***If you haven’t had a chance to check out Star Wars: The Force Awakens, turn back now. Spoilers follow.
Back in 2007, when half the world was having a nervous breakdown over David Chase’s finale of The Sopranos, I remember reading one fan’s own version of that final scene. He had taken the time to write it out himself, complete with camera angles. I remember he closed his proposal with, “If I may be so bold.” I remember thinking, “No, you may not!” Everyone had spent eight years talking about what a genius David Chase was, but were ready to brand him a heretic because he had written a single scene in a single episode they didn’t like. Granted they really, really didn’t like it. But still.
Since seeing Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I’ve been thinking about George Lucas, and how he and Chase both found themselves in similar circumstances. People worshiped Lucas for creating Star Wars in the first place, but were ready to put him on an ice floe and push him out to sea after he made the much-maligned-and-rightly-so prequels. Now, creating the prequels was a much greater sin than anything David Chase ever did. But in the same way that the Sopranos finale didn’t negate Chase’s genius leading up to it, the prequels don’t negate the genius of the original Star Wars trilogy. “Well, duh,” you might be saying. And, okay, point taken. But my larger point is that any emotional resonance one might get from The Force Awakens is due to the relationships between the characters in those original films. And once we get right down to it, this is because JJ Abrams has so closely mimicked the story beats of A New Hope, he hasn’t given audiences anything too terribly new to grab onto.
The Force Awakens picks up 30 years after what we saw in Return of the Jedi. As one might expect, despite blowing up a second Death Star, mopping up the rest of the Empire hasn’t exactly been easy going for the resistance, or the New Republic, or whatever. The problem is, we’re not sure how hard a fight it’s been, because the film doesn’t really give us a good idea of who’s in charge. We know that in the intervening 30 years, the Empire has transformed into the First Order. We also know that the New Republic is the government in power. But if that’s the case, why is there a resistance at all? Wouldn’t the resistance simply be the New Republic’s military?
I think diehard fans will walk away from the movie filled with questions like this. You get the feeling that there’s a whole other trilogy that could fit in between Jedi and The Force Awakens, filling in the events of the past 30 years. That we’re left with so many questions has its ups and downs. Yes, there are a lot of things that would make more sense with a little bit of backstory, but there was also a lot of backstory audiences could have used when A New Hope was released. And rather than give it to us, Lucas instead just dropped us into the middle of the action, and that obviously worked out pretty well. It works out pretty well here, too, for a few different reasons. One of these is that this is a genuinely good movie. You can tell that JJ Abrams and everyone else who worked on it loved Star Wars, and the love and even reverence for the original films informed everything they did here.
The other reason this approach worked as well as it did is because this is the Star Wars movie people have been waiting the past 32 years to see. This isn’t a movie that’s going back to fill in holes. This is the return of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Princess Leia. That reason alone is going to give the film a major pass where it otherwise might not have gotten one. It worked on me. I don’t have the emotional connection to Star Wars that a lot of people do, but I admit to wiping a tear from my eye when Rey finally meets Luke at the end of the film. Moments like this, or seeing Han and Chewie back aboard the Millennium Falcon, are powerful enough that you’re willing to ignore the fact that we’re once again being introduced to a poor farmer on a desert planet who gets swept up in a battle against a masked villain who speaks through a voice modulator. You overlook the fact that Starkiller Base is just the Death Star on steroids, and that it’s taken out in almost the exact same way.
But leaving the beats the movie is rehashing aside for a moment, how did all the other stuff work out? Farmer or no, Rey is not Luke Skywalker. Do we even want to spend another two movies with these characters? I’d say hell yeah we do. Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, and Oscar Isaac — clearly meant to be the Luke, Han, and Leia of this new trilogy — are all great actors and, despite similarities to the original trilogy, each feel like they have something new to offer these films. But aside from that, up until now, all of Star Wars has been telling a singular story: the saga of the Skywalker family. It’s important to remember that The Force Awakens is the next chapter in that story. And what the movie sets up makes me really excited to see what comes next, despite the shortcomings I thought movie had.
And for that, JJ Abrams has George Lucas to thank. If this had been Abrams’ own creation, I’d take more of an issue with how out of character some of the movie’s comedic beats seemed, or the third act’s complete lack of believable stakes. Instead, I’m really looking forward to what Episode VIII is going to bring. And while, after seeing The Phantom Menace, I could only bite my lip and pray for the best as Attack of the Clones came at us like a speeding train, I think this next film will be even better than The Force Awakens. Now that the stage has been set, I imagine director Rian Johnson will have the freedom to take the franchise in new and interesting directions. And even though George Lucas, the creator of the prequels, may be sitting in the shadows like Blofeld to our James Bond, letting us know that he is the author of all our pain, I remember that he’s one of the reasons I feel connected to this universe at all, and I feel I owe him a debt of gratitude because of it.