Star Wars: The Force Awakens ushered in a new era for the Star Wars franchise. This was always going to be a treacherous task, but it’s one that director J.J. Abrams had taken on before. In 2009, Abrams rebooted the Star Trek film series for Paramount Pictures. While his slick, action-oriented take on Star Trek chafed with some fans who saw it as a betrayal of Star Trek’s more philosophical, brand of sci-fi, Star Trek and its sequel, Star Trek Into Darkness, were both big box office successes that were well-received by general audiences and critics. Bringing in Abrams for Star Wars seemed like a no-brainer, especially since the things that most irritated Star Trek fans seemed like a much more natural fit for the Star Wars aesthetic.
This is how things panned out, for the most part. Abrams put together a cast of charismatic actors to run through a fast-paced and fun adventure story peppered with memorable set pieces. The bend towards action and spectacle fit more naturally into Star Wars’ world of science fantasy and space opera than it did in the established world of hard science fiction (at least harder science fiction in relation to Star Wars) of the Star Trek franchise.
Some longtime fans did criticize Abrams’ approach to Star Wars, but it wasn’t his style of direction that bothered them, as these fans had the opposite reaction to Abrams that Star Trek fans had years prior. Where Star Trek fans accused Abrams of not being reverent enough of the franchise he had inherited, these Star Wars fans felt that Abrams had paid too much deference to the Star Wars films that preceded The Force Awakens, going as far as to accuse him of lazily swiping entire plot devices and scenarios from past films. These fans aren’t wrong, but they are applying a cynical lens in their examination of Abrams’ choices.
Abrams was born in 1966 and was 10 years old when the first Star Wars hit theaters. That alone means he has a different relationship to the franchise than anyone who had ever directed a Star Wars film in the past. George Lucas created the Star Wars universe, while directors Irvin Kershner and Richard Marquand were in on the ground floor, helping to build the mythology of the sequels and establish the very tropes that Abrams would reference in The Force Awakens.
By contrast, Abrams grew up with the series. He was a fan before he was a director, and that colors his approach in The Force Awakens. More cynical fans assume that the callbacks and references that litter the film are lazy writing choices, or that introducing another version fo the Death Star in Starkiller Base was a choice made because Abrams had no other ideas.
Rather, Abrams is making deliberate choices throughout The Force Awakens. As a fan, Abrams is as excited about the return of the Star Wars franchise to theaters as the people sitting in the audience. He’s reveling in the fact that he’s getting to do Star Wars stuff, which he used to fantasize about while sitting in those same theater seats 40 years prior.
Abrams' experience is reflected in the film's protagonists, Rey and Finn. Like Abrams, they grew up on stories of Luke Skywalker and the Rebellion battling the Galactic Empire. Their part in The Force Awakens, like Abrams' own, is a fulfillment of a childhood dream. In the moment that Han Solo tells them that's "it's all true," everything changes. Like Abrams, they're no longer spectators but have become a part of the saga.
That’s what The Force Awakens is, a celebration of Star Wars’ return. It’s Abrams and Lucasfilm taking an extended victory lap over the fact that this film even exists. It would be self-indulgent if he didn’t also add his own touches, updating the process of Star Wars filmmaking with modern techniques, diversifying the cast to be more representative of the audience, and updating the themes, replacing the militant institution of the Empire with the irregular, existential threat of the First Order.
It’s the kind of high-fiving that you can get away with once, and only if you’re very good at it. That’s why it was so important that the cast be as good as they are and have as much chemistry as they do, and why it was so important that the sequel did something entirely different (regardless of how you feel about what it ended up doing, though one could argue that Abrams’ approach to Star Wars is as meta as Star Wars: The Last Jedi writer/director Rian Johnson’s). But The Force Awakens stands on its own. Sure, it set up a new trilogy of Star Wars films with lingering mysteries to unravel, but it's also an adventure through echoes of Star Wars’ own history, earning it the adoration of generations of fans who have loved the saga who now get to be a part of the Star Wars universe.
Abrams returns to the franchise with Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, which hits theaters on December 20th.
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