Much in the way that the second Star Wars trilogy made the original worse, the seventh installment in the series makes episodes 1-3 look better.
The original Star Wars was undeniably – and admittedly – a pastiche of all the pulp genres that had come before it (cowboy, samurai, Flash Gordon/space opera) their content was wholly derivative but their mixing was novel, their aesthetic unheard of (nobody had ever presented a technologically advanced civilization with dirty second-hand tech in constant need of repair before) and the film style used to hold them together – the sharp fades and non-stop pace of the plot, the quick archetypal treating of characters otherwise held so tight they had no room to breath – was a genuine stylistic breakthrough. The original trilogy was so superb in no small part because the medium was the message, and it was a genuine advance.
The films that followed (episodes 1-3) were so disappointing to fans I no small part because they actually tried to do something different. This is not to excuse their many flaws in execution, which were significant and ultimately the real problem with the films, but those flaws have obscured one central fact from popular observation: rather than simply repeating his blockbuster formula (really “the” blockbuster formula), Lucas had a vision to create something new that would extend, deepen, and (had it gone right) enhance the original story he told.
Again, the execution was flawed, but the story he was trying to tell was profound, and even relevant: the corruption of a pluralistic democracy from within by agents of evil using institutional inertia and the politics of fear, as manifest in the most promising of the young men charged with its defense. There was nothing like this in the original Star Wars, and the addition of it really does create a deeper and larger story – to the extent it works as film making.
Which brings us to JJ Abrams’ seventh installment, a film that lacks any larger ambition at all. Far from trying to tell any new stories, it is such a slavish repeat of the original Star Wars film that instead of being a pastiche of the original influences (samurai, cowboy, space opera) it is a pastiche of Star Wars itself. It has all of the things Star Wars had, and uses the exact same film making technique, and follows what is surely an enormous style guide for the original trilogy aesthetic – and thus breaks no new ground at all. For all that it is a fun and competent popcorn movie, it is stillborn. Utterly pointless: if you have seen the original Star Wars you have seen this movie, to the point where there is no need to do so at all.
This is a trap that Lucas himself refused to fall into, and highlights the extent to which his creative ambition was laudable and even his flawed film making more interesting.
Now however, under Abrams and Disney, we have a potentially infinite number of these paint-by-numbers films rendered by exceptional technicians to be shoved at us. They are certainly box-offices successes, but much in the way that a short story is diminished when you stretch it out to a novel, the more Star Wars remains a pastiche of itself the more it will turn into a parody of itself, reducing the whole.
Apparently it is possible to render a cultural touchstone obsolete by extending its life.