The results are in for The Force Awakens, the receipts tallied, the reviews aggregated, and just look at all those zeros and blissful tomatoes. Critics and fans seem thrilled that JJ Abrams has concocted an exciting, fast-paced Star Wars installment that is genuinely fun to watch. That captures the look and feel of the originals. That shatters box office records. There is no doubt Force Awakens has done all of these things, and done them aggressively. It just hasn't done much else.
I'm not exactly delighted to be adding another branch to the Star Wars take tree. But the reviews are so effusive, success so roundly declared, I can't help it. Because we've been played. We've been served up a pretty unoriginal reboot that adds few, if any, new ideas to our greatest commercial mythology. It's the latest and maybe largest sign of a drift towards big screen sci-fi monoculture. And we're lapping it up.
Clearly, Force Awakens is far from the worst Star Wars movie, but it might actually be the least interesting. In some ways, the triumph of this, Star Wars 2.0—and its predictable, nostalgia-reliant, repackaged thrills—is a defeat for what made the trilogy extraordinary in the first place—its madcap sci-fi originality and genre-bending experimentation.
Force Awakens is the most derivative Star War; as some commenters have pointed out, it's almost a scene-by-scene remake of A New Hope. At first that's a huge relief (no prequel-scale disaster in sight) and exciting, even. We watch imperial troops from a galactic empire pursue a robot with stolen plans across a desert planet and into the care of a young loner with mysterious powers who was then aided by a wisecracking smuggler and his space ape in a seedy interstellar tavern where cheerful aliens play catchy orbital music, and we all grin wide.
But by the time the Rebellion/Resistance is blowing up the third incarnation of the Death Star in almost as many films, doesn't the Force seem to be contracting a bit? We've been here so, so many times. And that's to say nothing of the host of callbacks to past plot points, cameos from beloved characters from the original films, and the familiar John Williams crescendos.
Entertainment Weekly counts 18 different major ways—other commenters have found even more—that Force Awakens pays tribute to, or rips off directly, A New Hope. (As Tasha Robinson notes in The Verge, if this didn't have Lucas's blessing, it'd be outright plagiarism.) This is, of course, also a powerful recipe for maximizing revenue generation. The film is already headed towards unbelievable, almost comical profitability: The film cost $350 million to make and market, and it's already reaped $517 million in global ticket sales. It shattered both the single-day gross revenue record, becoming the first film to pull in $100 million in a single day, and raked in $238 million in North America alone.
Ultimately, Force Awakens is more a product of the same market logic that gave rise to the Marvel Universe films—a logic that rewards emulation and nostalgia above all; reusing ideas, characters, and narrative arcs that have already proven lucrative—than it is of the imagination that launched the series nearly four decades ago.
Since Star Wars is like water now, I suggest reading Forrest Wickman's piece about the series' genesis for a reminder of just how pathbreaking and weird it was when it first came out in the 70s. It was a hugely ambitious experiment founded on what turned out to be a very replicable model—one that both future filmmakers and tech bros alike would seek to follow for decades to come. Force Awakens is just the latest to go through the motions.
This isn't JJ Abram's fault, I don't think. He made nearly the best possible film the market would bear. It is more a testament to the modern filmmaking environment (see Joss Whedon's frustrations with Avengers 2 as exhibit B), and to the addictive nostalgia drip we as audiences are hooked on.
Case in point: I totally enjoyed the Force Awakens during its runtime. You might even say I was riveted. But as soon as the credits started to roll, the whole pastiche immediately started to slip from memory, scenes receding rapidly back into the source material from whence they came (Luke's aunt and uncle's charred bodies standing in for that slaughtered village, Mos Eisley cantina for whatever that forest planet saloon was). And then, the next thing I thought of on the drive home was that I kind of wished it was more like the prequels. That George Lucas had been more involved.
No, I'm not trolling, and yes, I fully acknowledge that the prequels were, mostly, very terrible movies, and Lucas is blamed for the wreckage. But I started to realize that as works of imagination, they're actually pretty impressive. They sought not to create full-scale retreads of the original Star Wars but to expand and enrich it; the films were bursting with color, imaginative city-worlds, clone armies, duels on volcano planets, and an explanation of the fall of a democratic intergalactic society and the rise of an autocratic Empire.
This approach, largely because of its stale execution, fell flat—"trade dispute" and "midichloridian" became shorthand for "explaining the magic out of everything like an asshole," and that ambitious plotting was often unintelligible—but the effort was noble enough. Even Jar Jar Binks, perhaps the most maligned character in all of cinema, was an invention; both as a member of a new alien race, and one of the first fully integrated CGI characters in cinema history. In other words, Lucas was not content to coast on the concepts established in his original trilogy; he wanted to expand the Star Wars mythology, forge new frontiers. He insists on calling himself as an experimental filmmaker, and he's not totally wrong!
Unfortunately, the frontiers he chose to push mostly turned out to be bad ones, and JJ Abrams' Lucas-free Star Wars is the polar opposite. Abrams has expertly reorganized a Star Wars film, he has nailed the rhythm, the pacing, the visual aesthetic. He also made the principal characters more diverse (which is great, given the old Star Wars' failings in this arena) and Millennial-friendly. But he was allergic to over-explaining, and avoided any and all meaningful exposition (wait, how did the First Order come about, anyway? What did this new galactic government look like before it was destroyed by the DeathStarKiller? Why did the "Rebellion" need to rebrand?) or any ideas or figures that would've stuck out in the original series.
Lucas was derided and mocked for the new elements he introduced into his own saga in the prequels—but it was his ultimately his lack of skill with directing, something he's well aware of himself—that doomed those films. Without Lucas in the room, Abrams remade Star Wars. And that's bad news for a sci-fi market that's cozily embracing self-referentiality, sequel madness, and shared universe economies of scale.
The other mega-blockbuster this year is, as fate would have it, another fourth installment in a beloved series that is, technically, another sequel but functions in actually more like a "reboot." Jurassic World may now be destined to finish second place in year-end gross earnings, with only 74 gabillion dollars earned, but it pulled off the same trick as Force Awakens: redress the same battle-tested plot arc with a combination of fresh and familiar faces and sets, introduce enough new elements to launch a "new" franchise arc, but hew to the established narrative enough to avoid any serious financial risk.
Even the best sci-fi Hollywood film of the year was another fourth entry in a series that, again, serves as a reboot; Mad Max: Fury Road. Same plot outline as its famous forebear, same marketable title, same setting, different actors, new cast diversity and story mechanics. (That it was a great film on its own, and inspired a serious debate about gender politics, is somewhat miraculous.) And there are what, three Marvel Universe films coming out every year, with DC doing roughly the same? They all hew to the same general megastructure; and they are all increasingly boring.
Consider, for a second, the sci-fi epics that didn't soar this year; the Watchowskis' Jupiter Ascending and Disney's Tomorrowland come to mind. Neither were small budget affairs; both were creative and fairly risky endeavors. Both more or less flopped; Jupiter flopped hard. Partly because they weren't great films—but neither was Jurassic World. These may not be the best counter-examples, but the fear is that we'll allow our expectations to become too constrained by Hollywood's cynical hit-producing algorithm and our own easily-manipulated nostalgia.
Science fiction is supposed to be all about exploring the unexplored, not rehashing the well-trod. As its key franchises become increasingly more important to the bottom line of huge studios that are fending off streaming and view-on-demand, expect them to become more formulaic, and less interesting. It's already begun: one of the most unabashedly creative enterprises of the 20th century has been rendered another largely enjoyable, but mostly forgettable Hollywood reboot.