I’m going to describe a movie to you, and I want you to guess which movie I’m talking about.
A long time ago in a galaxy far far away, a small group of freedom fighters is desperately trying to run away from a tyrannical galactic regime. One of the insurgents is able to stow away vital information containing some kind of schematic inside a droid. The droid escapes and the insurgent is captured and tortured by a helmet-wearing dark overlord. The droid somehow ends up on a desert planet and encounters an opportunistic youth. The youth and the droid meet a self-interested rogue, an older mentor figure with knowledge of the force, and Chewbacca. Together, they all escape the desert planet on the Millennium Falcon and confront a giant planet-destroying superweapon/enemy base. There, the evil lord confronts the old mentor and kills him without much struggle, the giant base is blown up by X-wings, and the young protagonist is truly connected to the force for the first time.
So was I describing the original Star Wars: A New Hope? Or Star Wars: The Force Awakens? Before you answer that, I want to give a little background:
Since the return of the Star Wars movies with the new trilogy, both The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi have made record-breaking debuts, each grossing over $200 million in their opening domestic weekends. They’ve also had much critical success with both films being over 90% on Rotten Tomatoes. With a sudden resurgence in Star Wars, a new generation of kids are growing up with the legends of Jedi and Sith, and old fans are once again embracing their fandom. Star Wars, is officially a success on all levels again after the divisive prequels. So how is it that Disney has managed to satisfy both hardcore old fans and new ones? The answer is…nostalgia. Nostalgia is an interesting little element of pop culture that has seeped its way into the film industry and is now a studio’s most powerful tool for making big bucks. The two highest grossing films in the past five years have been Jurassic World, and The Force Awakens, both sequels made long after their previous films. Jurassic World, harkening back to the 1993 Jurassic Park, features a bunch of dinosaurs running wild after failing to be contained in a theme park, the exact same premise as the original. The Force Awakens is about a rebel alliance which, with the help of a young Jedi, desperately fights against a powerful empire led by a mask-wearing Sith Lord, the same general premise as the original Star Wars trilogy. If you take into account other resurgent franchises in Hollywood such as Mad Max, Predator, Alien, Terminator, live-action Disney remakes of animated classics, you’ll see that audiences are craving their nostalgic franchises and studios are happy to oblige. So it is understandable why the Star Wars franchise is repeating itself.
Now I’m not saying that The Force Awakens is a carbon copy of the original Star Wars movie, nor am I saying that it is a bad film. I actually enjoy The Force Awakens, it’s an entertaining and well-directed flick. However, The Force Awakens is a narratively unoriginal film with some original aspects scattered through it. The shining trait of uniqueness is the characters of Rey, Poe, Fin, and especially Kylo Ren. These characters are diverse and dynamic. Even though Rey can be a bit uninteresting and Fin is often played too much as comic relief, they feel fresh and new to the Star Wars story. Kylo Ren is particularly compelling as a conflicted villain that is constantly getting things wrong, constantly one step behind the superior heroes.
But even after watching The Last Jedi, which I also liked, it still felt like the exact same story. No matter how much they change up the characters or even the plot itself, they are still limited within the confines of the basic outline for the original trilogy. You can even tie the elements of the new trilogy to their old trilogy counterparts. The Rebels are now the Resistance, the Empire is now the First Order, the Death Star is now Star Killer Base, Boba Fett is now Captain Phasma, the Battle of Hoth is now that weird sequence on the mining planet with the ATAT walkers in the Last Jedi. There is no going back on these similarities, the narrative is fundamentally familiar. Disney has decided to take the Star Wars franchise in a recognizable direction instead of taking it to bold new places. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing for fans looking to enjoy the same old Star Wars that they used to know, it’s also not bad for new fans who can get into the new trilogy without having to find faults in the similarities. However, as a fan of originality and creativity in film, it is a missed opportunity. What could have been a brand new story that explores different elements of George Lucas’s vast universe is now basically something you’ve seen before. The prequels, for all their faults, presented fans with a new timeline in the Star Wars universe. They brought the Clone Wars and the Jedi Order and exciting new worlds like Mustafar, Geonosis, Felucia, and Utapa. George Lucas’s prequel universe was unique and creative, breaching a realm of science fiction that hadn’t been seen before despite the fact that the movies, for the most part, had terrible dialogue and characters.
The new films are competently made and directed but aside from the appeal of the main characters, excellent visuals, eye-popping action, and a masterful film score by John Williams, it’s the same story. Because of this, Star Wars is now being cinematically defined to this narrative, the story of the outnumbered rebels holding on to hope and believing in the force (by the way it makes little sense to me that a defeated empire is somehow able to piece itself back together in 30 years, reassert its dominance, and become even more powerful than before, while at the same time the victorious rebels would be incompetent enough to be reduced to a handful of scattered forces). Many believe that this narrative is what Star Wars should be defined as. The comforting caress of nostalgia still gives them that same exciting Star Wars feeling when they watch the new movies, and that is perfectly fine. But for me, it is frustrating to see the same ideas repeated. It may be satisfying enough for everyone else, but I will always lament over what could have been if the franchise had decided to continue the story rather than restructure and rebrand the story.