2016-01-14

The surprising film that influenced Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is action-packed, winks at all the in-jokes to the franchise, steals plot points from its popular precedessors with wild abandon, and entertains audiences in inverse proportion to how serious into fandom they are.

It's new yet old, inventive yet derivative...oh God, it's Star Trek Into Darkness isn't it?

I know, I know, you've read all this stuff already. Gary Sebben refers to Khan and the Starkiller as J.J. Abram's "fatal flaw":
It’s not a surprise. It adds nothing to who he is. It really doesn’t matter a drop. It just makes you cover your face in shame. Without Khan, Kirk saving the ship in place of Spock looks less like a rehash and more like a twist. Stuff that was an obvious callback becomes fresh because you’re not pointing back to the source. The smartest way to steal something and get away with it is to not tell us where you stole it from.

The same thing can be said of the Starkiller. The Force Awakens’ most critical fault is that it seems like a point-for-point remake of A New Hope. In a lot of ways that’s true. But nowhere else is it more apparent than with the countdown to death against a super weapon that’s about to blow the heroes up. The very idea that the Empire would build an even bigger megaweapon with a single vulnerable spot is ridiculous in the extreme. That it would remain secret from, not a small rebellion, but a major galactic government like the New Republic is even harder to swallow. Having the Starkiller reminds us this is a remake. All the other stuff was just different enough but the Starkiller is a Deathstar, period.
Luke Benjamen Kuhns goes even further, saying that The Force Awakens is "just as bad" as Into Darkness:
Just like Into Darkness, the plot of The Force Awakens relies wholly on A New Hope and elements of Return of the Jedi with enough cameos and references to drive someone insane. We revisit the young person on a desert planet dreaming of a better life, A villain with family issues, a kidnapped protagonist that needs saving, and another Death Star that needs blown up. Again there is another attempt to hide who the villain is, but when you get the obvious reveal the impact is lost. So here you don’t feel like you’ve seen anything new, but a different take on A New Hope.
A lot of the "Force Awakens Into Darkness" comparisons take a specific look at elements of the story and where they've been stolen from, that sort of thing.

However, walking out of the theatre following my viewing of The Force Awakens all I could think of was the same thing I was thinking of after hearing that J.J. Abrams would be directing the new movie:

Good, now Star Wars fans can know what it feels like to have your favourite universe destroyed.

I don't mean this strictly as an in-universe event: though noting that both Vulcan and Coruscant were destroyed by J.J. Abrams reboots. I mean that the events and stories and worlds that others have built up painstakingly over time have been obliterated, and instead we're left with the Abrams nightmare. Already you can cruise Memory Alpha (the Star Trek Wiki) and see the impact of this. There's a page for a character called Khan played by Benedict Cumberbatch, and a page for a character called Khan played by Ricardo Montalban. Wookiepedia had to redesign their biographies for all the characters, as Disney shunted the entire Expanded Universe into something called Star Wars Legends. Did you enjoy reading about Darth Caedus in the New Jedi Order series? Hope not! He's gone like the wind. He's as non-existent in this universe as the time that James T. Kirk traveled to San Fransisco to rescue whales. And of course, just like in the rebooted Star Trek franchise, the hated prequels are still canon but the much beloved later adventures aren't.

Star Trek fans have had to put up with this now for six and a half years. Uhura and FaggotSpock dated. The Enterprise was built in a field in Iowa where Kirk lived even though his mother died and his brother may or may not have been born. Scotty invented a magical interplanetary transporter. FaggotSpock.

Well now its the Warsians turn. Han and Leia only had one kid. Luke's new Jedi Order lasted 63 femtoseconds. The Sun Crusher is now called a Starkiller and is the size of an entire planet. Grand Admiral Thrawn and Mara "Emperor's Hand" Jade are replaced by General Hux and Captain Phasma. I admit to not being that much of a Star Wars fan and I'm mostly aware of the Expanded Universe Star Wars: Legends through osmosis. I certainly haven't read any of the supplementary material except perhaps for a peek or two at Chapters. As far as I'm aware, Star Wars: The Force Awakens doesn't feature anything as offensive to Expanded Universe fans as, say, Captain Kirk dying and being saved by Tribble blood. But then again, J.J. hasn't reached the Star Trek Into Darkness movie count yet...wait another 11 months and maybe they will.

Sure it's technically the "Hosnian system", not Coruscant. But the movie never tell us this, did it? Even 2009's Star Trek painstakingly spells out to the audience that this is an alternate timeline, yet a planet that looks exactly like Coruscant that houses the Senate and the New Republic

The Force Awakens is technically a sequel, but as both Red Letter Media and Ezra Klein have noted, it's ultimately a "soft reboot".

The Force Awakens borrows elements from more then just Star Trek Into Darkness of course: it also borrows from Star Wars: A New Hope, Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, and Redirected. And no, that isn't a typo.


