Who among us would turn down a dream job making millions of dollars? Who among us would accept a job where we would be mocked, criticized and have our very work denigrated? Who would sign on when both apply to the same job?
I can’t speak for you, but J. J. Abrams and his team did as much when taking on the creation of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. “From a certain point of view,” as Obi-Wan would say, many people think the prequels were a disaster despite recent efforts to defend them. The general public has also seemed to become skeptical of any new Star Wars movies, so Disney sought someone who could get their newly acquired franchise off on the right foot. To do so, Abrams and the team behind The Force Awakens had to face the past (all of it) in order to move forward.Whether it be cherished memories or trauma, the stories of our lives are worth seeing in all their fullness. This is also, perhaps, why Abrams’ tribute to George Lucas works.
Admittedly, I had concerns with The Force Awakens, but they were mostly drowned out by the fact that as a filmmaker and storyteller, I’ve always trusted Abrams. His conceptualizations of Lost and Alias, revivals of the Mission: Impossible and Star Trek franchises, and direction of perhaps the most touching scene ever in The Office have long made me a fan. And when I left the theater after seeing The Force Awakens, I was blown away. The heart and soul of Star Wars had been captured, and the future looked brighter than it had in decades. Sadly, I felt as though I was in the minority. Many fans had criticism plagued by toxic vitriol complaining about the characters’ genders and ethnicities. Another popular takeaway was that the film was a simple rehash of A New Hope and perpetuated the “Mary Sue” trope. The only rehash I saw was people missing the point.
While I am not convinced that George Lucas was successful in the prequels, his philosophy about the rhyming nature of history and his films has always intrigued me. Few franchises allow or intend to flesh this out, but even though Lucas was not making The Force Awakens, it revisits similar beats and character traits with the hubris and rise of empires, the hero’s journey, and the pulp nature of sci-fi adventure—these are rich themes and devices to employ, so why not thread them throughout the saga?
The original trilogy was brilliant and groundbreaking in so many ways, and the audience needed to know if Disney could recapture that. Abrams did this with an engine of new elements fueled by familiarity that made audiences feel safe while simultaneously moving Star Wars forward.
In a genius stroke, legendary characters, music, and tropes serve as a handoff to new characters, themes, and mythology. Han and Chewie more or less bridge to Poe and Finn. The familiar droids we love in C3PO and R2-D2? They bring us BB-8 and a new form factor with its ball-like design. While Luke is missing (but discussed plenty), we have a new young Jedi-to-be on her own journey with the Force. The Force Awakens melds together new and old themes and archetypes. Abrams even made sure to make this movie more practically as the original trilogy did with on-set shoots and practical effects alongside the latest advances in CGI.
By doing this, the film disarms any viewers who are apprehensive due to the prequels and allows a new vision to unfold without abandoning Star Wars’ roots too much. In this, we see that the past isn’t something to be avoided or forgotten. We need to deal with the good and bad to learn from it all. Whether it be cherished memories or trauma, the stories of our lives are worth seeing in all their fullness. This is also, perhaps, why Abrams’ tribute to George Lucas works. Some consternation was held over the use of Lucas’ philosophy of history “rhyming” since it didn’t seem successful with the prequels, but with The Force Awakens, the audience is treated to a well-crafted sonnet.Abrams succeeded with a masterful job at reminding us that we must search, embrace, and confront the past so as not to repeat it while ultimately moving forward.
While The Force Awakens has a lot of levity and warmth thanks to its cast, the prequels feel clinical and sterile, in much the same way as a comedian explaining a joke or a magician revealing the mechanics behind a trick. It kills the magic, and the prequels misjudged what people were most interested in when it comes to Star Wars. To put it another way, the prequels and The Force Awakens differ in the same way as going by “the letter of the law” and “the spirit of the law.”
The prequels delved into scientifically explaining the Force with midichlorians, whereas The Force Awakens returned to a more mysterious, mythological perception of it. Additionally, part of the appeal of the original trilogy was the characters and their fun chemistry. Han, Leia, Luke, Chewie and the droids all interact in such a lovable and fun way. Star Wars fans could easily see themselves enjoying and being a part of that group. The prequels, however, suffered from wooden dialogue and static character interaction. Notoriously, actor Terrance Stamp has told the story of expecting to act with Natalie Portman, yet when arriving on set, he only got to work with a photo of Queen Amidala.
More than anything, I often got the feeling that fans felt betrayed by Lucas when it came to the prequels. He didn’t “get” Star Wars anymore, and further credence was given to this with the changes in the re-releases of the original trilogy. Lucas almost seemed to have become embarrassed by aspects of Star Wars and wanted to move away from what it was (e.g. see the erasure of the Holiday Special). J.J. Abrams and Disney chose to embrace what Star Wars was, is, and always can be.
Ultimately, Abrams succeeded with a masterful job at reminding us that we must search, embrace, and confront the past so as not to repeat it while ultimately moving forward. With The Force Awakens, a balance of the Force was restored.