Derivative Plots, Sequels and Reboots: Defending The Force Awakens
By David Kyle Johnson
It seems odd to have to defend one of the highest grossing movies of all time , but criticisms of JJ Abrams Star Wars reboot “The Force Awakens” can be found everywhere: Vox , Sacred Matters , The Atlantic , Entertainment Weekly [ ]… I could go on and on. But they all seem to echo the same concern: The Force Awakens’ plot was derivative. It’s just a rehash of the original 1977 film (Star Wars: Episode IV, A New Hope), with a few other original trilogy tropes thrown in. But, I think such criticisms are unwarranted. It’s one thing to attempt to make one’s artistic taste appear refined by criticizing what is popular or to show what a super-fan you are by picking up on every little similar detail; it’s another thing altogether to make that criticism stick.
Picking and Choosing: The Plot is Not the Same
In his criticism, Ben Brazil (of Sacred Matters) reminds us that Lucas’ original plot was inspired by (among many other things) Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces, in which Campbell argued that all hero stories (and, more importantly, all religious hero stories) follow the same “monomyth.” As Brazil summarizes such stories:
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
Although Lucas himself admitted that he modeled the original Star Wars after Campbell’s monomyth idea, Brazil argues that religious scholars concur that Campbell’s conclusion is unwarranted—that Campbell was only able to get so many different stories from different cultures to seem so similar by “distorting genuine cultural differences into a one-size-fits-all mold.” Or, as a logician might put it, he used confirmation bias. He highlighted the similarities between the stories while ignoring all the major differences. (This happens quite often in cultural studies, like when people try to claim the story of Jesus and Mithras are the same.) 
But I would argue that Brazil and the critics like him are guilty of the same mistake when they claim that The Force Awakens’ plot is derivative. Yes, I could describe the plot of The Force Awakens and make it sound exactly like A New Hope:
A young force sensitive hero escapes a desert planet with information in a droid that is vital for the good guys, meets a wide wise old sage, visits a cantina filled with strange aliens, learns the ways of the force, the wise old sage is killed and then thanks to an exploited weakness the bad guys big planet destroying weapon goes boom.
But such a description ignores all the many ways that the plot of The Force Awakens is completely different than any Star Wars film that has come before it:
- There is no clear protagonist. The force awakens is just as much about Finn’s journey toward the light, as it is Rey’s… as it is about Kylo’s journey towards the dark side.
- The main villain is undeveloped – on his way to being a villain rather than a fully formed unambiguously evil character (like Darth Vader was in 1977) .
- No Star Wars movie plot has ever involved a defecting bad guy, like Finn. In all six previous movies, villainous soldiers have always been soulless—droids, clones, or faceless drones—and thus incapable of moral reflection.
- The main plot is not about destroying the big bad weapon; no main protagonist even plays a direct of a role in its demise. (That honor falls to Han, Chewy and Poe.) The plot actually centers around finding Luke Skywalker. The destruction of the Starkiller base is a B or C story.
- There is no princess rescue; she rescues herself and then later Finn.
- Unlike Luke, Rey takes up the cause because it’s the right thing to do, not merely because her home was destroyed and she just wants to be like her father.
Notice that I could describe the plot of The Force Awakens in such a way that it has hardly nothing in common with any other Star Wars movie.
A young girl named Rey, an abandoned orphan with no parents or caregivers who has survived on her own for 20 years, stumbles upon a highly coveted map that leads to a recluse who might save the galaxy from The First Order. After resolving to get the map to the good guys (The Resistance), and reluctantly teaming up with a First Order fugitive named Finn, she narrowly escapes the destruction of her village by stealing a ship. Fortunately, the ship once belonged to a smuggler (Han) who, after stealing his ship back (and some shenanigans with some gangsters and monsters), offers to help complete the mission. While Han tries to procure assistance from a Cantina owner, Rey is kidnapped by the big baddy (Kylo). Han and Finn go onto fulfill Rey’s mission then help save the resistance from destruction. Meanwhile, Rey frees herself from her kidnapper and defeats (but does not kill) Kylo by awakening the Force within her.
Of course, I could tell the story from the point of view of Finn, or Poe…or even Kylo….and none of them would be like Luke’s story. Yes, there are general themes (a protagonist discovering the force) and singular ideas (giant planet destroying weapon) that The Force Awakens has in common with many other Star Wars films. But the plot—the actual story itself—is significantly different.
