Film

Re-Working Nostalgia: Why ‘The Force Awakens’ Is The ‘Star Wars’ 2016 Deserves

Can we stop whinging about it being a rip-off? George Lucas would have never made this film.

Note: this article discusses plot points in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It contains spoilers.

Now that fans have had enough time to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens more than once, and the initial elation over the fact it doesn’t make any Jar Jar Binks-sized missteps has died down, the consensus seems to have turned slightly more critical. Even if they happen to think the movie is very good, many reviewers claim it’s still derivative — at worst, a remake of A New Hope. And it’s now an acknowledgment that tempers each viewing, either tarnishing an otherwise joyful movie experience or adding to it, depending on your expectations going in.

Over at The Verge, Tasha Robinson makes the bold claim that “if anyone made this movie without the Star Wars name, no one would accept it for a moment. It’d be universally derided as the thinnest, most obvious plagiarism”. According to Peter Suderman at Vox, The Force Awakens is “a prime example of Hollywood’s nostalgia problem; definitive proof that sequels should expand worlds instead of just revisiting them”. Others, like Christopher Orr at The Atlantic, have argued that the film’s nostalgia is sometimes irritating, but ultimately benign — that The Force Awakens is more of a faithful tribute than a ballsy rip-off.

Whether or not his opinion matters, George Lucas has predictably trashed the film for ripping off his legacy completely and failing to re-work the Star Wars universe in creative or unique ways. And it’s this response we should fault the most. It fails to consider the fact George Lucas would never and could never have conceived of The Force Awakens. It is fundamentally at odds with his moviemaking shtick. It’s a new kind of space movie for a new kind of audience, and it plays with the past only with the intentions of discarding it. 

Whiny Villains, Strong Women And People Of Colour, Oh My!

There are elements of overt nostalgia within The Force Awakens, for sure. The whole thing is shot on 35mm film, presumably to recall the glorious analogue age. Beloved characters return, grey hairs and all, and even new names and locations are designed to sound familiar and comforting. Maybe a shot-by-shot remake of the original trilogy is what fans wanted all along, especially in the wake of the various sins committed by The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith. If you look more closely, though, The Force Awakens is anything but a remake. It’s a conscious reversal of well-known Star Wars tropes, and that’s a very good thing.

An easy way to compare The Force Awakens to its predecessors is to look at the villains. It wouldn’t be Star Wars without someone wearing a black cape. At first glance Kylo Ren is a stock-standard space antagonist, but it quickly becomes apparent that Ren fails to live up to the ultra-masculine prototype of the heavy breathing mask wearer who came before him. Prone to hormonal outbursts, he whines and loses control when things don’t go his way. He isn’t Darth Vader at all — he’s every fucking dude I know.

Thrillingly, he’s an angst-ridden twenty-something bad guy. An everyman of villains. It’s bloody perfect, as is the casting of Adam Driver, fresh off the set of Lena Dunham’s Girls. Letting an actor like Driver wear the cape is a risk that absolutely pays off and George Lucas would never have dared.

Then there’s Rey: the desert scavenging orphan who’s revealed to be pretty handy with a lightsaber. It’s her coming of age journey that we witness in the film, which has led to a number of grumpy comparisons between her and Luke Skywalker. But Daisy Ridley is hardly Mark Hamill with a ponytail. For one thing, Rey possesses none of Luke’s annoying naivety. Remember how very hopeless and irritating Luke was when he was discovering his powers? How reliant he was on others? The only person rescuing Rey is herself, and the damsel-in-distress situations she finds herself in are frequently played for laughs (especially when Finn makes unwanted attempts to rescue her). This, a strong and independent female protagonist, is as refreshing as it is overdue. Now young girls can watch a Star Wars movie and enjoy the same experience as their brothers; they finally have heroes like themselves to look up to.

Nobody would understand how important Rey is better than Carrie Fisher, who reprises her role as Leia in The Force Awakens. Never forget that, when filming the original trilogy, Fisher was told that she couldn’t wear a bra underneath her costume because “there is no underwear in space”. Never forget that Princess Leia (the twin sister of Luke) never got to be a Jedi. Never forget that, while Luke Skywalker and Han Solo were marketed as galaxy-saving heroes, Princess Leia was made a sex symbol with weird hair. The Force Awakens seeks to make up for all this as best it can. General Leia is allowed to live up to the potential she could never reach in the original trilogy. She’s free of the bikini and is, at long last, able to get down to business and help lead the Resistance.

The Force Awakens is conscious of race as well as gender, and this too seems like a move that deliberately reverses the mistakes made in Lucas’ original trilogy. Both episodes IV-VI and I-III featured blandly white casts, with characters like Lando Calrissian and Mace Windu providing very little respite. Alternatively at the very heart of The Force Awakens is the burgeoning friendship (or romance, if the internet gets its way) between fighter pilot Poe, played by Guatemalan-American Oscar Isaac, and stormtrooper Finn, played by the British-Nigerian John Boyega. Lupita Nyong’o contributes to the racially diverse cast too, although her character is not human. The Force Awakens at least attempts to understand that, in a fantasy universe, we can dare to imagine the race relations that we desire.

Looking Forward Through Nostalgia

Sure, The Force Awakens has its retro moments , but it recalls the past only because it wants to improve upon it. JJ Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan remix bygone Star Wars tropes and then refute them, reaching out to new audiences who refuse to keep watching the same old cowboy film over and over again. They’re savvy to do this. The audiences whose approval they seek are the same ones rejecting The Revenant for its boring ‘sweaty angry men conquer the big bad wilderness’ plot. That shit has been done.

What’s makes the “it’s derivative!” arguments that seek to either tear apart or praise The Force Awakens so unbelievable is that the film reverses tired old tropes in extremely heavy-handed and obvious ways. If anything, it’s a little tokenistic. The fact that a young white woman gets to wield a weapon in a space movie shouldn’t feel as satisfying as it does. With The Force Awakens as much as any blockbuster flick, there’s the depressing sense that, when it comes to Hollywood feminism, viewers have to take what they can get.

Note: this may soon be changing.

Seeing The Force Awakens as a homage or re-make is so limiting that it can be actively damaging. By falling into the same old patterns and memories of the previous films, there’s a danger of ignoring the new elements of plot altogether. Why couldn’t you buy a Rey action figure? Why didn’t she, the protagonist of the film, appear as a playable character in the official board game? Even if you want it to be, The Force Awakens isn’t just A New Hope with updated special effects.

At its worst, the kind of nostalgia surrounding Star Wars feeds the niggling sense of paranoia that nothing original exists anymore, that mainstream cinema is polluted with superhero sequels and remakes of Point Break that literally nobody asked for. It brings with it a feeling that we’re being ripped off; that we don’t get to enjoy the moments of revelation our parents did in 1977; that all we get to experience are pale, sanitised reproductions of the films they enjoyed firsthand. And while these fears are valid (note: personally, I’m hyped for Point Break), the new Star Wars trilogy should assuage rather than fuel them. From what we’ve seen so far, this is a significant, and not even particularly subtle, departure from what came before.

JJ Abrams is not a director who looks backwards, and The Force Awakens isn’t the misogynistic space Western you’re used to. Weirdly, its pursuit of innovation and renewal might be what makes the movie seem so familiar. Like the films of the original trilogy, Episode VII takes place a long time ago — yet it looks and feels so very tantalisingly futuristic.

Katherine Gillespie is a freelance writer and editor based in Melbourne via Perth. She’s written for publications like VICE, Noisey, Urban Walkabout, The West Australian and Voiceworks.