The Force Awakens, the latest installment in the Star Wars saga launched by George Lucas thirty-nine years ago, is good fun. I saw it—as one must, I suspect—in our suburban multiplex, along with my kids. We ate popcorn and Junior Mints and rejoiced with everyone else in the audience as spaceships zoomed and blasters blasted and characters traded their familiar lines. There was something undeniably remarkable about the experience. How many other movies can children and their parents equally enjoy in a real movie theater these days? All those other special-effects blockbusters—the Marvel Comics rip-offs, the X-Men, the Transformers—seem to be aimed primarily at ten-year-old boys, and grown-up films you might just as well stream or watch on DVD.
Apparently I wasn’t the only one thinking along those lines. I’d expected the theater to be populated by teenagers in Jedi robes and white plastic armor, but most of the audience looked pretty much like us: middle-aged moms and dads and their offspring. The uniquely broad demographic appeal of the Star Wars universe probably goes a long way toward explaining the astounding success of the film, which sold $100 million in tickets before it even reached the theaters, and is now well on its way to becoming the highest-grossing movie of all time.
Of course, a huge marketing blitz had something to do with it, too. Disney, which purchased the rights to everything Star Wars from Lucas a few years ago for a staggering $4 billion, clearly wasn’t willing to leave anything to chance. The company has spent the past two years or so bombarding anyone who strayed into range with trailers and merchandise tie-ins and slyly planted Internet rumors. (Disney even enlisted its cruise lines to spread the word.)
The ad campaign was wrapped around its own clever coming-of-age story: the tale of an intrepid apprentice named J.J. Abrams, who discovered his love for the movies when he saw the first Star Wars film at age eleven. Toiling for years in the mines of Hollywood, Abrams engineered several successful TV series as well as directing new installments of the Mission: Impossible and Star Trek series. Along the way he shrewdly positioned himself as little more than a dutiful fan, a true nerd enthralled by the chance to shoot his own versions of the cult classics he’d always admired from afar.
This made him the perfect candidate to succeed Lucas, who was pilloried by his own admirers in 1999 when he launched The Phantom Menace, the first in a trilogy of “prequels” that attempted to flesh out the origin story of Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, and all the rest. Purists despised the films, which relied heavily on computer graphics and introduced cute new characters like Jar Jar Binks. Abrams, all too aware of his illustrious predecessor’s missteps, has been careful to pander to diehard fans, assuring anyone who would listen of his plans to stick carefully to the spirit of the original movies (at one point even telling an interviewer that he planned to kill off the Jar Jar Binks character, though he doesn’t seem to have followed through).
Abrams vowed to eschew computer graphics for old-school special effects wherever possible, and his new movie has just the sort of gritty presence that eluded Lucas in some of his last works. In The Force Awakens, you can taste the dust on the desert planet of Jakku. A storm trooper’s helmet gets smeared with gore in an attack, as if reminding viewers of the bloodlessness of Lucas’s digital excesses. And the climactic light-saber battle in a snowy forest sizzles and spurts, tree trunks lopped off by accidental blows. You feel like you’re there—something one could hardly say of the worlds in the prequels. Meanwhile, the new characters—like Daisy Ridley’s Rey and Adam Driver as Darth Vader wanna-be Kylo Ren—come off as engagingly human. You want to see what’s going to happen to them next.
Still, these moments come at a cost. Abrams deploys his resources in the service of a story that feels—well, oddly familiar. Just like the original Star Wars (now pompously renamed A New Hope), Abrams’s movie centers on a lonely young hero (Ridley as a female Luke Skywalker) on a desert planet who comes into possession of a small round robot containing secret documents. Ridley and an unlikely accomplice stage a high-speed getaway from the galactic bad guys on the very same ship, the Millennium Falcon, that Luke Skywalker hitched a ride on thirty-nine years ago—and there they encounter its owner, Han Solo, played by the very same Harrison Ford. Just like his grandfather Vader, Kylo Ren is a villain in black who started off good but mortgaged his soul to the dark side. And once again the good guys have to destroy a planet-sized weapon, which they do in pretty much the same way they did back in 1977. In short, the much-ballyhooed reboot turns out to be a retread.
Our audience didn’t seem to mind much. They gave a big whoop when junkyard tarpaulins fell away to reveal the Millennium Falcon, a bit worse for wear but still a lot of fun to fly in, apparently. There was another whoop a few minutes later, when a door on the ship slid open to reveal a gray-haired Ford. More cheers greeted R2-D2 and C-3P0, the robots from the original movies, as well as Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia (now promoted to the rank of general) and Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker. The Force Awakens has a correspondingly stereoscopic feel. There are many moments when you feel like you’ve seen the movie before.
