Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens is an indisputably fun, indisputably well-crafted and well-paced film. It's also indisputably an extraordinarily derivative one, lightly remixing the themes and plot elements of the original Star Wars movie in a way so unsubtle that it almost qualifies as a remake or reboot, in the same way director J.J.
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Abrams's Star Trek: Into Darkness is essentially a retelling of The Wrath of Khan.
The result has been a somewhat polarized critical reaction even in the absence of real substantive disagreement about the film. Some people are simply very bothered by the lack of original story material; others don't seem to care. But it's a debate that's artificially constrained by the fact that we know two more movies are coming in this series without yet knowing anything about them. It is those yet-to-be-made films that will ultimately determine where The Force Awakens rests in the pop culture canon. Some movies, like The Matrix, stand alone just fine even if their sequels are bad. Other movies, like the original Star Wars movie, are blessed with good sequels but would be joys even if they had stood alone. The Force Awakens isn't like that — our understanding of its highly derivative plot will be fundamentally and forever tied to what comes next, and right now we just don't know what that will be.
Even though the broad story arc of Episode VII is very similar to Episode IV, the actual characters are rather different. Rey is considerably less callow than Luke (who, let's recall, brushes off the murder of his aunt and uncle like it's nothing, subconsciously excited that their death has liberated him from the tedium of moisture farming), while Ren's temperament and motivation seem entirely different from Darth Vader's. Looking ahead, Luke may play a similar structural role as Yoda, but they are very different personalities with very different life experiences — Luke seems likely to be both a less technically proficient trainer (he hasn't had 900 years of practice, after all) and a considerably more relatable one.
Throughout the course of The Force Awakens, none of this really makes a difference in a clear way. But it certainly could going forward. Why would Rey rush off, half-trained? And if she did, would Luke really respond by sitting around shaking his head remorsefully? New characters ought to give us a new storyline, which, in turn, ought to help us understand the nature of those characters' personalities in a more fully realized way. If it's done well, Episode VII will end up looking like a really well-executed series of callbacks situated near the midpoint of a progressively unfolding tale. If it's done poorly, Episode VII will look like the last gasp of a franchise that's dying creatively. And if the producers and Disney don't even try and simply opt for the remake route, then Episode VII will live under a shadow of lameness retroactively cast by its sequels.
For now, though, all we can say for sure is that all of this week's Force Awakens reviews will have to be heavily rewritten once we see more clearly where the series as a whole is headed.
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