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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 Burt, Kayti. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens – Can A Film Be a Sequel and a Reboot?” Den of Geek! 22 Dec. 2015. Web. <http://www.denofgeek.us/movies/star-wars/251490/star-wars-the-force-awakens-can-a-film-be-a-sequel-and-a-reboot>.
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31 responses to “Derivative Plots, Sequels and Reboots: Defending The Force Awakens”
Really well-done piece. I mostly enjoyed reading it because it gave me a greater appreciation of how some of my younger friends are really “into” the SW saga and Doctor Who. I remember standing in line with one of my brother to see the first of the SW releases and was not disappointed. Similarly, back then, I would occasionally watch Doctor Who episodes on PBS, but I’m not an enthusiast. You did a great job here, I think, in unpacking and deflating the “too derivative” argument that is too often facilely employed in critiques.
I took a different tack from yours, in my recent dialogue on The Force Awakens, on BHTV. I find the movie to be in many ways almost a carbon copy of A New Hope, but believe it was done on purpose, with a very specific aim — namely, to start afresh, after the horrific prequels, and create new generations of Star Wars fans, by returning to the elements that made the franchise so influential to begin with.
But, yeah, it’s a copy. The entire time I sat there, I was literally counting on my fingers the plot elements that were just copypasted. But I thought it was a terrific film nonetheless.
Maybe we’ll get into this, but I have come to the conclusion that I hate the new Doctor Who, as much as I tried to like it. I am a huge fan of the original series and own virtually every episode from William Hartnell through Sylvester McCoy. My favorites are definitely Troughton and Pertwee, though I do like McCoy quite a bit as well. I thought I would like the “nu-Who” when Peter Capaldi came on board, after the insufferable Matt Smith, but alas, it hasn’t really gotten any better.
I have not real interest in the Star Wars saga, except as social phenomenon; but I thought I’d drop in to make the necessary remark, that at this point in the history of film, complaints that a film is somehow derivative of other films are trivial bordering on irrelevance.
I also think that we should step back from such arguments and admit that an entertaining genre film only need to be that. The expectation that an enjoyable or successful film ought also be a work of art is asking too much of the people we pay to entertain us.
Finally, to Dan: It’s not the actors, who are doing their best with the material. I think Doctor Who could have survived Davies, but it doesn’t seem to be able to survive Moffatt, who’s not interested in science fiction (he’s written some interesting stories, but he’s also written quite a load of rubbish). And, unfortunately, we’re stuck with him for another two years.
Such is life; or at least as determined by the exigencies of the entertainment industry.
“hate the new Doctor Who”… yes, the bombastic music, the rush to save the *entire* universe *again* within 45 minutes, [insert generic complaint about the soap operatic turn] etc. Which is not to say that old Who is particularly even in quality, but is shot through with good bits.
I had a different take. Obviously the repetitions and parallels are overwhelming, but that was a point. A friend of mine complained that the Force Awakens was like “playing freebird”, satisfying but safe. I am just going to reproduce how I responded.
Your essential point is that all the repetition serves no literary purpose and is therefore unjustified and leads to a somewhat dispiriting film. Competent but familiar.
I disagree entirely. It always annoyed me somewhat that in the original trilogy that there is such a sharp divide between good and bad. It was well parodied in Space Balls: “Evil will always triumph because good is dumb.” It is clear at every point what is right and what is wrong. It is clear that Luke should not join his father. Even Han, who is the most morally ambiguous character, someone whom we like and in some ways admire in part because of the immoral things he does, becomes a freedom fighter and all around goodie-goodie. This is how things happen. Good is good. Evil is evil. And good always triumphs. The good guys beat the bad guys and party with dancing tree-bears.
Ep VII qualifies that complete victory. The dark side, it now seems, cannot be abolished, cannot be defeated. All triumphs are temporary. This complicates the story. Every parallel suggests that history will repeat itself, that there is nothing we can do. Every skew in the parallels suggests some freedom, some open possibility space, some chance of influencing history. We have heard all about “balance to the force” all through the prequels but this is the first movie to take the idea seriously. Before it was not about balancing the force but about eliminating one half. Now it seems both sides are here to stay and the best we can strive for is too match the opposing forces as best we can. This is new and exciting.
