In 1977 I was in Los Angeles for the 4th of July and I went out with a group of friends to a late-night showing of a new movie – Star Wars. It was just before the movie went into hyper-drive at the box office, so we didn’t have to stand in a long line and the huge theater was about half full. The moment when the Imperial Star Destroyer flew over our heads and kept on going and going and going was when I knew the world of movies had changed forever. After the success of the first movie, Lucas said in an interview that he envisioned three trilogies, with the original as the centerpiece (leading to it being renamed Episode 4: A New Hope). When the second trilogy came along, it was a disappointment until the last movie. Revenge of the Sith was enough to make Attack of the Clones bearable, though it still couldn’t improve The Phantom Menace. The best viewing order for the two trilogies is what’s called the Machete Order: 4,5,2,3,6 (so The Phantom Menace becomes the phantom movie).
Because of this, I was concerned when Disney bought Lucasfilm and announced that the final trilogy would be made. The concern was somewhat alleviated when it was announced that J.J. Abrams would helm and co-write Episode 7. He resuscitated Star Trek when it was pretty much dead, and Super 8 was one of the better straight sci-fi movies to come along recently. Abrams also brought back Lawrence Kasdan, who had penned The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, as well as Raiders of the Lost Ark, to co-write the new movie along with Abrams and Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3, Hunger Games: Catching Fire). There was a chance that they could capture the magic of the first trilogy again.
Happily, that’s what has happened. The Force Awakens gives you the feeling of the original trilogy while twisting the story so it’s fresh. To prevent spoilers, I won’t go into the plot here, but there are several general points about the production that stood out to me.
Casting: It’s hard to remember that before Star Wars Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher were unknowns. Ford had a small role in Lucas’ American Graffiti while Hamill had been cast in a TV series that he got out of after Star Wars took off. Fisher, the daughter of Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher, was as a princess of Hollywood though she’d only had a small role in Shampoo (where she seduced Warren Beatty) before she became Princess Leia. The three main newcomers in The Force Awakens are in a similar position, although the career of Adam Driver (Kylo Ren) had taken off in the last three years with him appearing in a dozen movies, among them Frances Ha, Lincoln, and Inside Llewyn Davis. John Boyega (Finn) was in 2011’s Attack the Block, the story of an alien invasion of the council flats in London. Daisy Ridley (Rey) had only done some TV in England and a couple of short movie roles before The Force Awakens. But just like the original three, Driver, Boyega, and Ridley are perfect for their roles and capture the audience – Ridley in particular. It’s so good to see a competent, smart woman who handles whatever comes up before anyone can “save” her.
Favorites: When it was announced that Hamill, Ford, and Fisher would be back (as well as Peter Mayhew and Anthony Daniels – Chewbacca and C-3PO respectively) the first thought was cameo roles, but that’s not the case. The Force Awakens truly is a continuation of the story years after the original, allowing the actors to play their actual ages now. Ford is a main character here, but Hamill and Fisher have their parts to play that loom large in the next episodes.
Revelations: A New Hope and most of The Empire Strikes Back lead up to the revelation of Luke’s father. In The Force Awakens there are several revelations about the characters that are laid out with a wonderful sense of pace and timing. Withholding them until later would have been detrimental and frustrating to the audience. Yet there are still more revelations to come. When the Force does awaken, it pushes the story to a higher level. Abrams balances the story perfectly so the movie is a satisfying story while at the same time setting up the next two films, rather than trying to cram everything into the one movie or tease the story out. He had to walk a tightrope but he stayed in perfect balance all the way across.
The Force Awakens not only rekindles the feeling of the original movie for old fans, it lets new fans share a wonder similar to Star Wars when it first came out. In a way, it’s like fans have been waiting in line for 32 years for a worthy new movie. Now it’s out and it was well worth the wait. Merry Christmas to movie lovers everywhere.