Desert Planets and Killing Daddy. Too Many Homages?
But what about those similarities? Another desert planet? Another masked bad guy? Another Death Star? Another “I am your father” moment of revelation. Another son killing his father? Are those forgivable? I think so. In fact, I don’t think there isn’t anything to forgive.
First of all, there is no “I am your father” moment of revelation in The Force Awakens. That Kylo belongs to Han and Leia is something revealed, gently and gradually, throughout the film. In the first scene, you’re basically told he has Skywalker blood. A bit later, you realize he belongs to Leia and Han.
Second, no son has ever killed his father in a previous Star Wars film. Anakin didn’t have a father, nor did he defeat his father figure (Obi-Wan won that fight), and Luke only cut off Vader’s hand. (It was Vader tossing the Emperor and all that force lightening that did him in.) Kylo is the only person in a Star Wars movie history to kill his own father.
Third, Lucas himself has said that Star Wars is like poetry.  It rhymes. This is undeniably true of the prequels; they borrow elements heavily from the original trilogy. I and IV end with a medal ceremony, II and V end with our protagonist losing a limb, III and VI end with Anakin turning good/bad and a funeral. I could go on and on. But, of all the complaints that were lobbied against the prequels, I never heard “They’re just rehashing the same stuff.” In fact, the similarities make the whole story hold together and noticing the similarities is kind of fun. So, by having The Force Wakens echo the original movies, Abrams is just staying true to form.
Fourth, and more importantly, The Force Awakens isn’t just a sequel—it’s a reboot too.  It’s supposed to borrow from the originals. I didn’t gripe about “yet another Death Star” in The Force Awakens for the same reason I didn’t gripe about yet another trip to Wally World in the new Vacation movie. Of course they took a trip to Wally World; it’s an homage to the original! The kind of movie it was intended to be makes all of the difference.
The perfect analogy can be found in another of my favorite science fiction series: Doctor Who. When it came back on the air in 2005 after being taken off the air in 1989 (with only a single made-for-TV movie in the interim), the episode that brought it back (“Rose”) was both a sequel and a reboot. It was a sequel in that (just like The Force Awakens) the events it depicted happened after and in the same universe as the original series. The original gave us the first eight doctors and we were now watching the 9th. But it was also a reboot in that (just like The Force Awakens) it was bringing back the series.
Now, unlike The Force Awakens, the entire plot of “Rose” was derivative…it was derived from an old Third Doctor episode: “Spearhead from Space” (which itself was kind of a reboot/sequel; it was the first episode featuring the Third Doctor, was also the first episode in color, and began a long stint with the Doctor stranded on Earth.) In both episodes, the Doctor is dealing with his regeneration and is taking on an invading force of Autons. But nobody griped about the fact that “Rose” was derived from that old episode. Of course, new fans didn’t know any different; but as an homage, Rose showed the old fans that the reboot would be loyal to the original. Fans knew what it was supposed to be and appreciated it as such.
The Starkiller is not a Death Star
Now, that’s not to say that fans of the original Doctor Who didn’t want new stuff. They did and they eventually got plenty! (Younger Doctors, Weeping Angles, The Silence, River Song…I could go on and on.) But the fans didn’t want to abandon the old stuff either (Daleks, Cybermen, The Master). They just wanted a new twist on them. And, as fans of the show know, that’s exactly what they got.
I would argue that the same is true for Star Wars fans. It’s not that we don’t want new stuff. We do. But we want some of the old stuff too. Just give it to us with a fun new twist—something that would make such homages enjoyable by making them similar (thus reminding me of the original) and different (perhaps even better) all at the same time. And I’d say we got exactly that.
Take the Starkiller base. Like the Death Star, it can destroy entire planets. But unlike the Death Star, we see exactly how it can accomplish this. The original Death Star’s power source was a complete mystery. The Starkiller, on the other hand, takes in the energy of a star and then expels it at its target planetary system. And the Starkiller doesn’t even have to move to do this; in fact it can’t move. It’s built into the planet it occupies. It just shoots the energy of its star, at superluminal speeds (through sub-hyperspace, according to the novelization) toward any target in the galaxy it wants. That’s right, it swallows and then spits stars at enemy planets at speeds faster than light? How awesome is that?
