This past week, I watched The Force Awakens and Rogue One, two of the most recent Star Wars movies. They both had a very different feel from the originals as well as each other.
Rogue One is a gritty war story. It follows Jyn Erso, the daughter of the engineer who designed the Death Star, and Cassian Andor, a Rebel agent who is sent on a mission with her. In contrast with the original Star Wars movies, the Rebellion comes across much more ruthless and willing to go to unpleasant lengths to win. There’s the more extremist faction that is outright blowing up streets filled with civillians, but even the more reasonable faction is not above using a young woman to find and kill her father, while hiding from her what the true purpose of the mission is. I ended up not liking Rogue One very much. For a movie that tried so hard to emphasize that “rebellions are built on hope”, the picture it paints is such a bleak one. While they do successfully get the Death Star plans to the Rebels, they do so through what is essentially a suicide mission which not one main character survives. The battles seemed endless, the characters were missed opportunities with huge unexplored potential, and the world seemed so hopeless it’s almost impossible to believe in the hope the characters talk about – at least right up to the final scene, and by then it’s too little, too late.
It’s not a bad movie. The CGI is crisp and beautiful, the alien planets creative without being unbelievable, and the story gives more credibility and realism to A New Hope, explaining how they got to that point and just how much was sacrificed to give the Rebels a chance at victory. I won’t even try to judge whether it was a good Star Wars movie, one that stays true to the tone and spirit of the franchise. I’ve been pretty open about the fact that I’m watching these movies not as a fan but as a skeptic – someone who has never seen them before and never had much interest beyond mild curiosity. But I will say that to me, personally, it was one of my least favorites. It was slick, polished, and well-made, but it failed to hold my interest or win my sympathy.
The Force Awakens is almost exactly the opposite. It’s not a unique or original movie. The plot is almost exactly the same as the plot of A New Hope, which itself follows the same hero’s journey commonly seen in myth and fantasy. From a droid carrying critical information, to a backwater desert world, to a weapon capable of destroying whole planets, huge pieces of the plot are copied and pasted into a different part of the timeline, and even the new characters mirror the old ones in many ways. I can’t say I thought it was the objective best, and it was perhaps the least original. However, despite all that, I loved it. It might even be my favorite.
On a plot level, the movie is A New Hope 2.0, but on a character level, it’s something totally unique. Both Rey and Finn come from unfortunate beginnings but refuse to let their circumstances in life control them. Rey, who was abandoned in the desert at a young age, has learned to survive and fend for herself, but she has not become cynical or hardened. This is her strength, and why Kylo Ren finds it so hard to turn her to the dark side: she holds onto hope like a lifeline and does not lose faith no matter how impossible her situation seems. She’s the sort of person who saves a droid from being destroyed for spare parts, lets it follow her home, and makes it her mission to return it to the Resistance when she realizes what’s at stake. Meanwhile, Finn is a former Stormtrooper who was brainwashed from a young age and trained to be a merciless killing machine, but rebels after being ordered to shoot at unarmed civilians. He turns out to be gentle, caring, and fiercely protective of those he considers friends. He doesn’t believe the First Order can be defeated and yet still finds the courage to go against them. Both characters are who they are not because of their circumstances but in spite of them, and they both seem a bit out of place, swept up in the story against their will and wanting to go their own ways, but eventually choosing to fight – not for the Resistance at first, but for each other.
Kylo Ren is essentially the opposite, someone who clearly should have been a hero: son of Han and Leia, trained by Luke Skywalker, and still “tempted” by the Light side even after choosing the Dark Side instead. It’s fascinating, in a way. The Dark Side is supposed to be seductive, difficult to resist, and nearly impossible to come back from. Yet Kylo Ren seems to view the Light side in much the same way and is willing to go to extreme lengths, even killing his own father, in order to resist it. In that way, he’s the exact opposite of Luke Skywalker in Return of the Jedi.
The framework of the story is a familiar one, but the pieces fall into place in new ways and for new reasons. Does it feel unrealistic for history to repeat itself so neatly? Yeah. It does. It did take me out of the story a little to constantly be going, “OK, so he’s sending the map away with a droid, just like Leia hiding the Death Star plans in R2D2”, and I’m sure that feeling would have been even stronger for longtime fans who have seen the original movie many times.
Like I said, it’s not a flawless movie. But in a way, I feel like the copied-and-pasted plot worked exactly as it was supposed to: providing a familiar framework for a new story, allowing the focus to be on developing the new characters and exploring the new time period. There were few surprises in the plot, but that just served to give the character-driven twists greater weight.