On the visuals I again disagree entirely. [It was alleged they borrowed excessively from the old films.] I thought it was brilliant trapped between Lucas’ and Abrams styles. This really concerned me before seeing the film because their directing styles are so distinct. Lucas is a student of Kurasawa, he likes still shots, rapid edits and long lenses with spacious and uncluttered mis-en-sene. The OT looked gritty and functional. Abrams likes short lenses and long mobile shots with a crowded mis-en-scene often full of bright color and shiny texture (all of this was taken to stomach churning heights in the Star Trek reboots). I didn’t know how they would mesh. But somehow he fused the sensibilities beautifully. The storm troop drop ship is a beautiful example. It has Abram’s shiny, clean textures but Lucas’ gritty realism. Some of the scenes had Abrams’ love of scale like the huge star destroyer Rey jumps though. The visuals are well summarized in BB-8. His lines, the domed head, and overall design learned from R2 but making him into a spinning ball they moved him in a radically new direction. Old and new coexist in him beautifully.
In the end it is not so much like Abrams played freebird but took freebird, rearranged it, re-orchestrated it, changed the tone and added new verses with new meanings. But you would probably also have to start with a song better than freebird.
Also Dan and David,
You guys are crazy. Moffat/Smith Who is best Who.
You guys are crazy. Moffat/Smith Who is best Who.
“It’s not the actors, who are doing their best with the material. I think Doctor Who could have survived Davies, but it doesn’t seem to be able to survive Moffatt,”
I agree that Moffatt is part of the problem, but I found Matt Smith’s manic, ADHD manner truly impossible to stomach and impossible to take remotely seriously. Couldn’t even get through one season with him. And those damned Weeping Angels got tired really quick.
Of the nu-Who, the best by far was Eccleston and he only lasted one season.
Hi, this was an interesting analysis/rebuttal to critics. I enjoyed the movie, and so while I agree(d) with many of the criticisms being made, they weren’t enough to make me dislike it. The discussion Dan K had earlier about Force Awakens (which Dan mentions here) covered a good deal why I thought the similarities did not become an issue.
If I ignore the external reasons Dan gave for overlooking the similarities (so pretend circumstances were different), I´m not sure I agree the differences (internal reasons) you cite would be enough by themselves to distract me from the obvious similarities. I will address that in a second post.
Ejwinner argues that we have to cut movies slack on being derivative, and should not bite the hand that entertains us!
I disagree. Just because someone makes a movie and puts it in a theater, does not mean they entertained us. In fact it doesn’t even mean that they intended to, or cared about entertaining us. Movies are a commercial industry and some are crass, cynical ploys to generate cash by offering a product they know will put asses in seats (and so $ in coffers), or as vehicles to sell other products. And even where they are not (I assume the last three SW prequals were not crass, cynical projects) they can still fail. And lack of originality is an honest complaint.
It is true that movies don’t have to be intensely crafted, avante-garde masterpieces to be entertaining or worthy of praise. And sure, the point has been made ad nauseum that “there is nothing new under the sun”. So to an extent everyone allows for a degree of similarity. Heck, within a franchise formulas can even become acceptable/expected (Bond is an obvious example).
Still, it is possible to be distracted by kinds or levels of similarity such that one is pulled out of the movie. That it becomes less enjoyable. And the audience has a right to register that complaint to the artists involved. This is critical feedback for artists to understand what level of originality is expected by an audience for a given work. Artists don’t get to say, yeah but art… nothing new under the sun.
If that were true we should just be happy with them remaking the original Star Wars, shot for shot, line for line, every time.
Hi Dave, You showed how the plot could be described two different ways such that FA is nothing like the original SW. The question I have for you is did that second version actually capture what you felt while you were watching? It didn’t for me.
Some of the differences you mention I definitely agree with (having a character come from within the faceless stormtroopers is a new perspective). But the arc of the story was the same, with near identical environments, major plot points, and crucial tasks.
For example, I’m not sure how blowing up the Starkiller base got demoted to a B or C story. Finding Luke wouldn’t mean anything if it were still operational. And if finding Luke was the main plot I would have been very disappointed by the ending. That certainly was not positioned as the climax of the movie. It was closer in comparison to the “winning the prize and the girl” moment at the end of SW. A reward for the obstacle overcome.
Yes, Kylo killing Han is not an “I’m your father moment” and sons never killed dads in the SW series. But the similarity was with Darth Vader killing a defenseless Obi-Wan (who had put up his sword and did not resist) in front of main characters who can only scream in horror as they have to flee the Death Star right away!