There can be little doubt that this is just what Abrams was going for. He shot The Force Awakens in the same 35mm format used by Lucas in the original Star Wars. He hired John Williams, who wrote all that arresting music for the original films, to score the new one. He brought in writer Lawrence Kasdan, another veteran of the early days, to collaborate with him on the script.
I’m not sure that last move was a good one. The story of The Force Awakens is a mess, less a coherent narrative than a rather sloppy mash-up. The first three movies revolved around the Manichaean struggle between the Rebellion (remnants of the vanquished Republic) and the evil Galactic Empire; the prequels told the story of the Republic’s fall. In this movie, the Empire is replaced by something called the “First Order,” which is fighting against a bunch called the “Resistance.” This is all deeply confusing, since it turns out that the Republic of the earlier movies still exists, and the Resistance is on its side—a sort of pro-government paramilitary or auxiliary rather than a heroic rebellion, apparently.
Important plot elements (such as the fate of Kylo Ren, Han and Leia’s son) are introduced and dispatched with bewildering offhandedness. And when the updated version of the Death Star, this time called “Starkiller Base,” blasts a bunch of planets into nothingness, the characters barely pause to draw their breath, much less to register the death of billions. A fan recently published a movie review entitled “40 Unforgivable Plot Holes in ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens.’” We can expect to see a lot more of such criticisms down the road.
Even so, the fact remains that my kids—and millions of others—had a great time at the movie. But that’s partly because they knew what they wanted to see, and the film gave them exactly that.
It would be hard to imagine a sharper contrast with the debut of the original movie back in the summer of 1977. It was called, simply enough, Star Wars. While the first trailers (amusingly clunky by today’s standards) certainly made it look like fun, no one at the time—least of all George Lucas himself—had any inkling that it would colonize our minds the way it has.
At the time, of course, the success of Star Wars had a lot to do with the simple fact that we’d never seen anything like it before. What a lot of the current rumination about the history of the franchise tends to miss is just how radically it stood out from the rest of 1970s filmmaking.
I remember this especially well because going to the movies was such a big part of my life at the time. I was growing up in Midland, Texas, where there wasn’t much else to do. My parents had divorced in 1970, and for most of the rest of the decade my relationship to my father was structured around his weekly visits. They followed a reassuringly regular routine: dinner and a movie, each Thursday night.
Usually we’d eat first at Luigi’s, our favorite Italian place. (I’m not sure that any actual Italians were ever involved in its operations. The owner was the marvelous Lou Hochman, one of the vanishingly tiny Jewish community in our town.) It was over the red-and-white checkered tablecloths of the restaurant that my father undertook my second education. He was a civil engineer by profession and a zealous amateur historian by choice, and as we ate our pizzas and spaghetti he would tell me about the Mongol composite bow, or the inverse square law, or the evolution of the Indo-European language family. (He had a penchant for explaining these things even to people who could not have cared less; I was only too happy to listen.)
And then it was off to the movies—usually the Howard Hodge Theater, just down the street from home (and across from Conner’s Barbecue). One movie a week for seven or eight years straight: if loyalty programs had existed then, we would have been in for a lot of free stuff, since we really racked up the numbers.
Film scholars will tell you a lot about the cinema of the 1970s, but the movies they dwell on aren’t usually the ones I remember. I didn’t see Taxi Driver (1976) or A Clockwork Orange (1971), two of the decade’s big highlights, until much later: my parents regarded them as too much for a kid in his early teens. I did manage to wheedle my way into The Godfather (1972) and Dirty Harry (1971), both rated R (less sex and more good old all-American violence). And I recall seeing Jaws (1975) and All the President’s Men (1976), which were both quite a big deal. We got a particular kick out of George C. Scott’s rich portrayal of Patton (1970), the general my father had served under in World War II. Needless to say, we also saw a lot of highly forgettable movies.
But there was one genre that we were always particularly keen to see: science fiction. My dad owned every single issue of Astounding Science Fiction (later renamed Analog) back to the 1930s. He introduced me to the great writers in my early teens, and I ended up learning far more, it seemed, from Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and Arthur C. Clarke than I ever did from the Texas public school system. As my father noted, 1930s sci-fi fans were already familiar with the notion of atomic energy at a time when most Americans had no clue. (In 1944, Astounding’s legendary editor, John W. Campbell, had received a visit from the FBI after publishing a story about an “atomic bomb.” Investigators let Campbell off the hook once it became clear that he didn’t know a thing about the still–top secret Manhattan Project.)
