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Lay off of 'Star Wars,' all sequels are derivative

Posted Wednesday, January 6, 2016 at 2:14 PM Central
Last updated Wednesday, January 6, 2016 at 2:17 PM Central

by John Couture

It's been a few weeks now since the release of The Force Awakens and I've noticed a disturbing trend recently. It seems that the "cool" thing to do among online bloggers and critics is to bash the film and call it derivative. Or a glorified remake. Or a rehash. Or worse.

It seems that literally overnight everyone has joined Armond White as part of the minority opposition to everything cool. Don't worry, Armond didn't let us down, he hated The Force Awakens too.

This is the spot where I warn you that you might want to turn back if haven't seen The Force Awakens yet. Of course with the film's box office performance on the verge of setting the record for the highest-grossing domestic film of all time, I'm betting that most of you have seen it by now. Be warned, there are spoilers below.

Right up front, I should probably acknowledge that I'm not writing this piece to defend the idea of sequels. Generally speaking, I'm anti-sequels and I despise remakes or reboots or whatever term some marketing intern came up this week to describe the leveraging of existing art to create inferior "art." And yet, all sequels are not created equal.

There are some really great sequels out there, such as The Empire Strikes Back, The Godfather Part II, and The Road Warrior among others that you could even argue are better than their predecessors. And yet, all sequels, including those above, are derivative of the original films to some degree.

I mean, that is pretty much the very definition of a sequel. It is a movie that carries on the story from the preceding film, oftentimes with the same cast of characters. There are more lightsaber battles, mafia turf wars, and post-apocalyptic violence in the sequels or otherwise they wouldn't be a sequel. They would be original films (which are pretty OK in my book, but not really what we are talking about today).

Everyone that loves the Fast & Furious franchise goes into each film expecting to see fast cars, impossibly stupid action, and "witty" one-liners from Vin Diesel. And yet, you don't get the same level of vile critiques from people claiming that each film is just more derivative of the last one.

Embrace derivativeness

I say embrace the derivativeness of The Force Awakens, or as I like to call it the repeating themes that echo things that we see in real life. Life is cyclical and history tends to repeat itself. I'm certainly not going to get into a political discussion, but wars and violence seem to follow patterns. World War I directly led to World War II just as the aggressive foreign policy stances of the United States led to the Cold War, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc.

It's a fact of life, "all this has happened before, and all of it will happen again." It's almost like I've heard that somewhere else. Oh, that's right, Battlestar Galactica was a remake and no one seems to have an issue with it.

Psst, here's a secret. It's that derivativeness that makes The Force Awakens a Star Wars film. The prequels were many things but the most damning argument against them is that they just didn't feel like Star Wars films. Sure, the same characters were there (sort of), but the essence of what is Star Wars was lost somewhere along the way and that essence is the familiar story that we obviously all craved.

Spot the differences

I'm not going to play Cleo from Coming to America and line-list all of the differences between Star Wars and The Force Awakens, but suffice to say, there are far many more differences than similarities. J.J. Abrams has given us the strongest female character ever seen in the Star Wars galaxy in Daisy Ridley's Rey, but the naysayers just want to paint her as Luke Skywalker 2.0.

Granted, they do share the rather unfortunate experience of having been orphaned on a desert planet, but it seems that this fate is pretty common in the Star Wars galaxy. That would be akin to claiming that two orphans that came to America through Ellis Island in the early 1900s were exactly the same despite the thousands of other orphans who were given the same treatment.

If you look beneath the surface, you have two people who, despite their common upbringing, grew into two completely opposite people with different motivations. Luke despises Tatooine and dreams of nothing more than getting off of the rock and experiencing the adventures that his friends are enjoying. Meanwhile, Rey determined to stay on Jakku at all costs and is the most reluctant hero that we have probably seen to date in the Star Wars galaxy.

By roughly the same age, Luke is sheltered and protected and naive about the world and galaxy surrounding him, while Rey is a self-sufficient survivor who has had to learn how to deal with harsh conditions just to eat every day. She is the furthest thing from a Mary Jane character, despite what others might tell you.

Take the lead bad guy from each series. Yes, they share some things, you know other than DNA, mainly because Kylo Ren worships at the altar that was Darth Vader. He is literally a disciple of his grandfather, so yeah, there are going to be some things in common between them, but there are many differences too.

At the beginning of A New Hope, Darth Vader is a fully formed bad guy in control of his emotions. His cool (and cold) demeanor is one of his scariest attributes and why he is consistently voted among the best bad guys in the history of film. Kylo Ren, on the other hand, is a ball of emotion and conflicted in his thoughts and actions.

The various scenes in which we see Kylo Ren lose his cool and act out in an almost schizophrenic state are truly horrifying and dark. Sure, Anakin approaches this level of uncontrolled hatred in Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, but those scenes are shot in a way to neuter their emotional impact. Also, since we know how the arc turns out in Return of the Jedi, these scenes are lessened even further. Sure Anakin kills a bunch of Tusken Raiders and Jedi Younglings, but he is redeemed at the end, so it's all good. Which leads me to...