I think your point about reboots and homages is more important toward deflecting criticism, than pointing to minor details. Like…
But unlike the Death Star, we see exactly how it can accomplish this. The original Death Star’s power source was a complete mystery.
This and the fact that it took several hits to kill it (and in a different indirect fashion) is a distinction without much of a difference. It was a frickin’ super Death Star. If this had come out two years after Return of the Jedi people would have been rolling their eyes. IV Death Star, V no Death Star (but cool movie), VI new Death Star, VII planet sized Death Star?
Yes Bond has to keep overcoming bizarrely contrived traps. But if it were the same kind of trap each time, just slightly bigger… no thanks. I think artists could have come up with something else. Plus, Empire Strikes Back proves Death Stars are not necessary.
As an aside, I think it is a mistake to go into the tech details of the Starkiller base. I never cared where the Death star got it’s power. It’s a Space Opera not scifi. Trying to explain opens it to scrutiny and so disappointment (collecting dark matter to make a power beam (?) makes the star go dark?)… just like the frickin’ midi-chlorians.
The 20 minute parody by Rowan Atkinson
seemed true to the old Dr Who. I’ve only looked at the DVD boxes of the new Dr Who, and it looks far too conventionally sexy / dashing / action-y so I can’t imagine it resembling the old series.
For fans of the old Dr who, I highly recommend the series Red Dwarf. It had its better and worse years, no doubt due to the writing budget or just coming and going of good writers, but for a while it was doing spectacular spoofs of every Sci Fi conceit.
I can’t take serious SF seriously; I just like realistic characters in real and not freakishly improbable situations except in some sorts of over the top comedy.
For those who agree “It’s a Space Opera not scifi”, I’d be curious to know what your idea of real scifi is.
Well, I’m really excited that David’s piece has generated some spirited commentary. I can’t really say much about the two main examples that David focuses on since I really haven’t followed or seen the whole bodies of work. As a sort of sidebar, I would say that perhaps db has misread ej’s comment. Ej can speak for himself, but what he says verbatim addresses “entertaining genre film[s].” And I’ve noted the mention of “franchise” film making, which, I think, we generally agree is problematic as a result of what seems a transparently formulaic nature designed to ride the coat tails of a popular hit that may or may not have had much artistic merit. IMO, both concerns with “orginality” and what’s artistically derivative can open a whole can of worms that is perhaps best explored by aesthetic philosophy or artists and critics whose observations and focus are devoted to a particular medium of expression. I personally believe that all artistic expression is derivative in some respects and many artists are quite candid in how they incorporate certain elements they appreciate in others. With this in mind, we need to incorporate some notion of innovation in our overall assessments. It’s a major reason why I’m drawn to jazz as perhaps my favorite music.
Hi Thomas (and David and EJwinner), I want to make clear that I was agreeing with EJ’s second paragraph, and only disagreeing with this statement:
I guess I made a mistake by starting with the obvious cases where complaints hold, and moving down. The point is I think such complaints are not trivial at all… even if the film is enjoyable. Art can always be improved and such statements serve the artist to improve works in the future.
I want to borrow your innovation concept to synopsize my position on David’s article (which I generally liked).
The first Star Wars was derivative of Kurasawa’s film “Throne of Blood” but that is okay. I wouldn’t complain about it (and few ever did) because there was enough innovation the important elements don’t feel the same.
Most of David’s argument is that there is enough innovation that FA should not seem like SW. He is right in pointing out many new elements. Beyond disagreeing that some were in fact innovations, I don’t feel there were enough by themselves to dispel criticism. Rather it was the arguments he made toward the end (and Dan had in his interview) that because it was a reboot (and contained homages) obvious parallels were set within a context that they were merely obvious and not intrusive.
Hi Hal, generally speaking Space Operas are adventures that involve futuristic or alien settings without much concern for how that intersects our actual universe. They are like fantasy, but with spaceships and laser guns. The focus is the adventure.
These fall within the broad category of general science fiction, but are distinguished from strict science fiction stories (with varying degrees of “hardness”) by the latter’s attempt to extrapolate the future of our actual universe (or parallel universe/timeline).
With the opening line “A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away…” Lucas made pretty clear Star Wars was a fantasy story (compare to “Once upon a time, in a distant land…”), rather than a vision of the future.
I would never disagree with a person’s tastes, but I’ll note that Science Fiction author Ursula K Le Guin has an interesting perspective on realism vs scifi vs fantasy.
