The Nostalgia Debate Around The Force Awakens

When is cinematic recycling too much?


The Atlantic’s David Sims and Spencer Kornhaber discuss two very different reactions to Star Wars: The Force Awakens. (Spoilers abound.)

Kornhaber: The most telling scene of The Force Awakens isn’t about Han Solo’s fate, or Rey’s powers, or BB8 and R2-D2 blooping and bleeping in harmony. It’s the scene where the First Order blows up the star system of The Republic, making for what must be the most significant atrocity ever seen in the Star Wars universe.

​The Republic, remember, is what the first six movies were about saving or recreating—a civilization that’s democratic and peaceful and not ruled by black-clothed guys with behavioral issues. Return of the Jedi ended with galaxy-wide celebration following the deaths of the Emperor and Darth Vader, implying a hopeful and freer society could then thrive. The Force Awakens snuffs out that dream midway through and then moves on, quickly. If it had dwelled on the moment, viewers might realize that the heartwarming tale of overcoming they remember from the original movies was just rendered a horrific tragedy.

This isn’t quite a Death Star-zaps-Alderaan situation where the rationale was immediately spelled out and its impact immediately seen on Leia’s face. By way of explanation, we get General Hux teutonically screaming that the Republic tolerates “disorder.” We hear Supreme Leader Snoke talk about destroying Resistance’s government backers. We also have the knowledge that the First Order works with the Dark Side, and the Dark Side generally isn’t a huge fan of peace and prosperity.

But after watching the movie, it feels like the most powerful reason for the Republic’s demolition is outside of the narrative. Rather than imagining what the post-Return of the Jedi civilization might have built over 30 years, J.J. Abrams wiped it out, resetting the game board to where it was in 1977: scrappy underdog fighters versus a ruthless fascist force.

Within the overwhelmingly positive reaction to The Force Awakens has been the common acknowledgement that Disney’s new take on the franchise is mostly made up of recycled parts. For a lot of people, this is a big part of the appeal. For others, it’s a filmmaking choice that carries a hint of cynicism but ends up being justified by the entertaining final product. For others—I’d say “just me” if I hadn’t seen a few other gripes along these lines—the lack of originality nearly kills the film. The Force Awakens feels, in some ways, like a betrayal of Star Wars, or a misreading of its essence. There’s nothing wrong with Abrams returning to the universe that the prequels seemed to completely ditch, the one of screaming TIE fighters and of actual human beings with feelings getting wrapped into an epic quest. But there’s something wrong with him returning only to wallow, with him almost completely declining to build anything new within it.

It might seem superficial to say, but a huge part of the original film’s greatness was the way that its production design served up something mindblowing and unfamiliar basically every five minutes. Whoa, laser swords! Whoa, a mechanical planet! Then in the subsequent films: Whoa, terrifying walking tanks! Whoa, a city in the clouds! Whoa, a disgusting slug gangster! Whoa, a mouth in the sand! Star Wars captured multiple generations’ imagination in large part because the filmmakers clearly had a very active one themselves.

For The Force Awakens, though, you have far more “ahhs” of recognition. Ahh, there are the TIE fighters, slapped with a new coat of paint. There’s the Death Star, bigger and snowier. Certainly, it’s cool that Kylo Ren has a modified Imperial transport that resembles an evil seagull. Certainly it’s cool that he has a hilted lightsaber. But those are just tweaks to old stuff. The few attempts at invention mostly did not demonstrate a whole ton of vision. Supreme Leader Snoke is Voldemort in a big throne. The Rathtars on the Millennium Falcon are another version of the monsters J.J. Abrams has in his other films—bug-like, tentacled, enormous, distractingly CGI. Maz Kanata was asking for comparisons to Yoda. The only element that actually got me excited about what another galaxy might look and feel like was Rey’s instant bread. Yum.

And then plotwise, the entire time we’re meant to be spotting the parallels to A New Hope. Rey is Luke, Han is Obi-Wan, and on and on. To an extent, this is nice because it gets back to Star Wars’s essential proposition: unlikely people can rise to greatness. But by so clearly aping the original’s story beats, it prevented much suspense. The assault on the Starkiller felt perfunctory, given that we’ve seen two versions of it before. And as soon as Han Solo went onto that long bridge with Kylo Ren, it seemed clear that Abrams and the co-writer Lawrence Kasdan were going for a nostalgic-climax twofer: A New Hope’s Obi-Wan death scene, and Empire Strikes Back “I am your father” confrontation. One way or another, Han was getting sabered.

