When I reflect on the state of Star Wars on May the 4th of two years ago, the word that springs foremost to mind is nervous. We knew that Episode VII was in production, we’d read the rumors and seen that first black and white picture of the cast at the table read, we knew the original heroes were coming back – but we still couldn’t shake the jitters. Too many unknowns in play. Despite the scorn dumped on George Lucas for the wobbly prequel trilogy, the idea of a new Star Wars movie without any involvement from him whatsoever still set many stomachs ill at ease. Would it turn out to be an empty exercise in fanservice (from a filmmaker with something of a reputation for leaping headfirst into that well-cratered minefield) or would it catching Force lightning in the proverbial bottle and gift us with the wonder we first felt at the theatres in 1977 (or with our videocassette copies in the early 80’s, depending on our respective ages)? Would we be leaping up and cheering and racing back to the kiosk to buy another ticket or would we be shuffling for the exits with the sour faces we wore as the Revenge of the Sith credits rolled?
Fast forward to May the 4th, 2016, and we know the answer to that. Against expectations, we have entered the Star Wars Renaissance. Star Wars is everywhere in a way it hasn’t been, since, well, longer than I can remember. The Force Awakens was one of the highest-grossing movies of all time, and its highly anticipated sequel is filming presently and due to hit our collective consciousness in a little over a year and a half. Daisy Ridley has become an instant movie superstar. This December’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story promises to unspool the never-told-but-oft-alluded-to tale of how the Rebel Alliance acquired the infamous Death Star schematics (with another compelling lead female role, essayed by Felicity Jones.) Plans for Han Solo and Boba Fett spinoffs are also in the works, to say nothing of the eventual saga-concluding epic Episode IX in 2019. Literary tie-ins bulge off shelves with novels like Aftermath and Bloodline. Oh, and yes, the Walt Disney Company is building two massive Star Wars lands at its American theme parks. Toys and pop culture references abound and kids are throwing on Jedi robes and running around swinging plastic lightsabers again, pretending to be Rey and Finn and Kylo Ren just like we used to pretend to be Luke, Han, Leia and Darth Vader.
It’s a great time to be a Star Wars fan.
A week or so ago I was trolled on Twitter by an – let’s say interesting individual who, according to his timeline, goes around latching on to people who’ve said unkind things about the prequel trilogy and then spams them with memes and rants about the wonderfulness of Episodes I, II and III before blocking them in what is presumably a masturbatory fit of self-satisfied pique. You can’t please everyone, I suppose. Contrary to what this fellow presumes, I never said I hated the prequels. There are plenty of things about them to like: John Williams’ score, some of the lightsaber fights, the depth of the worldbuilding among many others. What they get wrong, however, is that they lack the key ingredient that makes Star Wars resonate with its fans, and that is the sense of hope.
The prequels were always going to be a tragedy, and despite the whiz-bang-whee moments of adventure supplied generously throughout, the ominous, inevitable sense that this is all going to go wrong in the end casts a dark pallor over the seven-hours worth of narrative. It doesn’t matter that you know IV, V and VI are going to set it right. Taken on their own, the prequels are just simply not a very happy experience. Art always mirrors its creators’ mindsets, and the young, eager, starry-eyed neophyte George Lucas who made the first trilogy is not the cynical, fearful, age-embittered auteur who cobbled together the second after spending decades as a billionaire CEO shuffled daily from meeting to meeting – a man increasingly worried about the world awaiting his three children. Lucas thought America had learned the lessons of Richard Nixon and then watched helplessly as it turned around and anointed George W. Bush. He couldn’t have made a film with the optimism and hope of The Force Awakens because it’s simply not who he is anymore. But that didn’t have to mean that the hope dwelling at the heart of his slumbering creation could not have awakened as it did. We should thank Lucas for the wisdom to bequeath his legacy to the custody of Kathleen Kennedy who recognized more than anyone what Star Wars had been and what it could be again.
Yes, bad stuff happens in Star Wars. Entire worlds are obliterated at the whims of very bad people craving absolute power. And unlike in its other more sci-fi oriented cousin Star Trek, you can’t save the galaxy far, far away by reconfiguring the deflector dish to emit a phased tetryon stream and realizing the true meaning of “Darmok and Jalad at Tenagra.” In Star Wars you have to pick up a blaster, or a lightsaber, or climb into an X-Wing. Set aside your fears and stand up against the bad guys trying to set everything you hold dear aflame. Each one of us dreams that in our inevitable moment of crisis, we will summon the courage to awaken our inner force, and that through the brave, extraordinary efforts of ordinary people, and despite the power of the dark side, we too will be able to change the world for the better. There were some tremendously sad moments in The Force Awakens, but was there anybody who didn’t watch that final scene of Rey offering the lightsaber to Luke and feel that kind of optimism, that things were going to be all right in the end, both for the characters and for us? The metaphor of the generational handover in the movie was not subtle, but it was indeed apt, and proven by how the new generation of fans has responded. Kids who weren’t even around when Revenge of the Sith came out are asking to have their hair styled like Rey for Star Wars Day. We old sods are back too, and we’ve let Rey, Finn, Poe and BB-8 into our crusty, guarded hearts with the same welcome we extended their predecessors.
They are, at long last, the New Hope.
I’ve written extensively about the implications of and reactions to The Force Awakens since before and after its release, but it occurred to me that through these many thousands of words I haven’t actually said what I thought of the movie. And I can think of no more suitable judgment than this: I didn’t want it to end. I knew, as I watched Rey ascend those stony steps, that the credits were imminent, but a very young, long since quiet part of me hoped that somehow the story would go on. And I’m contented knowing that it will – in more than just a collection of movies.
Because the Force is with us. Always.