On the Well Actuallying of The Force Awakens

My first thought when it was announced that J.J. Abrams was returning to direct and co-write Episode IX was “Argh, I really wish a woman had gotten this.” And yeah, while I completely understand the production realities that necessitated Lucasfilm asking a familiar face to return to get things back on track, I was bummed. 

My second thought was “We’re about to revisit the Well Actuallying of The Force Awakens, aren’t we?” My Twitter timeline bore that out in about two minutes of me waking up on Tuesday.

“I hate sand.”*

Annoyances that are framed as facts, which become brainless memes before too long, are incredibly frustrating. Many a prequel fan can attest to that truism. Normally they center on something utterly superficial that has had zero critical analysis applied to it and gets repeated with increasing volume and intensity that it drowns out any thoughtful discussion to be had. Hello, Anakin and your line above. Instead of discussing what’s happening with the characters in that moment or discussing the editing that lead up to the scene with any thought, the discussion goes straight to meme town. 

*This has become such a brainless meme you probably forgot the line is really “I don’t like sand.” 

At a certain point the lack of thought and the frequency in which particular annoyances are bandied about jams the signal with deafening static. There’s no discussing the prequels anymore, merits for or failings against, without the entire discussion getting drowned out within five-point-eight seconds of annoyance-framed-as-facts obliterating any hope of actually critiquing the subject matter.

So yes, I get frustrated when “The Force Awakens is a no-risk, lazy A New Hope ripoff” gets bandied around casually as if it were a universally accepted truth.

We could start with the hypocrisy in the statement itself, where many who claim this will trip over themselves to praise George Lucas and Ring Theory to explain why echoes of themes are acceptable when The Maker does it, but rip J.J. Abrams and branding him as lazy for doing something similar (while actively subverting many of the tropes he’s accused of dropping into the film without care).

We could also discuss how even narratively, it did take some incredible risks. It didn’t just kill Han Solo, it killed him by his own son’s hand and somehow they earned it. They didn’t give a single line to Luke Freakin’ Skywalker. We can point out that the similarities that people claim are deal-breaking laziness are rather superficial to what’s happening on screen. Yes, there’s a desert planet. Yes, there’s a superweapon. But those things are just set dressing in the periphery of characters that are very different from what we’ve had before. Star Wars has and will likely forever feature many classic tropes, themes, and arcs. It’s a modern mythology. Where it’s so special is that it will take these classic framing devices and do interesting things to flavor them.

Such as casting a woman and two men of color in the leading protagonist roles.

And it’s here that my frustration often boils over. How can you accuse The Force Awakens of doing nothing new and taking no risks when it went out and did what Hollywood refused and to this day still refuses to do in letting women and minorities be at the foreground of an uber-blockbuster? How do you say it’s done nothing new when it had the guts to actually portray a privileged white male as the villain and actually follow through with showing the ways his unchecked privilege harms people?

Every time this accusation is casually thrown about, it feels like a bit of a slap in the face. Because what you’re saying winds up sounding like “The Force Awakens didn’t do enough new for me personally,” while it was a revelation for countless filmgoers who had never gotten to see themselves in these roles before. Even if these roles were exact carbon copies of the leading roles in A New Hope (they aren’t, they really, really are not), putting Ridley, Boyega, and Isaac in those positions on screen is transformative and vitally important. Yet when it is brought up how important this is, and how much of a risk it was, the casting and its significance are almost immediately brushed aside so we can run back to the thoughtless talking point that being on another desert planet and a superweapon ruined the value of the film and makes it little more than an ANH clone. Additionally…

None of this is to say there aren’t valid criticisms of The Force Awakens, because there definitely are. Those superficial complaints of desert worlds and massive superweapons do deserve some scrutiny, even if they’re ultimately small details to the margins of the film. Still, I find it’s hard to escape the fact that this film did many new and important things, both in universe and out of universe. Many of which that can’t just be discussed on a sterile, plot-only level. So the question might perhaps be this: Is The Force Awakens really a lazy, no-risk ripoff of A New Hope, or do you feel that way because some of the most important, transformative things it did were not specifically about you?

I’ll let you ponder on that.

Additional viewing: Movies with Mikey covering just how wild it is that The Force Awakens accomplished its primary goal. 


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