Thanks for the Atkinson Dr.Who parody (with Jonathan Price no less!). Sadly, I only saw a few episodes of Dr Who with Tom Baker, so I have no idea how accurate it was.
Yes. The Weeping Angels were a good story idea. Once.
As I said last time, I really need to see The Force Awakens without the bad, distracting 3D to be able to judge it properly.
I am not sure you can say that the similarities with the original are observer bias, as I didn’t go into the movie expecting that. But once I saw the desert planet and the drops carrying information vital to the good guys I definitely felt I had seen that before somewhere. A movie doesn’t have to be exactly the same to be derivative.
But, yes, I can see the differences too.
On the other hand, if Finn turns out to be a clone with a special order encoded in his brain, then I am going to seriously roll my eyes.
I am not sure if I could name films – perhaps the first Solaris, Dark Star. But in books, Ursula K Le Guin, Philip K Dick, Isaac Asimov. Science fiction never seems to have quite successfully moved from book to film.
I have encountered some of the most unrealistic characters in ostensibly realist dramas. Some of the characters and situations I most identified with were in sci-fi, for example the journey of Ai and Estraven in The Left Hand of Darkness.
Let me just point out that the exhaust vent in the original Star Wars movie was not a design flaw (even if this was intended when the film was first made). This is revealed in “The Return of the Jedi”. And I am sorry, something that can be exploited so easily to destroy the entire planet by so few and apparently guarded by one inept Jedi/Sith is either a design flaw or another Jedi honeypot.
Again, if it turns out to be the case, then another eye roll from me.
Richard Linklater’s adaptation of Dick’s “A Scanner Darkly” is almost perfect. As is Tarkovsky’s “Stalker,” which is an adaptation of “Roadside Picnic.”
The recent movie “the Martian” (based on a book), as well as “Ex Machina” (original script) are solid examples of scifi (plus really well made). I’d even argue that both count as realistic characters in realistic situations.
But there are older examples like “2001: a space odyssey” and the entire Star Trek series (with decreasing attempts at hard realism). I also think Dick’s “Do Android’s Dream of Electronic Sheep” and “We can remember it for you wholesale” count and they were arguably made into decent movies: “Blade Runner” and “Total Recall” (though both depart from the text quite a bit).
In contrast, Battlestar Galactica is, I think, Space Opera. Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon almost certainly were.
Yes, I had forgotten about Stalker, an outstanding film irrespective of genre, but also an example of a real science fiction film.
Robin: Another really good film adaptation of science fiction is the recent “Predestination,” starring Ethan Hawke, which is a magnificent treatment of Robert Heinlein’s “All You Zombies…”
dbholmes: The use of ‘Space Opera’ is rather inconsistent. You are correct that sometimes it is used to denote scientifically unserious “science fantasy,” but it also is applied to works like Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series and Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space series, which are about as far away from the space fantasy of Star Wars as one could get.
There is a kind of sci-fi that my Dad used to call “Gin and Space Tonic”, which is spuriously set in the future or in space. For example “Outland” seems to be something that does not need to be set on a moon of Jupiter.
A lot of science fiction seems based on the mythos of eternal progress, exploration and expansion inspired by our era in which every nook and cranny of the earth has been discovered (and a lot of it destroyed in the process), and by the American myth of westward progress — and IMO wishful thinking that, though we have exhausted a planet, we will keep that sort of process going forever. If we are ever to explore space the way science fiction enthusiasts have imagined, we face the problem that everything: distance, time, energy requirements increase by factors of 1,000 or 1,000,000 of something like that. The only way we ever get that sort of energy is likely to be by collection of solar power with vast vast surfaces in space (which fortunately can be made to work although incredibly thin and light and hence incredibly foldable). The transformation of this energy into something portable is the problem. Still we face the problem that to go from one interesting place in the universe to another majorly separate and different place may take lifetimes at the greatest possible velocity.
The idea that going to different planets will every play a role in taming the population problem or the effects of careless stewardship of the Earth can be attributed mostly by our stubborn refusal to believe that there are any limits, or that we have a finite resource that must somehow be shared. I am not of the Bill McKibben school of thought that says we must drastically shrink our horizons. Indeed if we can slow down the procreation impulse throughout the world, as has happened unexpectedly in the wealthy developed countries (I understand Iran has population growth in the ballpark of Western nations, possibly because its women are better educated than its men … a factor in my belief that containment and patience may work there as it sort of did with the USSR [but then we threw that boon away]). [[[OK too many parentheses]]]. No I think contra McKibben that if we do no more than double or quadruple the Earth’s population before it stabilizes, we will in time have more energy to go around per person through renewables than we have at the present through Carbon. If population can’t be brought under control then we’ll have horrendous wars of survival at some point.
