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.