Let the record show that for the first time, arguably, in over 30 years, we have a Star Wars movie that lived up to its hype.
There’s a very simple reason why. Putting it more accurately, there’s a very simple reason “who.”
To borrow a memorable line from a former boss, depending on other people puts you at the mercy of other people. A long time ago, in a boardroom far, far away, it was very hard to imagine a Star Wars film without the direct involvement of George Lucas. Even after all the crap he caught for the prequels, much of which was justifiable, taking the creation out of the hands of its creator was inherently risky.
That wasn’t even accounting for the Disney factor, either. Selling Star Wars to a conglomerate with a history of turning sacred cows into cash cows was the last thing the franchise needed after a trio of films that did little more than make the rich richer.
But they couldn’t have picked more capable hands in which to put the next chapter than those of J.J. Abrams.
Abrams and Lucas are cut from the same cloth. You might say they are Jedi and Sith–masters of light and darkness. Lucas, in his prime, told inspirational stories like A New Hope, in which the title speaks for itself, whereas the best of the prequels, Revenge of the Sith, was one in which the bad guys win.
One of my favorite Abrams projects was NBC’s Revolution, which, critics be damned, did a phenomenal job drawing me in to the Machiavellian adventures of ordinary people from differing backgrounds trying to survive a dystopian future. Abrams, however, will be more fondly remembered as the guy who rejuvenated Star Trek, based on the revolutionary NBC series about diverse characters whose camaraderie suggested a more optimistic future.
My optimism for another Star Wars movie was quite guarded. Knowing that Abrams was at the helm made me let down my guard.
I became excited to see The Force Awakens this winter for the same reason I was excited last summer to see Jurassic World, spearheaded by eventual Episode IX director Colin Trevorrow. The Force Awakens, clearly, was not chiefly a paycheck gig for Abrams, like Episodes I-III were for Lucas. By now it should be obvious to audiences that Abrams was in it to make a solid Star Wars picture for a new generation that would do a dormant franchise some past-due justice.
Indeed, he did that for Star Wars the same way he did it for Star Trek (and, yes, like Trevorrow did for Jurassic World): by taking it back to its roots.
Star Trek worked because it allowed us to see its characters in their younger, formative years, each bursting with their distinctive personalities that made the TV show great. Chris Pine’s Kirk was a fearless, maverick leader who didn’t care what sort of circuitous route he had to take to save the day, as long as it was saved. Zachary Quinto’s (hashtag: He’s From Here) Spock was a straight-laced, no-nonsense foil who proved more human than he was willing to admit. Simon Pegg’s Scotty was the colorful comic relief, and so forth. The characters grew more into their familiar selves as they learned from each other.
Furthermore, its homages to the TV show were clever. Kirk seduced a green woman. Scotty, trying to save the drowning Enterprise, was “giving her all she’s got.” The red-shirted ensign who joined the landing party was the first to bite the dust. Similarly, The Force Awakens plays to the strengths of the film that started it all nearly 40 years ago.
The most marketable character, Chewbacca notwithstanding, is a robot that accompanies the main heroine, just like C-3PO and R2-D2 accompanied Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker. There is a cantina. There is a sobering death. There is a celestial weapon of mass destruction. There are secrets sought and revealed. There is a black-clad villain who had become the black sheep of his family, and ultimately, the good guys avenged the mass destruction he caused by taking out his weapon. Most importantly, there is Harrison Ford being a smartass.
Furthermore, Han Solo, Ford’s perpetually smug smuggler, remains an effective contrast to Carrie Fisher’s equally courageous, but more grounded, Princess–er, General–Leia. It works for me on the same level as the late Leonard Nimoy’s “Spock Prime” in Star Trek. Any director can merely shoehorn these classic characters into new movies for his own sentimental reasons, but the reasons for Solo’s presence in this story, like Fisher’s Leia and Hamill’s Skywalker, are salient. Rather than walking off into the sunset and living happily ever after, a la Return of the Jedi, this movie condemns these characters to relive history–a classic case of art imitating life.
The strengths of The Force Awakens offset its only weakness, the casting of Adam Driver as Kylo Ren. Although I take no issue with Driver’s performance or the dialogue he is given, he is more physically convincing as the guy who would sit with me at lunch in eighth grade than he is as the biggest evil-doer in the galaxy this side of Vader. Once the helmet comes off, he becomes less threatening.
Be that as it may, Driver’s innocence just goes to remind us that nobody is above the influence of evil, which is one of the all-encompassing messages conveyed by the first six movies. Also, as a further reminder of the human capacity for change, John Boyega’s Finn, the other main protagonist, is a disillusioned Stormtrooper who has seen the error of the First Order’s ways. Even in following an old formula, Abrams has found a new way to tell the story.
If you were as skeptical of The Force Awakens as I was at one time, the time is now to allay your fears. It’s entertaining, it’s action-packed and it leaves you wanting more–the way a Star Wars movie should be. If I’ve convinced you to see for yourself, I’m glad.
But I’m not the one you need to thank.