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The new ‘Star Wars’ isn’t a rip-off, it’s a classical epic

In reworking moments from the original trilogy, ‘The Force Awakens’ participates in an ancient narrative tradition

January 10, 2016 2:00AM ET

In less than a month, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” has become the highest-grossing film in history. Despite mostly positive reviews, many fans and critics have observed that this latest “Star Wars” film has too much in common with the 1977 original, later given the subtitle “A New Hope.” Is it a sequel, a remake, a rip-off? Can something so redolent of the original truly satisfy as a new film?

This is a quandary I know well from teaching Virgil’s “Aeneid” to undergraduates whose main frame of reference, which most of them only recently encountered, is Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey,” to which Virgil relentlessly and obviously refers. My students have taught me not to be satisfied with simply identifying these references. “Spot the similarity” is the laziest — and least rewarding — form of reading.

Virgil’s work is rife with borrowings from Homer, including repeated or inverted scenes and sometimes translated quotations. Through my students’ eyes, I’ve come to understand this perplexing relationship with Homeric epic as a defining aspect of Virgil’s work. In turn, this has helped me better appreciate the new “Star Wars.”

Very broad spoilers ahead. “The Force Awakens” blatantly borrows its arc from “A New Hope”: A plucky orphan on a desert planet suddenly makes a lot of new friends, is embroiled in a galactic conflict and ultimately helps destroy a terrible superweapon. In fact, the film is, as Anthony Lane writes in The New Yorker, “studded” with details that recall the entire original trilogy, “as if the primary duty of the director, J. J. Abrams, were to reassure devotees that all is well” after “Star Wars” creator George Lucas’ poorly received prequel trilogy.

There is comfort in familiarity. Virgil’s Roman readers — who knew well the opening “Sing of the rage, O Goddess, of Achilles” from “The Iliad” and “Sing of a man, Muse, of many twists and turns” from “The Odyssey” — would have found Virgil’s “I sing of arms and a man” as comfortingly familiar as the brassy blare of the John Williams score and the foreshortened crawl of introductory narrative are to “Star Wars” fans. Yet Virgil’s claim to sing in his own voice, and of two things rather than one, announces the presence of something new as surely as “The Force Awakens” does by giving us not one but two plucky orphans — a woman and a man of color, at that.

Reviewing the original “Star Wars,” author Samuel R. Delany mused that the world of the film would “have been more interesting if, say, three-quarters of the rebel pilots just happened to have been Oriental women.” Someone in Hollywood has figured this out, finally, and the “The Force Awakens” responds to a changed world of audience expectations — much as Virgil wrote for a dramatically new political context, as the Roman Republic gave way to the autocratic rule of Emperor Augustus.

Beyond its laudable commitment to diversity, “The Force Awakens” has been released in a world where “Star Wars” already exists. Likewise, Virgil not only undertook to write Latin epic but to write Latin Homeric epic, explicitly identifying his project with an earlier text that, in many ways, invented its own genre. Whereas the original “Star Wars” steals liberally and joyously from a range of cinematic genres and tropes, the new film draws on tropes and archetypes dictated by the original. The original’s archetypes sprawled across genres — Westerns, samurai movies, “Flash Gordon” serials — while the archetypes of the new film are drawn entirely from the original.

The original trilogy provides viewers with shorthands for understanding characters in the new film. When a new hero uses the Force to grab a fallen lightsaber from the snow, it tells viewers what kind of character this is and what kind of story they find themselves in. The trope is more than reference; it is a language itself.

At its best, epic can build the new from the raw materials of the old.

Students fix quickly on the familiar beats in Virgil. Sea monsters from “The Odyssey” trouble Aeneas, and bold heroes face off in the plain between a city and a military camp. But nothing is quite the same. Unlike Odysseus, seeking his faithful wife, Aeneas leaves a trail of dead and abandoned women in his wake. The gloomy ending of “The Iliad,” with Troy’s women mourning their prince’s death, becomes even darker in “The Aeneid,” as Aeneas forgoes peace and plunges his sword into the chest of the defeated Latin prince who is pleading for mercy, symbolically founding (“to plunge” and “to found” in this context are the same Latin word) the new city of Rome on bloody ground. It is one thing for the students to see how these moments are the same, but it is through the differences that they begin to see what new thing has been wrought from the old.

Yes, in “The Force Awakens,” young heroes watch helpless as an aged mentor faces down a brutal villain, a father calls to his son over a bottomless pit and X-wing pilots destroy a superweapon. But who, exactly, is our new Luke Skywalker — Rey (Daisy Ridley), the orphan girl, or Finn (John Boyega), the turncoat stormtrooper? In trying to put these pegs in the holes they seem to resemble but will not actually fit, we see how the new film asks new questions, embodying the Roman concept of aemulatio, not just emulation but also rivalry, an attempt to surpass.

Consider that moment on the gantry between father and son that “The Force Awakens” shares with 1980’s “The Empire Strikes Back.” Darth Vader’s famous revelation that he is Luke’s father may today be good for a single shock (if you have managed to raise your children in isolation) but loses its novelty on repeat viewings. But the torment on the faces of parent and child in “The Force Awakens,” masterly acted, rewards multiple viewings, hinging as it does not only on a plot twist but also on a narrative discourse on what it means to be old and to be young, to be a parent and to be a child.

Most provocative for my students is the way ancient epic contains a discourse on its own consumption. Achilles, sulking in “The Iliad,” comforts himself by listening to the “deeds of men.” Aeneas hears the story of Hercules’ squeezing a brigand’s neck until his eyes pop out — “We couldn’t get enough of the sight,” croons the storyteller. Epic is interested in the consumption of epic.

“The Force Awakens” cunningly casts two of its new young characters as stand-ins for fans of the original trilogy. Rey stares out at the ruins of a fallen Star Destroyer through the dusty visor of an old Rebel Alliance helmet, imagining herself in the age of legendary heroes. The evil Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) also dons a superfluous helmet, vainly seeking to emulate his hero Darth Vader. These are two visions of fandom — fixation on heroic derring-do versus aestheticized fetishizing of villains — that challenge audiences to examine their own poses toward their cherished stories.

At its best, epic can build the new from the raw materials of the old. With epic, we are always returning to the same well, and returning to the well of Homer, we find Virgil alongside us. Art always steals, and the most satisfying part of reading Virgil with students is watching them make sense of that theft — to move beyond writing him off as poseur and imitator to making sense of his own authorship.

During two early dogfights in “The Force Awakens,” circumstances conspire to get everyone facing forward. First, hotshot X-wing pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) flies a TIE fighter while Finn, in the rear-facing seat, fires the forward cannons. Later, the Millennium Falcon’s turrets seize up in the forward position, requiring some fancy flying of its new pilot. Forward, always forward, even as you are looking backward: That is the film’s mantra. It’s a “Star Wars” movie, and at the end of a “Star Wars” movie, you have to blow up the big round thing — but once you’ve hit that beat, don’t look back; just make that jump to lightspeed.

Joseph A. Howley is an assistant professor of classics at Columbia University. He now owns more Latin books than “Star Wars” novels, but it was not always so.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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