Did you see Redirected? If not, you really should (it's currently available on Canadian Netflix at the time of this writing). It's a neat little mob drama that sort of borrows some of the feel from Lucky Number Slevin, Pulp Fiction, The Usual Suspects, and most of Guy Ritchie's oeurvre (particularly Snatch or Lock, Stock and two Smoking Barrels). In it, a London man is "kidnapped" by his friends on his birthday and taken to a back alley and waits in the van as his friends presumably are getting him a hooker. Instead, they're involved in the violent robbery of an illegal casino run by Vinnie Jones (who, spoiler alert, spends a lot of the movie screaming and swearing), but since the birthday boy doesn't know to stay in the van and away from the cameras and the gang lets it slip during the holdout that one of Vinnie Jone's patrons was the inside man who planned the heist. As a result, Vinnie Jones goes after them all while the birthday boy tries to pursue his now ex-friends as they escape to Malaysia. They all wind up instead in Lithuania, where birthday boy tries to return home, the gang tries to retrieve their money and continue onto their South China Sea paradise, and Vinnie Jones goes after them. However, the gang members themselves are victims of some of Lithuania's seediest characters and the money and bloody assaults change hands almost faster than your eyes can keep up.

So that's basically the same plot as Star Wars: The Force Awakens, right? Vinnie Jones and Daisy Ridley are both British leads who play characters down on their luck working in a seedy part of the galaxy/city where they are accosted by shady characters who try to steal something of value (Vinnie Jones' ring, Oscar Isaac's droid). Both don't want to leave their home but are forced by consequence into a strange new world (Lithuania, Takodana) where everybody seems to be out to get them. Then a horny priest and/or horny Smuggler with a Wookie try to rescue a down on their luck guy handcuffed naked to a radiator (Gil Darnell, John Boyega) before an evil overlord (General Hux, Daniel Nehme) try to destroy Malaysia with a superlaser.

Okay, fine, you got me, the plot doesn't really match very much when you look at it that way. But what both Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Redirected have in common is they exist in a universe where every possible coincidence instantly happens. We don't know for sure who Rey is: she may be Luke's daughter or Han's daughter or even Caleb Dume's daughter. Let's pretend she's Luke's daughter, who happens to live on the same world that Max Von Sydow lives on with the map to Skywalker Ranch. She's the one who finds BB-8 within a stone's throw of the Millenium Falcon. Finn happens to find the two of them (though I suppose Rey 'found' him). These are an awful lot of coincidences, and these are the ones that make the most sense. Luke may easily have left his daughter close to the man who knew how to find him, which means that Finn's aim to catch BB-8 in the vicinity makes the coincidence at least manageable. The only big coincidence is BB-8 latching onto Rey, and Uncle Owen did buy C-3PO in the original trilogy so we have to give that a pass. Likewise in Redirected birthday boy knew where to find his friends because he knew they were going to Malaysia and its theoretically possible to blindly stumble upon people you're looking for at Heathrow Airport (though about as likely as a droid finding the right girl to latch onto). There's a gag about birthday boy being a minor celebrity (he works at Buckingham Palace) which is why Vinnie Jones' gangsters can find his house within an hour after seeing him on the security videos. Since the casino patron gave up the names of the other robbers to Vinnie Jones, they could trace the flight to Lithuania and know which country to aim for. Fair enough.

But then both franchises go off the deep end. Chewie and Solo just happen to stumble across the Falcon within 30 seconds in deep space without ever noticing it on the planet 500 miles away -- despite knowing its pedigree where presumably they could have traced the "stole from who stole from" trail of begats that Rey somehow had memorized. At the time they find the Millenium Falcon it contains data required for Princess Leia, Han's ex-girlfriend, which Han and Leia's son is trying to track down. Everywhere they go, somebody already knows that the First Order is looking for BB-8. Apparently every adventure in the Star Wars galaxy features some combination of Skywalkers (Anakin, Luke, Leia, and Kylo Ren) interacting with each other. And that's without us testing to see if Snoke is related to Palpatine and Rey is related to Luke. Hell, Nien Nunb and Ackbar are back along with what looks like Porkin's overweight son. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Biggs turns out to be related to Poe Dameron and Finn is actually a Calrisian. The galaxy has ten families in it, tops.

Likewise, in the world of Redirected the nation of Lithuania is about four square miles with only a single gas station. Two of the casino robbers find themselves in a small town where the truck they steal escaping a vicious fiancee turns out to be the fiancee's smuggling truck. Their getaway is spoiled because the fiancee knows how to find them, and Vinnie Jones always knows how to find everybody he's looking for. There's apparently only a single priest in all of Lithuania, the guy handcuffed to the radiator spots the con-lady who robbed him while running around naked on a city bus. Despite the fact that the Brits are all in a strange land where they don't speak the language, they can always locate people who are often trying to remain hidden. Near the end of the film when the skinny robber is telling Vinnie Jones where to find them, the answer is "at the Lithuanian wedding" and you don't even question that despite the supposed 300km distance Vinnie Jones gets there before the cake is finished baking.

In both films, the universe (a galaxy long ago and far away and/or Lithuania) is setup to be smaller than most small towns. Seriously, spend a day where you and three other friends all go to Smoky Lake during the Pumpkin Festival but each take separate vehicles and don't try to arrange anything on your cellphone (including attending the events). Just wander around the busy-ish small-ish town and see how many Star Wars or Redirected style coincidences you can discover. Having done basically this same experiment by accident a couple of years ago, I can already tell you that it's damned-near impossible. Similarly, remember trying to meet up in large/largest malls before cellphones?

So remember, if you're always able to bump into people you need to bump into to progress the plot of your life, you might just be a Jedi.