‘Star Wars,’ ‘Creed,’ and when your sequel is really a remake

This morning, I went to see “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” and wound up having many of the same feelings I did when I saw “Creed” earlier this month. I'm going to get into exactly why, along with many spoilers for “Star Wars” (you're pretty much safe on “Creed” spoilers), coming up just as soon as I'm a big deal in the Resistance…

Many of the parallels between “Creed” and “The Force Awakens” are obvious. The original films premiered within a year of each other in the mid-late '70s, the new films are the first time in a long time that an outsider to the franchise – in both cases, a lifelong fan – has been given the chance to direct, and the films are as much about passing the torch to a new generation as they are about bringing closure to the characters we've known for 40 years.

And, in both cases, they're sequels that are essentially remakes of the originals, mixing and matching elements so they don't feel like carbon copies, but still designed to remind the audience why we fell in love with each series in the first place, before a collection of bloated and misguided sequels or prequels.

So Adonis Creed is Apollo Creed's son, but the film positions him as the new Rocky: the underdog given a shot at the title only because he has an interesting name, and who cares more about proving his self-worth than he does actually winning. And “Creed” is riddled with scenes that not only reference moments from the “Rocky” films, but ones that deliberately echo things we saw Rocky himself go through when Sly Stallone was a much younger man.

“The Force Awakens,” meanwhile, hits most of the beats of the original “Star Wars” film – an adorable droid carrying a crucial electronic file, a would-be Jedi who's grown up on a desert planet dreaming of something more, a stop at a colorful bar in search of transportation, a last-minute assault on an evil base with planet-destroying weapon, etc. At one point, there's even a joke where Han says there's always a way to blow up those kinds of bases.

Hollywood doesn't lack for remakes and adaptations of properties with heavy nostalgia appeal. What makes “Creed” and “The Force Awakens” so special is that they're not only made by filmmakers whose love for the material is abundant, but that both Ryan Coogler and J.J. Abrams got to have their cake and eat it, too, by recreating the basic structure of the original film in each series – in Abrams' case, finding a way to do his version without some of the sluggish and/or whiny spots that are hard to ignore anytime you rewatch Episode IV – while incorporating the original characters, played by the original actors. So we get to fall in love with Adonis Creed and Rey, Finn, and Poe, even as the films take on much more added weight than your standard next generation film might have because Stallone, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher are there to not only evoke our feelings for the classics but make us empathize with all those characters have lost (Rocky's wife is dead and he's estranged from his son, Leia's brother is missing and Leia and Han's son has gone to the Dark Side) since last we saw them.

And just as Coogler wisely mashes up the best elements of Apollo and Rocky into Adonis, Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan don't go the obvious route and make the three newbies into direct analogues of Luke, Leia, and Han, but keep mixing and matching so that each gets at least one moment or character trait that mirrors each of the originals.

So Poe is the brilliant natural pilot, like Luke (and Anakin, for that matter), but he's introduced slipping the key data into BB-8 and then being captured and tortured, just like Leia, and he has a wiseass sense of humor that evokes the young Han Solo. Rey at various points gets to be Luke (growing up on the desert planet, discovering a latent affinity for the Force), Han (doing such a good job at flying and fixing the Millennium Falcon that Han offers to mentor her), and Leia (she's also captured and tortured by the local Sith Lord-type, plus she shows a knack for assuming leadership of other people's attempts to rescue her). And while Finn is mainly in the Han zone as the guy trying very hard to not be a part of the rebellion (and most often the butt of jokes), he also gets to handle the lightsaber a few times, and, like Leia, he's initially annoyed to be around Chewbacca.

Kylo Ren, meanwhile, is revealed to not only be this movie's Darth Vader counterpart – which already seems like it's allowing the new filmmakers do a vastly more interesting version of the Anakin origin story than the prequels were able to do – but Han and Leia's son, which is part of the film's unexpected but incredibly poignant shift of Han into the Obi-Wan role. In the original films, Han dismisses the Jedi as figures from fairy tales, and even after he's witnessed the Force in action, he still acts like he has little use for it. All these years later, having become such good friends with Luke, and having become father to Darth Vader's grandson, in whom the Force flows very strongly, it's impossible to play the agnostic anymore. He's the one who tells Rey and Finn that all all this business about the Force is real, he's the one who named his son after Obi-Wan – his scream of “BEN!!!!” as he approaches the catwalk (which itself evokes the tragic father/son confrontation at the end of “Empire Strikes Back”) choked me up for more than just the intensity of Harrison Ford's performance – and he's the one who dies at the hands of the villain while his friends and protege watch in horror. And because he's not a Jedi, he's not going to be appearing in visions to Rey down the road; as he barks at Finn at one point, the Force doesn't work like that.

