Latest ‘Star Wars’ Brings Saga to New Generation

Critics mock this installment, but modern-myth movies are intergenerational works

“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is already an unprecedented success with viewers and a triumph with critics. (For anyone who hasn’t seen it, spoilers follow.)

The saga’s seventh episode is the first movie to earn $600 million in U.S. box office in just 12 days. It also has a phenomenal 94 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

That’s pretty impressive for a movie that a growing number of supposed fans and reviewers don’t actually seem to like that much. A couple of weeks into “The Force Awakens'” run, the backlash is all over the media.

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The most common complaint: It’s just a rehash of the first film (originally just “Star Wars,” later subtitled “A New Hope”) from 1977.

It’s hard to argue otherwise. “The Force Awakens” is a thrilling adventure with moments of great emotional resonance, but the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

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There’s another planet-destroying superweapon with an Achilles’ heel to be exploited by X-wing Starfighters. Another climactic death, again delivered by a black-robed villain who doesn’t technically go by “Darth” but might as well. Another burgeoning hero, albeit a young woman this time, discovering a Jedi-linked destiny.

And lots of daddy issues. If it’s “Star Wars,” there’s always lots of daddy issues.

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The criticisms are fair, but they essentially ignore that passing stories down through generations is a foundational aspect of storytelling. If Shakespeare’s works can be reinterpreted in film by generation after generation, is it so terrible for a new “Star Wars” movie to do the same?

A core theme of the “Star Wars” saga is the parent-child relationship — whether to emulate or rebel against parental influences either good or bad. When a foundational aspect of a film series is how the past informs the present, is it that surprising when the screenplay follows suit? That seems to be what most fans want — to the tune of more than $1.2 billion worldwide to date.

Of course, the widespread remake and reboot culture of Hollywood can be tiresome. Stories with original ideas and characters struggle to get the go-ahead from studios exclusively focused on brand recognition.

But when the core themes of these modern myths are respected and incorporated into the process, as they are in the new “Star Wars” release, the results can be as satisfying as any “new” idea.

Another example is “Creed,” which functions not only as a new installment of the “Rocky” saga, but as a modern remake of the 1976 original. Adonis Creed is a very different character than Rocky Balboa, but their journeys have much in common.

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“Creed” was designed to be this generation’s “Rocky.” It succeeded both critically and commercially because director-cowriter Ryan Coogler respected the series’ themes and ideals while delivering a contemporary take. (A star-making lead turn from Michael B. Jordan and Sylvester Stallone’s best performance in years didn’t hurt either.)

However, another recent release provides a reminder of how badly things go when Hollywood disrespects the source material, simply strip-mining it for a recognizable title and basic plot.

That’s all that remains in the recent “Point Break” remake, a massive bomb commercially and critically. Arriving 24 years after the original, it could have been the “‘Point Break’ for a new generation,” but the filmmakers completely failed to understand the charm of its predecessor.

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The 1991 “Point Break” is far from exceptional cinema — it’s ridiculous in every way — but it remains one of the most entertaining action films ever. It’s pure brain candy, anchored by actual stars (Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze), scenery-chewing supporting turns from Gary Busey and John C. McGinley, and adrenalized direction from future Oscar-winner Kathryn Bigelow.

The remake inexplicably eschewed the star power and winking fun of its predecessor, and the results were predictably dreadful.

A better approach for studios would be to follow “Star Wars'” lead in understanding the power of myth in recreating stories for new generations. George Lucas incorporated all sorts of mythic elements into the original film, using Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” as a blueprint for the hero’s journey.

Lucas understood, at least in the 1970s, that it’s hard to go wrong with timeless elements. “Star Wars” is essentially a space Western, taking its cues from a genre founded on American frontier myth. All the Mos Eisley Cantina lacks is swinging doors. All Han Solo lacks is a hat and spurs.

Han Solo is a modern-day space cowboy
Han Solo is a modern-day space cowboy

Mythical elements are foundational to “Star Wars'” appeal, and they go a long way toward explaining the popularity the series holds to this day — even after three widely maligned prequels.

Some might find “The Force Awakens” too familiar, but familiarity is exactly what powers the types of stories that retain their durability and appeal from generation to generation.

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