How Original Can The Force Awakens Be?

A discussion about the new Star Wars trailer’s throwback imagery, its seemingly chaotic worldview, and the surprising neo-conservative approval for the Galactic Empire

Disney / Lucasfilm

On Monday the new trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens dropped, and predictably, the Internet freaked out. There was a mad rush to buy tickets; wild fan theories emerged on just what might be up with the conspicuously absent Luke Skywalker; and perhaps more surprisingly, Bill Kristol offered a neo-conservative defense of the Galactic Empire. Fevers are running high as the film’s December 18 U.S. release date draws ever-closer, but there’s still so much we don’t know. Including this question: How original can the movie actually be?

David Sims: Spencer, in your analysis of the trailer, you hit on the intense waves of nostalgia coming off The Force Awakens already. The chief villain, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), literally worships Darth Vader’s melted helmet. Han Solo talks about the days of Jedi fighting the Dark Side like it’s ancient mythology. There’s all this chatter about the Death Star-like base glimpsed on the poster capable of blowing up whole solar systems. You’ve worried in the past that things look almost too familiar. But maybe that’s the meta-point J.J. Abrams is trying to make. Here’s a franchise inexorably scarred by George Lucas’s underwhelming prequel trilogy, ravaged by overuse of CGI, wooden acting, and those gosh-darn midi-chlorians. So might the only recipe for success be a return to that old-time religion?

Because that’s what’s pumping people up more than anything, right? Certainly, the swell of John Williams’s score, the screaming noise of TIE Fighter engines, and the practical, tactile sense of the special effects is what revs me up. Yes, it’s very exciting to see John Boyega and Daisy Ridley getting some serious action beats, and to hear Adam Driver’s sonorous villain-voice, but it’s interesting to think about just how little we actually know about this movie’s plot. I’m fine with Abrams keeping most details under lock and key, and I imagine fans are too—but what do we know? Rey’s (Ridley) a scavenger. Finn (Boyega) is an ex-Stormtrooper. Han Solo is an old man. Luke’s missing. The Empire, rebranded The First Order, is up to no good. That’s about all we’ve got.

So I’ll take the nostalgia—though Bill Kristol’s crackpot take on the Empire might help define nostalgia’s limits. Folks, the Empire was not a liberal meritocracy, it was a galactic police state that blew up planets to quell rebellion. This is the kind of damage Lucas did with his prequel films, and the reason fans cheered when Disney bought the rights to the Star Wars franchise for billions. The Star Wars prequels essayed the fall of the Old Republic and the decline of the Jedi Order as plot dressing for its supposed grand arc: the rise of Darth Vader and the Emperor. They existed to justify his original stories, which needed no justification, and even though they portrayed the Republic as being bogged down by bureaucracy, they also paralleled the Empire’s emergence with Hitler’s sweep to power, with the Clone Wars functioning as a kind of Reichstag fire.

This might be why we need Abrams’s “greatest hits” approach. Let’s sweep away all those tortured fanboy memories, all the damage done by the prequels, and give Star Wars a chance to get back on track. What do you think?

Spencer Kornhaber: The nostalgia factor has tractor-beamed me and so many others into a frenzy of earnest hype, but it also makes me worry about being swindled in some way. After the totally bizarre tone and look of the prequels, the sight of TIE fighters and the prospect of a trench-run scene seem as appealing as a cozy cave to hide in would be when pursued by Imperial starships. But maybe it’ll turn out that this is no cave—this is capitalism, recycling memories for dollars rather than doing what Lucas’s original trilogy did better than anything else: Use gobsmacking creativity to create a world that viewers had never seen before.

Look, the Disney movies are sequels, so of course they’re not going to feel totally new. Still I’m still struck by how much in the promo material seems like the product of a very awesome game of paint-by-numbers: a lonely desert-planet youth called to greatness; a helmeted villain wielding a super-weapon; scrappy guys in jumpsuits fighting a fascist, genocidal force (LOL and WTF at anyone who thinks the Empire were good guys—poor Alderaan was a pacifist planet!). Those tropes are related to the essential appeal of Star Wars, yes, but too much retreading would be a betrayal of the series’ pioneering spirit.