There’s another problem that’s typical to 2015 blockbusters: story jankiness, caused by the need to set up other franchise properties. Common wisdom is that the prequels got bogged down in too much explanation and world-building, which is probably true (I’d argue those movies’ biggest problems were basic issues of filmmaking competency). But The Force Awakens didn’t only not bother to build a world; it took the old world and made it more confusing. The Resistance is a paramilitary force fighting on the Republic’s behalf but that’s maybe not actually part of the Republic because … Politics? Logistics? Tax benefits? Finn had a crisis of conscience that no other Trooper had because … the Force? R2-D2 randomly woke up because … the Force? Maz ended up with Luke’s lightsaber because … the Force? These things aren’t trivia: You need a working theory about them to understand the plot. But the film decided to turn these questions into cliffhangers for the sequels, or—I suspect in some of the lesser cases—grist for associated novels, comic books, TV shows, and video games. (Indeed, the relationship between all the proper noun organizations in the movie apparently was explained in some recent official novels).

I know it feels like I’m quibbling, especially when the reaction to the movie has been so widely positive. It’s true that the acting, the banter, and the effects were all great. But I think conceptually, Abrams and co. played things safe in a way that feels untrue to the originals, and the results feel hollow—the movie’s less an odyssey to another universe than a reminder of the calculations that rule our own. David, I know you were happy. Can you tell me what I missed?

David Sims: Spencer, when we chatted about our reactions to the film on Friday morning, I deployed a ham-fisted metaphor. Imagine George Lucas had built something beautiful in 1977: a work of art, a grand piece of architecture, whatever; then, years later, he defaced it, basically blew it to smithereens, with his godforsaken prequels. With The Force Awakens, J.J. Abrams is tasked with restoring that desecrated temple to its former glory, so that new generations can enjoy it. This is a work of nostalgia, to be sure. At times, it reeks of corporate approval, steering clear of any crazy new concepts that might rock the boat as Disney sets its multi-billion-dollar franchise acquisition out to sea. But I think it had to be done, to give this world a chance to recover from the many wrongs done to it.

What’s new about The Force Awakens? Why, this new cast we’ve assembled—there’s not a bum note to be found in the work of John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Adam Driver, and most of all Daisy Ridley, who turns out to be the no-kidding lead of this franchise, a twist I hadn’t expected. So much of the marketing had focused around Boyega’s ex-stormtrooper Finn, whom I expected to be a Luke Skywalker analogue, with Rey (Ridley) as the hard-scrabble, tinkering Han Solo type. Though this movie is indeed a remix of many of the original Star Wars’s story beats, there’s no exact analogues to be found in these characters—everyone’s a little bit of everything, and especially in the film’s first (and strongest) act, they’re all just so darn excited to be part of a Star Wars movie.

That’s the thrill I thought Abrams captured really well as he dropped in references to the old films, bit by bit. As Rey and Finn get on the Millennium Falcon, meet Han Solo, and get swept up into the Resistance (which is just the rebranded Rebel Alliance), they’re as wide-eyed and goofy as any Star Wars fan might be, and that enthusiasm helps carry the film through its wobbly mid-section where everyone starts showing up (Leia! C-3PO! Ackbar!) and momentum is gathered for the big climax, which feels the most ripped off from A New Hope. There’s dogfighting, there’s a trench run, there’s the destruction of a superweapon, and there’s an emotional lightsaber battle. The film is echoing the past, for sure, and there’s times where it feels rote. But it pulls it off mostly because it’s introduced great new characters into the mix. The world is restored, the tactile sense of the Star Wars universe is back after a decade of CGI prequels, and now there’s a whole new cast to play around in it.

To answer a few of your specific criticisms, some of which I agree with: The destruction of the Republic feels entirely half-assed, the same trick Abrams pulled in his Star Trek movie where he imploded the planet Vulcan to make his rebooted world different from what came before. Here, it’s even worse, because like you say, he’s just maintaining the chaos we know from the original trilogy, a battle between Rebels and Empire, without a central government or thoroughly changed world. Starkiller Base is the movie’s least impressive idea, and everything around it feels equally unimpressive. Snoke, indeed, is a Voldemort clone with no definitive purpose other than to be vaguely evil—I hope he isn’t this series’ ultimate villain. And yes, there are plenty of coincidences. But that’s something these movies have always done. The Force! It’s out there! Floating around! Nudging the right people into the right places! Getting our heroes into the soup and enjoying the final result!

