There is, in my history, a childhood memory of seeing Star Wars
on a big screen, and this memory is a thing of joy and beauty to me. That having such a memory makes me in no way unique, especially given my age and other demographic factors, is something of a cultural cliche. Indeed, the foundation for the continuation of this series — first with the 1999-2005 prequel trilogy, and now with Episode VII – The Force Awakens
— is its omnipresence in our pop-culture consciousness as a universe that forged an emotional bond with a generation. We want it to be magnificent. We need it to be magnificent. We’re ready to be children again.
And so it is that, more than 38 years after the first time John Williams’ fanfare marked a film-history instant where everything changed, we once again can see yellow words of exposition crawl into the infinite distance. At last we might know what happened to Luke, Leia, Han and company after their happily-ever-after in Return of the Jedi
. George Lucas clearly didn’t understand 16 years ago what it is we were waiting for. But this time. Maybe this time.
Director J.J. Abrams, who co-scripted with The Empire Strikes Back
screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan and Toy Story 3
’s Michael Arndt, gets us. Maybe he gets us a little too well. Because here we see a droid — this time the spherical BB-8 — rolling across a desert landscape, carrying data vital to the Good Guys. Here we see the iconic Millennium Falcon dragged into a larger vessel by a tractor beam. Here we see someone in a Stormtrooper outfit escorting a handcuffed hero, pretending to have him as a prisoner. For most of the last four decades, moments much like these from the original Star Wars have been burned into our brains. Staged anew, they tug at something, and we grin involuntarily.
With The Force Awakens
, Abrams and his team have crafted a structure so deeply indebted to the original Star Wars
— “indebted,” I suppose, being one of the more polite ways of phrasing it — that it’s almost audacious. He brings in a new generation of characters, and they’re all potentially compelling: Rey (Daisy Ridley), the scavenger on the desert planet of Jakku who finds BB-8; Finn (John Boyega), a refugee from a life that his conscience tells him he can’t live; Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), the ace pilot for the Republic-loyal Resistance; and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the mysterious and powerful masked figure accompanying the post-Empire, Dark Side-leaning forces of the First Order. And Abrams grasps that an old-school hero-quest narrative, with people struggling to accept their destiny, is considerably more satisfying on a visceral level than trying to understand the geopolitics of galactic trade disputes.
Abrams also has the secret weapon of bringing back the series’ most familiar faces — most notably the sideways grin and scarred chin of Han Solo (Harrison Ford). When he and Chewbacca step into the Millennium Falcon, it’s a magical movie moment, and in no small part because Ford seems to be having the time of his life. He understands the familiarity viewers bring to his performance, so that he can deliver lines dripping with history in a way that doesn’t feel like he’s waiting for the applause. He also brings out the best in Ridley and Boyega, who are engaging throughout and show tremendous chemistry together, but peak when bouncing their gung-ho energy off of Han’s world-weariness.
But it’s hard to shake off the seemingly non-stop parade of callbacks to the original trilogy. Abrams is a genuinely talented action filmmaker, and he fills The Force Awakens
with solid set-pieces that generally feel well-integrated into the story. He also shows some of the same tendencies here that he brought to his big-screen revival of Star Trek
, seeking to evoke not just a sensibility, but specific bits and pieces that would remind viewers that they knew where that reference or this bit of character business came from. He knows how to give the people what they want. Or, at the very least, what they think they want.
And perhaps that’s why The Force Awakens
is a good piece of adventure cinema that never feels like it had a chance of being a great piece of adventure cinema. Abrams brings a long-overdue mix of diversity and gender equity to the Star Wars
universe, and he deserves all the credit in the world for doing so. But the movies that change us — the movies that change movies — are the ones that show us what we never even realized we wanted and needed to see. For my generation, childhood memories were formed because Star Wars
created something. The Force Awakens
, for all its charms and virtues, tries to re-create something.