J.J Abrams understands the franchise more than its creator does at this point
The one thing that was most bothersome about the transition from George Lucas’s original Star Wars trilogy to the prequels was the light saber duels. What had been something profound and can’t miss in the originals had devolved into elaborate dance routines (with laser swords) in the prequels. George Lucas used them in the original trilogy for the biggest sequences of each film; Obi-Wan Kenobi’s death, the first battle between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader and their final battle all meant something. They weren’t nearly as pretty as the light saber battles in the prequel trilogy … but they all told a story.
In the prequels they were staged and choreographed like something you’d see in overwrought martial arts film; there was no emotion or intensity to them. They were just about who could swing the saber in the prettiest fashion; what had been an underpraised portion of the franchise quickly became one of its more comic.
It’s one of many things J.J Abrams understands about Star Wars on the whole in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Anytime light sabers collide in the film there’s meaning and purpose; it may not be elaborately choreographed but there’s a raw, kinetic energy to it that is reminiscent of why we cared about them so much in Lucas’ first trilogy.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens starts off many decades after the concluding events of Return of the Jedi. Luke Skywalker has vanished into the ether and everyone wants to find him. Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) leads the First Order, the replacement for the Empire, as they want to eliminate the last vestige of the Jedi Order. The Resistance, the new version of the rebellion, has his location but it’s trapped onto a droid on a distant planet. Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) has it but is captured by the First Order, the new droid falling into the hands of mismatched Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Finn (John Boyega). She’s a scavenger, surviving by plummeting the depths of junker Empire vehicles for parts. Finn is a storm trooper who grew a conscious during his first deployment.
The two wind up in the Millennium Falcon and off to a grand adventure in the stars as that droid is the key to everything. Old friends, like Han Solo (Harrison Ford) show up for the ride along the way.
Abrams did the one thing that Lucas didn’t, which is embrace the roots of his trilogy for his continuation of the franchise. Star Wars was at its heart an action-adventure franchise that embraced the grand idea of the space opera. Abrams embraces this idea, cribbing heavily from A New Hope, as he’s looking at the film with a grander purpose in mind. This isn’t a Bond type sequel, where the status quo stays the same, and Abrams wants to launch this next trilogy focusing on the aftermath of the events of the original trilogy.
It makes for an interesting film because the tales of Han Solo, Luke Skywalker and crew are myths to Rey and Finn. They know of them, and their tales, but seeing these grand figures of history in the flesh is something different for them. These are only stories they’ve heard about the old days of the Empire, some they don’t even think are true. Abrams embraces the role of myth building in this new world. He understands the world George Lucas initially built and wants to expand upon the greater mythos within; this is an attempt to broaden the universe to incorporate the more grand idea that the original trilogy had far reaching efforts in both effect and galaxy change.
Lucas told a story about the effects of small people on the larger world and Abrams probes the larger effects of this. It’s interesting and shows awareness for the grander scheme of things that George Lucas didn’t have in the prequel trilogy. He was too concerned with changing the original intent of the first trilogy, of Luke Skywalker’s story, into a six film arc about the fall and redemption of his father.
Abrams wants to tell the story of how that original group (Luke, Han and Leia) had such a profound impact on the galaxy and how they became more mythological figures than people over the years. The reactions of the main characters when we meet Han Solo reflects it; he isn’t just the pilot of the Millennium Falcon. He’s a war hero and legendary smuggler, not just the guy who helped the Rebellion out. His exploits are known everywhere and Rey and Finn’s reactions to them are appropriate.
This is a franchise that properly understands the Star Wars mythos and for the first time in decades we have a film in the franchise that acts like it’s a Star Wars film. It cribs too much from the originals to be wholly original, of course, but as a first film in a new era J.J Abrams has brought the franchise back to where it should be.
He gets it … and we’re all better off for it.
Director: J.J Abrams Writer: Lawrence Kasdan & J.J. Abrams and Michael Arndt, based on characters created by George Lucas Notable Cast: Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Daisy Ridley, Oscar Isaac, John Boyega, Adam Driver, Peter Mayhew, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Andy Serkis