Star Wars: The Force Awakens Is Like a Great Cover Song


CAUTION: This review contains major spoilers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens
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I had a phase as a teenager where my musical tastes veered toward covers: punk rock versions of old standards, acoustic covers of hard rock classics, and even orchestral arrangements of Top 40 hits. The blend of the foreign and familiar appealed to me at a time when my taste in music was just beginning to expand. When an artist takes another’s work and puts their own spin on it, transforming what a song means or how it works at an emotional level by filtering it through a different lens, the end result can be both compelling and approachable.

The Force Awakens is, essentially, J.J. Abrams’s cover of A New Hope. That’s not a knock. It’s a superb cover, that hits the right notes while still creating something new, and it stands as a genuine achievement that’s all the more notable in light of the franchise’s prior missteps.

If the original Star Wars trilogy can be thought of as a seminal album, then The Prequels are the rough equivalent of the kind of later release that seems more and more prevalent — the ill-conceived rehash album. It’s the kind of record that can be found in the discographies of far too many once-great bands who, decades after their greatest success, declare their intentions to once again produce an album in the style of their best-loved work.

And when the album drops, the band replicates their old sound as best they can, and the lyrics more-or-less cover the same subjects, but something significant is missing. The peculiar alchemy that allowed the band to reach their creative apex is long gone, and what’s left is a fallow attempt to recapture the magic of the original, made all the more damning by it coming from the same folks who created the masterwork in the first place.

 

"Personally, I prefer Max Rebo's early work ."

 

But if The Prequels are like a rehash album, then The Force Awakens is akin to something much more enjoyable and interesting — the tribute album. It’s a collection of covers of a venerated band’s best-loved songs and cult-favorite B-sides, performed by a collection of admirers who, inspired by the greats, offer their own unique takes on the melodies and innovations of their forebears.

There’s nothing wrong with this approach in crafting a new Star Wars film. If anything, it’s a welcome change from Episodes I-III, which seemed to take superficial elements and familiar pieces from the originals and deposited them willy-nilly into films that felt tonally and visually disconnected from their predecessors. The Force Awakens, by contrast, is committed to following the structure and rhythms of A New Hope, to create something in concert with the series’ past, rather than simply borrowing iconic lines or memorable images out of context.

Episode VII wears these connections on its sleeve. The film opens with a main character– who’s already a part of The Resistance–giving a vital piece of information to a droid before being captured and interrogated by a force-wielding baddie in a black mask. It features a winsome rogue who initially only becomes involved in the political conflict between the good guys and the bad guys because he’s trying to save his own skin. He, in turn, keeps trying to find ways to leave, and comes close, but then returns after growing closer to those in the fight. And the film’s protagonist is a force-sensitive, would-be orphan on a desert planet, whom the audience only meets after the film has already established its setting and the broader conflict. She’s then pulled into the larger struggle after stumbling across the same droid and being caught in an Imperial attack.

To add to the parallels, our heroes eventually encounter an avuncular if eccentric mentor, a veteran of the last big conflict who guides them through the vicissitudes of the larger battles being fought, and then leads them into the belly of the beast. He eulogizes the half-forgotten past and meets his end at the hands of a black-clad antagonist while our heroes are powerless bystanders. That Sith-like evildoer is presented as but one lieutenant among the larger militaristic force that opposes the good guys, and he clashes with a more traditional Imperial leader. Finally, the film ends with the resistance dogfighters blowing up the bad guys’ spherical, planet-destroying weapon that threatens to shift the balance of the war.

 

"And hey, let's remember to put a grating or something over the exhaust ports this time."

 

At a high enough level of generality, almost any two works can be lumped together. But co-writer/director J.J. Abrams is intentionally evoking the beats of A New Hope here. Again, that’s not a bad thing. Episode IV has near-perfect pacing and structure. Using it as a blueprint, whether for a Star Wars sequel or any action-adventure movie, is a canny way to approach a film.

What’s more, these parallels are more than just a rote call-and-response with the prior films. Rey, Finn, Poe, and BB-8 are not carbon copies of their forebears, but are instead distinct characters with unique traits, who nevertheless play familiar roles in the narrative. That’s a difficult balance to strike–emulating the dynamics of a predecessor without simply copying it–but Abrams does it well in Episode VII.

To the point, the greatest success of The Force Awakens is that it establishes the film’s new characters as worthwhile protagonists in their own right, with their own specific relationships and connections to one another, that make the audience want to see their continuing adventures independent of their ties to the Skywalkers, Solos, and Organas of the galaxy.