Hollywood had a big thing for sci-fi in the 1970s. By the time I evolved into a regular moviegoer, the turmoil and fervor of the 1960s had percolated through pop culture, gradually giving way to a more generalized sense of disquiet and dread. To an extent that’s hard to appreciate today, the 1970s—when the US had to face defeat in Vietnam—were the era of the antihero. Eastwood’s Dirty Harry was, in many ways, as much of a punk as the criminals he hunted. Charles Bronson in the Death Wish series was the exemplary vigilante. Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle was a nutcase trying to do the right thing in a world so twisted that you couldn’t really figure out if goodness was possible anymore. Golden boy Robert Redford played Jeremiah Johnson, a mountain man who wins the West through a chain of vicious small combats with Indians. The almost wordless Johnson presented a startling counterpoint to the bombastic cowboys of an earlier era. The line between heroism and psychopathy had become hard to find.
Sci-fi movies offered a particularly vivid way of capturing the feeling of malaise. Logan’s Run (1976) was a dystopian parody of 1960s youth worship that posited a future society in which everyone over the age of thirty is automatically killed to save resources. Soylent Green (1973), starring the craggy Charlton Heston, imagined a Malthusian near future (2022, to be exact) in which overpopulation has filled every nook and cranny of the planet with people, and humankind can survive only by reprocessing the dead into food. Heston also starred in Omega Man (1971), later remade as I Am Legend (2007) with Will Smith, in which he played one of the few intact survivors of a bioweapon that has zombified most of the human race. This was the cold war, after all, and anxiety about weapons of mass destruction was everywhere. Heston, of course, had gotten his start in Planet of the Apes (1968), set in a world where civilization has nuked itself out of existence.
People could fall prey to extraterrestrial microbes (The Andromeda Strain, 1971) or to pleasure robots run amok (Westworld, 1973).1 One of my favorites around this time was Silent Running (1972), starring a young and wonderfully unhinged Bruce Dern. Dern plays a tree-hugger who is tending earth’s last forests, which have been placed in safekeeping in outer space until the sullied planet can be cleaned up enough for their return. When the crews of these giant orbital hothouses receive the order to destroy the ships and return home, Dern goes off the rails, killing his colleagues in order to save what’s left of terrestrial nature.
So when we first began to hear the buzz about Star Wars, we couldn’t help being curious. Lucas’s earlier foray into sci-fi, THX 1138 (1971), a standard-model cautionary tale about a benumbing future of shiny white surfaces and mandatory sedative consumption, had been a bit of a chore. American Graffiti (1973), a nostalgic tale of teen life in the 1960s, was unremarkably pleasant. So what was he up to now?
I can still remember how the initial moments of the movie bowled us over: the slow, vanishing-point text crawl that gave way to the descent, from the top of the frame, of the impossibly enormous imperial star cruiser. The opening amounted to a sort of manifesto. It signaled that we were about to see something radically different, a combination of old-fashioned storytelling (that floating text almost like a 1920s silent-film title) and smashing new special effects (the dazzling model-work of that first huge ship).
Perhaps most radically of all, there was good and there was evil, and you knew who was who. I’d certainly never seen anything like it: an outer-space frolic with laser cannons and damsels in distress. And sabers made of deadly light? A conceit so nonsensical that you just had to love it. There was a coming-of-age story for the plucky young hero, an unambiguously evil villain, and a pirate captain with a yeti for a pal.
And Alec Guinness. My father was a lifelong fan of Guinness, the magnificent British character actor who, in his autobiography, recalls how silly and incomprehensible he found Lucas’s project—until the director rather haphazardly offered him a percentage of the box office for what amounted to a few days’ work (which, of course, ultimately made the actor fantastically rich). My dad had worshiped Guinness in Kind Hearts and Coronets, Lawrence of Arabia, and The Bridge Over the River Kwai. And now here he was, playing a swashbuckling religious mystic with a bunch of robots and crazy aliens and bad guys with capes.
My father chortled when a deadpan Guinness delivered his most memorable lines: “Mos Eisley Spaceport. You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. We must be cautious.” My dad got it immediately. “This is space opera,” he whispered. “Like what we watched when we were kids.” Afterward he recalled Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon and the rest. And this, of course, was what was being recreated.
