The Force Awakens is fantastic. It’s a fun, funny, cute, emotional, thrilling movie that encapsulated everything Star Wars should be about. I enjoyed a lot and cannot wait for episode VIII. But it has been going around that it’s too similar to A New Hope and not original enough.
Now, the first time I left the theater, I had this same impression. Starkiller base, the hologram of an evil Emperor, a masked villain, the cantina scene, the desert, ice, and forest planets… But by the second viewing, I focused a lot more on what on what was new and was able to enjoy it even more.
Of course, it’s undeniable that The Force Awakens references many things of the original trilogy, but does it outright copies A New Hope? And, in the end, does it really matter if it does?
Well, it seems that the answer is: yes and… no. Let’s analyze both movies and see where they are similar.
SPOILERS IN CASE YOU STILL HAVEN’T SEEN BOTH MOVIES… (Why, though? See them, please.)
The Revenge of the Three Act Structure
A New Hope has a very clear, straightforward plot. A boy is called on a journey, refuses it but has no choice but to face the dangers ahead to become a hero. He loses his mentor along the way but overcomes many challenges, learning something about himself and his abilities to triumph.
This translates into three fundamental acts. Act 1: Introduction of the world, the characters, and the dangers they will face. Act2: The first challenge and lowest point for the hero (mentor dies, or the hero is defeated). Act 3: Rise and triumph against Evil.
Bam. That’s the plot of A New Hope. It’s also the plot of The Force Awakens. Rey is called on a journey, refuses, but has no choice but to leave home and become a hero. In middle point of the plot, she loses (is captured), then learns about herself and her powers to triumph against the villain.
Like A New Hope, The Force Awakens relies heavily on the Three-Act Structure and the Hero’s Journey.
But there’s more…
The Attack of the References
I mentioned earlier that The Force Awakens references a lot of elements from the Original Trilogy. These are not wink-wink moments at the audience, and apart from the obvious references (Kylo’s mask, BB-8 being the new R2D2, the hologram chess game, Luke’s training sphere, etc.), they are completely integrated into the plot. Which means if you take out them, the whole house of cards falls…
Not only the structure is similar, but the plot beats follow A New Hope’s timeline almost perfectly. I saw the older movie (the Special Edition sadly), took a few notes and then went back to see The Force Awakens. It’s surprising how close the timing is.
For example, the first 10 minutes are almost the same. The players change, and the scenes are sleek and fast-paced, but it’s the same plot: Imperials/First Order attack the Rebellion/Resistance and capture Leia/Poe, Vader/Kylo has a short antagonizing conversation with Leia/Poe and the droids escape to desert planets.
Thankfully instead of the slow-moving scene of the Jawas capturing R2D2, we get Finn and Poe escaping to Jakku.
But Rey and Luke’s introductions are next, and the principle is the same here too. Rey is an orphan, but she also longs for something she doesn’t have, like Luke. Her finding BB-8 is the trigger for the start of her journey, just like Luke meeting R2D2 and C3PO was for him.
Han and Chewie appear at the 40-45 mark in both movies. The demonstrations of the power of the Death Star and the Starkiller base happen at the one-hour mark, and the attack on both bases occur at the 1h50 mark as well. Probably done on purpose.
At the 1h30-1h40 mark Ben, Luke’s mentor, dies and so does Rey’s and Finn’s mentor.
Two-hours in, both Rey and Luke win against their opponents. The bases are destroyed with a single decisive shot.
Even when some things don’t align perfectly, they still mirror a lot of scenes in A New Hope. For example, Rey and Finn are forced to leave the planet in the Millenium Falcon under an attack of the First Order, so do Luke, Han, and Ben. The escape itself is similar to the Death Star escape, with plenty of references and very similar camera shots. Finn and Poe reunite in a scene very similar to how Luke and Biggs reunite. Kylo feels like he turns violent at any second and his subordinates/fellow Imperials don’t like him/are afraid of him, much like Darth Vader.
