After over a year of shrewd marketing and mounting anticipation, even the most loyal fans of Star Wars began to question whether its seventh installment could live up to the hype. But if critical reviews and box office results are any gauge, the fans had nothing to fear. As I write this, it has catapulted past the $300 million mark, and moviegoers have embraced it with open arms. As one YouTube reviewer summed it up, “For the first time in my life, I walked out of a movie theater excited about Star Wars.” It’s a poignant statement that speaks for an entire generation of fans who have never seen the original trilogy in theaters.
One respect in which fans already knew Episode VII would be a breath of fresh air is its deliberate return to the on-location shooting and practical effects that gave that first trilogy its hand-crafted feel. The difference is tangible. And now that the final product is complete, the verdict is nearly unanimous that inStar Wars: The Force Awakens, Abrams has finally delivered the movie Star Wars fans deserve.
So, what exactly has Abrams tapped into? In a world where pop culture fads come and go by the minute, how do we explain the enduring popularity of the Star Wars saga since it first took the world by storm in 1977?
- It’s grounded in its characters: The cutting-edge visual technology of Star Wars played a major role in its phenomenal success, but all of that would have been empty spectacle were it not for the characters at its heart. Consider the enduring appeal of the original Star Trek series, which had mediocre visual effects and the costumes/set design of a high-school play. People forgave those faults because they fell in love with Kirk, Spock, Bones, Scotty and the rest. Star Wars was fortunate to capture lightning in a bottle on all fronts, but none were more crucial than the crafting and casting of its central characters. Every little boy wanted to be Han or Luke. Every little girl wanted to be Leia. And who wouldn’t want a mentor like Obi-Wan Kenobi or Yoda? We feel as if we know the characters already, because they are so classic, so instantly recognizable and relatable.
- It’s quintessentially American: The popularity of Star Wars is certainly not limited to America, but the distinctly American elements of its origins cannot be ignored. In particular, the first Star Wars is heavily informed by the Western genre. There are shootouts that could have been lifted right out of a cowboys and Indians serial. There’s the rugged, independent hero with his faithful companion and his beloved steed (a horse, a spaceship, same difference).
The creators also tapped into their own American heritage by using WWII footage in the breathtaking space battles of Star Wars. If the spirit of Han Solo harkens back to the Western hero, the spirit of the X-Wing pilots harkens back to the American military man. We cheer for their victory with a swell of something like patriotic pride, even though it takes place in a galaxy far, far away.
- It’s unabashedly romantic: Films of the 70s were defined by jaded cynicism, murky anti-heroes and brutal violence. Then along came Star Wars, a fairytale in space. There was a princess, a wizard, and a poor boy destined for greatness. There was fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles. And soaring over it all was the landmark orchestral score of John Williams. By deliberately eschewing “coolness” and treating the story with absolute sincerity, he created a work that, like Star Wars itself, is timeless.
The enduring romantic appeal of Star Wars is proof positive that deep down, audiences hunger for simple stories that echo the Great Story. Luke Skywalker’s journey is the hero’s journey, a journey we never grow tired of tracing through the stories we tell, though we have traced it a thousand times. In it, we are presented with good and evil, and we’re left in no doubt as to which is which.
This is especially interesting to consider in the light of the Star Wars saga’s own religious philosophy, which presents good and evil as equal in strength and essence. Evil is a thing, not just the absence of good, and the cycle of conflict between the two is unending. Neither can completely overcome the other. Yet, instinctively, it never even questions which side is the right. Instinctively, it wants to show us good overcoming evil. It makes us hope that even its villains might be redeemed, as they balance on the edge between light and dark. Indeed, the original trilogy climaxes with the redemption of its most iconic villain. But is this not the ultimate triumph of good over evil-the redemption of a human soul? Despite its own avowed philosophy, Star Wars cannot shake that whisper of the truth that evil’s reign is only temporary, that good will triumph at last.
Now, nearly forty years on, a few nay-sayers have accused The Force Awakens of being little more than glossy, derivative fan-fiction. It hews closely to the structure and plot of A New Hope, scattering multiple winks and nods to the original films throughout. The fans have been well served, but has the myth of Star Wars played itself out? Are there no new stories to tell?
For myself, I wanted to be reminded of why I fell in love with Star Wars to begin with. I wanted to re-live the thrill of good battling evil, companionship between characters, heroes who laugh as they fight. I wanted to revisit the struggle between damnation and redemption in the battleground of a single soul. Abrams delivers all of this, not only by bringing back some of the old characters we know and love, but by infusing fresh characters with that same spirit. He gives us one protagonist who, like Luke, embarks on a hero’s journey. He gives us another protagonist who leaves his service of evil behind “because it’s the right thing to do.” And he gives us an antagonist who freely chooses evil, yet evokes compassion in those who hope that he can still be saved.
While it may not bring too many new ideas to the table, The Force Awakens is what it set out to be: a loving reflection of where Star Wars came from. If it re-treads some old stories and old themes, it’s because they still resonate with truth all these years later. Episodes VIII and IX may take more inventive twists and turns. For now, it is surely no accident that the first spoken line of Episode VII is “This will begin to make things right.”