A new hope
“Luke Skywalker has disappeared.”
With those four words, judiciously chosen by director J.J. Abrams to begin the opening crawl of his hotly anticipated Episode VII, the Star Wars franchise reorients itself in the land of things that people give a rat’s ass about. There’s nothing about trade embargoes or tariffs, nothing about filibusters in the Galactic Senate. No parliamentary procedure bullshit or soppy greeting card mush at all, just a terse and mysterious plot setup largely focused on characters that you care about.
This is not a groundbreaking approach to storytelling, but it’s sensible, which is groundbreaking in its own way compared to the nightmarish self-absorption and fan disservice of the prequels. I won’t rehash my own tortured history with the Star Wars franchise here, but suffice to say that the words “George,” “Lucas,” “is,” “dead,” “to,” and “me” would probably dominate a word cloud comprised from my mid-2000s movie blogs. The infantile fussiness of the prequels flattened the Star Wars universe to the point of discouraging imagination, but The Force Awakens turns it back into a tactile and dimensional cinematic world. It’s a real Star Wars movie; it’s just not a really great Star Wars movie.
The Force Awakens is built on the framework of the original Star Wars film, now also known as A New Hope, and there are innumerable callbacks to that 1977 classic, including several dozen in the opening 20 minutes. There’s a real sense of overcompensation here—it’s telling that while the prequels eschewed any sort of “Han Solo figure” (i.e., a clumsily charming rogue in a cool jacket) and focused almost exclusively on the monotonous, self-rubbing mysticism of the Jedi Knights, The Force Awakens features at least three different Han Solo figures, including the actual Han Solo (Harrison Ford, giving slightly more of an effort than in Crystal Skull).
There’s a cozy familiarity to The Force Awakens—Abrams doesn’t set out to make or break myths, but rather to keep the old myths in circulation. He takes the same irreverently respectful approach to Star Wars that he took to his Star Trek pictures, recycling everything people loved about the originals and adding a half-twist. Abrams isn’t what you would call an “idea machine”—he takes an existing invention and puts a clock in it, and the contents of his magic boxes are never as interesting as the design of the latches.
After watching The Force Awakens, I’m actually excited for future Star Wars movies (something I never thought I’d say), but less excited to revisit this particular Star Wars movie. The film sets the franchise back on the right course, but does it without creating many signature moments of its own. It’s hard for me to imagine children playing Kylo Ren vs. Finn the way that I used to play Darth Vader vs. Luke Skywalker. Still, for a film tasked with kickstarting a theoretically infinite number of sequels and spinoffs, and burdened with setting up stories and characters that may never pay off, a decent tease is decent enough.