Why The Force Awakens is trying so hard to be A New Hope for the Star Wars franchise

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The music. The ships. The actors. The droids. The sets. The melted Vader helmet. It’s all a very carefully choreographed dance to make you feel…something familiar. But what it is has nothing to do with the movie…

By Andrew Pridgen

The original Star Wars should have been a disaster or at least a box office blip the likes of The Message. During a Godfather-dominated mid-’70s, Francis Ford Coppola encouraged one of his protégés to hire Schneider’s kid from One Day at a Time and have him team up with the offspring of Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds and a journeyman carpenter to go mess around in space. The story was basically the manifestation of writer/director George Lucas trying to leave the Central Valley to go make movies that are metaphors about leaving the Central Valley to go make movies.

See how meta?

In 1977, there was something special in the Cinerama Dome’s Dr. Pepper. The world was introduced to Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever, George Burns as god, Richard Dreyfuss playing guitar au naturel in The Goodbye Girl, Diane Keaton, the original NY hipster chick, in Annie Hall and Spielberg becoming Spielberg five notes at a time in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

But Star Wars was the linchpin of the most watchable, valuable and defining year in film of all time. Not only did the first installment (which was actually the fourth installment) gross three-quarters of a billion dollars = all the monies in today’s dollars, but it spawned the summer blockbuster, the action figure, costume play and the product tie-in.

Fast forward almost four decades, two sequels and three prequels later and the Star Wars franchise is now Disney-owned and about to test its lightspeed functionality again. It is dusting off most of the original surviving cast as fan-friendly director J.J. Abrams forces digital pioneer Lucas to look the other way with his use of film. Last night’s The Force Awakens full-length trailer release coincided with the kickoff of ticket pre-sales and as the preview was breaking the internet (12 million views in the first 12 hours), the rush for tickets crashed movie pre-buy sites like Fandango.

So, yeah.

For some, myself included, the Star Wars canon represents coping with the frustration Lucas was trying to work out on 35mm; that you can actually grow up in the middle of a scorched desert and still become someone—or not. Or maybe you can. It wasn’t until a couple decades after the first Star Wars (with The Phantom Menace in 1999) that I learned you can only be a Jedi if Liam Neeson and his very particular set of skills takes a blood sample and determines you have the right amount of bowl cut, white cells and magic flowing through you. So, um, that sucked. But then my faith came full circle a few years after that when I realized Hayden Christensen wasn’t so special after all and maybe I did have something to offer.

There is some excitement building in the morning afterglow of my too-many-muted-viewings-of-the-trailer-at-work-to-count fanaticism and the questions to follow: Is Rey the female human scavenger really the daughter of Han and Leia? Is Kylo Ren, the guy who bought the chocolate bunny in the sun Vader helmet on Galaxy Far Far Away eBay off a penniless old hermit Luke Skywalker, more than just a Sith fanboy? Will he cobble enough darksideness together—or at least the sickest costume ever for Mos Eisely’s Comic-Con—to make a case for the Empire to return? Is that Han Solo flying the Falcon? Or has he been downsized by Leia to an E-Z-GO version? Is Finn a Stormtrooper gone rogue or did his tie-fighter just break down Griswold-style in the middle of the desert?

None of these questions will be fully answered in the first film of the new batch. But we do know this: Episode VII will usher in the era of the winter blockbuster (it opens Friday, Dec. 18) and is projected to cruise to a quarter-billion-dollar opening weekend worldwide. This coincides with the most opportunistic movie merchandising endeavor yet: a pair of 14-acre Star Wars Land(s) will open at Disneyland and Disney World which represent the theme parks’ single-biggest expansion in history. In Anaheim, the rise of Star Wars Land means Big Thunder Ranch gets the wrecking ball. So say goodbye to the railroad-themed roller coaster and nearby barbecue restaurant and petting zoo.

The parks’ transformation to maximize the Star Wars franchise’s profits is worth pause.

To the generation before me, Walt Disney’s scrubbed-clean version of Main Street and future-perfect Tomorrowland represented both nostalgia and the best of what we were striving for post-war. To my generation, Star Wars represents an escape from what really did happen. Most of us can no longer afford to pay for our children’s college or own homes or pack our bags for trips to far off lands. If we do, it’s because we’re leveraged to the hilt and are one layoff or hospital stay away from bankruptcy and oblivion. We walk such an odds-defying tightrope that we can’t help but relate to Han Solo yelling at a shiny gay robot to stop telling him what his chances of survival are.

Our children are used to war and guns and screens everywhere. And the rhetoric we hear from politicians isn’t that our best days are ahead of us as much as we need to evoke the simplicity, arrogance and superiority of a prior time.

To me the new Star Wars panders as much to my Cold War-era nostalgia as it reinforces the ethos of good and bad and light(saber) and dark(side) that were lost in Lucas’s ultimately misguided but reflective-of-their-time prequels. And as ridiculed as he was for the prequels, Lucas was simply evolving the arc as he evolved his viewpoints as an individual and filmmaker. The story of a tariff dispute that escalates into an endless and nonsensical war where the surreptitiously evil Chancellor Palpatine must be rescued from the powerful robot dictator General Grievous showed that power and the struggle for it is nuanced. The side you’re on depends solely upon what or who informs your point of view.

That was very heady but appropriate stuff.

The Force Awakens is ultimately a misstep to a slick corporate narrative. It’s a trip back to a long time ago that will be embraced by the faithful. Those of us can who can still afford movie tickets are ready to ante up for the promise of two hours of spooning with yesteryear definitions of right and wrong. The familiar faces and ships and planets and plotlines are perfect vehicles to soothe my mind and steal my money.

…Because at this point if strapping myself into the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon once more doesn’t make me feel better, nothing will.

 

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