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Review: The Force Awakens (and its Roots in Vintage Space Opera)

Tuesday, December 29th, 2015 | Posted by M Harold Page

SWTheForceAwakensStruzanD23Poster

The Force Awakens is a movie we can be proud of. We can point to and say, “This is why we read books with lasers and rocket ships on the cover.”

(Mild spoilers below the cut.)

The John Williams theme pounded out, the yellow opening crawl rolled up the screen and I wept a little.

I was eight when I saw the Star Wars in the cinema. Now my daughter was eight and beside me seeing the new one. Full circle. A real Country and Western moment.

The word was that this was not the debacle that the prequels were, but a proper SciFi movie where Stuff Happens and other Stuff Gets Blown Up.

And I wasn’t disappointed.

This was Star Wars as it should have always been, with The Empire Strikes Back as a benchmark, a grown-up family movie with few concessions to the younger audience… no jarring Jar Jar Binx… no slapstick farce, just comic moments arising from the plot. Even the stupid looking beach-ball droid makes a kind of sense.

So we can be proud of The Force Awakens. We can point to and say, “This is why we read books with lasers and rocket ships on the cover.”

It’s also playing our tune. The “we” of “our” being fans not just of Star Wars, but of Vintage and Pulp Science Fiction, and of Science Fiction in general.

Let me explain, but behind the Spoiler Shield (though the spoilers are oblique).

What Prequels? (The Originals Strike Back)

Pre-code Flash Gordon

1930s Flash Gordon gave us Princess Leia’s bikini (but not the beefcake)…

The Force Awakens blew the prequels out of the water by pinging everything we liked about the original trilogy and taking it further.

Just compare the opening crawls!

The prequels are (I) “Some crap about a trade dispute blah some bloke you never heard of blah…“, (II) “Blah politics blah vote blah disorder“, and (III) “War! At last something cool happens.”

The original trilogy and The Force Awakens, however, are: “Space Nazis versus Galactic Maquis!! Rah! Hero in trouble. Rah! Go! GO! GO!

The prequels focused on romance, family saga and grand politics, giving us Space Opera in grudging parallel. The new movie, like the originals, is Space Opera driven by relationships and politics, the politics kept mostly of screen where it belongs; we don’t really know much about the Resistance and nor do we need to.

The originals drew heavily on vintage screen SF, especially the pre-code 1930s serials like Flash Gordon, which gave us the wipes, the opening crawl, the Art Deco, and Princess Leia’s bikini (but not the beefcake, making the older serial the more enlightened one).

The new movie ditched the eroticism but otherwise was even more true to that tradition.  Poe Dameron, the multi-competent supporting hero is not a professional agent, but merely the Resistance’s “best pilot.” I’m not saying the part was written for Larry “Buster” Crabbe, but Dameron looks like the love child of Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. The planet-to-planet death ray is pretty much out of Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe. Supreme Leader Snoke has the grandiosity of Ming the Merciless, but also the Orwellian feel of Killer Kane from the vintage Buck Rogers serial.

Firefly episode 2 cliff-small

Han Solo’s new career looks awfully Firefly to me

However, the new movie isn’t a Sky Captain of the World Tomorrow-style pastiche. It also drew from more modern screen SF. The co-ed Stormtroopers and their fascist leader belonged in Starship Troopers.  Han Solo’s new career looks awfully Firefly to me (ironic because that series was inspired by Han Solo). Do we detect a little Mad Max in the Rey’s post-apocalyptic desert world?

Similarly, the new movie follows the originals in echoing war movies both old and new. So it is that we still get Blue Max ground attack, Battle of Britain/Midway pre and post-mission drama (plus dogfights). We also get a dose of Sink the Bismark from the same era, with the X-Wings sweeping in over the water like Swordfish and the flame-thrower Stormtroopers feel as if they are out of a WWI movie (but are reminiscent of an episode of The Young Indiana Jones). However, the scary frenetic combat is Saving Private Ryan seguing into Gladiator.

The Force Awakens also fixed things we’ve always bitched about.

Flash_Gordon_(1940)_-_Opening_Crawl

…and the opening crawl…

The Stormtroopers actually know how to shoot straight (most of the time) and behave like modern soldiers. Better still, from the start, it was clear that the First Order really were the bad guys.

I mean, think about the opening to A New Hope.

