In The Force Awakens there is a fine line between homage and cynicism. When the creators of the new Star Wars film recycle as huge a number of fundamental plot points and mechanisms and design elements from previous films in the series as this one does they reveal either or each of three things:
(1) They have no absolutely no distinctive new vision for Star Wars beyond what’s been done before.
(2) They perceive the Star Wars fan base to be so prone to vitriol when disappointed that the safest thing to do is find a way to give them nearly exactly what they have loved before, right down to basic plot devices since that stuff’s been all essentially “market tested” by the previous films.
(3) They are not interested in character-based storytelling that continues ongoing narratives about beloved characters but really just want to reboot the original with a fresh young cast and updated technology* rather than have to come up with new stories for old characters played by old people. (* see point 20).
None of these options is very good. There’s still hope that future movies will be bolder and more creative once the new series runners feel reassured by The Force Awakens’ inevitable box office success and positive reviews that the audience trusts them. But in the meantime we got a film packed with a staggering lack of imagination that involved at least all these thefts from earlier films:
The film starts with stormtroopers landing on a desert planet that may as well have been named Tatooine but wasn’t because this is a new generation. The stormtroopers are willing to commit a genocide against an entire collective of people in their search for something with vital information they want to retrieve. This more vividly shows what went down when the stormtroopers in A New Hope murdered Luke Skywalker’s aunt and uncle when looking for R2-D2, who was carrying vital information they wanted to retrieve. In both cases their method of murder involves leaving burning corpses.
Poe Dameron is basically introduced as a Princess Leia character picking up Anakin and Luke’s ace piloting skills.
He’s a vital member of the rebellion “resistance” who, on the verge of capture by Imperial “New Order” forces puts files with crucial information that has to be kept out of Imperial “New Order” hands into a cute droid who burbles and beeps like a baby. Upon being captured, Poe is tortured for information by Kylo Ren as Leia was once tortured by Darth Vader. The sequence is also reminiscent of Vader’s torture of Han Solo in Empire Strikes Back. Poe Dameron also evokes Anakin and Luke Skywalker by being distinguished as the resistance’s best pilot. One of the three heroes defining the new generation just had to be an ace pilot, right? Poe is not the only one channeling Leia though. Just as Leia fearlessly mouthed off to Vader as he apprehended her, Max von Sydow’s Jedi-loyalist character in the beginning of the film confronts Kylo Ren by trying to use his knowledge of Ren’s family connections to verbally get under his skin.
Kylo Ren is Darth Vader’s copycat grandson.
Kylo copies Darth Vader with a dark mask containing a microphone that makes his voice sound deeper and more mechanically influenced. Plus of course he wears all black robes and carries a red light saber like Grandpa. It turns out that he is also is turned to the Dark Side by a surrogate father figure when he feels alienated, and underneath his mask he also is revealed to petulantly immature and prone to tantrums like Grandpa Anakin was in the prequels. He’s got an axe to grind against Finn as a traitor, as Darth Vader did against Princess Leia, who he also accused of being a traitor.
Captain Plasma is introduced as a higher ranking stormtrooper with a distinctive uniform that seems to meet the film’s requirement to have some cool-designed Boba-Fett-ish sort of character to satisfy Star Wars fans’ Boba Fett fetish. Unfortunately she winds up even more under-utilized than either Boba Fett or Jango Fett. All she manages to do is be a momentarily ominous middle manager to Finn when he’s still a stormtrooper and then later on be humiliated by Han Solo and Finn when they capture her and Han Solo speculates that maybe they could throw her in the garbage disposal in hopes she can be crushed by one of the monsters from A New Hope. Han Solo sure loves reminiscing about that movie adventure in his life.
Anakin Luke Rey comes from lowly origins on a desert planet and finds power she never suspected within.
Like Luke Skywalker, she did not have her parents in her life at all. At least not since she was very young, a la Anakin Skywalker. She is clearly destined to learn the Force and become a Jedi but deals with insecurities and tries to evade her destiny. She undergoes terrifying prophetic visions at Maz Kanata’s place, much in the same way as Luke underwent them at Yoda’s cave on Degobah. She finds surrogate father figures in Han Solo and, presumably in the next movie, Luke Skywalker just as Luke found one in Obi-Wan. She grew up hearing inspiring legends of Luke Skywalker and Han Solo from before her time, which she just took to be myths. Luke grew up fantasizing about the excitement of the Clone Wars. The first time we see the Jedi mind trick used in the movie is by Rey and it’s on a stormtrooper, just as Obi-Wan introduced Jedi mind tricks by using one on a stormtrooper. Most importantly, in her biggest moment of light saber battling she finds the ability to summon the Force midway to pull of feats of skill totally beyond any training that could explain them, just as Luke managed to hit his Death Star target without even using a scope but just relying on the Force to guide his strikes.
