Born in the 70s, raised in the 80s, Star Wars has always been a part of my life. A New Hope was released two years before I was born, Empire a year after I was born, and while I never saw the original three movies when they were first in the theater, I’ve known about Luke, Leia, Han, Chewy, R2D2, C-3PO, Darth Vader, and lightsabers my entire life. To be honest, I can’t even tell you when I first watched any of the three movies, but I know that as a kid I loved Jedi the most because of the Ewoks. When George Lucas re-released the films in the build-up for the prequels, my sister and I jumped at the opportunity to watch them in the theater for the first time and we joined the millions of fans adding to Lucas’s bank account so that we could finally see his masterpiece on the big screen.
My love for the original trilogy only increased my senior year of college when I was serving as a peer instructor for a freshman seminar class. The instructor was one of my favorite professors through college, an intelligent, polished woman who inspired me both as a college student and as a teacher once I graduated. She decided to use Star Wars as part of our discussion that semester. For the first time, she introduced me to Joseph Campbell and the Hero with a Thousand Faces. I had never considered that part of the draw of A New Hope was the typical quest story, but here I was studying Star Wars through a new lens. In the many years since that experience, I have periodically used A New Hope in my classroom as part of my discussion of the hero’s journey. We look at the archetypes of the hero and then identify those archetypes in Lucas’s original masterpiece. The older I get the more shocked I am by the number of students who have not seen the original trilogy, the teenagers who have grown up without knowing the story of Luke, Leia, Han, and Darth Vader. It is a gap that I occasionally feel the need to fill in their lives.
I grew up loving the original trilogy and I eagerly anticipated Anakin Skywalker’s backstory when Lucas announced the release of the prequels. Lucas released the first of the prequels when I was a college student on choir tour. There were several fellow tour members who chose to see The Phantom Menace during tour as soon as they could find a free night to go. I chose to wait until I got home to Michigan so I could see it with my boyfriend who had already watched it without me. Like many, I was disappointed. After years of wondering about the man who would become Darth Vader, I felt the story was seriously lacking. But I forgave Lucas. After all, this was the first of a trilogy. There is something to be said for necessary exposition, the introduction of new characters, and the development of a younger, more polished universe before the takeover of the Empire.
Attack of the Clones was better, but not great. Again, it lacked story and the love story between Anakin and Padme felt painfully forced. When Revenge of the Sith was released I kept my expectations low. While I still saw flaws, the story of the archetypal tragic hero swept me off of my feet. Lucas finally returned to story telling, and the story of Anakin’s fall to the Dark Side, with his eventual redemption in Return of the Jedi, allowed me to finally forgive George Lucas for his first two movies in the prequel trilogy.
Then Disney bought the rights to the Star Wars universe. Then they announced three more movies. Like many Star Wars fans I have been waiting with nervous anticipation to see what they would do to the story and characters I have loved my whole life. My husband tried to remind me that this was Disney, the people behind the Marvel movies that I continue to love with each new installment. But I couldn’t forget previous years of disappointment, years in which I saw special effects trump story, poor acting by excellent actors burdened by mediocre scripts, and an all-around loss of the original focus on the quest archetype. While Anakin’s tragic fall in Sith nearly fulfilled the Sophiclean model, there was still something missing in what was my second favorite film of two trilogies.
And now I know what was missing. After two viewings of JJ Abrams magical re-entry into “a galaxy far, far away,” I finally know what has been missing for years. Years after George Lucas turned his masterpiece into a special effects playground, Disney and Abrams have returned to its roots.
From beginning to end I felt like I was back in the Star Wars universe, right down to the beautiful natural landscapes. Abrams only used CGI where absolutely necessary. Where they could use puppets instead of computers, they did. Where they could use models instead of computers, they did. Where they could use real explosions instead of computers, they did. After our first viewing my husband and I came home and put in Jedi to watch with our kids. Lucas’s unnecessary CGI additions to his original film became painfully obvious. I found the additions difficult to swallow, starting with an unnecessary CGI led musical number in Jabba’s lair near the beginning of the film. All I wanted to do was find an original copy of Jedi and watch it as it was originally viewed, without the added special effects. When we returned to the movie theater two days later to watch the film with both of our kids, it was like a breath of fresh air.
