So I finally saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens, only a few days after most of the sentient life in the solar system (or so it seemed). I had a great time, sometimes feeling not unlike I had at the age of 10 in 1977. At other times, I was rather uncomfortably conscious of the echoes of ’77, and so here are some musings as I try to sort out my thoughts on the subject.
Spoilers follow. If you haven’t seen the film, I really wouldn’t read any further.
So yes, the plot of The Force Awakens echoes Star Wars in more than a few ways — the opening on a desert planet, the planet-destroying super-weapon, not to mention all the verbal and visual callbacks, and so on. The scale of repetition is such that even the characters notice it, as is most clearly seen when our heroes discuss how to take out the Starkiller, and Han Solo wants to cut to the chase, because he’s fought this battle before.
So, feature or bug? Certainly, this kind of echoing and revisiting is itself a repeating element of JJ Abrams’ work, whether it be the lost-80’s-Spielberg-movie-does-It-Came-From-Outer-Space that is Super 8, or the Wrath of Khan rehash of Star Trek: Into Darkness. More on the latter in a bit, but it seems to me that this element of Abrams’ approach to filmmaking makes him quintessentially suited to direct a Star Wars movie, given that the franchise has been rooted in repetition and echoes from the start. Star Wars opened 38 years ago. Go back that same length of time again, and we arrive in 1938, smack in the era of the SF serial: Flash Gordon (1936), Buck Rogers (1938) and Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940). So Star Wars now has the same vintage for viewers today as its models did in 1977. And they were very emphatically its models — Star Wars (like Raiders of the Lost Ark) was a big-budget return to the serial. The series has always been about the intersection of repetition and difference.
Sequels exist because audiences demand repetition. “Tell me that story again!” we have cried since childhood. “But not exactly the same story.” We want the high the first iteration of a beloved tale gave us, but pure repetition comes with the difference of familiarity, so we want some variation. The Force Awakens goes a long way toward giving audiences that same story, with the same beats, and the same charge.
The repetitions in Star Trek: Into Darkness irritate me because they are empty. The final act of the film is tedious because we know how it will all play out, and none of the repeated events have any weight. Nothing matters. I feel the case is different in The Force Awakens. Here repetition has the weight of tragedy as a family saga echoes and re-echoes, the same events tearing apart each generation no matter how hard the characters struggle to arrest the wheel of fortune. When Han Solo confronts Kylo Ren, we have been here before, in a very similar setting, and witnessed a father plead with his son. But the repetition is also a negative image, given force because we remember how this went last time. So when, in the final moments of the film, Luke pulls back in his hood in a gesture that recreates the first appearance of his mentor in 1977, he has earned the right to look haunted. He is painfully aware of the cost and of the inevitability of repetition. Is there perhaps in Rey’s eyes some of that same knowledge, that she too is trapped in this same cycle?
The battle for Starkiller isn’t as exciting as the one for the Death Star, but nor is it supposed to be — it’s carried out by supporting characters. It is part of the background of repetition that haunts the Skywalker family, and through it the galaxy. In perhaps the most explicit way yet in the franchise, repetition is not just encoded into the nature of the story told, it is a central theme.