I don't know if killing Han off after only one movie was a condition for Harrison Ford to return to a role for which he's long had profound ambivalence, but it works on a bunch of levels: as a parallel to Obi-Wan falling to Darth Vader, as Ren's tragic attempt to resist the call of the Light Side, and as a concrete passing of the torch to the younger characters. I've long felt that the single biggest mistake George Lucas made with the prequels was to not include some kind of Han Solo figure to offer a more human counterpoint to all the talk of midi-chlorians and trade embargoes; “The Force Awakens” gives us four new characters with at least some element of Solo DNA, real or figurative, on top of a healthy dose of the original version, and as a result, I feel confident that Rian Johnson and the other filmmakers who are going to follow Abrams won't fall into the prequel trap of taking the material too seriously.

Which isn't to say that Abrams doesn't take this very, very seriously: his fandom is apparent in ways big and small – I would bet you anything, for instance, that the running gag involving Han finally using Chewbacca's bowcaster came from Abrams getting into childhood arguments about why Chewie has the much better weapon – without ever seeming so in awe of the history and characters that it feels like a museum piece. Han Solo may be a legend, in different ways, to Rey and Finn, but he's still a person – and still, for all he's seen and done and grown, extremely capable of getting in way over his head with business deals – and gets to exist on the same level of reality as the newbies. (In that way, it's probably for the best that Abrams put so much emphasis on Han in this one, giving Leia just a couple of good bits and leaving Luke for a cameo in the final scene: it's easier to have the new characters' first on-screen interactions with “Star Wars” legends to be with the scruffy-looking nerf herder, rather than the princess-turned-general or the galaxy's last Jedi knight.)

Now, making the new characters so evocative in different ways of the old ones could have worked out terribly if the cast wasn't so good. Abrams and Kasdan don't have as much time to really establish their new quartet as Coogler and company had to build Adonis Creed from the ground up – and, as a result of that streamlining, “Creed” was the more emotional of the two filmgoing experiences, even though I felt great joy throughout “Force Awakens” – but these four young actors are all incredibly strong. The prequels showed just how easy it can be to look terrible playing a young emo Sith Lord, but Adam Driver was just as menacing or vulnerable as any moment called for. Oscar Isaac made a surprisingly great square-jawed hero, even if the needs of the plot sidelined him for a large chunk of the movie, and he and John Boyega had instant buddy chemistry during their escape to Jakku. Boyega brought enormous humor but also convincing heroics in the moments when Finn rose to the occasion, and I can't say enough good things about Daisy Ridley. Rey seems to get the best parts of each of the original heroes, and as a result, she could be very much in danger of being a Mary Sue character: She's a Jedi and a badass space pirate who inherits the Millennium Falcon! But Ridley is a compulsively watchable and smart performer, and so I bought each and every moment where we were told or shown how exceptional is. The instant Ren started calling for Luke's lightsaber, for instance, I figured that it would instead fly into Rey's hand, but I still got chills when it happened, because of the way Abrams staged it, but also because of how much screen presence Ridley had there.

I hope that Johnson's sequels deviate more from the structure of “Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi,” even though certain aspects (Luke, now garbed like Obi-Wan, will train Rey, while Kylo Ren will continue to struggle with his conscience) are unavoidable. But I completely understand why Abrams went with this approach. The prequels left such a bad taste in the mouth of so many of the older fans (even if kids who grew up with them feel more affection), and it had been so long since we'd seen Luke, Leia, and Han, that this kind of back-to-basics, almost fanfic approach was necessary. But it takes an enormous amount of talent and creativity to keep calling attention to the similarities between your new movie and a beloved old one and not suffer badly in comparison, and “The Force Awakens,” like “Creed,” pulled that off. Now we get to see what these newcomers can do when they're not walking directly in the footsteps of giants.

Some other thoughts:

* Abrams of course brought in his longtime friend and good luck charm Greg Grunberg to play one of the new X-Wing pilots, and on top of that hired Ken Leung from “Lost” (who joined that show looooong after Abrams had departed it, and later did a guest stint on the Abrams-produced “Person of Interest”) as Admiral Statura. Webseries where Statura and Admiral Ackbar go looking for traps, please?

* Ah, C3PO, oblivious as ever: first that anyone would have a hard time recognizing him because he now had a red arm, and then that either Leia or Han had any interest in chatting with him in the midst of their own reunion.

* Not only do I want to see more of Poe in the sequels, but I hope that if Captain Phasma didn't get crushed by the garbage compactor, she gets more to do down the road. This seemed like a waste of Gwendoline Christie, who got to be the Boba Fett of the new movie in ways both good (great armor), and bad (doesn't do much, sidelined very easily).

* Mixed feelings about the two new CGI characters. Maz Kanata felt very much like a real individual with her own personality (and a great voice performance by Lupita Nyong'o) who just happened to be drawn differently, whereas Superme Leader Snoke was doubly artificial, appearing only as a giant hologram. So I'll wait and see how he's used in the sequels.

* While dictating notes to myself about the movie on the drive from the theater, Siri mistakenly wrote a few things about “Hans Solo,” and now all I want for Christmas is a “Die Hard: The Force Awakens” mash-up: “Now I have a lightsaber. Ho. Ho. Ho.” “Yippie-ki-yay, Maz Kanata.” “Han! Bubbe! I'm your Jedi knight!”

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com