Image source. Copyright Walt Disney Pictures, 2015.
The first thing you notice about the latest episode of Star Wars is just how much it reminds you of the good ol’ days. 32 years have passed since Return of the Jedi, 10 since the ending of the trashy prequel trilogy that singlehandedly tarnished the brand. But watch Luke, Leia, Han Solo, Chewbacca, C-3PO, R2-D2, and a whole host of new characters stride across the screen in this new release, and you feel like you’re a little kid again, gazing at the screen in childlike awe while John Williams’ magnificent theme booms and the story of happenings in a galaxy far, far away scrolls upwards in large, yellow font.
It’s not just the return of familiar characters that ups the nostalgia factor. Many of the plot elements of this latest episode, particularly towards the climactic confrontations at the finale, are straight out of A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back. The driving conflict of the story, the production design, the score, the costumes, the protagonists and their humble origins, the antagonists and their various evil plans – in many places, it almost feels like all J.J. Abrams did was take the original trilogy and mix its most memorable elements together to make this seventh episode “new” for 2015. Memory lane is the road you find yourself traveling, a fact that gets hammered in when you instinctively find yourself identifying super-old Luke as the “new Yoda,” Rey the “new Luke,” Kylo the “new Vader,” Han Solo the “new Obi-Wan,” General Hux the “new Grand Moff Tarkin”…you could go on. Alas, we still don’t have a good Star Wars episode that doesn’t heavily rely on Joseph Campbell’s hero cycle for plot points.
But memory lane may not be an entirely bad way to go. The biggest thing going for Star Wars is its iconic, almost timeless status. Dialogue, plotline, character development, and nuance were never its strong suits. (Cough cough, prequels.) On the action front, films like The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises do just as well as Star Wars, if not better, with far less melodrama and far more subtlety. It’s the nostalgia, the ubiquitous, archetypal nature of Star Wars the concept, that makes this new episode a success. Because in the end, Star Wars *is* fantasy movie-making. Mediocre, forgettable soap opera becomes so much more thanks to everything the very name itself of “Star Wars” has come to represent in our collective unconscious.
And in all fairness, Abrams has definitely made a few, much-needed updates in this episode. Instead of defaulting to the CGI that clogged up the prequels, he actually bothered to physically make most of the set pieces in this episode. The landscapes here no longer seem like remote fantasy worlds only computers could dream up; in fact, they usually feel intimately, searingly real. Aside from that, BB-8, the new droid robot, is also undeniably adorable. And it is nice to see that the latest practitioner of the dark side of the Force actually takes off his mask every now and then, as opposed to a certain someone else.
Most other movies would sink with flaws like so-so dialogue and a predictable plotline. But not Star Wars. Not a film series so legendary and universal that 80-year old grandmothers in the middle of rural China who don’t speak a word of English have Darth Vader calendars hanging on their walls. (Really really.) For two hours, Abrams has given us another chance to relive the majestic splendor of the old days, when lone warriors battled malicious dark forces in the ultimate, cosmic war between good and evil. Everyone loves a good, epic fairy tale of chivalry and mighty powers. The Force Awakens is just that fairy tale, and so much more.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)
Starring: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Adam Driver, Lupita Nyong’o, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill
Running Time: 136 minutes
Produced by: J.J. Abrams, Kathleen Kennedy, Bryan Burk
Directed by: J.J. Abrams
Written by: J.J. Abrams, George Lucas, Lawrence Kasdan, Michael Arndt