Rey, like Luke, is a kind-hearted nobody who’s laden with tragedy as she makes her way through the film. But hers is a different kind of a tragedy, steeped in themes of abandonment, of a yearning to belong, and of a sense that while she realizes the hopes that get her through the day are likely false, she’s slowly finding another reason to go on. There’s a greater feeling of isolation around Rey, a sense that she is lost, in contrast to Luke, who had his Aunt and Uncle, and eventually Obi-Wan to guide him. It distinguishes her from the man who may very well be her father, and gives her a distinctive arc.

 

"I'm a cowboy! On a steel horse I ride!"

 

Finn, like Han, is sucked into a larger struggle while he’s simply trying to look out for himself. But his reasons for sticking around are different than Han’s, and his personal journey is distinct as well. The Stormtroopers are one of the least-explored aspects of the original films, and putting the spotlight on a soldier who cannot abide the carnage and wanton cruelty shown by the remnants of The Empire is an interesting narrative choice that creates unique, but no less potent stakes, for his eventual commitment to Rey and The Resistance.

And Poe, like Leia, is an established figure among the resistance fighters. But he’s a pilot, not a diplomat, and while his story is the least fleshed out of any of the new trilogy’s main trio, he’s quickly established as a friendly, brave, and amusing presence in the film, with a breezy, jocular bent that belies his steadiness behind the steering column.1

The movie also does a commendable job of establishing these characters in relation to one another. The bond between Rey and Finn is the cornerstone of the film, and beyond the larger plot mechanics that tie their fates together, it’s one of the most successful elements of the movie because there’s a clear rapport between them shown in the pair’s comedic yet revealing interactions. Their initial testiness with each other recalls the snipes and jibes shared between Luke, Han, and Leia in the original series of films, and it makes their eventual bond and devotion to one another, romantic or otherwise, more significant and meaningful.

At the same time, there’s a brotherly vibe between Poe and Finn, with the cocksure pilot coaching the sweaty, seat-of-his-pants former Stormtrooper through dogfights, and embracing him in the prelude to battle. It feels of a piece with similar moments between Han and Luke, who shared the same kind of dynamic, particularly in Episode IV. Even BB-8, whose role in the new film seems the closest to his dome-shaped primogenitor’s, has a unique playfulness to him that makes the little droid endearing with whichever of the main trio he’s following at the moment.

 

"This is not the time to be playing Rock Paper Scissors."

 

To the same end, the members of the old guard who reappear in The Force Awakens are used appropriately sparingly but well. Carrie Fisher and the film’s writers balance the steadiness and sentimentality of Leia in a way that captures the best aspects of the character from the prior films. Mark Hamill’s momentary reprise of Luke conveys so much in a wordless, yet all-the-more momentous scene to cap off the film. And Harrison Ford, though clearly a bit tired as he dons Han’s vest once more, still imbues the character with the life, energy, and humor that made Solo a fan favorite. He has the most to do of the original trio, and he’s legitimately affecting in the quieter scenes when he reminisces about his old friend Luke, or embraces his lost love. Even C-3PO and Chewbacca bring some welcome levity to the film in a way that’s neither distracting nor contrived.2

The Force Awakens also captures the kinds of small details that helped make A New Hope so resonant. When Rey and Finn destroy the TIE fighters chasing them in the Millennium Falcon, there’s a small but significant moment when the desert scavengers immediately descend on the wreckage in search of spare parts. These and similar little touches are subtle reminders that there’s a world beyond our heroes’ adventures, and it helps to recreate the “lived-in” feel that once made the Star Wars universe seem so real and inviting.

By the same token, the beams that Kylo Ren’s lightsaber emits are rougher and less-finished than those of his uncle or grandfather. It’s a simple but persistent reminder that he failed to complete his Jedi training, and it’s representative of the ways in which he too, despite his best efforts to project otherwise, is also very rough and unfinished. It’s this type of attention to detail that shows how Abrams and his team understand the way these small but significant features in the film contribute to the power of its setting and characters.

At the same time, I have mixed feelings about Kylo Ren himself. He is, more than the other major figures in the film, more directly inhabiting the role of his Original Trilogy counterpart. He wears a black mask and dark armor, leads the First Order’s charge against The Resistance, and is the pre-established force-wielding bad guy, who uses his powers to attack and torture his enemies. The film, however, justifies the closeness of these parallels by having Kylo Ren worship his grandfather, Darth Vader, and explicitly emulate him.

