was always about.
Think back to the movie's original structure. Although often labeled as science fiction, it's technically a fantasy adventure. It even starts with the most overly used trope of the genre: A knight (Obi-Wan) goes out to save a princess (Leia). From there, the conflict escalates to a much bigger ordeal, but the films keep to a very familiar outline. A scrappy team of heroes take on an evil kingdom, eventually invading (and destroying) its fortress. A brave knight seeks counsel from a wise sage about how to wield a mystical weapon to take down this evil kingdom's ruler. After a few sword fights the evil ruler is killed, and everyone celebrates. The overall trilogy even follows the typical three-act structure: The first part introduces the characters and conflict, the second part contains a huge disaster that sets back the protagonists, and the third part has the protagonists coming out of that disaster and securing their victory.
This is obviously a huge simplification — but it's the same kind of simplification that people are engaging in with The Force Awakens by glossing over the character moments that drive the franchise.
The original Star Wars trilogy was filled with moments that meant so much because the audience grew attached to the characters. Luke seeing Obi-Wan die, then tapping into the Force to destroy the Death Star. The rivalry between Luke and Han to be Leia's hero. Darth Vader telling Luke he's his father. Han getting captured — and responding with, "I know," when Leia tells him she loves him. Yoda's death. Luke telling Leia she's his sister. Darth Vader turning on his master after seeing his son's suffering. These moments — and more — are what make the original trilogy so good, and they're driven by great characters.
In comparison, similar moments in the prequel trilogy fell flat. Take Anakin. Of course, everyone knew he would eventually become Darth Vader. But the movie made this so obvious by casting Anakin as a one-dimensional character whose only real emotion was angst, and whose only real development was how much that angst grew.
The movies never really showcased Anakin's redeeming qualities or explained why anyone should really care that he was turning evil — so by the end of the prequel trilogy, it didn't even feel like the good guys were losing anything by having such an annoying twerp turn to the dark side. (This was topped off by Darth Vader's comedic "NOOOOOO!" after finding out Padmé Amidala was dead. When you reduce Darth Vader to a laughingstock, you've messed up somewhere.)
Unlike the prequels, The Force Awakens made me feel immediately invested in its new characters. So even if it continues to follow the same story structure as the original Star Wars trilogy, that's okay. I just want to see these new characters grow, and there's a lot of potential for that to happen.