A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…
In more than a century of motion picture history, one would be hard pressed to come up with a more eagerly anticipated, massively-hyped film than Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Sure, in recent years, there have been huge franchises that have largely lived up to their billing (Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter and even The Hunger Games are just a few examples). There have been massive best-seller books made into wildly over-hyped movies (Fifty Shades of Grey, anyone?). And there have even been unexpected visits from old friends that we thought we may never hear from again…and ultimately probably shouldn’t have (Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, ugh).
But in today’s age of brute force marketing, corporate cross-promotion, and social media madness, the art of anticipation has reached its golden age.
Thus we have the phenomenon of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and for some of us, it has been pure heaven.
And when I say “some of us”, let me be precise as to who I’m talking about:
I’m talking about people of a certain age, let’s just say mid-40’s to be kind about it. Men in their mid-40’s, in fact, though certainly there are plenty of women who are equally fanatical. I’m talking about those people who stood in line—in long lines, blocks long—when the original Star Wars came out in 1977 and played at the single-screen movie theater in downtown wherever. Those whose annual St. Nick’s Day stockings and Easter baskets were filled with Star Wars figures. Those who grew up reading books with titles like Han Solo and the Lost Legacy and Lando Calrissian and the Mindharp of Sharu. Those who watched The Star Wars Holiday Special in 1978…and then waited breathlessly—though fruitlessly—for it to air again in the coming years. Those who bragged in our youth that we could recite Star Wars line for line from memory—and could!—and never figured out why we were in our late teens before we had our first date.
Don’t get me wrong: Star Wars fandom absolutely crosses generational, gender, cultural, and just about every other line you can imagine, but there is something special about having been on the ground floor of this particular cultural phenomenon and now seeing new, glorious life breathed into the cherished franchise once again.
The Force Awakens succeeds where the prequels failed (miserably failed, to be sure, though even I will admit that there were some engaging moments here and there) by paying proper deference to and recapturing the spirit of the original trilogy. The new movie just feels like Star Wars, and the return of so many familiar faces and long-lost friends creates the atmosphere of a welcome family reunion.
It takes a while for the reunion to unfold, however.
The Force Awakens takes its time introducing the next generation, as it were (sorry, Trekkies). New heroes, new villains, and even a new adorable robot sidekick dominate the early stages of the film, and it’s all fun and enjoyable to look at, with a capable and engaging young cast that you begin to feel you may just be able to trust with the franchise.
But when Han Solo and Chewbacca burst into the frame for the first time, the movie kicks into proverbial hyperdrive and begins to gather its emotional steam. “Chewie, we’re home,” Han Solo effuses as he re-boards the Millennium Falcon for the first time in ages, and at that moment, every single person in the audience feels exactly the same. We’re home. And that’s when—for some—eyes start to grow misty and perhaps even a single tear rolls down a cheek. And suddenly The Force Awakens begins to soar.
One by one, old friends join the party—human, alien, and machine alike—and one by one it feels as if they had never gone away. Even lines of dialogue—“May the force be with you”—feel like a warm hug from a lost love.
The plot is the plot, which is to say that if you’ve seen Star Wars (I refuse to subtitle it A New Hope, because that’s revisionist), you’ve pretty much seen The Force Awakens. That doesn’t mean that it’s a remake, per se; but the new film tracks much the same as the original did: plot points, character archetypes, and even twists, to some degree. The story and thematic parallels between this film and the original have been much remarked upon in recent weeks and in some quarters roundly criticized, but it is that familiar structure that allows us to remain comfortable and patient as the early introductions play out and we wait for the reunion to come.
Of the veteran cast, Harrison Ford does most of the heavy-lifting as Han Solo, who has matured from scoundrel to curmudgeon in the 30-ish years between Return of the Jedi and this latest installment. And that’s just fine, because even though the original Star Wars trilogy was Luke Skywalker’s story, Han Solo has always been the most fun and intriguing character. It also helps that of all the original cast, Academy Award nominee Ford also has displayed the most serious acting chops of the bunch. So, putting him front and center of The Force Awakens feels like the right thing to do.
Of the newbies, the talented group of John Boyega, Adam Driver, and Oscar Isaac perform admirably enough in roles of varying significance; but it is newcomer Daisy Ridley, as the desert scavenger-cum-quasi-Jedi, who shines most brilliantly. Ridley’s Rey is a revelation of charisma, intensity, authenticity, and flat-out girl power; and if this trilogy in fact turns out to be Rey’s story—as this film strongly suggests—then we have a lot to look forward to in the coming years.
For both the uninitiated (if there truly are any at this point) and the casual fan, The Force Awakens bristles with enough adventure, action, and pure kinetic energy to gloss over the occasional lapses in plot or some of the undeveloped logic of this particular past/future galaxy.
However, for the rest of us, The Force Awakens is far more than an entertaining new film.
It is an emotionally rewarding extension of the mythology of our childhood. It is the welcome erasure of not only Jar Jar Binks, but also of the unnerving racism and cult of petulance that defined the prequel trilogy. It is a movie that makes us feel again like the wide-eyed kids we once were when we sat in a theater and saw for the first time something that we had never even dared to imagine before.
“It’s true,” Han Solo assures us. “All of it. The Dark Side, the Jedi. They’re real.”
That’s how we felt watching Star Wars for the first time nearly 40 years ago, and that’s how this movie makes us feel once again.
The Force Awakens is the movie we’ve been waiting for since 1983, and you come away from it reassured of one thing:
The Force will be with you. Always.