The Force Awakens does a superb job establishing how formidable Kylo Ren is in the beginning of the film. Showing the character’s ability to halt blaster fire in midair is a creative introduction to his abilities. He uses methods of torture and interrogation that were only hinted at by Vader in A New Hope, and they take on a new terror when witnessed by the audience firsthand. There’s also a haunting bluntness to his manner of speech, aided by his mask’s mechanical hum. And yet, something is lost from the character once he removes his helmet.

 

"Wait, which Tim Burton movie is this again?"

 

Adam Driver, who is talented in the role, does not cut much of an imposing visage on his own. The moment when he takes off his helmet while interrogating Rey is supposed to have the grand atmosphere of a reveal. Instead, it was almost a chuckle to see the goober-looking fellow underneath. Driver acquits himself well enough without the mask, but he’s never as fearsome or menacing afterward.

Perhaps that’s the point–that Kylo Ren is, despite his mastery of the force, still very much a kid playing dress up, putting on a persona that doesn’t suit him no matter how much he throws himself into the role. Either way, there’s something missing from the character after that point, a sense of intimidation that Vader possessed even in his weakest moments that Driver cannot muster apart from his getup. It’s difficult to say whether this weakens the character or makes him more complex.

But that’s also where The Force Awakens’s parallels to Episode IV hurt the film. When Han confronts Kylo Ren, there’s an attempt to build the tension in the moment. Kylo Ren’s ambiguous dialogue is meant to make the audience wonder if he may actually want to be good, but feels as though he cannot escape the darkness. It’s intended to suggest that he’s wavering and might go with Han in order to leave behind his wicked ways.

But all the mirroring of A New Hope deflates that tension, because it means that long before Ren ever takes out his lightsaber, the audience knows that a confrontation between the black hat and the old hand, staged while the next generation is looking on, can only end one way in the Star Wars universe. We know that Han Solo is going to be killed the minute the confrontation is framed as an echo of Episode IV. That makes the double-meaning of Kylo Ren’s words seem silly, and hurts the ability of Ford and Driver to sell the magnitude of the moment.

 

Though they didn't skimp on the Nazi iconography.

 

And yet, at the end of the day, I don’t really take issue with this, or the other echoes of A New Hope that are firmly present in Episode VII. Sure, slavish devotion to the source material can be a restraint3, but it can also be a guy-wire, keeping the new entry from veering off course.

Let’s not mince words. This is a franchise that needed to rebuild its trust with the audience. The folks behind the Episode VII needed to show that they could, once more, create compelling characters, establish an exciting conflict, and craft an engrossing world capable of capturing the fans’ imaginations all over again. Going back to the franchise’s beginnings, adopting the structure, character beats, and plot progression that helped A New Hope leave such an indelible mark in the cinematic landscape, is a smart way to ensure that The Sequel Trilogy gets off on the right foot. With The Force Awakens, Abrams offers his own unique spin on an old standard, with enough of both the new and the familiar to keep it humming.

My only reservation is that now, instead of listening to a group of superb modern day singer-songwriters perform a collection of Bob Dylan covers, I’d rather hear the latest album from John Darnielle.4 I’d like to listen to the new songs written in that same tradition, that explore and evolve the form. The Force Awakens was an enjoyable, thrilling, well-crafted tribute to Episode IV, and easily the best new entry in the Star Wars canon in decades. It captured the spirit of A New Hope in a way that’s been missing from the franchise’s cinematic presence for far too long. For the first entry in a new trilogy, one meant to reacquaint the audience with the old universe and usher in the new blood, that is no small achievement. I simply hope that with this corner of the Star Wars universe established, Episode VIII builds on what was set up here, and takes the franchise in different, novel directions, rather than offering a stellar rendition of a familiar tune.


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. It’s fairly clear that this film was conceived when Hollywood was tripping over itself to imitate the uber-successful Avengers film. Poe, among others, has the witty but down-to-Earth banter of the Marvel heroes in that movie, and his exchange with Kylo Ren about who should talk first is pure Whedon.
  2. I loved that after all these years, C-3PO is still third-wheeling Han and Leia. Additionally, the team of Peter Mayhew and the film’s costumers and sound designers somehow manage make an incomprehensible Wookiee capable of making rib-tickling retorts, sarcastic remarks, and mournful laments that were a small highlight of the film.
  3. See also: Zack Snyder’s Watchmen adaptation.
  4. Poe’s missed connection with Dylan notwithstanding.

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