The Force Awakens is my favorite Star Wars film.
I open with this because I’ve found myself so often having to qualify that statement, apologizing for the film’s faults, acknowledging that yes, of course I know the Original Trilogy is a classic and can never be repeated. But now, looking back over the 42-year expanse of storytelling that is the Skywalker saga, I feel increasingly able to say it without apology: The Force Awakens is my favorite of them all.
The movie came out during my senior year of college, a time when I felt full of hope and excitement for what lay in store in the coming year (HAH.) For that last blissful month of 2015, I was in such a mood to look forward, it’s a little ironic that a film that focused so decidedly into the past resonated so deeply with me at the time. I won’t deny, of course, that Star Wars has always been innovative, in genre and technology in particular. And I won’t argue that the franchise can or should rest on its laurels and expect audiences to shower it with unearned praise. But for all its innovation, it’s always been a remarkably backwards-looking franchise, one that quite literally opens each installment with a reminder that what we’re about to see unfolded “a long time ago”. After all, when broken down to its component parts, Star Wars is first and foremost a synthesis of existing storytelling traditions. It’s been variously described as an heir to the Western, the Arthurian legend, the Ronin tale, the early space opera serial, the science fiction worlds of Frank Herbert, and of course, Joseph Campbell’s monomyth. Without its own unique ideas, the saga would be just another unoriginal retread, true, but without its familiar underpinnings, it wouldn’t be Star Wars.
Sitting in that theater in December of 2015, surrounded by people of all backgrounds, all ages, all genders, every one of us cheering at the same things up on the same screen, made me realize that the Star Wars saga, like other myths, really is more than just a popular story. It’s a common language. True, some of that is just from its popularity and the resulting cultural osmosis it entails, but I can’t help but feel like that audience’s reaction spoke to a deeply-rooted desire for those familiar patterns, for recognizable iconography, for stories that feel like home. Those with any passing knowledge of the franchise knew what it meant for Han Solo to board the Falcon. We all knew to celebrate when Princess Leia walked down that gangplank. We all knew to cheer when Luke Skywalker revealed his face for the first time in 40 years. And if that says anything about human nature, the franchise’s popularity may be rooted in that very same desire for homecoming to begin with.
After reviews for The Force Awakens rolled in, it was clear what the number one complaint about the film from the internet rant-o-sphere would be: “This is just a remake of A New Hope!” Those parallels that had seemed so meaningful in that theater? “Derivative!” Those characters whose appearance onscreen made grown adults shout and cheer? “Fan service!” That protagonist with the mysterious parentage and mysterious Force powers and mysterious similarities to Luke and Anakin before her? “Mary Sue!” Sure, I understand some of that frustration. I understand wanting your favorite franchise to do something clearly and distinctly new, rather than reflecting on its roots. But dismissing The Force Awakens for these reasons seems to me to be missing the point, or at least misunderstanding it.
Because, even in its most simple, straightforward, face-value read, The Force Awakens isn’t just the continuation of the Star Wars myth. It’s also a conscious exploration of that myth, or maybe even of all myth. As the new generation of heroes rediscovers and interacts with characters and relics from the past, sometimes grasping their significance and sometimes not, we recognize their experience in ourselves. Whether we understand these images as someone who’s experienced them firsthand, or who, like Rey and Finn, only understand them as familiar images of a bygone era, it reminds us that we, too, are connected to this story, and have been affected by it over time. The same goes for the similar story beats–while I’ll freely admit that some elements, like including effectively a third Death Star, risked going overboard, these parallels also serve as a commentary on the Star Wars mythos. Just as A New Hope drew its inspiration from the hundreds of similar stories that came before it, we’re now seeing that myth itself become an influence on future stories. It’s a deliberate choice, with a deliberate message about the creation of new myths, and how they are inherited by new voices in new generations.
Speaking of which, let’s talk about Rey.
Though I have a fondness for a wide range of Star Wars characters, seeing Rey on that screen for the first time was particularly and personally significant for me. Growing up, I remember feeling disappointed that female characters, even protagonists, always seemed to be powerful in their own safe, self-contained ways, never treading on the territory of male heroes, never stealing their spotlight. Their victories were personal, their triumphs were internal. Their arcs revolved around proving themselves despite their gender. In those rare cases where they were granted fantastic power and importance right off the bat, it was passive power and importance–more a symbol or an object than anything else. What I found myself really longing for, was a heroine whose story wasn’t just another underdog narrative, who wasn’t an “unexpected hero,” but who, like so many male heroes before her, was treated as though her importance was a birthright. I wanted a heroine who was given the burden of power and leadership right from the beginning, and whose struggle was to learn to wield it well. In short, I wanted the mantle of legendary heroism, so often carried by men and boys, passed on to someone I could see myself in.
Now, we’re only days out from The Rise of Skywalker, so I’ll keep my more specific theories about this particular character to myself for the sake of this piece’s longevity, just in case. But I will at least say this much: yes, Rey’s story is a new iteration of Luke Skywalker’s story. That much is glaringly obvious. The whole film is nudging us to make the connection between the two of them. But to dismiss this as lazy or derivative would be to misunderstand the character entirely. Rey’s story isn’t a retread of the story of Luke Skywalker. It’s a retread of the stories that Lucas wove together to build that original narrative. Rey’s story is the story of Luke Skywalker, true. But it’s also the story of Paul Atreides, Frodo Baggins, King Arthur, Beowulf, Theseus, Perseus, and Odysseus–with, of course, that one pretty notable difference. And, if you’ll forgive my pithiness for a moment, that’s kind of the fucking point.
Because this is the other real significance of The Force Awakens: it’s a commentary on the universality of myth, through the eyes of characters whose views are rarely considered when determining what is “universal.” Characters who, in so many other stories, would need to prove they were worthy despite their race or gender, are treated as legitimately and unquestionably important as any mythic hero, right from the get-go. Of course, they still deal with hardships and disadvantages and personal flaws, but fundamentally the story buys into the idea that they have a right to be at the center of their own narratives. And showing that characters like Rey and Finn have a place standing where Luke Skywalker, Frodo Baggins, King Arthur, and others stood requires them to walk for a few miles in those characters’ footsteps to get there.
That night at the Fenway Regal Cinemas 4 years ago, I saw just how meaningful the story of Star Wars was to everyone in the room. Call it nostalgia, call it obsessiveness, call it just enjoyment of good storytelling, but somehow these eight (soon to be nine) films have been elevated, over the past 4 decades, from film franchise to legend. The Force Awakens was the perfect platform not just to celebrate, but to extend that legend to a new and far more inclusive generation of fans. That’s why this movie matters. It’s a movie about the past, yes, but it’s also about how the stories we tell shape the future. So I’ll agree with the naysayers on this much: yes, we have all seen this story before. And, in many ways, that’s what makes it so brilliantly, beautifully new.