Spoilers! Do not read if you haven’t seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
As I walked out of my first viewing of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, one of the many thoughts going through my head was how familiar everything was.
Everyone’s noticed this, of course. JJ Abrams has even been explicit that this was their intent.
Well, it’s also the root of most of the criticism for the film. Some people think there are too many identical story beats and symbols from the original trilogy. You know what I mean: A third Death Star, really?
I read this piece from The Verge and it summed up my thoughts better than I could’ve. It argues that The Force Awakens is an object lesson in how nostalgia can be great, but only takes you so far. The film is diminished because it didn’t construct enough of its own originality.
The second time I saw the film, I wasn’t bothered by this at all.
Even conscious of what I considered to be a flaw, as I noticed every familiar beat, somehow it just didn’t matter. The film worked, and didn’t leave me feeling empty or shortchanged.
After my third viewing, I started to realize that all of those familiar elements distract from what are in fact many fresh and original ideas that we’ve never seen before in a Star Wars film.
The idea that Episode VII is just a rehashing of the first three Star Wars films falls apart on close inspection.
We have never seen such wonderfully empowered and bad ass women and people of color in a Star Wars movie before. This alone is worth a lot of celebration.
But we’ve also never seen Kylo Ren’s prodigious abilities with the Force before. He can restrain a person, suspend a blaster bolt, and probe minds for interrogation. And we’ve never seen anyone resist the power of the Dark Side the way Rey can resist his mind probe.
We’ve never seen a TIE fighter that seats two, heroes stealing enemy ships, or melee combat with quarterstaffs and riot batons (that can spar with a lightsaber!). We’ve never seen scavenger camps, starships flying through the ruins of larger ships, entering hyperspace from inside of a hangar, or exiting it inside of a planet’s atmosphere.
We’ve never seen a stormtrooper remove their helmet and become a character, let alone defect. We’ve never seen someone so committed to the Dark Side being so conflicted or vulnerable. We’ve never seen someone murder a member of their own family.
There is plenty of new stuff to sink your teeth into here.
Some of those things — say for example, the two-seater TIE fighter — may seem minor. But even small differences like that go a long way toward making a work of fantasy an original.
That’s right: Star Wars is a fantasy. It only looks like science fiction.
It has all of the classic elements of fantasy. It completely and totally disregards physics, and makes magic very important. Epic quests revolve around delivering precious information or mythic items. There are heroic characters, super villains, overt Good versus Evil themes. Exotic locations season the story. An exclusive order of knights wield swords and wizard-like power, with their own code and arcana…
Works of fantasy are marked by their very specific vehicles, items, quests, and heroes. The specifics are what make a work rise above the genre’s tropes to stand on its own.
So together, The Force Awakens’ new bits, major and minor, add up to a fresh, original work.
By the same token, some of these symbols need to be familiar for the story to be Star Wars. The existence of the Millennium Falcon and our old heroes, etcetera provide continuity. The familiar elements make this fit better as a Star Wars movie than the prequels did.
Below, I’ve made a longer list of things from Episode VII that we have never seen before in a Star Wars film.
I haven’t listed everything we have seen before, so I’m not sure what the ratio of familiar to fresh is. But whatever it is, that balance works well to make The Force Awakens both joyfully familiar and excitingly new.
Things from Episode VII that we have never seen before in a Star Wars film
- Rathtars, the bad beasties aboard Han’s freighter
- Dozens of new alien races
- Black stormtroopers
- A lead black character
- A female villain
- A female stormtrooper
- Female officers serving on an Empire / First Order ship or facility
- A featured female character using the Force (by “featured” I mean minor/nameless Jedi characters in the the prequels don’t count)
- A featured female character using a lightsaber
- A featured female character piloting a starship
- A female character being an expert mechanic
- A female sage
Weapons, Items, and Ships
- BB class droids
- A two-seater TIE fighter
- A quarterstaff
- A sought-after star map
- Han discovering the power of Chewie’s bowcaster
- A lightsaber whose blade extends crossways to form a hilt (which makes perfect sense)
- A riot control baton that can spar with a lightsaber
- Using the Force to halt the forward motion of a blaster bolt, suspending it in midair
- Using the Force to restrain others, paralyzing them where they stand
- Using the Force for interrogation, to rip information out of others’ minds
- Using the Force to resist interrogation
- Learning to use the Force without training, in the heat of the moment
- Using the Force to put someone to sleep
Locations and settings
- A scavenger camp
- The inside of a large crashed starship
- Starships flying through the ruins of larger ships
- A planet covered by lake-dappled forests (Takodana, the setting for Maz’s watering hole)
- A misty yet un-swamp-like rainforest planet (D’Qar, the setting for The Resistance’s HQ)
- A planet featuring stunning rocky islands rising from a global ocean (Ahch-To, where Luke’s been in exile)
Characters Doing Things
- Pilot a stolen TIE fighter
- Scavenge to make a living
- Attempt a droid-napping
- Fight with a quarterstaff
- Dogfighting starfighters inside of an atmosphere
- Battle with lightsabers in the snow
Villains Doing Things
- A stormtrooper removing their helmet (I’m not counting clone troopers from episodes II and III)
- A member of the Empire / First Order defecting
- A dark lord committed to the Dark Side being conflicted and vulnerable
- Stormtroopers slaughtering an entire village (of humans, on screen)
- Disciplining stormtroopers through “reconditioning”
- Conscripting children into stormtrooper ranks
- Stormtroopers wielding melee weapons
- Flametroopers wielding flamethrowers
Events and Plot Points
- A quest for a missing hero
- The heroes having information that the villains are trying to obtain (distinct from leaked information the Empire is trying to recover, as in the Death Star plans in Episode IV)
- Introduction of the Knights of Ren, an order of Dark Side baddies distinct from The Sith
- A roguish hero developing into a character willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for others
- Someone murdering their own family member
- A superweapon draining a star to power up
- The sound a TIE fighter makes when starting up its engines
- A ship entering lightspeed from inside of another ship’s hangar
- A ship exiting lightspeed inside of a planet’s atmosphere
Thanks to my brother Dan and my partner Catherine for providing feedback on drafts of this post. The Force is strong with them. Just imagine our family gatherings.