This post includes spoilers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a film of throwbacks. This might sound like stating the obvious about a series built on nostalgia, but more than any other entry, the seventh film in the series is built of callbacks to previous films of the saga. J.J. Abrams’ entire film is a succession of “Remember when…” moments, and whether you find those moments fun or enervating depends to a large extent on your previous connection to the Star Wars universe—as well as your tolerance for cinematic recycling.
The plot of the film is a hodgepodge of the original trilogy. A band of resistance warriors fighting the good fight against a mighty, evil foe is a trope as old as literature, so it’s silly to complain about that. And major plot points in this film are clear echoes of moments in the original trilogy, in ways that might feel affectionate or might feel lazy, depending. Once again the bad guys have a weapon that can destroy a planet—Starkiller Base is the Death Star all over again, only even bigger and badder. Once again, the base has a single weak spot; once again, our heroes must get the Imperial shields down in time for pilots to attack that single weak spot. Once again, a beloved elder is cut down by his scion as his next generation companions watch on, helpless and mortified.
But other references are clearly meant for the superfans, and it’s those that truly started to grate as the film went on. Rey (Daisy Ripley) leans back against a decrepit old AT-AT and explores the remains of a wrecked Star Destroyer. (She also hangs on to an old-school X-Wing pilot helmet and a little doll with blond hair sporting Luke’s uniform from The Empire Strikes Back.) Once Rey and Finn (John Boyega) board the Millennium Falcon, The Force Awakens goes into full-blown reiteration mode. The pair hide in the smuggling compartments of the ship, the very crannies that Han et al hid in while infiltrating the first Death Star. They also put on the oxygen masks that Han and Leia used to explore the insides of the space slug in The Empire Strikes Back. The scene in which a mynock attaches itself to the windshield of the Falcon in Empire is repeated twice, once when a monster attaches its suction cup to a window and then when the Falcon tries to escape from a freighter’s hangar.
Later, Finn accidentally fires up the holochess from the first film, and Chewbacca makes an excited sound, lest the audience didn’t know how to react. Finn also grabs the probe Luke uses to practice his lightsaber skills in A New Hope, and then throws it to the side. Rey mentions one of Star Wars’ most belovedly silly lines when she refers to the Falcon as the ship that made the Kessel Run in 14 parsecs, and Han corrects her by saying it was 12 parsecs. We’re told that there is a problem with the Millennium Falcon’s motivator, the same thingumajig that kept the Falcon from reaching light speed for much of Empire. The Falcon has a similar performance issue reaching climax when Han pleads: “Come on, baby, don’t let me down”; superfans are instantly reminded of Lando Calrissian’s line in Return of the Jedi: “Come on, Han, old buddy, don’t let me down.” Another line that resonates with the earlier films: In Empire, Leia famously called Han a “nerf herder”; in this film, Han is the one with the potty mouth when he refers to someone as a “Moof Milker.”
Over and over again, the film delivers moments that are clearly expected to be received as gifts by die-hard fans. Instead, they feel like getting a tie you already have. A mouse droid in an early scene makes the same sound as the one Chewie scares away in Star Wars. BB-8 rolls along the Jakku dunes when a creature raises its periscopic eyes from the sand like the Dianoga in the trash compactor, and makes a seemingly rude comment, a spiritual descendant of “E chu ta!” At an intergalactic watering hole populated with myriad aliens, robots, and weirdos, Finn tries to hitch a ride to the Outer Rim from a pirate as spies from two separate factions report his and his companions’ presence. When Finn finally confronts one of his former compadres, he is accused of being a “traitor,” the insult hurled at him with the same vitriol, and intonation, as “Rebel scum.”
If you’re a casual fan, all this must be very exciting: “Oh, I seem to recall that moment” or “hey, I think I know that line!” But the main problem is that these are all so very obvious to a superfan and reveal nothing. They do not add to the saga, they merely reiterate. Far from being impressive, much less most impressive, they are all too easy.