Not everything is the same, of course. There’s no rescue operation akin to Leia’s (Poe escapes with Finn instead). Rey’s kidnapping is not the main focus of the Resistance’s plan, and she frees herself. Rey and Finn are not directly responsible for Starkiller base being destroyed. No trash compactor scene. But are these differences enough?
A New Hope for the Hero’s Journey
Okay, so clearly The Force Awakens is very, very similar to A New Hope. It continually borrows from the Original Trilogy: plot points, scenes, and even some characters. But why I still enjoyed the movie? And why I don’t think it matters?
Well, for starters, many, many stories are constructed with the three-act structure–it’s a tried and true way of creating plots, but just it’s a tool. If you simplify the plots of 80% of all movies, you will arrive at the same plot structure. Does that mean none of them are original? Of course not.
The use of the Hero’s Journey is not a terribly original idea, but this move uses it in a way that’s new and refreshing.
Luke’s journey is as straightforward as it can get; it follows the template very closely. In no moment do we wonder who’s the main character of A New Hope. We know it’s Luke. Han and Leia only factor in the plot 60 minutes in and even then their contributions are not as big as Luke’s.
But The Force Awakens doesn’t do that. It introduces us to Finn, and it builds him quickly and easily as someone to root for. Finn is a unique character with a unique background. He doesn’t fit any of the Original Trilogy characters in role or personality. He takes the reins of his life and escapes the First Order. So the audience concludes: this is his hero journey.
And the audience also assumes there’s no room for anyone else. But here’s the great thing: there is! Rey comes in, and she also is on her personal hero’s journey. In this century, in this age of cinema, there’s room for everyone.
Not only that but unlike Luke, Rey doesn’t reveal “herself” as the hero for the audience until she realizes that, in fact, she has a bigger role to play. We find out with her that she’s the one who has to face against Kylo, that she’s the one with the Force, not Finn. This is a nice twist on the usual Hero’s Journey structure, and it works beautifully.
Rey’s motivation is also the opposite of Luke. She doesn’t want to leave her planet and seek adventure. She’s waiting for her family and leaving Jakku is emotionally conflicting for her. Finn wants to escape the First Order above everything else–until Rey is captured. His character arc is extremely personal and not a mirror for Luke’s or even Han’s.
Meanwhile, Han is also on a journey to reclaim something he lost. He also has an emotional arc to fulfill here.
It doesn’t stop with the heroes either. Kylo is on a journey of self-discovery just as Finn and Rey, he has a character arc and conflicting emotions, unlike Darth Vader. He’s not done baking, as Buffy would say, and that’s very rewarding for a character. (Not for a villain, but he has two movies to get there).
Everyone gets conflicting emotions and arcs. This is not like A New Hope at all. Apart from Luke, only Han “changed” in A New Hope (in a span of a few minutes), but that was nothing compared to The Force Awakens’ ensemble cast.
While The Force Awakens references a lot of elements from A New Hope, in the end, when it matters the movie offers us new, compelling characters and emotional arcs.
The Popular Culture Strikes Back
I don’t blame The Force Awakens for using the same formula that made A New Hope so appealing and successful– the last true Star Wars movie was 30 years ago, and while the original trilogy is still very alive in Star Wars fan minds, 30 years was a long time ago, in a far, far away galaxy. After George Lucas tried to do something different and was hated for it, it was time to get back to the roots of the franchise and introduce a true Star Wars movie to a new generation.
And the result is a movie that is everything a Star War movie should be about but faster and more inclusive. Is it a cinema work of art? Is it a fantastic achievement of direction and storytelling? No. This is not Fury Road; this is not Inception, or The Hateful Eight. And it isn’t supposed to be.
It’s an homage; it’s a fast-paced celebration of the old Star Wars that sometimes doesn’t stop enough for us to enjoy the scenery, but it has a new and bright beating heart under that A New Hope ribcage. And wasn’t that what everyone wanted? Wasn’t that what the franchise needed? For me, that’s a huge yes.