Finn’s origins as a stormtrooper loosely follow Han Solo’s origins as a smuggler.
Both Finn and Han Solo were technically “bad guys” before their respective introductions to Luke and Rey, respectively. Finn’s personality is miraculously unmarred by the years of brainwashing involved in raising him from a young age to be a stormtrooper. Han Solo goes from the type of guy prone to preemptive violence to protect himself to basically being a hero. Finn shares Han Solo’s up close experience with the dangers of the empire and desire to get as far away as possible from entanglements with them when Rey and Han want to help the resistance by bringing them BB8 and his plans to find Luke Skywalker, similar to how Han himself had once upon a time wanted out when Luke and Obi-Wan were eager to find Princess Leia and deliver R2D2 to the rebels. Appropriately, in this movie, Han immediately takes to advising Finn.
Deus Ex Falcon. Rey and Finn are tracked by stormtroopers hot on the trail of BB8 and escape by the desert planet where they escape by the skin of their teeth using the Millenium Falcon. The Millenium Falcon of course requires lots of on the fly technical adjustments and of course its storage compartments come in handy for Rey and Finn to hide in when the ship is boarded.
Recycled running gags for Han and Chewie.
While Han and Chewie come off as very charming and funny, and while the running gags they reprise from the previous films are themselves very welcome beyond just nostalgia value, their jokes are mostly still technically derived from the earlier movies and don’t show any particular new creativity from the new creative team. The writers do deserve some significant credit for reviving the old jokes in fresh ways that are still funny though.
As a millenium old, small, wise, cryptic alien who has a place Yoda Maz Kanata can send prospective Jedi to be tormented by visions. And she fails spectacularly to be as interesting as Yoda was.
Maz Kanata’s establishment is basically supposed to be a hive of scum and villainy where you don’t want to get caught staring at anyone lest your life might be in danger, a la the Cantina on Tatooine where Luke almost got roughed up by an alien who thinks he’s looking at him funny.
Kylo Ren is a lazy inversion of Luke Skywalker.
Both are driven by the dream of being like Anakin Skywalker (i.e., Luke’s father and Kylo Ren’s grandfather). Both have a master training them who tells them that the challenge of facing their father is essentially going to be their biggest test. In both cases, they assure their master that they have been instructed sufficiently. In Luke’s case, he’s been trained to resist the Dark Side. In Kylo Ren’s case, he’s been trained to resist the Light Side. Kylo Ren kills his father Han Solo whereas Luke Skywalker brought his father Darth Vader back to the light side of the Force. In both cases, the son wins.
Since one of the most famous twists in movie history was the revelation that Darth Vader was Luke’s father, the film wastes a lot of time and narrative potential withholding exactly who Kylo Ren’s parents are until midway through the film, even though it was obvious to many fans familiar with the series and the expanded universe that a plot rehashing the idea of an interfamilial conflict between the light and dark side of the Force would be likely. They even indicate clearly at the start that Ren has parents who were “good guys” so the choice to stretch out the mystery, instead of getting to work building the emotional resonance of the situation for Han and Leia, seems much more about trying to at least make an homage to the big famous original trilogy reveal, rather than focus on new storytelling.
The confrontation between Kylo Ren and Han Solo was also an attempt to recreate the confrontation between Darth Vader and Obi-Wan.
To A New Hope viewers the first time around, this was surprising. Obi-Wan was Luke’s guide so losing him this early in the film forced Luke into the responsibility to take care of himself without the protection of his new surrogate father figure and guide in the ways of the Force. Obi-Wan and Darth Vader have a relationship that’s only talked about but never seen before, one of being friends and mentor/mentee. Without getting to see their backstory we see the story abruptly come to an end with the Dark Side representative killing the Light Side one. It took three movies to fill in the backstory and allow the sequence to be the mostly satisfying conclusion to a now fully fleshed relationship. In A New Hope the scene is primarily about Luke and what it means to him, and Obi-Wan can die in service to Luke’s journey of self-discovery and empowerment. Now in this movie, Rey is to watch Kylo Ren, the Dark Side representative, take out Han Solo, the Light Side representative.
Again, this is the first time we see Han and Ren on screen together. We only know about their history with each other through implication. We’re supposed to fill in for ourselves probably three films worth of story that we never were given and probably never will be given in order to actually have the emotional resonance that Han’s final encounter with his monstrous son deserves. Han Solo, formerly a character with his own story purposes basically becomes a story tool for Kylo Ren, to prove to the audience he is really really evil for killing such a beloved hero, and for Rey, who is now forced to fend for herself without her new guiding surrogate father figure.