The hype surrounding Star Wars: The Force Awakens has been almost unreal. The movie has had everyone and their cousin talking about it, featured commercial tie-ins with everything from Kraft Macaroni to Kay Jewelers, ended up making a billion dollars in just the first two weeks, and is now the highest-grossing film ever domestically. I would hasten to say that this has been perhaps unlike any hype we’ve ever seen before (with the possible exception of Episode I).
Much of the reason behind all this Star Wars mania is not only the return of an iconic franchise and characters, but the sheer distance of time between one film and another: Not only to the 10-year interval since Revenge of the Sith, but the 32 year gap since Return of the Jedi. None of us ever expected to see these characters, as played by these actors, or to see the Millennium Falcon flying onscreen, ever again.
But amidst all the excitement and bluster, and especially now that the film has been out for some time, we may have to ask ourselves a question, one that is especially pertinent in this time of mass sequels:
Is more always a good?
To examine this, we should look at another famous, epic, and beloved trilogy. Many years ago, J.R.R. Tolkien actually began to write a sequel to The Lord of the Rings. Titled The New Shadow, it would have taken place over a hundred years after the events of The Return of the King, and featured Aragorn’s son facing a new threat. In regards to the work, Tolkien himself had this to say:
"I did begin a story placed about 100 years after the DownfallI [of Sauron]…there was an outcrop of revolutionary plots, about a centre of secret Satanistic religion ; while Gondorian boys were playing at being Orcs and going around doing damage. I could have written a 'thriller' about the plot and its discovery and overthrow — but it would have been just that. Not worth doing."
Tolkien could have made a sequel to his epic trilogy that would have featured essentially a new generation of villains trying to imitate those of the ones who had already been defeated. But he ultimately realized that this was wholly unnecessary, and that it would never equal the scope of the original, nor add to it's legacy.
(BTW, the 13 pages that Tolkien did write have since been published as part of the book The Peoples of Middle Earth)
The original Star Wars trilogy was a grand, epic tale, and one with a fairly definitive ending. The prequels were made to expand on the existing story, rearranging it's focus to become the saga of Anakin Skywalker, and making Palpatine the great villain. But whether three episodes or six, the saga ends in the same place. Now, of course the adventures of the characters have been continued in superfluous literary material for some time (a timeline completely wiped out by the new film), no one of them claiming to be the definitive next chapter of the saga, while in the sacred realm of cinema, the story had remained untouched. Until now.
Because this is Episode VII, the filmmakers felt a need to return to much of the same material and themes that fans know and love from the classics. As a result, the film feels almost exactly what Tolkien described about his own sequel: New villains merely trying to imitate the iconic villains of the past. Since the Empire has been defeated, we get The First Order, a smaller group trying to resurrect it, complete with Star Destroyers and Storm Troopers (and instead of the rebellion opposing them, now it's the resistance). Since Darth Vader is dead, we get Darth Vader Lite, a devotee trying to emulate his idol, right down to the mask. This villain even ultimately turns out to even have largely the same history as his famous grandfather, a Skywalker turned from the light. But perhaps most strangely of all, since Palpatine is dead, we get Snoke, a new ominous dark-side user who runs the new Empire, sits in a chair, giving orders from a distance, and who has turned said Skywalker to the Dark Side.
People have complained that The Force Awakens repeats much of what was in A New Hope. But in truth, the entire original trilogy seems to be having its story merely repeated here. The Skywalker family will now be fighting to save another relative from the power of the Dark Side and the grip of his new master.
Throughout the past couple of years, everyone has been looking forward to seeing our favorite characters onscreen again. But in the end, we have to ask, was making Episode VII something that really enhanced or added to the legend that is Star Wars?
If, years from now, Disney were to purchase the rights to the Lord of the Rings, and manages to bring back all the original actors to make a film version of The New Shadow, it would probably be a massive motion picture event. But if Tolkien were alive, I doubt he would probably note that it was just “not worth doing.