For almost 40 years, Star Wars has been an embedded part of our culture. Its optimistic narrative of heroism and redemption has become one of the essential “myths” of our time. Star Wars is a cultural phenomenon that exists far beyond the movie screens on which the original trilogy was shown all those years ago. Its ideas and images continue to permeate our society. It is a science-fiction classic.
With this in mind, J.J. Abrams, director of the new Star Wars film, The Force Awakens, must have faced what seemed to be an insurmountable challenge. How could he contend with the enormous cultural legacy of Star Wars? Well, the truth is that no new Star Wars film could ever recreate the phenomenon of the original trilogy. And J.J. Abrams does not try to.
So what does he do with this new film instead? He positions it as receiving the legacy of the past. The Force Awakens draws from the elements of Star Wars that made the original trilogy great, so that we feel comfortable and nostalgic while watching it, as if returning to an old friend. It acknowledges and draws strength from the network of ideas, images, and themes that the original trilogy has come to represent.
But Abrams also ensures that The Force Awakens can stand on its own as a good Star Wars movie. Although it’s true that it relies heavily on the first Star Wars film A New Hope in its use of similar character, setting, and story elements, The Force Awakens succeeds in telling its own, original story. It takes inspiration from the original magic of Star Wars to establish a familiar framework in which it can create something new.
The mix of old and familiar with new and refreshing is most apparent in the area of character. The Force Awakens brings back some familiar faces like Han Solo from the original trilogy, reminding us of the presence of the past, but it introduces us to a huge range of new characters, who bring their own voices and perspectives to the table.
The new characters, fortunately, feel at home in the Star Wars universe, and quickly attract our sympathy and interest. Of note are our two main protagonists, Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Finn (John Boyega), and antagonist Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who receive compelling story arcs supported by strong, nuanced performances. Kylo Ren’s backstory in particular was surprisingly deep, showing him to be an intense and complex villain.
Star Wars films are known for their fantastic settings and thrilling action sequences, and The Force Awakens is no exception. Its cinematography allows us to fully appreciate the beautiful and massive landscapes in which our characters find themselves, while the use of modern special effects (the original trilogy is somewhat dated in this area) make the action sequences a joy to watch. All this contributes to the sense of being on an exciting adventure as we journey across the galaxy.
This brings me to my next point: the adventurous aspect of Star Wars is brought to the forefront. An essential part of Star Wars has been the wonder associated with exploring strange and unique places across the galaxy, and The Force Awakens manages to tap into that sense of discovery.
Now for a few more comments on story. Unlike the prequels, which focused on political machinations (which sometimes became dry or overloaded with minutiae), The Force Awakens de-emphasizes the political aspect and, like the original trilogy, features the efforts of an underdog resistance group to defeat a powerful “evil empire.”
This led to a more streamlined and smoother plot and a return to the essential Star Wars message about heroism against evil. However, I did find myself wanting to know more about the political affairs that lay behind the main conflict of the film, if only for the universe to feel more fleshed-out. Perhaps the effort to create a more streamlined plot was a bit of an overreaction to the excessive politicking of the prequels.
The story, as I mentioned, resembles A New Hope, but The Force Awakens pushes to create its own identity and tell a new story. Some will find the similarities to A New Hope excessive and unoriginal and, to be fair, the movie does try pretty hard to hit all the “right notes” of what a Star Wars movie is “supposed” to be.
In terms of the larger, overall story, I can see some merit to the idea that The Force Awakens is perhaps trying too hard to emulate A New Hope. Some things just feel a bit too familiar, although that is not necessarily a major problem, since A New Hope is a great film, after all, and many of these elements are in fact hallmarks of Star Wars films in general. But in the area of character, I don’t think this is true. Yes, the new characters do fill familiar archetypes and story roles, but The Force Awakens succeeds in bringing in a level of newness and freshness to their character arcs.
So, to sum up, let’s ask the most important question about The Force Awakens: does it capture the essence and spirit of a true Star Wars film? For the most part, the answer is yes. All the major elements are there: compelling characters, a battle between good and evil, an optimistic vision of heroism, and the thrill of journeying across a fantastic setting. It takes the elements that made original trilogy a success, but it re-invents them in a new and exciting way. It is familiar and comfortable, yet refreshing and new.
I think it is worth it for most people to see The Force Awakens. Star Wars fans will appreciate its constant dialogue with the original trilogy and how it creates its own story while continuing to respect the cultural phenomenon that is Star Wars. For everyone else, The Force Awakens will be a fun and exciting space-adventure movie, and that is, regardless of everything else, what a Star Wars film should be.