For someone who’s been in the movie industry as long as J.J. Abrams, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that his ambition and creativity would end up being contingent factors in a decision to let him direct the newest addition to the George Lucas legacy: “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”. While Abrams can justifiably be called an amazing film-maker and writer, there is always going to be some contention when you take on the responsibility of adding to an already beloved and established canon. Back in 2009 he had the task of revamping Star Trek, and there is still a strong majority of Trekkies that haven’t quite forgiven him for that, so I was understandably wary of his most recent sci-fi epic.
While the last Lucas trilogy (Episode I-III) were prequels to the original 1977 masterpiece, the chronology for this installment puts it some time after the events in “The Return of the Jedi” – so in a weird way, we have been waiting nearly 40 years for this movie. And while the political scope of things that so hallmarked the previous movies is present, there is a stronger focus on individual stories, on perspectives that are more rooted in a personal context than in a grand historical one. The New Republic is still present, and the Empire has fallen on the wayside, but Abrams is more interested in centering his lens on how the ‘turn of the wheel’ has impacted certain characters.
We follow the moral breaking point of Stormtrooper FN-2187 (a nod to Princess Leia’s cell-block number, for the diehard fans) as he witnesses the merciless execution of a group of villagers on the desert planet Jakku, and hatches a plan to defect with the help of a captured Resistance pilot Poe Dameran. The two of them end up crash-landing back on the planet where “Finn”, now alone and completely out of his element, falls in with a scavenger named Rey who spends her time spelunking through the relics of Imperial Star Destroyers half-buried in the dunes.
What we gather is that after the defeat of Death Star II, Luke Skywalker began to train a new generation of Jedi, only to have one of his prized pupils turn his back on the Light Side – the betrayal caused him to vanish, and both the Resistance and a new contingent of Gestapo-esque Dark Side baddies (led by giant hologram Supreme Leader Snoke, played by Andy Serkis) are looking for him.
There are two reasons that Abrams, in the modest opinion of a Star Wars aficionado, has succeeded.
First, he’s given us characters that are finally believable, relatable, and not hindered by a terrible script. Daisy Ridley as the stalwart machine-savvy Rey is reminiscent of a young Luke Skywalker, but less whiny, more independent, and a perfect balance against Finn’s reckless naivety. Although relatively unknown as an actress, she fits the role perfectly, and after the testosterone-saturated original trilogy, it says something about the direction of the series to finally see a woman leading the charge. Besides, if we’ve been waiting decades to see what happened after Endor, we’ve also been waiting decades to see the mantle of Jedi finally taken up by the opposite sex.
Second, it seems as if Abrams understands that storytelling is not a singular talent. One can have a good story, and be terrible at telling it (sorry, Lucas). In the same vein, if one is good at telling a story, sometimes even the crappiest narratives can still come off as passable. Granted, sometimes that means relying on tropes that feel as if they’ve been hijacked rather unscrupulously – we have an unassuming desert-bred protagonist who has a mysterious affinity for the Force, a giant deus ex machina doomsday device (which is basically just another Death Star on a world-scale this time, instead of a moon), a motley crew of colorful and exotic aliens, a shadowy subterranean villain, and an extralegal coven of light-saber wielding cultists called the First Order. And, of course, what would Stars Wars be without an obligatory scene of our heroes sneaking through an Imperial base?
So maybe we’re not getting the most original plot. A lot of it, in a weird way, feels like its pandering to the Star Wars fans by including as much of the original trilogy as possible into a 2 hour time frame, while still trying to give it the patina of something new – quintessential one liners (“I’ve got a bad feeling about this”), familiar alien species and locations (was that Yavin IV?), and of course the return of legendary characters. No doubt, Abrams has learned something from Star Trek about the power of canon, its ability to attract and hold an audience, but also the dangers inherent in blaspheming it. It’s a delicate line to toe.
We discover that Han and Leia appear to have had an only child (as opposed to Jacen and Jaina Solo which appear in the extended universe) – but while Disney and Abrams aren’t beholden to the entire breadth of Star Wars canon, they have made it clear that none of their films will contradict anything that appeared in the last two trilogies or in Star Wars: Clone Wars. In fact, they appear to have tried to take as much as possible from other media in an effort to refine and clarify the mythos in a way that even the pickiest critics will approve – the Resistance’s best fighter pilot Poe Dameran being related to Kes Dameran who appeared in the comic book series ‘Journey to the Force Awakens”? The remains of AT-AT walkers on Jakku, site of the Empire’s last stand?
And yet, even if The Force Awakens is catering exclusively to our nostalgia, it works.
The first time we see Han Solo and Chewbacca step into the Millenium Falcon, or the Resistance making a charge across the water in X-Wings, or Rey attempting her first Jedi mind-trick, the atmosphere in the theater becomes electric. It’s more than just a glorified rehash.
Rather, all these familiar elements have blended, more or less seamlessly, into the universe of the first trilogy, and this is crucial – not only in terms of making it feel like Star Wars again, but also in terms of giving credibility to a franchise that has (arguably) suffered in the last decade. Maybe that’s what it’s needed all along. New blood, new faces, and a new direction, but all of it still anchored to something contextually relevant to the galaxy we know and love, and both protagonists are at the crux of this. The Force Awakens represents not just another chronicle in the Star Wars universe, it also represents the proverbial handing down of that legacy to a new generation – whether it’s Finn taking off his Stormtrooper helmet (shedding his ‘faceless’ subservience to a dictatorship), Rey confronting her own fears of abandonment and embracing the Force, Kylo Ren following in the footsteps of Vader, or even J.J. Abrams himself accepting the reins from George Lucas.
Whether subsequent sequels can live up to the success of their predecessors remains to be seen – given the high standards it will inevitably be judged against and, I have faith, exceed – but for my part, after coming out of the theater, I felt something I’ve not felt in a long time. Let’s call it A New Hope.