Monday, January 4, 2016

Force Awakens: Sequel or Reboot?

If you’re reading this article, posted several weeks after the hype of the film’s launch, then I’m assuming you’ve seen The Force Awakens. This is good, for here there be spoilers. I’ll go one step further, even, and assume your acquiescence to the following statement: Force Awakens was pretty dang sweet.

But it’s far from original.  

J.J. Abrams’ addition to the much beloved franchise proves itself a visually and narratively compelling installment in the goofy, kinetic, pop mythology that is Star Wars. But is it too familiar, even for a sequel?

The film begins with a protagonist secreting a valuable item away into a droid before glossy, white storm troopers arrive, a laser fight ensues, and as the troopers secure dominance of the battlefield, a dark-cloth-clad villain arrives on seeking the shuttled away information, killing one of the resistance fighters to intimidate his way into our minds as the resident baddy.

Sound familiar?

What about an orphaned, Force-sensitive ace pilot escaping from a desert planet to help a resistance movement on the Millennium Falcon? A plot that revolves around the retrieval of a droid containing information desired by a resistance group and an undeniably Nazi-esque force? A panning cantina scene showcasing a number of alien species hanging out in a bar to jazzy music? What about a giant, habitable, planet-destroying superweapon that can be destroyed by . . . well, you know.  
From the opening scene to the final, flashy showdown, Force Awakens mirrors many plot points and themes of 1977’s A New Hope. At some point you stop wondering if they were making references for the nostalgic fun and start thinking they have a quota to meet. Perhaps, after the bloated fiasco that was the prequel trilogy, the new mouse-eared owners wanted to ensure audiences of their return to the tried and true?

Star Wars has always exceeded at bringing droids to life
through nonverbal communication, and BB-8 is no exception.
But the many callbacks have been deemed weak and distracting by some critics. David Roberts of Vox says the film’s reliance on the original trilogy for its plot quickly departs from cozy nostalgia and ventures into narrative laziness.

“But where A New Hope's pastiche drew from a dizzying array of sources, The Force Awakens' draws mostly from Star Wars itself,” Roberts writes. “There's comfort in that familiarity, a powerful nostalgic satisfaction, but it makes for a closed loop — a cloistered, self-referential product.” The parallels are so numerous and blatant that the film borders parody at times, he adds.

According to Todd VanDerWerff, “the most consistent criticism of Star Wars: The Force Awakens has been that it's a baldfaced rip-off of the original Star Wars.”

They’re right. But Force Awakens is not a bad film. As Roberts admits, the film follows some great characters with admirable economy - it copied a good film, after all. It’s just a very familiar movie that skirts the line between a sequel and another type of film with which cinema-goers today are quite familiar: the reboot.

The current owner of all things “my childhood,” Disney seems to have applied the lessons learned making Marvel films to the galaxy far far away. Unlike adaptations of novels, adaptations of comic book characters allow for much more freedom in the exploration of their stories, including continual retellings. This is due in part to the nature of comics themselves.

Batman has been around since 1939, though his origins and adventures have been reimagined countless times in comics themselves, TV shows, movies and video games. With some core elements in tact like the death of his parents and his rule against killing, Batman can take the form of whatever kind of story the culture and generation of the time demands. Just think of the difference between the Adam West camp and the dark realism of Nolan’s trilogy.

Even outside the superhero genre, the remake is becoming a theater regular. Creed is both a Rocky sequel and a remake of the original (a damn good one, though). 2016 will see a remake of Ghostbusters wherein the team roster will be completely female. For some reason, Point Break got a remake...

Given the climate, it’s not unreasonable to think Disney may have snuck us a reboot disguised as a sequel. They have good cause to do so: plans to create a single, media-spanning “universe” akin to the MCU are already underway, so it seems right that they ground it all with a quasi-remake of the phenomenon that started it all. So rather than disparaging the film as a sequel with intentional callbacks, let’s evaluate it as a revision.

Reboots are opportunities for revision, and in many ways (even after we adjust for the improvement of special effects over 40 years), the revisions made for Force Awakens work very well.

It’s in the casting that we have our first revision. Like the trilogy before it, Force Awakens boasts a trinity of protagonists, but this time, they aren’t all white. It’s certainly not inconsequential that Disney put their box office breaking franchise in the hands of people who aren’t primarily white males (here’s looking at you, Marvel), but rather reflect a truly diverse audience. While an artifact of the age, it’s an appreciated alteration.

More importantly, these new characters seem to have more agency than in A New Hope. Rather than spend time on backstory, Abrams makes the intelligent decision of letting character actions tell us about these people with whom we’re spending two hours.

Whereas Luke left Tatooine only after his family was killed leaving him with no tethers to a place he already wanted to leave, Rey struggles with leaving Jakku. She gets involved out of an act of selflessness (protecting BB-8 from the scrapper and later refusing to sell him to Plutt), in contrast to Luke’s obligation and adolescent curiosity. In the midst of the adventure she’s offered a job by a man she considered myth, yet she wishes to return home in the hope that her family will return for her. She rejects the lightsaber in Maz’s basement, and with it the Force’s call to responsibility. She’s a reluctant hero who must eventually accept the reality of her past and choose to move forward. It took Luke three films to achieve the same degree of development.

