A Hyperspace Ride Through The Star Wars Saga: The Force Awakens (2015)
As this decade rolls to an end, let’s begin our sequel trilogy writeup by pointing out another ten year span: the gap between George Lucas’ Revenge of the Sith and JJ Abrams’ The Force Awakens. After Lucas’ much maligned but not entirely unsuccessful prequel trilogy, it was safe to say the world was pretty worn out on Star Wars. Animated shows came and went, video games bubbled away under the surface, but in cinemas there was little to no Star Wars to be found. But then, in December 2015, JJ Abrams relaunched the franchise back into the conversation with The Force Awakens.
And we’d seen it all before. A droid harbouring important secrets, lost in a desert, found by a parent-less individual who is then thrust into a galactic saga of good and evil, facing down against a masked villain while the big bad guys prepare a giant weapon the size and shape of a planet that can only be destroyed by flying an X-Wing down a certain pathway and blowing a certain small part of it up and so on and so on and you get my gist. 2015’s The Force Awakens, 1977’s A New Hope, they’re one and the same. And I’m here to tell you why that’s okay.
There’s something special about Star Wars. There’s a legacy to it, a profound history, a personal connection with so many people that I’d argue every other major franchise has tried to replicate but never quite succeeded in mirroring. Obviously the likes of Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings and, more recently, the Marvel Cinematic Universe all have adoring fans around the world and are all more than deserving of their statuses, but they’re not quite Star Wars. I was only young when George Lucas first took us back to the galaxy with his prequel trilogy – as I was four years old when The Phantom Menace dropped in 1999, I didn’t see a Star Wars in the cinema until 2005 – but once I got a bit older and started to understand what filmmaking was and how critical/cultural reception worked, it wasn’t difficult to see that the prequels didn’t exactly set the world on fire. Star Wars had tried to come back, but it didn’t quite have the spark it was once renowned for.
Enter JJ Abrams. The Force Awakens had all the odds stacked against it, but it understood the gargantuan task lying in its path. An iconic and historical franchise, one vital to the birth of the modern blockbuster, needed reinvigoration. Abrams assembled a cast of mostly fresh faces, took us to a quiet and distant corner of the galaxy, and let his story begin there. The story he ended up telling, and the style in which he told this story, wasn’t particularly fresh or innovative, but it did something crucial to the longevity of the franchise: it reminded us why we loved it to begin with.
With its rollicking, planet-hopping pace and subtle but effective world-building, it reminded us of the joys and depth of the Star Wars galaxy. With its lovable roster of new protagonists and complex, immediately gripping new villain, it thrillingly reinvested us in a story we’d happily left behind. Abrams understood that the key to ensuring Star Wars’ future lay in the past. With his signature mystery box storytelling, Abrams’ recaptured the magic the franchise once oozed and he rekindled our imaginations by bringing the stylings and ideas of Star Wars’ early past hurtling back into the present. Suddenly, what was old and nostalgic was back in the multiplex with a gleaming new coat of paint, and it turns out a fresh colour on an old cinema screen was exactly what the franchise needed.
Does The Force Awakens act as a step forward for blockbuster film-making? Not by a long shot. Does it even make for challenging, thematically rewarding viewing? Not really. But when positioned as the first film of a trilogy, and with the level of pressure and expectation on its shoulders, does it however double as both a brilliant reminder of what a much-loved franchise can be and a Death Star-sized springboard for an exciting and magical new adventure? You bet it does. Its derivative storytelling may have been worrisome when it first released, but Lucasfilm soon handed the reins over to a man called Rian Johnson, whose ambitions were luckily significantly loftier. It’s safe to say nothing was ever quite the same again.