jarjar This is about Star Wars: The Force Awakens. You should not read it if you plan to see the film, care about spoilers, and haven’t yet. I haven’t spelt out what happens but you’ll work it out.

On Facebook I made the mercifully obscure joke that Star Wars: The Force Awakens would be like The Malloreon, David Eddings’ awful sequel to his fantasy saga The Belgariad, in which precisely the same plot repeats itself with minor variations, and this is accepted by the characters as a principle of cosmic order. This comparison turns out to be unkind, but not entirely untrue. Obviously TFA is a soufflé of callbacks, mirrors and echoes, which is probably less irksome to the casual viewer like me than to the long-term fan who wanted something new. And the constant parallels aren’t just fun (or not-fun), they’re useful. JJ Abrams uses them to hide the film’s big twist in plain sight. I was too busy noticing the echoes to pay attention to their logic – it’s so enjoyable seeing someone settle into the Kenobi role that I forgot what the Kenobi role actually involves.

More generally the lack of something new becomes a feature, Eddings-style. In a dualist universe ordered around the yin and yang of the Force, its cosmic principle and plot device, of course patterns are likely to repeat as the balance between the Dark Side and Light Side ebbs and flows. This is also happening for metatextual reasons – fans wanna see what fans wanna see, and the film is a demarcation exercise in What Star Wars Is which pointedly doesn’t include most of what it was between 1999 and 2005.

But that doesn’t mean Abrams can’t use the sense of repetition to thicken the plot and the stakes. Star Wars gets called “mythology” in a rather lazy way (see also Marvel Comics and Tolkien and Harry Potter and anything else which is a bit fantastic and sells a lot). But The Force Awakens has some of the textures of mythology people aren’t usually talking about when they say that: duty and patricide and exhaustion, characters trapped in the amber of story and family.

Only one element of Star Wars (1977) is genuinely unrecoverable – a sense of lightness that was lost with the Oedipal turn taken in Empire and never reversed. The Force Awakens could have tried to step back from it – instead, Abrams doubled down, drawing more characters into the cycle, growing and tightening the Theban knot that Star Wars has become.

So the central thematic question of The Force Awakens is also the metatextual question – do you continue a story or break out of it? And – whatever your answer – how? Since we know that Disney plans to continue this particular story until long after anyone who saw Star Wars in 1977 is dead, this question is both very urgent and somewhat rigged. But The Force Awakens does its best to be even-handed. Finn, who breaks out of his story and throws off a lifetime of programming, is heroic, something new in the universe. But Leia, who simply keeps on going, is heroic too, and Luke, who steps away from his story (and inescapably starts this one rolling), is more ambiguous. And then there’s Ren and Rey.

Ren is one of the film’s best ideas – he’s pathetic, a weak man paralysed by history and by his sense, entirely shared by the audience, that he’s no Darth Vader. But of course he is a Darth Vader – the Darth Vader from the Star Wars lacuna nobody cares about, the gap between Episodes III and IV, the helmeted badass with the emo brat still perilously close to the surface.

Ren’s tragedy isn’t exactly that he can’t break out of his story, but that he imagines (with his decisive action) that he is cauterising the issue and definitively choosing not to. But behind that is a deeper issue – he’s so caught in the tangle of family and Force that either path he takes feels predictable. It’s possibly putting too much weight on a few well-turned grimaces to suggest Adam Driver’s performance captures that – but it’s a real feeling, that spoiled adolescent sense that every possible outcome for your life is kind of corny so you might as well really fuck things up for yourself.

What about Rey? My nine-year-old son pointed out something. In the 1977 film, Luke is obviously the hero, but as counterweight to that he is generally belittled by Han and Leia – he’s a kid, a farmboy, etc. Rey has no such opposition – to meet her is to be awed by her general competence. But that does also have its counterweight – for all that she is the film’s lead, gets the final showdown with the villain, and so on, it’s clear her plot hasn’t exactly got going yet. The outline of Rey’s choice – do I fully become part of this story or not? – is obvious, but she never quite gets to a point where she has to make it. Even in the final shot, she’s looking for someone else to be the main character. Luke was born to be a Star Wars hero. Rey is firmly established as someone strong enough to get the choice.

All of which isn’t exactly a deep reading – as is obvious from the shot where Ren makes his good-or-evil choice just as the sun is extinguished and night falls, this still isn’t a series which ‘does’ subtlety much. But Rey’s indecision has its metatextual mirror, even so. This is a film which starts off with a straightforwardly heroic dude (affable plot-free goon Poe Dameron) acquiring a black sidekick, and then simply cuts off the apparent hero fifteen minutes in to keep the focus firmly on a black man and a woman. Rey’s question – am I actually going to be a main character in this story? – is answered strongly and affirmatively by the film itself, but she’s the last to be convinced.

It’s Disney’s ultimate answer to the film’s question. Do they break out of the story, or continue it? They have, and take, a chance to do both. Tell the same stories but with new protagonists. There’s disappointment in that, but credit too – it’s the same solution Marvel Comics has hit on recently. But Marvel Comics sells a couple of hundred thousand copies at best. The Force Awakens will be seen by hundreds of millions.

Star Wars is often talked about in terms of childhood wonder. The Force Awakens is not a startlingly exciting film – it has beautiful designs and great set-pieces, but Star Wars birthed the era of set-pieces and effects, and has sometimes struggled to live in it. My kids can go from seeing it in the cinema to seeing a dozen other epics on Netflix the next day. But the simple fact of making Rey and Finn the leads is something kids genuinely notice. They might not be able to articulate it – my nine-year-old fumbled to explain why he’d liked the film but been so wrong-footed by Rey’s prominence (“It wasn’t about who I thought it would be about”). But they feel it.

I left the film happy. Its flaws – its plot is a lazy hopscotch of set-pieces, the background is hazy, the villains as idiotic as ever – are not new and not fatal. I want to see more of the new characters, not the old, which has to count as a win. I will see Episode VIII with enthusiasm. What I hope is that when Rey makes her decision, her answer isn’t to become part of the old stories but to write a new one – but then this is a franchise, the strongest force of all.