Han’s analog is more direct. Fin’s moral awakening realizes itself in his refusal to commit acts of violence for the First Order and later desert the only lifestyle he’s ever known. Like Han, he spends much of the film running. Fin wants to escape the reach of the First Order, and Han needs to outrun his debt collectors. And like Han, he eventually chooses to run towards something good, so to speak, rather than away (mind you, a beautiful woman influenced both decisions).

The revision here is Fin’s obsession about his fear. Whereas Han played the cool “means to an end” scoundrel, Fin isn’t willing to run towards the danger at all. He chooses to leave Rey when she refuses his offer to run away with him. And later, when he does choose to face his fear, he does so directly - Han never sought a confrontation with Jabba and the bounty hunters after him, but expected solace from his pursuers among the rebels. This quibble doesn’t necessarily make Fin “better” than, Han, for Han’s behavior rang completely coherent with his character, but Fin’s choice does seem immediately more heroic.

Even Kylo Ren’s actions seem weightier than his respirative counterpart. This tantrum-prone, half-baked villain's inner conflict allows for choice, the outcome of which furthers his tragedy. In order for him to truly commit to the Dark Side, he had to do something so awful that he could never be pulled back by the light - never be forgiven. He had to kill the voice of authority in his head: his father.

It’s a more nuanced situation, and regardless of your feelings about the emo nature of the new antagonist, the added room for character development allows audiences the opportunity to explore the subtleties of the Force as they relate to mindsets and spiritual-emotional states.

And let’s not forget the Force as a character here, because it is in fact more of a character than ever before. The film’s title refers to more than the fact that after a hiatus, the franchise has returned. In this film, the Force plays a role of fate or Providence, almost, orchestrating events and operating in those sensitive to its pull. How else would a boy raised from early childhood come to find the acts for which he’s been programmed his entire life disgusting? How serendipitous that Rey - the new Luke - happens upon BB-8, which leads her to the Millennium Falcon, which brings her to Maz and Luke’s lightsaber. Coincidence isn’t new to the franchise, but here they seem more prevalent, and being the universe that it is, we get to attribute them to a ubiquitous, “binding” force rather than lazy writing.

One standout departure from established (cinematic) mythology is the official introduction of what was for many the other half of an assumed dichotomy: the “light side” of the Force. Never before was this a defined element of the universe as established by the films; always it was just the Force and the Dark Side of the Force, each with their acolytes, Jedi and Sith respectively.

This is no small matter. The introduction of the “light side” significantly alters the theology of the Force, if you will. The franchise has always balanced eastern and western traditions, the nature of the Force ringing decidedly more western with the Force being inherently good as the natural state of the world, and the Dark Side being a perversion of that natural state - a falling from grace, if you will. Giving a name to the Light Side legitimizes Dark Side of the Force as a natural component of the universe - more of an eastern, Yin Yang relationship. This is neither good nor bad, really, but it is different.

Finally, we would be remiss to not discuss a revision to one of the most infamous elements of the franchise: stormtrooper aim. Whereas in the original these dudes didn’t come off as terribly frightening by the end of the film due to their comical accuracy with a blaster, Abrams’ stormtroopers don’t miss nearly as often. The shots are quick, deliberate and deadly, a trio of adjectives that significantly increase the tension established by their presence, despite the fact that we all know they probably won’t cause any real harm to our hero trio.

As a revision, the largest failing of the film is the handling of the First Order. Whereas the other aspects of the film can be accepted as reboot and sequel simultaneously, the en medias res approach to a geopolitical struggle in a world in which viewers are, for the most part, already significantly interested cheats them of the resolutions from the previous installments.

It worked in A New Hope because we knew nothing of the world beyond the story of a young pilot who wanted to save a princess. Now we know that the Empire, established upon Palpatine’s machinations within the old Republic, fell after great effort, but all the sudden a terrorist organization somehow in possession of the Empire’s resources has risen to power, and the Republic supports a resistance movement (which is separate from the official “fleet”) headed by Leia to confront the First Order. What?! What are the First Order’s goals? How did they secure so much power? Not explaining these elements cheapens the experience rooted in the preceding films.

But mostly, as a reboot - as revision - the film works. It reestablishes what we love about Star Wars by taking us back to basics while setting up a universe ripe for exploration through other films, TV shows, books and videogames. As a reboot, Force Awakens honors the franchise, admitting a need to start over, but seeing no better place to start than its own origin. Yet, as a sequel, by involving the original trinity of heroes, it connects itself to and legitimizes the events that preceded it (mostly).

Unless Disney makes the mistake of duplicating Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi for the next two films in this series, fans will more than likely look back on this installment rather fondly, even if it just polished an old starship rather than build us a new one from scrap.