This article is in no way, shape, or form spoiler-free.
There was a time when we all figured we’d never see a Star Wars movie in a theater again. I certainly didn’t expect to. And yet, at 7pm Thursday night, I was sitting there in a movie theater, watching the title crawl, listening to that music, and wondering if it was even real.
One of the biggest challenges for a sequel is maintaining the universe. One good movie is quite an accomplishment. Making a sequel can be a challenge; there are plenty of examples of sequels, three-quels, and more that do not hold up to the original. And there are of course franchises that have more than one movie whose quality is questionable. Just look at Star Wars- you could spend a lifetime on the internet arguing about the PT and just how good it is, and still never gain a consensus. We fans heard about The Force Awakens with quite a bit of understandable trepidation. Not only had we lost the expanded universe (which might not have always been much of a loss), but we were also waiting for a new movie (a new trilogy, even) made by people who were often new faces to the Star Wars universe. Let’s be honest- a lot of us were terrified going into TFA. Would it hold up?
I’m just going to use Han’s line. “Chewie, we’re home.”
I’m six again, seeing bits and pieces of the Special Editions of the OT and marveling that a movie so gorgeous could have been originally made twenty years ago. I’m nine again, seeing that universe on the big screen with a protagonist my age. I’m fifteen again, sobbing over Revenge of the Sith and watching the galaxy crumple into darkness. I’m grinning just like I always do every time I watch A New Hope; every time I see this movie, I see something different in it. But it isn’t a perfect universe, not the sort of perfectly polished place you might expect out of sci-fi. It’s lived in, the characters feel like real people, the only places made to look utterly perfect are those under the oppressive hand of the First Order. This universe is real and accessible, and TFA feels like a homecoming.
Those aliens on Jakku and in Maz Kanata’s palace. They look like the same aliens we saw in the Mos Eisley cantina- the variety, the number of species that we might never get a name for, the apparel. Though the music was very different, it was a well-executed throwback to a cantina on a desert planet many years ago, and managed to feel much like the same universe even if it’s at a different time and place. Maintaining that continuity was the thing that really sold me on TFA. For all that this is a different time and we don’t know a lot about the politics of the galaxy now, we are very firmly in the same universe.
One of the biggest failings of the last of Legends was that at times, it didn’t feel like it fit into the Star Wars universe very well. So much had happened politically, so many characters had ended up dead, and in general one needed to catch up with so much that it was very hard to see how things like Fate of the Jedi and Crucible really fit into the larger picture. This time, it doesn’t matter that there isn’t a bigger picture. We don’t know much about the galaxy’s political state, but we don’t need to know that in order to enjoy TFA. We know that the conflict between good and evil will be the basic premise, and we know that the First Order came out of the Empire and that the Rebel Alliance became some combination of the Republic and the Resistance. We don’t know how it happened, but it did- and the how isn’t important to us now. This is a story about the characters, and not knowing everything about the characters or their backstories is a good thing. There is so much we have to learn, and maintaining that sense of wonder in a universe where we could easily be jaded is wonderful.
Another big problem Legends faced was passing the torch. By the time of Fate of the Jedi, why are Han and Luke and Leia getting so much attention, still? They have children, and their children have friends- and if we hadn’t killed off so much of the younger generation, perhaps we could have seen them take on more prominent positions in the galaxy. Crucible finally ended with Han and Luke and Leia realizing it was time to retire, but it shouldn’t have taken that long. Thankfully, TFA fixes this. Han dying is important for the young heroes’ narrative arc; seeing one of the old legends die is a powerful way of showing that the sequel trilogy is about the next generation and where the galaxy is going. This isn’t the Big Three’s story, this is Rey and Finn and Poe’s story. I’m definitely not over Han dying, and pretty much the entire theater cried when it happened. But symbolically, it achieves something we needed in the ST: letting the next generation take over.
The changes to the nature of the Force are also important. Look at Kylo Ren’s indecision and struggle when he kills his own father- he is not a devoted dark-sider accustomed to atrocities. He is still learning, having left his Jedi training long before he was well-educated, and clearly only scratching the surface of the dark side. His lightsaber is rudimentary and unconventional, his temper tantrums unusual for a darksider, and based on Snoke’s words, Ren still has a long way to go before he really understands the nature of the dark side. For that matter, Rey’s Force-sensitivity manifests with more than the usual amount of latent Force powers and having figured out a few of them. It has been even longer since the Jedi have been active, few know about the existence of the Sith or the dark side, and based on everything Rey and Finn say, the Force is thought to be a myth. This establishes a fundamentally different galaxy from the last one we were in; with the Jedi having been gone for nearly half a century with minimal presence, it’s understandable that many ordinary people in the galaxy don’t think they’re real any longer. How much did the galaxy hear about whatever happened with Kylo Ren that made him turn to the dark side and made Luke go into hiding and stop training new Jedi? Not to mention the weight of the charge Luke faced as the last remaining Jedi, feeling a bit obligated to find more Force-sensitive beings and train them when his own training had been fragmented and unconventional.
The Force is still an incredibly powerful force in the galaxy and a bit of a wild card, but there is very little known about what it does. Rey will clearly be training as a Jedi, and if I know anything about the Star Wars universe, she’s probably Luke’s daughter and she’ll be facing Kylo Ren again. By that time, we’ll have to establish just what Luke knows about the Force and how confident he is in training a new Jedi after what sounds like a spectacular failure, and perhaps we’d like to learn more about the dark side and where Kylo Ren fits into it. Clearly, he’s a Vader fanboy, but why is such a new darksider with so many doubts in himself the face of the First Order’s Force-users? The role of Force-users is very different, and I can’t wait to find out how it’ll play out.
Overall, much of my love for TFA comes from the way it feels. This is a new reimagining of a universe I fell in love with many years ago. I keep thinking of the tagline on Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, “based on the characters and situations created by George Lucas.” This is the same galaxy we know and love, but it’s been updated for thirty years of in-universe history as well as a decade of hiatus from making Star Wars movies. It takes elements from Legends that we loved and hated, the lived-in look of Tatooine from ANH, the oppressive fear of the Empire, and brings with it a sense of wonder. For many Star Wars fans, this was the first time we’d seen a movie in the theater, the first time we’d seen a movie on opening night, and while sitting in that theater, many new Star Wars fans are minted. Three years ago, I heard that Disney had bought the rights to Star Wars, and felt a tiny spark of hope overlaid with concern for how the universe would go. Thursday night, I sat in a theater and felt like my childhood dreams had come true as the saga continued. We are in a new era of Star Wars, and from what I’ve seen so far, it looks like a good one.