But it wasn’t just the long shots of the desert on Jakku, the green landscape of the Resistance base, the forest of Starkiller Base, or the sweeping shot of Luke and Rey standing on top of the first Jedi temple, leading right into the credits, it was the fact that for the first time since the Rebels fought Stormtroopers on Endor with the help of the adorable Ewoks, the landscape is as much a character as humans, aliens, and droids. The landscape allowed the story to tell itself without distracting me from with effects that disengaged me from the story in the prequels.
Another distraction in the prequels was the lack of strong acting enhanced by poor scripts and even lousier chemistry. It was as if Lucas and his team had completely ignored something that I understood even in my years as a high school theatre director: proper chemistry can make or break a performance. I like and admire many of the individuals who performed in the prequels, but their performances were not nearly as believable as the performances in the original trilogy. While Luke and Leia initially appeared to be love interests, audiences could buy the idea that they were siblings by the time those secrets were revealed in Jedi. By that time Leia and Han had moved from hatred/tolerance to genuine affection for each other. And the chemistry between Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford made it all the more believable, as was the chemistry between Sir Alec Guinness and Mark Hamill, or Billy Dee Williams and Harrison Ford. As I re-watch the movies I see actors who like each other and clearly liked working together. And if they didn’t, they sure were good at faking it.
I saw the chemistry return in The Force Awakens. If Rey and Finn ever get together, it will feel natural and not forced. From the first time Finn gets schooled in how much Rey does not need to be rescued, I could see two actors who loved their roles, liked each other, and enjoyed working together. The same is true of Fisher and Ford reprising their roles of Leia and Han. And when Han touches Kylo Ren’s face before falling into the abyss, I saw a father’s love for his lost son. It was real and it nearly broke my heart, but not nearly as much as the revelation that Kylo Ren’s real name is Ben, a revelation that choked me up as much as the revelation at the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows that Harry and Ginny’s named their son Albus Severus.
And then there is Rey, a strong female character who my little girl can look up to. I have always adored Leia. She is beautiful, a princess, and fierce. She stood up to Darth Vader, took charge of the Rebels, and rescued Han when he couldn’t save himself. She loved Han on her own terms and could still stand on her own when necessary. She didn’t need Han, but they complimented each other. When he responded to her declaration of love with “I know,” it wasn’t a misogynistic insult, it was a revelation of his character. And while people have discussed the sexist costuming in Jedi for years, a very recent viewing of the film has led me to the conclusion that, in the context of the film, her minimal clothing while captured as one of Jabba’s slaves is more of a commentary on Jabba’s ethics than on Leia’s sensuality, especially when looking at her costuming for the remainder of the film. Padme, on the other hand, was helpless once she fell in love with Anakin. She couldn’t believe that the man she loved could be capable of so much evil, even though she watched his decline to the Dark Side for years. She knew what he was capable of because he had told her. He revealed that he had murdered innocent Sandpeople, including children, after his mother’s death. He continued to praise Palpatine even though Padme knew in her heart that Palpatine’s actions would lead to the downfall of the Republic and the destruction of liberty. And yet she continued to support her misguided husband and was shocked when he made his complete transformation to the Dark Side. Dying of nothing more than a broken heart, she left her twins to the mercy of the Empire, their only salvation in the hands of three men who decided to split them up for their own protection.
Rey’s identity is still a secret, although I believe that she is Luke’s daughter. If that is the case, Rey is much more like her aunt than she is like her grandmother. She lives on her own on a desolate desert planet, determined to be reunited with family that will probably never return. When Finn arrives and tries to rescue her, she rescues him instead. She can fly a spaceship with skills rivaling her uncle and grandfather (again, operating under the belief that she is Luke’s daughter) and masters the use of new weaponry as needed. As we see the Force awaken in her while fighting off Kylo Ren’s attempts to read her mind, we see a young woman discovering just how much power she actually possesses. When she faces off with Kylo Ren, their raw, unskilled lightsaber battle demonstrates a strength we haven’t even seen from Leia.
To say that I loved The Force Awakens would be an understatement. The Star Wars universe has returned to its roots and I left the movie theater giddy. And like many happy fans, I will spend the next year and a half discussing and trying different theories to questions that I hope to see answered in that time. Until then, I am simply happy to see the return of a great story and a new heroes journey.