When it comes to "Star Wars," a certain amount of repetition is par for the course. It didn't take the series long to establish a particular mix of dogfights, shootouts, lightsaber duels and assorted bad feelings about things. However, in looking at previews for "The Force Awakens," it seems like J.J. Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan and Kathleen Kennedy may going a little farther, and re-creating some specific foundational sequences from the original trilogy.
Neither is this really new: when Abrams and his Bad Robot colleagues relaunched "Star Trek" in 2009, they did it essentially by bookending one of that franchise's high points. Accordingly, today we'll examine what "Star Trek's" structure and themes might tell us about what to expect in the next "Star Wars." Naturally, this gets us into SPOILER territory, so be warned.
Orienting a new generation of fans to a beloved film franchise is both conservative and risky. The creative personnel must identify what worked about the originals, apply updates as appropriate, and hope nothing important gets lost in the process. Although each reboot comes with its own set of expectations, and specifically its own list of must-have elements, 2009's "Star Trek" took a slightly different approach to its origin story. The film revealed how Kirk and company first came together aboard the Enterprise, but also featured a number of homages to the series' first really good movie, 1982's "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan."
In many ways, "Star Trek II" was itself a reaction to what had come before. 1979's philosophical "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" was about the nature of consciousness, the process of emotional maturation, and even the role of faith. It was also criticized rather roundly for being slow-paced, distant, and derivative (not least because it had a lot in common with a handful of the TV series' episodes).
"TMP" takes both Spock and Kirk on character arcs -- Spock finally integrates his Vulcan and human perspectives, while Kirk learns he can't just stroll right back onto the bridge -- but the real transformation belongs to the Enterprise's ostensible captain, Will Decker. If "TMP" had been an installment of the TV series, Decker would have been the disposable special guest-star. He facilitates the antagonist's Pinocchio-like evolution from souped-up space probe to fully-functional sentient -- which is a fancy way of saying he's there to explain the story's premise before disappearing in a cloud of sparkles. V'Ger, the vast, omnipotent living machine, needs a set of human qualities in order to achieve total consciousness, and the Dalai Lama isn't anywhere to be found. Thus, in preparing to "unite" with V'Ger, Decker declares to Kirk, "as much as you wanted the Enterprise, I want this!" Naturally, Decker's departure also facilitates Kirk's return to the Enterprise bridge, so that the adventures can continue as one might expect them to.
Not so with "The Wrath of Khan," whose main character arc belongs squarely to Kirk. It's been fifteen years since the first season of the TV series, so Kirk's turning fifty and headed straight for a mid-life crisis. He's an Earth-based admiral again, in charge of training cadets aboard Captain Spock's Enterprise. However, a couple of figures from Kirk's past throw his life into turmoil: an old enemy steals a planet-renovator and comes looking for him; and Kirk finally meets his long-lost son, Dr. David Marcus. In the end Khan is dead and David and Kirk have reconciled, but Spock has sacrificed himself. (As it happens, when "WOK" first came out, two years after "The Empire Strikes Back," some Trekkies complained that Spock's death and David's parentage were too reminiscent of Han's carbon-freezing and Vader's revelation.) It's the antithesis of the antiseptic "TMP," in large part because it turns Kirk's swashbuckling on its ear, and forces him to answer for the sins of his past. Accordingly, by both embracing and critiquing the Kirk of the TV series, "Star Trek II" provides a fresh perspective on its protagonist.
2009's "Trek" uses both a similar revenge plot -- a heavily-armed enemy of Spock's comes looking for him -- and its alternate-reality setting allows a few riffs on "WOK's" theme of cheating. However, where "WOK" emphasizes that Admiral Kirk's prior decisions (leaving David's mother, stranding Khan and never checking up on him) have real consequences, the reboot -- "ST09" from here on out -- goes the opposite way. There, Cadet Kirk's cheating on the Kobayashi Maru exam helps cement his relationships with classmate McCoy (who takes pity on him and sneaks him aboard the Enterprise) and the young Spock (who, it's implied, will grow to appreciate Kirk's unorthodox methods). In fact, when young Kirk tells old Spock that changing the timeline is "cheating," the latter confirms that he learned it from "an old friend."