As we’ve discussed, though, there are signs of clever self-awareness about nostalgia within The Force Awakens, and it’s more than likely that there are huge curveballs to come. The racial and gender diversity in the principal cast members is new, for one thing. Maybe the advertising so far has all been a work of misdirection, and the good/evil dichotomy is not quite what you’d expect in the film (see: fan theories about Luke as villain). Perhaps there won’t be a big triumphant ending for The Force Awakens—after all, unlike when Lucas made the first Star Wars movie, everyone knows this is only one chapter in a larger story. Certainly, the filmmaking techniques won’t be straight outta 1977, however much hype there is about a return to hand-built sets and film stock.

But when I whine about wanting a sense of newness, I’m talking things that may seem more superficial but are actually essential to the Star Wars magic: character designs, sets, and effects that make you go what?! (Think of the first time you glimpsed, say, Jabba the Hutt, or the Death Star.) The closest analogue this latest trailer provided was the jungle temple’s ambling red droid—who, to be honest, reminded me a bit of another iconic robot associated with J.J. Abrams. Then again, mind-blowing inventiveness is a lot to ask for—just making a sci-fi blockbuster that competes with the Marvel machine critically and commercially is tough enough.

Sims: No, Spencer, we don’t know that Alderaan was peaceful—perhaps those were just the lies of a REBEL SPY. At least, that’s the argument posed by Jonathan V. Last in his supposedly seminal article “The Case for the Empire,” which Kristol proposed as the ur-text for his crackpot theory. “Leia’s lies are perfectly defensible—she thinks she’s serving the greater good—but they make her wholly unreliable on the question of whether or not Alderaan really is peaceful and defenseless,” Last writes. This fountain of madness might be the funniest thing that’s emerged from the trailer reveal so far.

Inventiveness is, indeed, a lot to ask for from a blockbuster, and an interesting third act might be an even higher bar to clear. Maybe The Force Awakens ends with our heroes trying to take down the planet-sized superweapon, just like the original Star Wars did, but honestly, every Marvel movie pretty much wraps up that way as well. There are definitely some moments that feel true to Abrams rather than the series he’s taking on—that trademark lens flare over Kylo Ren’s shoulder, that VFX wizardry that shows the Millennium Falcon tunneling through hyperspace—but what stuck out most prominently was the feeling of chaos, that apocalyptic vibe you mentioned.

In the original films, the Empire is pretty solidly in control, and its ships cruise around in imposing formations, while the Rebels always feel like they’re clinging to their one rickety hidey-hole, trying to stay one step ahead from death. Thirty years on, Abrams is giving us a galaxy wracked with violence and death. There’s Kylo Ren and his black-clad minions wreaking havoc in the rain, the chrome Stormtrooper Captain Phasma presiding over a burning village, TIE fighters careening out of control, and lots of open warfare, not the Rebel Alliance guerrilla tactics we remember so fondly. There’s some real boldness at work there, and a sense that Abrams is setting a table for three films, rather than just his own. The Force Awakens might lean on some Star Wars greatest hits to reel old fans back in, but after that’s accomplished, there’s much more work to be done.

Kornhaber: Great point about the way the scope and mood of this film might differ from all those that came before it. This is really the most exciting thing about Disney’s plans to create an ever-expanding cinematic universe: the chance to tell new kinds of tales in a familiar but fascinating setting. I’m reminded of the teaser for next winter’s Star Wars movie, Rogue One. The video’s just a shaky bootleg featuring an old Obi-Wan Kenobi voiceover, a long landscape shot, and a creepy remix of the John Williams score—and yet I’ve watched it dozens of times. It suggests Star Wars iconography infused with a sense of dread and desperation that hasn’t quite ever been at the center of a Lucasfilm before, and that’s intriguing.

There’s potential for The Force Awakens to test some of the precepts that are taken for granted in Star Wars mythology, and really in most mythologies. Just as Bill Kristol thinks the Empire wasn’t so bad, it appears that in the rebooted Star Wars universe there are people who pine for the days of order under Emperor Palpatine. How does that happen? What does that mean? I don’t want the Galaxy Far, Far Away to get the full Chris Nolan treatment, but a Star Wars where the moral stakes aren’t always straightforward, where recognizable creatures and characters and places can still serve up surprises, might be one worth keeping.