Star Wars: The Force Awakens has been out for a week of public consumption now, and there have been reviews, a lot of them very positive. I’ve even written my own spoiler-free review, and I’m planning to write a more spoilery one after I see the movie again tomorrow.
Incidentally, this review will likely contain spoilers and links to reviews with spoilers, so if you haven’t seen the movie yet and care about it not being spoiled, then don’t read on.
However, you should also note that part of my argument here is that “spoiling” a story like Star Wars is kind of a silly idea. And it all has to do with C. S. Lewis and Joseph Campbell.
Star Wars Redux
The repeated complaint by some reviewers has been that The Force Awakens is little more than the story of A New Hope re-told. Take this review at Vice for example:
Clearly, Force Awakens is far from the worst Star Wars movie, but it might actually be the least interesting. In some ways, the triumph of this, Star Wars 2.0—and its predictable, nostalgia-reliant, repackaged thrills—is a defeat for what made the trilogy extraordinary in the first place—its madcap sci-fi originality and genre-bending experimentation.
Force Awakens is the most derivative Star War; as some commenters have pointed out, it’s almost a scene-by-scene remake of A New Hope. At first that’s a huge relief (no prequel-scale disaster in sight) and exciting, even. We watch imperial troops from a galactic empire pursue a robot with stolen plans across a desert planet and into the care of a young loner with mysterious powers who was then aided by a wisecracking smuggler and his space ape in a seedy interstellar tavern where cheerful aliens play catchy orbital music, and we all grin wide.
But by the time the Rebellion/Resistance is blowing up the third incarnation of the Death Star in almost as many films, doesn’t the Force seem to be contracting a bit? We’ve been here so, so many times. And that’s to say nothing of the host of callbacks to past plot points, cameos from beloved characters from the original films, and the familiar John Williams crescendos.
In the facts, this review is quite right. While I would disagree with it being a shot-for-shot remake, the major beats of the story hit at the same time, and it certainly has plenty of character, setting and situational parallels with the first movie – though the parallels work themselves out in different ways.
However, I disagree strongly with the subjective claims of reviews like this one that The Force Awakens is therefore derivative drivel. It is, of course, derivative insofar as it derives its characters, history, and storyline from the original story, but then the “original” Star Wars did exactly the same thing with previous stories. But I’ll get into that more later.
The biggest problem with such reviews is that they don’t actually understand the type of story they are reviewing. From the beginning, George Lucas has called Star Wars a myth. In a very real sense, then, because of all its similarities in structure, characterization, and elsewhere, The Force Awakens is also necessarily a myth.
Thus, in reviewing The Force Awakens, one must know how to look at mythology. Unfortunately, that’s a skill that many people seem to have lost. They might read Odyssey or Beowulf or other mythological tales in high school English, but few people seem to understand that the evolution of myths and fairy tales has long been about retelling the same story over and over again.
One Myth to Rule Them All
In the middle of the last century, a relatively obscure academic came up with a theory that changed the way we view the idea of mythology. In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell described his idea of the hero’s journey, saying that the same story seems to pop up many times throughout history in many different cultures. This singular mythology, or “monomyth,” varies in the details, but the storylines and plot beats are the same throughout, and even many of the same characters make appearances throughout different versions of the story.
Pretty much since it came out, Star Wars has been held up as a prime example of Campbellian monomyth. Luke’s story is a classic hero’s journey, as he leaves Tatooine with Obi-Wan, joins the resistance, learns how to use the Force, and eventually blows up the Death Star.
Of course, the flip side here is that, being part of the monomyth, Star Wars is pretty darn derivative in its own right. In fact, in the original pitch for a space movie, George Lucas wanted to make a Flash Gordon film. When the studios told him no, he just changed the names of characters and places, but kept the desire to make a film that basically followed the popular science fantasy television show.
Not that Star Wars ended up being simply another Flash Gordon story with a thin veneer. There were subsequent rewrites, and Lucas relied on other influences such as Kurasawa’s The Hidden Fortress on which to draw inspiration. Nonetheless, the concept of a hero’s journey remained central to the story, and like myths that came before, it was only a difference in details that made it a new story.
However, even some of the details weren’t all that novel to Lucas’ story. For example, the entire attack on the first Death Star in Star Wars is nearly a ripoff of a 1955 British film called The Dam Busters, which chronicles the Royal Air Force’s attack on German dams during WWII. This video shows the paralleling scenes in a way that will make you wonder how on Jakku this sort of artistic theft could have been allowed.
This isn’t just a case of similar stories: According to the official Star Wars website, one of the special effects guys for The Dam Busters was Gilbert Taylor, who went on to become cinematographer for Star Wars. Of course, given the dialogue, it’s clear that Lucas must have approved of the parallels themselves.
My point here isn’t to say that the original Star Wars movie is terrible because it it was derivative, but that it was excellent despite its derivation. The review above extols the “madcap sci-fi originality and genre-bending experimentation” of the first Star Wars movie, without so much as a nod to the ideas, settings and characters it heartily stole from elsewhere.
Such tropic theft has always been the thrust of literary art. In fact, it’s only in the last century or so that the practice has been panned. Shakespeare, Milton, et al didn’t care about the fact that they took their stories from historical and literary sources, nor did their audiences. They packed their plays and poems with references that they wanted people to recognize and discuss. Heck, as my podcasting partner Kat Sas recently reminded me, many authors from centuries past even tried to convince people that original ideas belonged to older (and, therefore, presumably more trustworthy) authorities.
Reviewers today seem intent on criticizing a story if it is somehow not completely original. Since no story can be completely original, though, such complaints aren’t really criticism at all – they’re cynicism.
Opt for Surprisingness Over Surprise
Originality is hard to come by, because it can only happen once. You can’t be surprised, at least not truly, by something you’ve experienced already. As C. S. Lewis wrote in his essay “On Stories,” the quality of unexpectedness in literature has nothing to do with the shock of discovering something initially. Using the metaphor of walking a second time through a garden, he writes:
In the only sense that matters the surprise works as well the twentieth time as the first. It is the quality of unexpectedness, not the fact that delights us. It is even better the second time. Knowing that the ‘surprise’ is coming we can now fully relish the fact that this path through the shrubbery doesn’t look as it it were suddenly going to bring us out on the edge of the cliff. So in literature.
Applying this to The Force Awakens, the greatness of the story has nothing to do with how dissimilar the planets or characters or settings of the story are to its predecessor(s). Rather, it has to do with the ability of the story to engage you in its own historical and narrative contexts. In that sense, as I stated in my non-spoiler review, I think The Force Awakens stands up very well. It is repetitive and derivative, but then so is everything else.
The real question is, how does it hold up to a second viewing? Will it retain a “quality of unexpectedness”? That’s a different question than asking if it does something new. In one sense, it’s asking whether the story is told well enough to believe that the characters themselves are surprised, even if we know what’s coming.
I don’t know yet, as I’ve still only seen it once. It may not have any sort of surprisingness in the end, and in that case I will be the first to offer such a criticism. But that is a much different criticism than “it’s not new.” Because nothing is really new, nor can it be. So let’s stop pretending that novelty is a goal anyone should be trying to achieve.