(Warning - the following contains both plot SPOILERS for Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens and detailed discussion of one of the movie's major themes. If you haven't yet seen the film, then proceed with as much caution as that would suggest is prudent - or, y'know, go watch it now. Don't worry, we'll wait...)
Now, for all that it rapidly became one of the most critically acclaimed movies of 2015 (not to mention one of the most financially successful movies of all time), Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens has also had its fair share of detractors. Indeed, even many of those who ultimately enjoyed the film have spoken out about one particular element of the movie - one that, for them, fundamentally undermines the film.
A Whole Lot of 'The Force Awakens' Seems Awfully Familiar to Anyone Who Has Seen the Original Trilogy
The argument essentially goes a little like this:
Throughout its running time, Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens manages to reuse pretty much every major plot point, character beat and emotional moment that we saw in the original trilogy, and in particular A New Hope. Along with striking visual similarities in terms of design, those narrative similarities add up to - it is argued by some - a broadly derivative and creatively unimaginative movie. Some critics have also noted the contrast between that approach, and the endlessly exploratory and experimental style George Lucas adopted with the prequels.
Here's the thing, though...
That 'Problem' is Actually What Makes 'The Force Awakens' Truly Great
Y'see, on one level, all of those criticisms are absolutely correct. The Force Awakens certainly does share a whole lot of creative DNA with the original Star Wars trilogy, and several key scenes and ideas are obviously reused within it.
The thing is - that's the whole point.
'The Force Awakens' is SUPPOSED to Remind Us of the Original Trilogy
Indeed, I would argue, it's explicitly intended to be not only a direct sequel to the original three films, but also both a respectful love letter to them and an attempt at fixing all the things that were problematic about them.
The original trilogy wasn't, after all, perfect. So many of the things that we all loved about The Force Awakens - the awesome, fully-rounded female lead, the actually representative cast, the perfectly judged humor - aren't things you can really look for in the original trilogy. The first three Star Wars movies are - while still magnificent space operas and action movies - very much of their time.
The Force Awakens, then, isn't just trying to remind us of how much we loved the original movies - it's also trying to rework what made us love them in the first place, and create an even better movie from those spare parts.
'The Force Awakens' Retools Much of the Original Trilogy, Then, But Not Through Laziness
Instead, the sequel is trying to solve two - seemingly directly conflicting - problems at the same time: the originals' aforementioned lack of modernity, and the prequels' movement so far away from the original formula that many fans were left alienated.
George Lucas, after all, certainly showed a huge amount of ambition and imagination in crafting the prequels - but in so doing arguably moved them too far away from what many fans loved about the original trilogy for them to truly be 'Star Wars' movies, as many of us define them.
It was a similar problem to the one many Star Trek fans have with the new, Chris Pine-starring films - they might feature the same characters, but the tone and plot don't sync up with what the franchise is seen by its own core fans to be. Much as many want Star Trek to be about science and exploration rather than action and explosions, few fans wanted to see Star Wars movies about midi-chlorians and doomed romance. It was innovative, but for many of us it simply wasn't Star Wars.
'The Force Awakens' Solution, Then, Was To Attempt To Find a 'Middle' Path
Rather than adopting Lucas' core belief of constant innovation, the movie opts for actual modernity. It places brand new characters (and a handful of old ones) in somewhat similar situations to the original trilogy, but allows them to respond in strikingly different ways. In contrast to her predecessor as female lead, Rey doesn't need to be saved by anybody- and is far more Luke Skywalker than Princess Leia, anyway. The film may conclude with an epic, time-sensitive assault on a dastardly super-weapon, but it does so more because that's what Star Wars has always been about - scrappy rebels facing overwhelming odds - than because the filmmakers had no better ideas.
The film, essentially, repurposes Lucas' innovative approach, and aims it not at groundbreaking CGI (though there's that too) but at producing a genuinely modern space opera - one designed for everyone, not just kids who look a bit like Luke and Han.
What's More, It Tells Us That Its Doing It, Too
Remember that Maz Kanata line, spoken to Finn in her 'castle'? You can hear it in the TV Spot below...
...but the most important part remains this:
"I have lived long enough to see the same eyes in different people."
Now, that has some bearing on the movie itself - and likely will have be seen to have a whole lot more once future installments arrive - but it's also about as perfect summation of the movie's approach to the franchise as you're ever likely to hear.
Y'see, we're not simply 'seeing the same eyes in different people' in a strictly plot-based sense - we're also getting to watch as those 'same-eyed' people retell us the stories we've loved for decades...and update them for the modern day. We, in essence, are Maz Kanata, seeing the same stories but in different people.
Much as myths, legends and fairy tales have been retold, retooled and endlessly updated to fit their new audience, The Force Awakens is attempting to both update the franchise, and to be true to what it has always been. In other words:
Where Lucas Tried to Tell Brand New Stories, in Brand New Ways, 'The Force Awakens' is Trying to Continue the Story We Want to See, and to Make it Better
Now, to be clear - there's nothing wrong with Lucas' approach, much as there's no reason why any of us can't love the prequels just as much as - or more than - the original trilogy.
Instead, they're simply different approaches. Where Lucas wanted to turn the franchise he created into something new, J.J. Abrams and co. have attempted to continue what he originally started, but to transform it into a franchise for the world we live in now.
Which Perhaps Explains Why Some Fans Came Out of the Theater Both Loving and Being Mad at the Movie
After all, it isn't all new - because then we would quite possibly have been alienated in the same way many of us were by the prequels - and it is most certainly very similar in some ways to the original trilogy, seemingly lending credence to accusations of repetition and derivativeness.
But that's also, I would argue, exactly why it's great. In the end, the reason millions of us enjoyed The Force Awakens so much is precisely because it shares so much DNA with the original trilogy - but reworks it into a form better suited for the present day.
That's the wonder of it: we all lived long enough to see the same eyes in different people - and to watch Star Wars be reborn.