“These films are a part of American history, cinema history, and our personal history, all at once. The new faces up there on the screen are as compelling as the familiar ones because they remind us that in the world of ‘Star Wars,’ as in our world, life goes on no matter what.” -Matt Zoller Seitz, Rogerebert.com
Being a film buff, there are not many films I have seen as much in my life as “A New Hope”, “The Empire Strikes Back” (one of my all time favorite movies), and “Return of the Jedi”. I mean, “Dumb and Dumber” is up there in viewing reps but that is a different story. Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia, Chewbacca and more were my heroes growing up. Darth Vader was one of the most badass villains in the history of fiction. I more than wore out our families VHS copies of the original Star Wars Trilogy. My parents still have toy figures of the Star Wars characters that are stored inside a golden C-3PO case.
The Star Wars universe has captured my imagination for as long as I can remember and indeed, an entire pop culture. Before making good on my lone New Year’s resolution, I thought about why Star Wars has become such a phenomena among multiple generations. In my mind, this is still an open question. People who don’t even see a lot of movies have seen Star Wars and are engaged with the characters.
My friend and fellow blogger, Wenatchee the Hatchet, had a compelling theory that Star Wars ignites something deep in American religiousity: “But Star Wars is unique in distilling American pop mythology and theology in a way that seems to reflect our ideals and aspirations, even if we’re not always clear about what those mean…Maybe the Force is America’s real god after all.” I don’t think this is the reason for the space opera’s transcendent hold on pop culture (and I don’t think Wenatchee the Hatchet does either) but it is worth exploring even if the totality of an answer is evasive.
The seventh installment of the pop culture juggernaut, “Star Wars The Force Awakens” was the most anticipated movie of 2015. A difficult task would be imagining the pressure on the filmmakers to get this movie right and to correct the franchise after creator George Lucas’ lackluster prequels. Sure, a lot of people were going to make stacks of money regardless of if “The Force Awakens” was a good movie or not. At stake though was the credibility of the entire series. If Episode VII was bad, fans may relegate to the fact that a good Star Wars movie could not be made again and exclusively retreat to just the original trilogy.
Director JJ Abrams and team have succeeded in making a very good Star Wars movie. Yes, as people are saying ad nauseam, “The Force Awakens” is not without flaws but the most significant attribute of the film (two weeks after I watched it) is the feeling that the magic of the original trilogy has been recaptured both with returning characters and a new cast that the audience will care about as much as the returning veterans.
The famous Star Wars opening crawl sequence alerts us that Luke Skywalker has disappeared. Out of the remnants of the Empire, decisively destroyed in “Return of the Jedi”, the First Order has arisen who are hellbent on finding Skywalker and destroying remaining Jedis. The story begins on the planet of Jakku where ace x-wing pilot Poe Dameron (a solid Oscar Issac) has acquired a fragment of a map that leads to the location of Skywalker. On cue, here come the First Order troops led by the dark side Jedi, Kylo Ren (a creepy rager Adam Driver), who are also interested in Skywalker’s location. Dameron hides the map fragment in a droid unit, the lovable BB8, and advises him to roll away from the scene.
Enter the mysterious Rey (an excellent performance by Daisy Ridley) who is a scavenger on Jakku and eeks out an existence exchanging found parts and other items. She waits for a family to return as she lives in a world with downed Imperial ships in the desert, remembrances of the defeat of the Empire in ‘Return of the Jedi’. The audience understands as Rey does deep inside even as she outwardly denies it: her family is not coming back for her.
Crossing paths with BB8 and a stormtrooper named Finn (John Boyega) who had a crisis of conscience and aims to get away from the First Order, the plot swings into motion.
One of the criticisms of “The Force Awakens” is that the film is a recycled plot from Episode IV “A New Hope”. Entertainment Weekly, while acknowledging that plot similarities may not be a bad thing, has listed out many similarities to George Lucas’ 1977 original. The major similarity that bothered me the most was the existence of another Death Star type weapon that the antagonists possess (this time called a StarKiller base). Yes, the weapon can destroy planets (even galaxies) and at the climax, rebel ships are flying into a trench in order to hit the base at the most vulnerable point. Obviously, a very familiar climatic scene. Other similarities are duly noted: “There’s a droid carrying valuable information who finds himself on a desolate desert planet.” “There’s a lonely, Force-strong desert dweller who dreams of more”. “There’s a cantina filled with various alien creatures.”
All fair points and there are several more. One can almost see Abrams and scriptwriters in initial meetings with Disney discussing what kind of movie they wanted to make and can vividly imagine the discussion: new characters mixed with a heavy sense of old nostalgia. The generation who grew up with Star Wars needed to be connected to not only the older characters but the familiar themes and the generation after that needed their own new characters and heroes to grow up with. To the cynical, one can see the maybe focus-tested means and mass marketing arm of a corporation to deliver the highest grossing movie of all time. To others though, the fans or people who enjoy escapist sci-fi adventure in the theater, Abrams has reinvigorated the magic that people felt watching the original trilogy. A magic that was missing from Lucas’ heavy computer-generated effects prequels featuring wooden dialogue, bad acting and Jar Jar Binks.
Yes, the man who gave us “The Phantom Menace” and “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” has publicly expressed his displeasure with the new installment. This has had zero effect on the widespread embrace of the new episode.
I agree with the critics in one sense. From here, Star Wars does need to be taken in bold new directions. Disney and the assorted filmmakers should not just rehash and remix “The Empire Strikes Back” or “Return of the Jedi”. They have to know that they will make a universe full of cash no matter what they do. Might as well do something bold, unique and different with this galaxy far, far away that we have come to love. This is not a knock on Abrams and crew. Abrams delivered what fans and the audience have been waiting for: a recalling of why we love Star Wars in the first place and simultaneously, laying a groundwork for the franchise to boldly stretch out in new directions with a more diverse cast, an antagonist who is internally struggling where Darth Vader didn’t (until “Return of the Jedi), and new mysteries in which we want to find out the answers.
To revisit the theme of Star Wars and religion, Alissa Wilkinson wrote a piece in “Christianity Today” that discusses religious elements of Star Wars and how Star Wars is the unique movie franchise that has itself become a religion (in many ways):
“The religious devotion and the drive to shoehorn Star Wars into every belief system has got to have something to do with this framing. We talk a lot about good and evil when we talk about religious systems, but we lose track of how much of being part of any organized religion is also about being grafted into a history. The point of what we do in church—the creeds, celebrating holidays like Christmas and Easter and partaking in the Eucharist, singing the songs, giving our testimonies, baptizing or dedicating our babies—everything about it is about being reminded that we are not the first ones to do this, and we won’t be the last ones, either…It seems to me that we live in a world more alive to religious questions than it has been in decades—but also one more stripped of historical memory. I wonder, perhaps, if the Star Wars saga, dropping us into the center of the story and then stringing the story along for decades in both our universe and theirs, reinvigorates in us the deeply religious need for a sense of belonging: not just to a group of the living, but to those who’ve come before us, and will come after.”
With that, well done JJ Abrams. Well done.