We don’t really know that the Rebels are the good guys. Sure Darth Vader extracts information using dubious means. However, so does Jack Bauer in 24. Behavior that was shocking in the 1970s is just edgy and macho in the 2010s. In contrast, The Force Awakens opens with a war crime —

— which takes us to the way the the Rule of Cool is now — often — in abeyance to more cynical logic.

Remember Ghostbusters II which opens with the heroes in legal difficulties over the events of Ghostbusters I? We always thought that the defeat of the Empire was a bit too easy. If we’d admitted it, we’d have also wondered whether Han and Leia had a happy future together.

Perhaps best of all, the movie rather decisively abolishes character shields for all but the lead characters, upping the stakes.

So for me, this is Star Wars as it should always have been done.

But wait, there’s more!

Even more gloriously, The Force Awakens is packed with Space Opera tropes…

Space Opera Tropes in Living Color!

Toyman EC Tubb-small

we can detect the narrative DNA — the Tropes — of both the Space Opera of yore

We don’t know what the screenwriters of The Force Awakens read, what their influences were. Even so, we can detect the narrative DNA — the tropes — of both the Space Opera of yore and of more modern SF.

The whole movie has an Edmund Hamilton feel, even more so than the originals. It goes beyond Aristocrats in Space to making space itself — or at least the galaxy — a co-star. it’s very much set in a galaxy which has a map, and in which people can go on quests to hidden or forgotten worlds — pretty much like the Starwolf trilogy. We can also feel the noir presence of Hamilton’s wife, the great Leigh Brackett who wrote the first draft of Empire Strikes Back — somebody Lukas openly acknowledged as an influence (Swordfights in Space are probably also her legacy).

The-Force-Awakens-new-images-11

…could have been the opening of one of EC Tubb’s Dumarest novels

Meanwhile Rey’s junkyard settlement could have been the opening setting of one of EC Tubb’s Dumarest novels: trapped travelers grift just to survive, constantly ripped off by The Man, hope dwindling. Later, the “Alien Cargo Goes Berserk” sequence echoes an episode from one of the middle novels (Heck! Don’t ask me which one — there are dozens!).

That space merchants-in-trouble trope suggests another, much more modern influence. Han Solo and Chewbacca appear to have become Traveller role-playing characters, plying the trade routes and playing off one criminal faction against another, having comedic adventures with unruly cargo. (Perhaps some of the old tropes actually slipped into the movie via the game.)

And with the modernity comes a whiff of modern Military Science Fiction.

Both sides are matter-of-factly equal-opportunity.  The Stormtroopers behave like real soldiers, with ranks and specialist roles. The good guys can’t get the political backing they need.  The technological workarounds are at least foreshadowed, for example Han’s risk-taking with making the jump in and out of light speed in… confined spaces. A few changes of focus and this could be a Baen story.

Made with Love by People Not So Unlike Us

So.

Like the current Marvel series and Peter Jackson’s Tolkien movies, everything about The Force Awakens suggests that the geeks have not just inherited the Earth, we have also seized control of the speculative fiction franchises and started making movies our way.

I can’t promise that the Force is with us, but the tide of culture is most certainly in our favor!


M Harold Page is the sword-wielding author of books like Swords vs Tanks (Charles Stross: “Holy ****!”). He has sworn to put the Heavy Metal back into any genre foolish enough to cross his path. For more on how he approaches fiction, take a look at his  Storyteller Tools: Outline from vision to finished novel without losing the magic.

10 Comments »

  1. I’m not really sure about all this. Where you see inspirations from old books and movies, I always just see mindlessly copying images from Episode 4 and 6. It’s mostly stuff we’ve seen before in Star Wars, just with the names changed.

    But at least that did make the movie feel like Star Wars. Given how the new Star Trek movies neither look or feel anything like Star Trek, that was one of my main worries.

    Comment by Martin Kallies - December 30, 2015 6:45 am

  2. Well *some* stuff was new.

    War crimes on screen. Stormtrooper POV. Battle aftermath debris/Star Wars as old history. Scavenging the downed star destroyer. Freighter interior (and Han being a tramp steamer captain on screen). Rampaging alien.

    Other stuff harked back to the originals but served them with a twist (or steroids). The new death ray for example. Light sabre with a cross guard. Supreme Leader as a giant hologram.