(Note: According to the novelization, the Starkiller doesn’t swallow the star it orbits. It uses the energy of its orbiting star to collect dark matter, a process which blocks out the sun once complete. This actually makes a bit more sense and explains how it can use the energy of its parent star, over and over, to refuel.)
This specificity about how the Starkiller works actually helps avoid another criticism of the movie. Many people are complaining that the destruction of Starkiller base, like the destruction of the Death Star, simply involved exploiting a tiny little defect—an oversight—in the design of the base (like the Episode IV Death Star’s “exhaust port, right below the main port.”)
What? Where you not watching the movie!?
They don’t take advantage of a design flaw—a little fluke. They figure out how to use what makes the base so powerful—its power source—against it. As Resistance Admiral Statura makes clear, all the power the base collects has to be contained before it is expelled. So, if they simply destroy whatever mechanism is used to do that (the oscillator) while the station is armed, all the power the station has collected will be released in an uncontrolled fashion and thus destroy the planet from the inside. I’m sorry but, unlike “exhaust port = chain reaction = big boom,” this actually makes sense.
Notice also that (unlike the Death Star) they don’t have to simply hit the Starkiller base in its Achilles heel, once, in order to bring it down. Even once the shield that protects the Oscillator is brought down, multiple barrages on the oscillator have no effect. It’s only once Han and Chewy open it up with explosives that Poe is able to bring it down with multiple shots from the inside.
And notice again that neither of our protagonists (Rey and Finn) had much to do with it. Yes, at one point, there were X-Wings going down a trench. But the attack and destruction of Starkiller base was enjoyably different from any other Star Wars space battle we have seen.
Out with the Old, In with the New
One likely reason fans of Doctor Who didn’t complain about “Rose” being derived from “Spearhead From Space” was because they got a new episode the very next week—and it became quite clear very quickly that the new series wasn’t just going to rehash old stories. Perhaps part of the problem with The Force Awakens is that the next episode is still more than a year away (now almost two). In reality, you could scour through the new Disney Star Wars canon to see if the stories there are original—and, at least so far, I think that they are. But the issue probably won’t be settled until Episode VIII is released.
Now, when the next episode comes, if it still continues to have as much in common with the original trilogy as The Force Awakens, we may very well have something to complain about. Although you could just make the entire new series a reboot, I don’t think that’s what fans want. Again, although the plot of The Force Awakens wasn’t derivative, there were many familiar tropes. This was okay because it was not only a sequel but a reboot. But as a reboot, The Force Awakens was a crossover that mixed the old with the new to ease our transition into this new world. Now that we are there, I think we want more. We want new stories, on new worlds, with new ships—all with the new characters that we now love. Of course, just like Doctor Who kept Daleks and Cybermen, Disney needs to keep The Force and The Falcon—and X-Wings and Lightsabers (we’ll never grow tired of lightsaber battles). But the title of Episode VIII better not be “The First Order Strikes Back.”
Be Thankful For What You Got
In a recent interview with Charlie Rose, George Lucas said that Star Wars was a “kiddie movie.” This can’t always have been his view. Although kids loved it, A New Hope was in no way a kids-only movie—it’s far too graphic (charred skeletons, burning bodies, and dead Jedi) and slow paced (it takes an hour for anything to happen). Neither was The Empire Strikes Back in 1980. In a DVD special features interview, Lucas once admitted that his life was all about film…until he had a kids to look after, when he adopted his daughter Amanda, in 1981. Then it was all about kids…kids, kids, kids. It’s no coincidence that Ewoks followed two years later.
This is why the huge base of vocal lifelong fans hated Episode I; just like his current project “Strange Magic” (which Lucas says is for 12-year old girls), Episode I was a kids movie—complete with a child protagonist, over the top stereotypes, lots of sub par acting, stupid slap-stick physical comedy, digital characters stepping in digital poop, shots to the crotch, and fart jokes.  (Pee-yousa!) Although its prime audience had fallen in love with Star Wars as children, they had grown up in the meantime and could no longer tolerate such things. Episode II and III improved on this a bit, but they were so poorly written and acted it didn’t matter. Visually they were amazing, but what fans had been waiting for was an enthralling well written story for adults (that kids too could enjoy), that contains interesting and developing characters, set in the Star Wars universe. After all, Star Wars was always, first and foremost, a Space Opera.  And that is exactly what The Force Awakens gave us. Thank goodness Abrams set aside Lucas’ original script for Episode VII which centered on teenagers. 
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