In the wake of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, critics and audiences couldn’t help but notice how much its plot mirrored the original Star Wars from 40 years ago. A frustrated desert-dweller journeys away from their home planet for the first time? Check. Joins up with a band of smugglers and encounters a vast array of alien races? Check. Meets the Rebel Alliance, and helps take down a fearsomely powerful outpost after the sacrifice of a beloved hero? Check. The similarities can be overwhelming.
But Derek Ruths wanted to dig deeper. After the McGill University computer science professor saw The Force Awakens, he says, “I came away with the sense that it felt as though it was the same as A New Hope, but I didn’t feel disappointed. That paradox got me thinking.” Ruths also happens to runs McGill’s Network Dynamics Lab, which models human behavior—so he sought out character comparison data by scraping the scripts of both films to determine the number of scenes in which various characters appear, then tallied how often they interact with other characters.
That data, not too surprisingly, revealed that The Force Awakens does indeed mirror A New Hope in many ways, including how characters can be grouped: There are the comic relief droids, a scrappy group of rebels, and characters waging war over how to wield The Force. But mapping The Force Awakens characters to their equivalents in A New Hope shows that it wasn’t a one-to-one translation.
Ruths easily identified the obvious parallels between the two films. BB-8 maps to R2-D2. Chewbacca in TFA maps to Chewbacca from A New Hope. The rebel pilots assaulting Starkiller Base = the ones trying to take out the Death Star. But other characters yielded unexpected results. Poe Dameron maps not to Han, but to Luke; Obi-Wan Kenobi maps to Kylo Ren; and Rey, the center of countless fan theories, maps to … Darth Vader?
Ruths was as surprised as anyone. “Coming away from the movie you have the sense of Rey being Luke and Kylo Ren being the stand-in for Darth Vader,” he says. “Based on the characteristics of these individuals, we have this notion of who is equivalent to who.” But an algorithm that ignores character traits—and instead looks at the number of interactions various characters have—comes up with different comparisons. “The mapping isn’t looking at attributes, it’s looking at who interacts with who,” says Ruths, “so we get a different retelling of that story.”
To visually represent the data, Ruths created what’s known as a spring layout, where nodes representing characters who interact are drawn together, and pushed away from clusters with whom they don’t share any screen time. Ruths plotted the characters of A New Hope, and then created a similar plot for The Force Awakens by swapping in the corresponding characters.
Many reviewers (including our own) noted that The Force Awakens seemed to take the major personality traits of the lead characters from A New Hope and reshuffle them before giving different combinations to the new protagonists. Ruths’ analysis bears that out. Poe takes on Luke’s pilot abilities, and is grouped together with all the other pilots, while Rey and Kylo Ren play out the Force-based conflict between Obi-Wan and Darth Vader. The Rey/Vader comparison is especially potent, since Vader’s enduring popularity—and what we learned about him in later movies—calls to mind the way Rey’s lineage has become a hotbed of speculation.
Ruths is careful to caution that the model isn’t predictive, so there’s no need to jump to conclusions that Rey will succumb to the Dark Side like Anakin. And, granted, there are some head-scratchers that are clearly the result of a small sample size. Han corresponding to Max Von Sydow’s Lor San Tekka in TFA, or Luke’s aunt Beru mapping to Finn, seem like obvious outliers. But this type of analysis presents a new lens through which to view The Force Awakens—one that’s less concerned with Big Themes, and instead may provide answers for why certain characters from the new film have resonated more than others.