Kornhaber: You’re right that Finn and Rey are refreshing additions to Star Wars. Any sequel set 30 years later would need new protagonists; Abrams & co. dreamed up good ones. Rey, especially, seems like an instantly iconic work of writing and acting. I loved how every single time someone went to rescue her, she had already saved herself. I also loved how much appreciation she showed for Finn, despite how bumbling his efforts sometimes were.

But even when it came to these great new heroes, I was distracted by a feeling of sketchiness around their motivations. Why exactly is Finn so drawn to Rey? Remember: He approaches her, a stranger, as she’s being accosted, and he later risks the fate of the entire galaxy by lying about his own Starkiller expertise in the hopes of saving her. We are left, again, to make guesses about very basic things: Finn has bonded to Rey because (a) the Force told him to and/or (b) having been raised in semi-isolation, he formed a birdling-like attachment to the first humanoid he made eye contact with outside of the First Order.

And it’s theoretically a neat inversion to have Rey desperately want to stay on Jakku instead of making like Luke by trying to escape her boring, dusty planet. But whereas Luke’s journey was about losing everything and then seizing the opportunity to move on and make something of himself, Rey has surprisingly little control over the plot. Scene-to-scene, she’s a badass, the kind who can overpower Kylo Ren without any real training. But her overarching narrative throughout the movie is about being either pursued or kidnapped (and then escaping and surviving). She wants to go nowhere except home—except for at the end, when she meets up with Luke. I suppose you could argue that this is a more realistic depiction of what it would take for someone to uproot their life and try and become an intergalactic hero. But it also contributes to the feeling that the plot moves mostly because of the story requirements of the screenwriters—aided by the catchall plot powers of the Force—rather than because of the decisions of characters with defined goals.

Sims: What I love in this film is the idea of a makeshift family being formed, an echo of the first film but one of the faintest. In Star Wars, Leia is already a hardened Rebel commander, Solo is a salty space dog in his 30s, and Luke is the only wide-eyed innocent, cast into a dangerous world and a movement he gets swept up in. Here, the three main characters have all been ripped from their families. Finn was raised from babyhood to be a brainwashed Stormtrooper. Rey is waiting for the people who abandoned her on Jakku, believing a lie she’s told herself so many times it’s become the truth (that they’re going to return). Kylo Ren, the son of Han Solo and Leia (gasp!), the grandson of Vader, and the former apprentice of Luke, is tortured with the weight of that legacy. The force that’s pulling Finn and Rey together is that need for family, that desire to not be alone—and that’s the same force Kylo is seemingly resisting.

Man, just thinking about Kylo Ren gets me excited to see this movie again. Compare him to the prequels, where George Lucas had three bites at the apple to try and create a similar character, a powerful Jedi crushed by the burden of expectation (Anakin Skywalker). He came off as a soggy dweeb when he was supposed to be tormented. Kylo Ren’s tantrums feel like privileged whining, to be sure, but there’s real edge and fear and weight to Adam Driver’s performance, and his climactic decision with Han Solo, his turn to true darkness, feels much more earned. Abrams has returned to those simple storytelling beats that Lucas once used well, then used badly, and the notes are familiar—but they’re still well-played.

Kornhaber: Oh, damn: “The force that’s pulling Finn and Rey together is that need for family, that desire to not be alone—and that’s the same force Kylo is seemingly resisting.” That’s good stuff, and probably even true! I saw the movie again on Sunday, and this time I noticed how the script itself seemed to acknowledge its own implausibilities. When the two young heroes start squealing to one another about their unlikely success piloting the Millennium Falcon, or when Rey puffs, “That was lucky” after saving Finn from Rathtars, it’s both an example of Abrams making like lots of other 2015 filmmakers and going meta, and also of the characters paying attention to what’s going on around them. It got to the point that when the ground opened up between Kylo and Rey after their big lightsaber battle, the deus ex machina didn’t feel cheap at all. It would be weirder if, after all it had done up until then, the universe suddenly decided not to intervene.

I definitely agree that this movie is a nice corrective to the prequels in that it offers compelling human beings to root for and against, and it keeps the action going. I think that most of the things that I disliked can be seen as corrections, too, but overcorrections: Instead of the CGI future-shock of the early aughts, we got a slick nostalgia product that’s perfect for the era of peak reboots. It is, indeed, just a movie; it does, indeed, set up a trilogy that could go any number of places. I just hope they are places that Star Wars hasn’t been before.