9 months after its release, nearly every member of the vaunted film-going public has seen J.J. Abrams’ mega-blockbuster Star Wars: The Force Awakens (a.k.a. Star Wars 7). Almost all of those people, even ones who loved the film, noted one obvious and unavoidable point: that the film, in the words of a must-read review by Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times, “reproduces George Lucas’ original 1977 movie slavishly almost to the point of plagiarism.”
Still, while everyone has heard that Star Wars 7 is essentially a modernized carbon-copy of A New Hope, I haven’t seen much commentary on what that means. By repeating the 1977 classic, Star Wars 7 provides a rare opportunity for a substitution analysis, to see what kind of studio trends predominate today. Here are the three biggest ones I noticed from a recent second viewing.
1. Louder, Faster, Dumber
An article in The Economist from the time of The Force Awakens’ release calls Disney “the market leader in the industrialization of mythology,” for having added Pixar, Marvel, and now LucasFilm to its agglomeration of culture-creators. What does industrially produced mythology look like? In Star Wars 7, audiences have an answer.
While dutifully replicating the story structure of A New Hope, The Force Awakens makes proceedings generally faster and dumber. I’m not one of those folks that faults the original trilogy for lacking “moral ambiguity,” but even I was surprised at how over-the-top Episode 7‘s villains were. For a franchise that’s plucked so much Nazi imagery, The Force Awakens really hammers home the comparison with unprecedented stridency. Ian McDiarmid’s Emperor Palpatine has also been given the contemporary treatment, in the form of a 50′-tall Marvel-style CGI Gollum-creature.
Speaking of Marvel: in post-Marvel Cinematic Universe blockbusters, it’s not enough to blow up a planet anymore, so Star Wars 7 blows up an entire solar system. Unfortunately, given the breakneck pace, the film didn’t create any connection between the audience and the doomed planets. At the very least, A New Hope found the time for a few moments on the Death Star’s bridge for Princess Leah to communicate that she had loved ones on Alderaan. In contrast, no such context is offered in The Force Awakens, so when upwards of 5 or 6 planets are vaporized, the audience just has to trust the filmmaker’s word that what they’ve seen is important.
The planet-destroying Starkiller Base provides a lot of Episode 7‘s most glaring shortcomings, and not just because it recycles the main threat from both A New Hope and Return of the Jedi. In Star Wars, the Death Star is introduced in the iconic opening credit scrawl–in all-caps, no less. In the opening minutes, the audience learns that Darth Vader is hunting for the stolen Death Star plans, which are of the utmost importance to the plucky rebels. When the Rebels finally face the Death Star in the climactic battle, it dominates the third act. In contrast, Starkiller Base is unveiled late in the second act, in the act of destroying some planets to which the audience has no connection. It’s not enough for it to just be a big bad antagonist, either: the characters are shown that Starkiller Base dwarfs either Death Star. Unlike the Death Star attack which capped A New Hope and mined a lot of tension from the sequence, the aerial assault on Starkiller Base takes a little less than four minutes.
The scene feels typical, though, because The Force Awakens affords itself almost no time to sit and marinate. Long-term studies show that the average film shot length has decreased over time, meaning that movies are generally getting faster. It doesn’t take long for Rey to meet the endlessly marketable BB-8, at which point the film is propelled forward at breakneck pace. One scene in particular recalls A New Hope, and that’s when the new heroes Finn and Rey meet Han Solo and Chewbacca aboard the Millennium Falcon after escaping the First Order. In the first Star Wars film, after Luke and Han et al escape their respective desert planet, the narrative takes a breather.
In the sequence following their escape from the Empire, Luke learns more about the Force, Obi-Wan Kenobi begins Luke’s training, and the audience learns more about Han, Chewbacca, and the universe they all inhabit. The sequence feels relaxed; the droids and the Wookie even manage to work in a game of hologram space-chess. In The Force Awakens, there’s a comparable moment of character-building and exposition; which is roughly the length of a GIF.
Given that the reunion aboard the Falcon afforded the opportunity of a quiet moment, this would’ve been a good time for some sorely needed exposition. Why, for instance, have things seemingly started over from scratch in the galaxy far, far away? How come there’s now a good “Resistance” battling a hegemonic “First Order,” even though the Rebels defeated the Empire at the end of Return of the Jedi? This would’ve been a perfect place to answer some of those questions. Instead, after about 45 seconds of quiet reflection, the crew are attacked by a pair of rival space gangs, beginning a forgettable fight against computer-generated beasties. The scene ends the way every scene in the film ends: with the heroes blasting out of danger onto the next action set-piece. Actually, The Force Awakens probably wouldn’t feel so rushed if every scene didn’t end with the setting being blown up as the heroes escape.