In its exuberant escapism, the original Star Wars might seem to be aggressively rejecting any form of social commentary—but don’t worry, it’s there. What Lucas wanted to recapture from the space operas of his youth (aside from their outlandish fun) was their fundamental sense of optimism. As he recently explained in an interview with The Washington Post, he wanted to conjure up a world with clear values and sharp dividing lines between bad and good. “The last time we had done it was with the Western. And once the Western was gone, there was no vehicle to say, ‘You don’t shoot people in the back’ and such.” Needless to say, Star Wars was happy to ransack westerns as well. Just compare the scene when Luke returns home to find his parents dead with the strikingly similar moment in The Searchers. (That quote about “not shooting people in the back” comes from John Wayne.)2
The trick, though, was that you couldn’t really do that while staying in the 1970s—so why not just create an alternate reality, “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”? Lucas knew that he wanted to tell stories of mythological scope, so he simply conjured up his own version of Olympus or Valhalla, a place big enough for his demigods to clash with one another. Nowadays fans speak of the “Expanded Universe,” the larger Star Wars cosmos fleshed out by countless novels, comic books, fan fiction, and animated TV series. It all attests to the original creator’s genius at combining a simple core of narrative principles (the Republic’s good Jedi versus the Empire’s evil Sith) with an infinitely flexible setting (the Galaxy and all its worlds).
Today Star Wars has become such an integral part of our pop culture status quo that it’s hard to recreate just how revolutionary it felt at the time. When we first saw it, of course, we had no way of knowing that it would prepare the way for the special effects–driven “summer blockbuster,” or the slow triumph of nerd culture, or a parade of senseless memorabilia on a scale to buoy up the economic fortunes of several Chinese provinces. We could tell that we’d just seen something amazingly fresh, and we left the theater feeling charged up, liberated.
Now that I’m taking my own kids to see the show, I can’t help noticing how much has changed. Star Wars has become, to a remarkable degree, captive to the geek revolution it spawned back at the end of the 1970s—and it is this, more than anything else, that explains why The Force Awakens feels at times like the product of a giant focus group. (It could have just as easily been called Revenge of the Fans.) That’s a formula that hardly allows for surprises—how, indeed, could it have been otherwise, considering the scale of Disney’s immense investment? Needless to say, we’ll never be able to return to the state of morally fraught confusion that reigned at the time of the Star Wars debut, after the country had been bitterly divided by Vietnam. My children, who aren’t even hardcore fans, had already been steeped in Skywalker lore long before we made it to the movie theater. Lucas’s world has become a part of our cultural horizon, endlessly cited and parodied and chewed over the way that ancient Greeks once did with their Homer.
There’s no point in sentimentalizing this unduly. After all, hasn’t Hollywood always been a gigantic recycling machine? As for John Wayne, he played the same character in 142 movies, and his fans would have undoubtedly complained if he’d suddenly gone all Age of Aquarius on them. Wayne’s heroes, like Luke Skywalker, became their own franchise, offering a heroic archetype that could be retooled and resold to the same eager audiences.
Even so, it’s hard to escape the feeling that something has been lost. Abrams has captured the verve of the original movies but has done so at the conscious sacrifice of spontaneity. It’s hard to maintain that sense of adventure when you’re ticking off points on a checklist. It’s fashionable to badmouth the prequels, but at least you could see Lucas working to develop the story, teasing out the implications of his created cosmos. Even if the results sometimes felt a bit plastic, he could never be faulted for lack of imagination.
For Abrams, by contrast, imagination isn’t that high on the agenda. The freaky heresies of the prequels have been banished; his movie is strictly high church, rigid in its orthodoxies. Abrams has certainly made his mark on Hollywood, above all as a shrewd revitalizer of existing properties, and I’m sure he’s earned that title in good faith. But he will go down in the history of movies as a custodian, not a creator.
Not that Abrams will care much, I suppose. He’s probably earned another couple of million while I was writing this. And my kids are begging me to take them back to see the movie again.
Both of these movies were based on stories by Michael Crichton, who went on to write Jurassic Park. ↩
It’s worth noting that the original Star Wars included a scene that ran directly counter to this precept—the one where Han Solo shoots bounty hunter Greedo under the table. In recent editions of the film Lucas revised the scene to show Greedo shooting first (or at least simultaneously), thus irking fans who felt that he was trying to whitewash Solo’s fundamentally ambiguous character. ↩