First of all, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is good. I needed a second viewing to tell if it was truly good, or if it was just my Star Wars excitement that made it seem good. My second viewing confirmed it: the movie is very good. I was entertained and emotionally invested in the story and characters. This was not something I could say about The Phantom Menace.
But one thing I’ve noticed in reviews and reactions to the new movie is that people feel the need to mention that The Force Awakens is basically a retelling of Episode IV: A New Hope. This mention is made with a bit of a sigh, as if it’s a knock against the new film.
But it shouldn’t be a knock against it. The Force Awakens DOES retell A New Hope’s story, and that’s a GOOD thing. I’m not breaking any new ground by writing this, but A New Hope was successful in large part because the story Lucas wrote followed the Joseph Campbell/Hero with a Thousand Faces/Hero’s Journey thing to perfection. That is why the story resonated with so many people. It’s one of the classic narratives. I won’t go so far as to say it really IS the monomyth or whatever, but it’s a strong narrative structure that storytellers throughout the ages have returned to again and again. In copying A New Hope, The Force Awakens has tapped into one of the greatest story structures in human history.
What makes The Force Awakens worth seeing is that it does what every successful story does that uses the Hero’s Journey as its basis: It adds something new. The Force Awakens is not a remake. It might retell the Hero’s Journey, but it’s not a re-MAKE of A New Hope. A New Hope had a young man at its center (Luke), the young hero who would discover his power and save the world. But The Force Awakens puts a spin on this: the young man becomes a young woman (Rey). This adds a new layer to the old tale. And then, on top of this, the film adds a second young hero (Finn), but this time he’s not a smuggler turned rebel fighter (Han Solo); he’s a STORM-TROOPER turned resistance fighter. That’s a fantastic and original twist on the old trope. These little twists are what make the story feel fresh despite being — at its bones — a retelling of a story we know.
Even the villain gets a refreshing twist: Kylo Ren is not the ultimate bad guy that Darth Vader was in A New Hope. Instead, he’s still somewhat untrained. And he’s not even fully evil yet. He admits in a private moment that he struggles against the “temptations” of the Light. This adds a new layer to the old tropes. In many ways, he’s a Mordred figure — the “heir” to a great hero (I’m talking Leia here, people), he should go on to lead the kingdom into further greatness. But he rejects his parenthood and fights against his family. Whereas A New Hope (and the rest of the original trilogy) had the equation of Bad Parent vs. Good Children, this new trilogy is shaping up to be Bad Child vs. Good Parents (and Good Uncle) (and maybe even Good Cousin/Sister). It’s a spin on the old trope without being a completely new and untested narrative.
The problem with trying to tell a totally new and original story (and have it be successful) is that such things rarely exist in the real world. “There’s nothing new under the sun,” is as true as it is freeing. If we’re free to stop worrying about “originality,” we can focus instead on trying to shape our stories so that they reflect the great Eternal Stories, the tales and narratives that have resonated with humanity throughout the ages. Surprise is fun, but it’s only a cheap trick if it’s not anchored in the great narrative structures that have withstood the test of time. There’s a reason why we often admire experimental stories but LOVE the classic ones.
The Force Awakens has tapped into a great narrative structure. Sure, that makes it derivative. But every story that uses classic tropes is derivative. The trick is to find fresh skin to lay on old bones. What The Force Awakens has done so well is make these classic narrative beats feel fresh again. That freshness is reflected in the fact that we as an audience want to know more about Rey, we want to see what will happen with Poe and Finn and BB-8. We want to find out if Ren will turn away from the Dark Side and reunite with his family. We are once again invested in the “balance of the Force,” not just because Luke Skywalker and the old gang are back, but because these new people — Rey, Finn, Poe — are struggling to complete their journeys too.
The formula for a good story is not a secret: Characters we care about on a journey we want to see completed. The trick is in the execution. In this, The Force Awakens has succeeded. I know I care about Rey and Finn and the rest, and I want to see where their journey goes. This was not something I could say about the prequels. I cared not one whit about Padme or Anakin or even young Obi-wan. I only wanted to see how Anakin would become Darth Vader, and really, we needed just one movie for that story. The prequels tried to tell a “new” story, something that was a mash-up of tragedy, love story, political drama, “kids’ movie,” action adventure, and “epic.” In trying to combine all of these things, Lucas forgot about the Hero’s Journey that made his first trilogy so resonant.
Abrams and co. remembered their Joseph Campbell, and it paid off. The Force Awakens retells the story of the first Star Wars movie, and that is its genius.