Additionally, "ST09" opens with Kirk's father giving his life to save his crewmates, which itself is a sort of counterpart to Spock's death at the end of "WOK." However, they have opposite narrative functions: Spock's sacrifice colors the crew's triumph; whereas in "ST09," George Kirk's death helps drive his son's backstory.
Of course, the 2009 movie also features a number of direct references to "WOK": Kirk chomps on an apple while savoring his Kobayashi Maru victory; Old Spock tells young Kirk "I have been and always shall be your friend"; Nero maroons Spock like Khan marooned Kirk; and ear-minded critters are used for torture. These are obvious, but -- assuming that this movie is really intended to complement its predecessor -- not necessarily unwelcome.
Indeed, I suspect the same sort of thematic bookending is at work in "The Force Awakens." I don't think it's the same sort of narrative mirroring that the prequel trilogy used, because the prequels deliberately juxtaposed Anakin's fall against Luke's rise. Instead, we know that Rey, Finn and Poe represent a new generation of good guys, even if we don't know for sure who's a Skywalker.
Speaking of which -- Rey is the clear frontrunner. She's a scavenger on a desert planet (complete with Tatooine-style moisture vaporators), poking around junked ships not unlike little Anakin in Watto's shop. As the movie begins, she may be even less aware about the state of the galaxy than Anakin or Luke was. Anakin had at least heard of the Jedi, and Luke knew about the Clone Wars. Regardless, like Luke wondering about his lost father or Anakin dreaming of traveling to the stars, Rey is waiting for her family, with the implication that they'll take her away from Jakku.
Ironically, the more we learn about Rey, the sadder those family ties may be. You'd think the child of a Skywalker would know at least a little something about the Galactic Civil War. If she's Luke or Leia's daughter and still thinks the Dark Side and the Jedi are just fairy tales, it suggests an almost total cluelessness about her true parents -- again, more than any Skywalker we've seen so far -- which in turn implies that Luke or Leia may not know about her themselves. While we've seen two different Skywalkers raised in isolation with little idea of their true lineage or destiny, neither came from the happiest of circumstances.
As for how everyone eventually gets together, what we can infer about the movie's early scenes also seems similar to the first act of Episode IV. Like its predecessor, "The Force Awakens" seems likely to begin with the a good guy's capture. A photo of stormtrooper Finn with captive Poe indicates that Poe is a prisoner before Finn escapes. Since BB-8 looks to belong to Poe, it may also be the case that they're together when the First Order gets the drop on them.
Therefore, just as R2 left Leia to escape with 3PO, Finn and BB-8 may leave Poe behind for their flight(s) to Jakku. The two fugitives would then encounter Rey separately or together; and the First Order's subsequent hunt for them appears to result in the destruction of Rey's settlement (shades of the raid on the Lars homestead). Rey, Finn, and BB-8 would then meet Han Solo and Chewbacca and escape from Jakku aboard the Millennium Falcon -- not unlike Luke, Obi-Wan and the droids blasting off of Tatooine.
The movie's trailers and other promotional material also seem to be pointing toward an "Episode IV"-esque climax, namely an assault on the Death Star-esque Starkiller Base. Instead of a moon-sized space station, Starkiller looks like a giant weapon, complete with landscaped trench, built into the very surface of a snow-covered planet. That climate also allows "The Force Awakens" to reference the ice planet Hoth, complete with snowtroopers, snowspeeders, and a new parka for Han Solo. For that matter, "The Force Awakens" may be going for a kind of final-battle trifecta by combining Episode IV's trench run with Hoth's climate and a forest fight reminiscent of "Return of the Jedi" -- probably minus overly-cute indigenous life-forms, of course.
So, to recap: "The Force Awakens" promises a good bit of familiar plotting set on a Tatooine-esque planet, followed by aerial and ground battles over wooded and snowy terrain, and an all-out attack on a gargantuan superweapon. Along the way our heroes appear to visit a wretched hive of scum and villainy, this time a pirate clan's jungle headquarters. Not only does that recall the first act of "Episode IV," but key parts of "Episodes V" and "VI" as well.
