Is Star Wars: The Force Awakens just a blatant rip-off of A New Hope? With bits of The Empire Strikes Back sprinkled in for good measure? That's the accusation pointed at this long-awaited sequel by a group of fans who were less than pleased that director J.J. Abrams hit so many familiar story marks. From the get go, Abrams knew that some individuals would react negatively to his attempts to resurrect the franchise. The movie isn't hurting at the box office. It has broken nearly every record, and is aiming to be the biggest movie of all-time. In its fourth weekend of release, though, the director has decided to respond to some of the criticism aimed his way. In a new interview with THR, he had this to say.
"I knew that, whatever we did, there would be a group of people - and I was just hoping and praying that it would be smaller than not - that would take issue with any number of things. But I knew we weren't making the movie for any other reason than we believed that it could be something meaningful and special and entertaining and worthy of people's time."
J.J. Abrams was scared of showing the movie to audiences, worried what they might think. Overall, most fans complained that The Force Awakens relies too much on what has come before it, and that it is too much of a direct homage to Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope. Both movies follow a very similar arc, and end with a raid on a giant weapon of mass destruction. About the movie being an out-and-out remake of the original 1977 movie, J.J. Abrams responded with this.
"I respect every reaction. I completely see that that is a problem for some people. I can understand that someone might say, 'Oh, it's a complete rip-off!' What was important for me was introducing brand new characters using relationships that were embracing the history that we know to tell a story that is new - to go backwards to go forwards. It was obviously a wildly intentional thing that we go backwards, in some ways, to go forwards in the important ways, given that this is a genre - that Star Wars is a kind of specific gorgeous concoction of George [Lucas]'s - that combines all sorts of things. Ultimately the structure of Star Wars itself is as classic and tried and true as you can get. It was itself derivative of all of these things that George loved so much, from the most obvious, Flash Gordon and Joseph Campbell, to the [Akira] Kurosawa references, to Westerns - I mean, all of these elements were part of what made Star Wars."
The director continued to talk about the similarities between A New Hope and The Force Awakens, claiming those beats were necessary.
"We inherited Star Wars. The story of history repeating itself was, I believe, an obvious and intentional thing, and the structure of meeting a character who comes from a nowhere desert and discovers that she has a power within her, where the bad guys have a weapon that is destructive but that ends up being destroyed - those simple tenets are by far the least important aspects of this movie, and they provide bones that were well-proven long before they were used in Star Wars. What was important for me was introducing brand new characters using relationships that were embracing the history that we know to tell a story that is new - to go backwards to go forwards. So I understand that this movie, I would argue much more than the ones that follow, needed to take a couple of steps backwards into very familiar terrain, and using a structure of nobodies becoming somebodies defeating the baddies - which is, again, I would argue, not a brand new concept, admittedly - but use that to do, I think, a far more important thing, which is introduce this young woman, who's a character we've not seen before and who has a story we have not seen before, meeting the first Storm Trooper we've ever seen who we get to know as a human being; to see the two of them have an adventure in a way that no one has had yet, with Han Solo; to see those characters go to find someone who is a brand new character who, yes, may be diminutive, but is as far from Yoda as I think a description of a character can get, who gets to enlighten almost the way a wonderful older teacher or grandparent or great-aunt might, you know, something that is confirming a kind of belief system that is rejected by the main character; and to tell a story of being a parent and being a child and the struggles that that entails - clearly Star Wars has always been a familial story, but never in the way that we've told here."
While the ending of the movie is very similar to what has become before it, J.J. Abrams explains how this sets up a new direction for the rest of the franchise to follow.
"Yes, they destroy a weapon at the end of this movie, but then something else happens which is, I think, far more critical and far more important - and I think even in that moment, when that is happening, the thing I think the audience is focused on and cares more about is not, 'Is that big planet gonna blow up?' - 'cause we all know it's gonna blow up. What you really care about is what's gonna happen in the forest between these two characters who are now alone. Yes, the bones of the thing we always knew would be a genre comfort zone, but what the thing looks like - we all have a skeleton that looks somewhat similar, but none of us look the same. To me, the important thing was not, 'What are the bones of this thing?' To me, it was meeting new characters who discover themselves that they are in a universe that is spiritual and that is optimistic, in a world where you meet people that will become your family.
The director reveals that he had the opportunity to direct future installments, but decided against that. Why didn't he want to come back to finish off this trilogy which will include Star Wars: Episode VIII in 2017 and Star Wars: Episode IX in 2019? He says this.
"I realized when I was working on [The Force Awakens], the amount of energy that was required to tell the story, and do it justice, knowing when Episode VIII would start shooting, there was no way - if I wanted to still have my children talk to me in my old age - that doing that would make any sense. If The Force Awakens worked, it was the perfect place to say, 'I got to make a Star Wars movie,' and not be a greedy bastard. If it didn't work, no-one would want me doing it anyway."
J.J. Abrams will stay on the sequels as a producer. And he does have his ideas about where Luke Skywalker and Rey are heading in the future. About creating a first movie that could be continued in further installments, he explains.
"Larry [Kasdan] and I had a bunch of thoughts of where certain things could go and we shared those things with Rian Johnson, who's directing VIII. He had things that he came up with where he asked if it was possible if we could make some adjustments with what we were doing at the end, most of which we did - there were just a couple that didn't feel right, so he made adjustments - but it was just collaboration."
J.J. Abrams' interview is part of the Awards Chatter Podcast, which you can listen to in its entirety Here. The director goes onto discuss his reluctance to take the job. The influence Harry Potter movies had over his casting. And the difference between his Star Wars and Star Trek franchises, and where his true loyalties lie as a fan.