In a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter J.J. Abrams addressed criticisms that The Force Awakens is derivative of A New Hope. This is one of my larger disappointments with the The Force Awakens. The answer he gave was, well, lackluster and didn't really address the situation.
I should reiterate that I actually quite liked The Force Awakens. It's a good movie. But the similarity to A New Hope is one of my disappointments. There are some things that stand out to me in the interview that need addressing.
The full quotes are available on The Hollywood Reporter website.
"Star Wars is a kind of specific gorgeous concoction of George [Lucas]'s — that combines all sorts of things. Ultimately the structure of Star Wars itself is as classic and tried and true as you can get. It was itself derivative of all of these things that George loved so much, from the most obvious, Flash Gordon and Joseph Campbell, to the [Akira] Kurosawa references, to Westerns — I mean, all of these elements were part of what made Star Wars..."
Abrams opens with this statement arguing that a New Hope was itself a derivative work. The thrust of the argument being that this is the nature of Star Wars. Essentially, you can't single out The Force Awakens for being in a "a genre comfort zone" when A New Hope did the same thing. The thing is, this isn't really true. And to an extent suggests that Abrams doesn't really understand the criticism.
Yes A New Hope was influenced by earlier works that Lucas enjoyed. But this is how art works - new artists take what they found enjoyable from earlier works, and build on them to make new unique art. Without Black Sabbath we wouldn't have Metallica. Without Bram Stokers Dracula we wouldn't have Interview with the Vampire. Without William Shakespeare's Hamlet we wouldn't have The Lion King. It could be said that all of these works derived from their predecessors, yet none would be considered derivative of their predecessors.
Likewise, Lucas's passion for the old Flash Gordon series may have influenced him to do an action sci-fi film. His interest in Japanese Samurai films may have been the inspiration for the Jedi. And westerns may have been the inspiration for the farm-boy turned hero story. But you can't say the Jedi were directly taken from Akira Kurosawa. Or that the assault on the death star was copied from Flash Gordon.
There is no previous work that you can point to and say 'well A New Hope is just a retelling of this other movie with a sci-fi skin over the top'. A New Hope is its own unique experience. It borrowed ideas from those earlier works, but it built on them and made something completely different. It was a new experience.
"What was important for me was introducing brand new characters using relationships that were embracing the history that we know to tell a story that is new — to go backwards to go forwards. So I understand that this movie... needed to take a couple of steps backwards into very familiar terrain, and using a structure of nobodies becoming somebodies defeating the baddies which is, again, I would argue, not a brand new concept, admittedly — but use that to do, I think, a far more important thing, which is introduce this young woman... [and] the first Storm Trooper we've ever seen who we get to know as a human being; to see the two of them have an adventure in a way that no one has had yet, with Han Solo..."
"...Yes, the bones of [The Force Awakens] we always knew would be a genre comfort zone, but what the thing looks like — we all have a skeleton that looks somewhat similar, but none of us look the same. To me, the important thing was not, 'What are the bones of this thing?' To me, it was meeting new characters who discover themselves that they are in a universe that is spiritual and that is optimistic, in a world where you meet people that will become your family."
I don't think anyone is arguing that The Force Awakens doesn't add anything new to Star Wars. I would even go as far to say that Kylo Ren is the best addition to the film franchise, well, since A New Hope. And the new film needed to focus on the new characters - no complaints there. The new characters are very well done.
And, yea, the story of a pauper rising to greatness was centuries old before Lucas told it. Agreed. But everyone understands that the everyman is the literary device trough which modern science fiction and fantasy stories are told. No one is arguing that you should avoid centuries old story telling archetypes that are considered fundamental to modern film making. But to say that "the bones" of the story are the same, or that the film is in a "genre comfort zone" is completely underselling just how similar the two films are.
While Lucas may have taken the concept of the samurai and used it as the inspiration for the Jedi - The Force Awakens goes almost as far as it can in what it takes from A New Hope.
The setting is the same, the general environments are the same, the themes explored are the same, and Ray is Luke Skywalker. But if that is where it ended that would be fine. The major problem for me is that it replicates so many scenes from A New Hope. Maybe 80% of The Force Awakens is taken directly from the earlier film, to the point that in many ways the The Force Awakens could be considered an almost scene for scene retelling of a New Hope. And the scenes that are unique to The Force Awakens are fall of call backs to the earlier film.
Take any major scene from The Force Awakens, and there is either a corresponding scene in A New Hope where pretty much the exact same thing happened, or A New Hope is referenced in some way.
It's good that you wanted to Rey and Finn to be relatable, and it's fine that you felt that the best way to do that was through a rags to riches story. But did Ray really need to live on a desert planet? Did BB-8 need to be given the secrete data? Did Maz Kanata's cantina really need to look like the Yavin 4 base? Did Han Solo's death actually have to be thematically the same as Ben Kenobi's? Did we really need another death star trench run?
"...yes, they destroy a weapon at the end of this movie, but then something else happens which is, I think, far more critical and far more important — and I think even in that moment, when that is happening, the thing I think the audience is focused on and cares more about is not, 'Is that big planet gonna blow up?' — 'cause we all know it's gonna blow up. What you really care about is what's gonna happen in the forest between these two characters who are now alone."
The end battle between Ray, Finn and Kylo Ren was fantastic. Easily my favourite part of the film. The characters, the visuals, the audio, it all came together to make a perfect lightsaber battle.
But did it need to take place on yet another death star? With a countdown to the weapon firing and destroying the rebel, ahem resistance, base? While the resistance leadership huddled around a circular table watching the countdown? With an X-wing assault targeting the one weak spot in the battle station? With yet another trench run?
Could we not have had a different scenario?
This doesn't make The Force Awakens a bad film, but it is a bit disappointing. Ultimately what I wanted was a sequel to the original trilogy. A new story that added to the saga, and told of what happened to the rebellion as it formed in to the New Republic. I think this was a fair expectation - when you go to a sequel film you want to see more of what you enjoyed about the earlier films, you want it expanded upon. You don't want to see the exact same film over again with a new coat of paint.
But The Force Awakens is more of a remake or soft reboot. It's the same film as A New Hope, and it feels like it. I came away with the sensation that I had seen this all before. That this story had already been done. That some scenes were straight up copies of the previous film. Everything is bigger and shinier. But it feels derivative.
And the worst thing is that the film almost goes out of its way to not add to the mythology of Star Wars. It doesn't tell you what is going on. What the state of the galaxy is. Why the New Republic is relying on the resistance. What the conflict is about.
The new characters are great. But the universe feels neglected.
What did Abrams Expect?
In the end I don't really understand why Abrams didn't see this coming.
For starters it's not like Star Wars is a forgotten franchise from decades ago that no one really remembers. If anything Star Wars has the most dedicated of fan bases. Even the casual fans have their favourite lines committed to memory. While many people of my generation grew up watching the original trilogy countless times. It is impossible that the similarity between the two films was going to go unnoticed.
And to be honest, sequels that have done this sort of thing in the past have also been called out as being derivative, and have suffered because of it. Ahem. Ghostbusters 2. Ahem. There is a history of fan reaction here.
Not to mention that it is no secrete that people are getting sick of remakes and reboots. People are getting tired of the same old stories being polished up and sold back to them. A fact that Abrams should have been extra aware of being that one of the biggest complaints that came out of the Star Trek community about Star Trek: Into Darkness was that it was derivative of The Wrath a Khan. Star Wars has a larger fan base than Star Trek, and The Force Awakens is far more derivative of A New Hope than Into Darkness is of Star Trek 2. A larger fan reaction should have been obvious.