Again, "Star Wars" deals in repetition (or "variations on themes") more than most. However, I think there's something else at work behind the scenes of "The Force Awakens," and that is the desire to correct the perceived faults of the original trilogy. As much as I like what "Return of the Jedi" did with Luke's character, the film didn't really serve Han or Leia very well. Early on, he was stumbling around half-blind and she had to endure the infamous gold bikini; and they both spent the last part of the movie surrounded by Ewoks while Luke dueled his father and Lando and Wedge destroyed Death Star II. I don't think "TFA" will focus on Han and Leia because it's forgotten about Luke -- quite the contrary, in fact -- but I do expect a lot more piloting and fighting for everyone's favorite nerf-herder, and a good bit of General Organa using the Force (Putting Luke in the background makes Leia the lead Jedi, or at least the main practitioner of the hokey religion.)
So where might Luke be? Well, I subscribe to the theory that Luke is in seclusion keeping some ancient artifact safe from Kylo Ren and the First Order. However, I also think that Luke will play a much bigger role in the film's climax than anything we've seen so far would otherwise indicate. This too comes back to something "Return of the Jedi" didn't do, which "Revenge of the Sith" at least attempted: a Force-oriented showdown which goes beyond a lightsaber battle and into the realm of the truly mystical. In "Episode IV," Darth Vader remarks that the Empire's "technological terror" is "insignificant next to the power of the Force." We never really see that statement illustrated, at least not to its full potential. Intentionally or not, in Yoda vs. Dooku and especially Yoda vs. Palpatine, the prequels gave us a taste of Force-on-Force battling. However, for various reasons "Jedi" let the final confrontation between Luke, Anakin and the Emperor play out more emotionally, such that Luke's true power came from his own compassion, and not his combat skills.
Still, "Jedi's" final battle packed a punch because it came at the end of a trilogy. Since "The Force Awakens" is billed as the bigger-and-better start of a new saga, it needs a super-sized third act. In a way, this sort of escalation is also predicted by the end of "Episode IV." Remember, we only see the Rebel starfighters, and learn of the trench-run attack, at about the three-quarter mark of that film. Nothing to that point (except the notion that R2 carries the Death Star plans) really hints at the final battle's details. Therefore, while the armies of the First Order and Resistance square off over Starkiller Base, I suspect the real "awakening" will involve Luke and his issues battling the Knights of Ren -- and/or the mysterious Supreme Leader Snoke -- on a slightly more transcendental plane. Here I'm thinking of the end of Dark Horse's 1991-92 "Dark Empire" miniseries, where a giant "Force storm" swallowed up the revived Emperor and his new-model Star Destroyer, and shut down his assorted war machines. I mean, I'd love to see what sort of swordplay moves Luke has developed after thirty-plus years of experience, but for me the best parts of Mark Hamill's Jedi performance were the eerie moments when he seemed to lose himself in the Force. We know Hamill can be scary, and now it's time for him to be the good kind of scary.
To be sure, this is all speculation, even just a few weeks away from opening night. However, it does appear that Abrams and company are trying to evoke the spirit of the original trilogy through deliberate homages to its most familiar settings. When they relaunched "Star Trek," Abrams and his team could have crafted its "origin story" out of the bits of pre-existing lore -- for example, Kirk's junior-officer stints aboard the Republic and Farragut, or his friendship with Gary Mitchell -- but that might have dug a bit too deep into "Trek" obscura. They chose instead to foreshadow the character's biggest turning point from "Star Trek II," and the movie was richer for it.
Likewise, the images of wrecked old-school Star Destroyers and X-Wings suggest rather strongly that the new "Star Wars" trilogy has been built from the remnants of the original. "Episodes VII-IX" won't be a "Star Trek:The Next Generation"-style extrapolation, showing how the galaxy far, far away has progressed over the past thirty years -- but an illustration of how the "used universe" is still plagued by dark forces, and still needs to be saved by a put- upon band of freedom fighters. This is nothing against the fine work done by all those creative folk who collaborated to populate the Expanded Universe for all those years. It's more like reminding audiences of what "Star Wars" does right.
Indeed, reaction to "The Force Awakens" indicates that fans approve wholeheartedly of these back-to-basics moves. Even if the familiar elements and situations are only springboards for more extreme departures, they still seem to have reassured fans that "Episode VII" can be just as enchanting as its inspiration. After all, the original "Star Wars" mashed together a number of different genres and made something spectacular from the results. "The Force Awakens" may be familiar and even a little predictable, but I'm betting it still has a few surprises left.
"Star Wars: The Force Awakens" arrives in theaters Dec. 18, 2015.