    Comment by M Harold Page - December 30, 2015 8:05 am

  3. I think whatever they idea with that was didn’t really work. It’s not a terrible movie, but most of it felt to me like they were just throwing together a pile of pieces from the old movies without any plan or purpose and calling it a day.

    I appreciate Episode 3 because it obviously could have been so much worse. And I am disappointed with Episode 7 because it obviously could have been so much better.

    The end result feels to me a lot like a pilot episode for a TV show. A quick introduction and pitch for people who don’t know anything about Star Wars yet, to lay the groundwork for the actual story that is going to come later.
    At least I hope it will be.

    Comment by Martin Kallies - December 30, 2015 8:10 am

  4. I did enjoy it. Of course its impossible to recapture the iconic original – they were iconic, because there was nothing like it before. You cant have that again.

    SPOILER ALERT APOILER ALERT

    I also appreciate all the small detail linking the new episodes to the old (especially Han Solo) – but I enjoyed the new parts much more (like the stormtrooper springing the captured rebel, the Han Solo scenes etc.) than the ones that are bassicly the new Hope rebooted. The parts of the original triology were more distinct than this one and the old one. And that was unneccessary. So not the best movie this year, not by a long shot, but a decent one, worth watching.

    Comment by peer - December 30, 2015 3:36 pm

  5. I liked the movie a lot (except for the “blow up the big space ship” plot, which should be permanently retired after its fourth appearance in seven films). But I’m not sure the similarities you mention really represent specific influences, especially from written sf. The monster-in-the-spaceship thing is pretty widespread–I’m pretty sure there was an episode or two of the SUPERMAN cartoon show that featured them; there’s ALIEN, of course, and a long line of literary forbears (as it were). Schmitz’s “Lion Loose” was the one I thought of, but there must be others.

    http://www.baenebooks.com/chapters/0671319663/0671319663___2.htm

    I strongly agree that the series shows the influence of planet-smashers like Hamilton and sword-and-planeteers, like Leigh Brackett… but then, it always did (except in the boringest moments of the prequels, maybe).

    But one of the best things in the movie was Finn’s journey: that bit where he grieves for his fallen fellow-soldier, his refusal to engage in a massacre, his struggle to find a new place. That was new ground for this series, in a movie that was a little too interested in revisiting old ground.

    Comment by James Enge - December 30, 2015 5:50 pm

  6. I was careful to talk about shared DNA rather than direct influences!

    And yes, Finn’s journey takes the series in the direction of real character growth based on real decisions.

    Comment by M Harold Page - December 30, 2015 8:06 pm

  7. Oh and, surely, in a universe where a Death Star is possible and strategically useful, a lot of battles WILL revolve around it.

    Comment by M Harold Page - December 30, 2015 8:07 pm

  8. Watched it last night on IMAX and loved it. So did my wife and kids! Until then the most I knew was based on the time magazine article and I had been a bit concerned that F71184? (Fin) looked nothing at all like Jango Fett (sp) whom all storm troopers were said to be cloned from. But I see they took care of that abnormality and also on reflection, the original storm troopers would have aged and with the empire disbanded per sé, funding of further clones would most likely have been discontinued. So alternative source of troopers would be necessary.

    I loved the feel of the movie. That used and worn look, where things aren’t all brand new. The new bar music I am sure will also become a hit. For sure I was concerned it would be a reboot of episode 4, and in many ways the broad plot is, but it works. Thumbs up for me!

    PS – First Order Captains costume is way cool, like a Boba Fett / Storm trooper meld.

    Comment by Tiberius - December 31, 2015 2:06 am

  9. Haha! I thought the same. Just adding that little cape instantly made the stormtrooper armor look like Boba Fett. ^^

    Comment by Martin Kallies - December 31, 2015 4:59 am

  10. Seen it twice so far and will probably see it again over the weekend (unless I opt instead for 70mm Hateful Eight). For the most part, I really, really liked it — great characters and actual good acting, and a story that, well, mostly got the job done.

    A couple of things did bother me — partly that they seemed to rely too much on coincidence (although some things were explained in the novelization), and also that JJ clearly has no idea (or just doesn’t care) how big a galaxy is and how space works. And yeah, I could’ve done without Death Star III: Season of the Witch.

    But on the whole, as I said, I was pleased.

    Comment by Joe H. - December 31, 2015 10:57 am


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