The future is uncertain

Yes, as it stands currently, the Star Wars saga is going to be comprised of three trilogies, or nine films. I'm sure that Disney will continue to add anthology films and core trilogies every year until we finally tap out under the weight of Star Wars gluttony.

Naturally, there are going to be a lot of similarities between the trilogies, especially when they each follow the same family over three generations. But, each trilogy is also quite different in terms of their approach. Despite everything that George Lucas says, he crafted Star Wars to be a stand alone film. Sure, he created backstory and mythology for his film, but when he filmed A New Hope, there was no guarantee that another film would see the light of day.

With this in mind, Lucas had to deliver a stand-alone film that would tie up most of the loose ends. In 1977, Hollywood was still almost a decade away from catching sequel fever, so Luke had to complete Joseph Campbell's Hero Journey in time to collect his medal reward. With the prequels, the audience (and Lucas obviously) knew what checkpoints needed to be hit to end up with Darth Vader and the twins being hidden away from the Empire.

But, with The Force Awakens, we are finally at a spot that we haven't been at since The Empire Strikes Back. The future is truly unknown, but with the luxury of having three films to tell this story arc, the filmmakers aren't hampered by the constraints of having to deliver a stand-alone film.

And don't listen to anything that J.J. Abrams is saying about wanting to balance out the complete film with the whole first act of a trilogy jargon. Let's call it for what it is, The Force Awakens is a new Star Wars film and the first chapter of another story.

There are so many questions left unanswered with this film that it makes The Empire Strikes Back pale in comparison in terms of loose ends. Hell, the film ends on a literal cliffhanger on a cliff. What is the story behind Rey? What is Finn's fate? What is Luke Skywalker's story? What will the fallout be in the Star Wars galaxy after the entire government is evaporated? Who is Supreme Leader Snoke?

A New Hope left me with one unanswered question, why did Chewbacca get the shaft when it came time to hand out the medals? I'm still waiting for an answer George...

Can someone turn on the lights?

I could go on and on pointing out the differences between these films, but I'm sure that you're getting tired by now. Let me finish my rebuttal with what I feel is the most obvious difference between A New Hope and The Force Awakens, the tone.

The Force Awakens is dark, bleak even, while A New Hope is mostly a feel-good story of a scrappy bunch of underdogs. The first few scenes of The Force Awakens features an entire village being ruthlessly slaughtered by flame-thrower wielding stormtroopers. The creepiest moment that I have ever seen in a Star Wars film to date happens when a dying stormtrooper leaves a bloody hand print on Finn's helmet.

That powerful image alone is enough to prove to me that whatever follows isn't going to be like anything else that we have ever experienced in this franchise. The dark psychosis that we see in Kylo Ren is a level of madness that seems downright out of place in the genteel (by comparison) framework of the original trilogy. In the original films, it was all black and white. You were either on the good side or the bad side, but Kylo is clearly auditioning for the sequel to Fifty Shades of Grey.

He is conflicted and at odds with himself and those around him. This conflict in many ways makes Kylo a more interesting and complicated character than Darth Vader ever got over the course of six films. And we're talking about one of the worst when it comes to big screen baddies.

You only have to look at the fate of Han Solo to realize just how dark this series of films is planning to go. Despite the violence and familial maiming that ran rampant in both the prequel and original trilogies, there was no patricide in those films. Right off the bat, we have Kylo Ren killing his father Han Solo, which the lazy critic will try to compare to Obi Wan's selfless sacrifice in A New Hope.

Such a comparison fails for a myriad of reasons, but the biggest is that I'm just not buying Han's act as one of selflessness. We have idolized Han Solo over the years and his legend has grown to the point where he can do no wrong. But, the truth is that Han Solo is still as roguish as ever, making plenty of mistakes. His self-assured arrogance led him on that walkway with Kylo, believing in his heart that his son would not harm him. His mistake cost him his life and many people take Kylo's line ("Thank you") as proof of Han's sacrifice, but a more chilling interpretation is that Kylo was simply mocking his father for not taking the necessary precautions when dealing with him.

This stance on Han's death scene paints a whole new shade of dark on the film just as the star was on the verge of being completely ravaged. Would these naysayers still hold onto their critiques if the Resistance did not blow up Starkiller Base? Sure, it's another big weapon getting destroyed just in time by a much smaller force, but I wouldn't be surprised to learn that this ending was changed at some point in the process.

After the death of Han Solo, ending the film with the Resistance getting pummeled would have probably taken The Force Awakens to a place too dark. The ending would have been more in line with The Empire Strikes Back except more dour. The audience needed to get something out of Han's death and a blow to the First Order would do the trick.

It's a difficult balance trying to marry the old with the new in a situation like this. When all three new films have been released I think we will have a much better idea as to what The Force Awakens is and how it fits into the fabric of this sequel trilogy. Of course, if Episode VIII ends with Kylo Ren cutting off Rey's hand in a city in the clouds while proclaiming to be her father, then I reserve the right to change my mind.