This is the transcript for the video Everything is a Remix: The Force Awakens, which can be viewed above. The purpose of this post is to make the video more easily indexed by our algorithmic overlords. So if you haven't seen the video, click play. If you have, there's nothing to see here so please move along. But buy something before that.
Star Wars fans had a rough ride for many years. First George Lucas recut the original films to incorporate garish, artificial-looking CGI. Then he produced a trio of popular but largely disliked prequels that featured more garish, artificial-looking CGI along with flat characters, convoluted plots, and Jar Jar. Light sabres were wilting among the faithful.
The JJ Abrams directed The Force Awakens was the Star Wars movie fans were looking for, and it was greeted with overwhelming praise. But even among those who loved it, there was a recurring criticism.
This core complaint was echoed more strongly elsewhere. It was called “the biggest fan film ever made.” Some claimed our culture suffers from a “nostalgia problem”. Others said it was an indicator of the “stagnation and repetition” of our collective imagination. And the film was also called a remix, which seemed to not be a compliment. It was even dubbed “the apotheosis of remix culture, its logical endpoint.”
The remix method of copying, transforming and combining is definitely used in The Force Awakens, as well as the other works of JJ Abrams. Is remixing a weak point in The Force Awakens? Is the remix method growing stale? Have we reached the limits of remixing?
JJ Abrams is well acquainted with the concept of remixing, but he’s a different kind of remixer than George Lucas. Lucas tended to copy scenes and shots, while Abrams tends to copy major story elements. This is something he’s done from the very beginning of his career, and his earliest screenplays loyally follow established story templates.
Taking Care of Business is about a rich man and a poor man swapping identities, a formula that was established in Mark Twain’s Prince and the Pauper then used in many films, including the hit Trading Places.
Regarding Henry came in the midst of a trend of films about people with intellectual disabilities teaching us life lessons and being adorable.
In Gone Fishin’ the disaster prone lead characters narrowly escape a string of misfortunes and triumph in the end, a comedy tradition that dates back to at least Buster Keaton.
Abrams’ voice becomes more distinct as he starts to transform and combine his sources more.
The influence of Steven Speilberg emerges in Joy Ride, a killer truck movie that resembles Speilberg’s Duel crossed with a road trip film.
The TV series Felicity was his take on the popular self-aware teen drama genre of the nineties and incorporates some unusual elements, like a Twilight Zone-style episode and this shocking twist. Which perhaps he picked up from the previous year’s Meet Joe Black.
His next show, Alias, was a Felicity-like college drama crossed with a spy thriller.
Abrams first big success was Lost, which took the stranded on an island genre of Survivor and Castaway and added the nonlinear timeline popularized by Quentin Tarantino and the surreal plot twists of The Twilight Zone.
Since graduating to the big screen, Abrams specialty has been rebooting familiar material.
Mission Impossible III was an Alias-like version of the Tom Cruise vehicle and renewed an aging franchise.
Super 8 was directed in the stye of Spielberg and resembled a monster movie version of ET.
And his Star Trek films successfully relaunched the franchise while pleasing most — if not all — of the existing fans.
So with this knack for updating and refreshing familiar material, Abrams brought his remix-like approach to Star Wars Episode VII.
The Force Awakens incorporates a bit of George Lucas-style remixing. There’s a shot inspired by Apocalypse Now. The x-wings skimming over the water was taken from the film Firefox. And the sword fight in gently falling snow recalls Kill Bill, which itself copied Lady Snowblood.
But most of the remixing in The Force Awakens is of story elements, and the primary source is Episode IV: A New Hope.
- In both films, an old Jedi must be found.
- Vital information is tucked away in a cute droid.
- On a desert planet, the droid is found by a young orphan.
- Storm troopers search for the vital information and kill innocent people.
- Our heroes narrowly escape in the millennium falcon.
- The orphan forms a relationship with an elder figure.
- Han Solo has a confrontation with someone he owes money.
- There’s a space bar filled with wacky creatures, where our heroes are stared at in silence for a moment.
- The villains have a planet-like weapon that destroys planets. They demonstrate this power by destroying a planet. This is also the second time this has happened in a JJ Abrams film.
- The villain murders the elder figure, which the orphan witnesses.
- The heroes go into the planet-like weapon to incapacitate something.
- Ships fly down a trench, shoot a particular spot, and destroy it. This is the third time this has happened. There’s even a joke: which suggests there’s a twist coming. But then there isn’t.
And there’s also elements copied from the original Star Wars that seem like they really should have been changed.
The First Order, like the Empire, is modeled on Nazis, despite there being no significant nazi threats since 1945.
And the Jedi are again a semi-mythical clan, despite sensationally saving the galaxy only a few decades earlier. Perhaps the record keeping was left to the ewoks.
The film certainly isn’t all copying. There’s plenty of transforming as well, especially in the characters. The hero is a woman, another lead is a former stormtrooper, and the villain is a raging, failure-prone fanboy. These changes provide some of the freshest narratives.
So The Force Awakens clearly is a remix — but so is everything else. For as long as humans have been creating, we have been copying, transforming and combining. The issue isn’t the remixing, it’s that the film is heavy on copying, and lighter on transforming and combining.
But this was an intentional choice. The Force Awakens was designed to be familiar because we love the familiar. That’s why more and more of Hollywood’s top hits are new versions of old stories.
But the familiar isn’t the only thing we love. We’re also attracted to the novel, the unusual, the innovative. This is a smaller, riskier market but it’s influential and it’s where many of the most enduring films are born.
The familiar and the novel both appeal to us. Think of them as two halves of a spectrum. Box office hits tend to land on the left, critical hits tend to land on the right. But some films land right in the middle, like the original Star Wars.
It felt very novel because it blended previously unrelated sources into a highly unusual and innovative package. Yet it also felt very familiar because it copied something well known: the mythical structure of countless heroic tales of the past. The result was something that strongly appealed to our desires for both the familiar and the novel.
This target between the novel and the familiar is something we can all aim for. We can make our novel ideas more accessible and understandable and perhaps more impactful by copying familiar elements. And we can make our familiar ideas more fresh, exciting and surprising by extensively remixing from diverse sources. And if you can create that perfect hybrid of the new and old, the results can be explosive.
One last thing.
In the book, The Art of the Force Awakens you can get a glimpse of the remix method at work. All these tags are references to remixing.
This illustration includes an image of a water bear, a weird little microscopic creature.
This one is a recreation of this shot of the Nazi’s Nurembourg rally.
This early image of Snoke was based on the Lincoln Memorial.
Rey’s speeder is a combination of Luke’s speeder and a tractor.
Maz Kanata was inspired by Abrams’ high school teacher, Rose Gilbert.
And with this image the artist thought he was copying this scene from The Right Stuff, which he thought featured a girl dressed as a mermaid — but it doesn’t. So he thought was copying, but we actually transforming.
And one last piece of evidence that suggests the team behind The Force Awakens were intentionally employing the remix method is Rey’s last name: Mixer. Rey Mixer.
Or perhaps someone working on the book was just having a little fun. You be the judge.