Star Wars – The Force Awakens: Theme and Variations

by Igor Campos,
Phil Noto,
Legion of Potatoes

J.J. Abrams’ new Star Wars sequel, The Force Awakens, has been both praised and panned for how deeply it is reminiscent of the first Star Wars movie, A New Hope. The new movie reflects its predecessor in many of its plot points, characters, relationships and settings. At the same time, however, it also contains elements that are a radical departure from what came before. The similarities and differences are both so striking and plain that the movie cannot be best understood simply as an extension of the original, or even a tribute, but rather as a exemplar of the concept of theme and variation.

“Theme and variation” is a central and important artistic methodology across many different art forms and genres. In general, it begins with a basic artwork, the “theme.” For example, in the world of classical music, a composer might take as a theme a folk song, or a famous melody from another composer’s work. She would then create the “variations,” a series of versions of that same melody. One variation might be faster, another slower. One might keep only the chord progression, with a different melody, another might keep the melody, but with a different harmonization. A variation might be more ornate, or more plain, or transpose the melody to a different key or modality, from major to minor or vice versa. When done well, the composer finishes with a number of distinct artworks that all function together as a thematically unified whole. Ideally, the variations build on the strengths of the theme, while also holding their own individual pleasures.

There is an additional level of depth to the theme and variation methodology, however. By combining novelty with the familiar, the variation simultaneously highlights and contextualizes its innovations. In this way, the retained elements become the medium for a new message delineated by the departures. By starting from the raw material of the theme, the new artist calls into service a complex set of expectations, which then can be fulfilled, denied or exceeded. Each choice, therefore, takes on new meaning in comparison or contrast to the choices made in the theme.

We’ll be taking a closer look at “The Force Awakens” through the lens of theme and variation at irregular intervals in the near future. Some of the topics I plan to address are: “Darth Vader VS Kylo Ren,” “Death Star VS Starkiller”, “BB-8 VS R2D2,” “The Good Stormtrooper,” “Mos Eisley VS Maz Kamata,” “Rey VS Luke,” “Han, Leia, C3PO and Chewie Revisited,” “Using the Force.” Links will be added here as the posts are written.

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