Returning to science fiction, I’ve so far never cared for it in movies for various reasons. I find neit( dystopias or space opera (largely transposition of historical wars into a future key) very interesting, nor tight plotting and action. I haven’t seen either movie of Solaris, nor Stalker (I just read up on them mostly via Wikipedia), though quite possibly I would like them, for the very reasons they failed at the box office at least in the West. Blade Runner sounds a bit like Hunter Thomson-ish posing and irony in space (yes, I’m ragging on your tastes, DK, but I could be wrong). I don’t care if the element of fantasy (or probable impossibility, such as flying faster than the speed of light) is sciencey or not (you may surmise correctly that “fantasy” as represented by hordes of elves, trolls, magicians, and various essences of evil don’t really appeal to me — though I make exception of Terry Pratchet with his goofy humor) — if the element of fantasy permits a very different perspective on the mystery of the human story, as in Solaris, or Childhood’s End, then I welcome it, at least if the author’s POV appeals to me. A Heinlein libertarian I’m not. I think Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5, and even more Cat’s Cradle are treasures. I also liked Ender’s Game because it focused on character, and took the Space Opera heroic them and turned it upside down.
One especially annoying thing about one strand in science fiction is the conceit of humans meeting up with alien races spoiling to fight and just happening to be a close enough match for there to be some suspense. The history of Western crushing of other cultures that had a couple of hundred years catching up to do persuades me that that is fantastically improbable. Once past the Enlightenment, a couple of centuries of development will tend to put any two civilizations in quite different classes. I also think the singularity-ists have a point though the err by hubristically claiming to know what that much transformation will or could mean, but if we survive the point at which the graph of our exploding (looking back at the past 5 centuries and making reasonable projections) capabilities goes nearly vertical, we have no more idea of what life would be like afterwards than a Yanomamo in the Brazillian rainforest has of the world you and I live in. So if wars between different alien species are in the cards, they would be settled really fast, and unless we’re miraculously on the leading edge (supposedly justifyable on some anthropic principle), then it’s likely that we are just being watched by benignly indifferent super-beings who will one day hopefully say “Welcome to the Universe”. But imagining what it will be like seems pretty futile to me.
The thing is, you could take any genre and find rubbish. I am not sure what Sci Fi you are talking about, but I am sure I wouldn’t care for those ones you are describing either. Liking science fiction does not entail liking all of it, obviously.
I have not yet seen the movie myself, as I was sick when my friends went. One of them enjoyed it, another was extremely disappointed. Now the thing is, the latter would not find his criticism addressed in this post. He did not say that the story as such was derivative, but that (a) the music was annoying, (b) the story didn’t make sense and (c) the movie was a loose sequence of scenes nearly all of which were clear references to iconic scenes from the original three movies (he mentioned Jabba’s court, the bar, and a few others). So yes, he would say it was a different story but felt as if somebody had constantly said, “remember how cool that moment was in A New Hope? Huh, huh? We got to do that again in the new one.”
I can surely understand how that would come across as cheap and insulting.
Robin: “The thing is, you could take any genre and find rubbish. I am not sure what Sci Fi you are talking about, but I am sure I wouldn’t care for those ones you are describing either. Liking science fiction does not entail liking all of it, obviously.”
It’s just my unpopular point of view. These days most everybody (at least males, and my wife as well) loves big action, tight plotting and all that. And a lot of it, if it isn’t so full of action, like the TV series Defiance, it is yet another dystopia — and they’re being cranked out esp for young people, and I think it’s a factor in the crazy paranoid streak in our politics. Mostly I read history and analysis, only rarely fiction of any kind.
Well that is one of the reasons I like science fiction, because, usually, it is not big action.
Hi Robin. “Well that is one of the reasons I like science fiction, because, usually, it is not big action.”
Well, I haven’t kept up with it. I used to read the yearly anthologies as well as a few books a year til I was 16 or 17, and after that, only rarely read any sci fi.
I guess my favorite Sci Fi movie is “What Planet are You From?”