I saw The Force Awakens for the third time today, and this time criticism of the movie was on my mind as I watched. Particularly the idea that this movie is derivative, that it won’t age well, or, as The New Yorker said, it’s a “forgery” that made us recognize George Lucas as a true artist. (Ouch much?)
Are we being overly optimistic about this movie? Will it be like Avatar, which seemed cool at first but years later all you remember about it was that there was a sex scene involving a tree?
The element of the movie that stuck out to me most upon the third viewing was the planet Jakku, which many have pointed out is similar to Tatooine. But this planet is not symbolic just because Rey’s upbringing echoes that of Luke Skywalker’s. It’s important because the characters frequently refer to it as a junkyard. On Jakku, the millennium falcon is called a piece of garbage. A toppled AT-AT lies broken in the desert, and Rey eats her meager dinner outside its foot as if it’s her house. Starships that were once ominous loom large against sand dunes, now harmless and scraped bare for their parts.
In this way, Jakku embodies the death of Star Wars in culture. It was a great franchise, one we adored for decades that was later brought back to life as an awkward zombie, full of CGI and the latest and greatest directing tricks Hollywood had invented since the original series. Episodes 4-6 had been remastered and updated, and all the equity had been bought up by Disney and farmed out to brands. The soul of the series, to many, seemed dead. The junkyard of Jakku, to me, is like the movie admitting it knows the challenge it faces. Everything you loved about Star Wars has been ruined. But could it come back?
I think it’s important that this attempt to revive Star Wars a) acknowledged this somehow (and here, this was an elegant way to do so) and b) drew a line back to the original three movies, and revived its roots.
The echoes of A New Hope are many, but there’s also a lot that’s new here. We have Rey, one of the best female characters in history. Reviews that I’ve read that call The Force Awakens derivative often spend one line discussing the fact that its main stars are not white men. These reviewers tend to be white men. To women, it’s a huge deal that a character like Rey exists in a franchise as important as Star Wars. Their kids, who start to feel disenfranchised by gender roles the second they get to the toy store, have someone strong to look up to, someone who isn’t a princess, who doesn’t wear a sexy outfit (and frankly seems like she really needs a shower by the end of the movie). This is very new.
And there’s Finn, a Stormtrooper who questions authority and takes a huge risk to avoid doing wrong just to follow orders. That is a badass plotline and John Boyega brings humor, charming naivete and strength to the role. This is very new as well.
The movie isn’t perfect. I don’t think Maz Kanata is a great character, and they could have done something cooler with Lupita Nyong’o. But is it derivative? I think it’s more that The Force Awakens is consciously taking cultural artifacts we love off the shelf, dusting them off and breathing new life into them. It’s a phoenix-from-the-ashes story in more ways than one. A franchise is coming back, a family mythology is being revived and the original factions of light vs. dark are training once again for a battle. The junkyard of Jakku is how the movie admits that the original series had died. Only after acknowledging this can what has become junk become the stuff of myth once again.