"History is always happening" at Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site
Unless you live on a planet at the far edge of the galaxy, then you already know that the newest "Star Wars" — "Episode VII: The Force Awakens" — has been declared a commercial and critical success, by everyone from RogerEbert.com (3.5 stars) to Rotten Tomatoes (95 percent) to the guy at my office who went opening night ("crazy good"). Even staid NPR only occasionally interrupted its "Star Wars" opening-weekend coverage for updates on national politics and federal interest rates.
It seems to have made everyone happy, except, I would guess, a handful of Republican presidential candidates, who must be horrified that Americans are hourly cheering for an AWOL soldier, a desert scavenge and a group of rabble-rousers who dare resist domination and have a penchant for blowing things up. And don't even get them started on Princess Leia's having become a general.
So it's established: The new "Star Wars," directed by J.J. Abrams, is a success. But why? For one reason, it's the overwhelming sense of relief it brings — relief that the "Star Wars" franchise has been rescued from the drecky prequels of the early 2000s. We are now free to forget Jar Jar Binks and Hayden Christensen's Anakin. (I half expected the movie to open with Han Solo waking up and turning to Leia, Bob Newhart-style, and saying, "I just had the strangest dream ... .")
"The Force Awakens" hews more closely to the original movies, in both feel and storyline. Without giving too much away — and that assumes there is still someone who hasn't yet seen it — the latest episode picks up 30 years after the Empire and its second Deathstar were destroyed, in "Return of the Jedi." The Resistance is still fighting, only now its enemy is the First Order, the worst of what was left of the Empire. The First Order has its own phalanxes of storm troopers, its own Vader-like up-and-comer, Kylo Ren (played by Adam Driver in a role he seems to have been chiseled for), and it even has its own Deathstar (called Starkiller Base because it sounds more ominous than Deathstar III). In the face of this new enemy, the Resistance must find Luke Skywalker, the aging Jedi.
The movie is full of other "Star Wars" must-haves. There's a swashbuckling pilot, a follow-along droid (complete with holographic message), light sabers, Jedi mind tricks and father-son tension. The marionette strings of misleading relationships in the original episodes: Who is Luke's father? (Spoiler alert: It's Vader), and who is the other Jedi, Leia or Han? (Spoiler alert: It's Leia) — are still being pulled, some revealed by movie's end, other questions to be answered in future installments. And a John Williams score undergirds it all.
No doubt you've heard that there are appearances by other beloved characters from the originals, like Chewbacca and Admiral Ackbar. The obvious question: Would they merely be trotted out for cameos, or would they be full-fledged characters again? Take Han Solo. A generation's Odysseus, the quick-witted wanderer. We sense at the end of "Return of the Jedi" that Han has finally found a home. The new episode could have left him there, a marginal character for the fanboys to cheer. Instead, we find Han, like Odysseus after his travels, unable to stay put and aching for new adventures. It's refreshing to see our heroes age along with us.
Lest you think this is merely a nostalgia machine, there is a slate of new characters, thankfully unfamiliar as actors, who will ably carry the franchise into the future. Daisy Ridley as Rey, the scrappy, self-reliant girl from a distant outpost; John Boyega as Fin, the storm trooper who deserts his post and finds his humanity; and Oscar Isaac as Poe, the genius X-wing fighter pilot. Though the catalyst for the movie is the need to find Luke Skywalker, the quest serves as a torch-passing to this new generation. And it works, I think. We connect with the new characters as much as their predecessors.
But all of that does not fully explain why "The Force Awakens" is so good, why it can leave you feeling better about the world when you leave the theater. I believe there is a clue to its power in the movie itself. Several times, the younger characters, upon learning that a person or an event is real, exclaim, "I thought that was just a story!" Luke and Han and Leia and their exploits have already passed into myth. They are stories told by the Resistance and First Order alike, stories of unlikely heroes, the allure of power and, ultimately, the possibility of redemption.
Thirty years ago, after the original Star Wars movies, journalist Bill Moyers sat down with mythologist Joseph Campbell at George Lucas' Skywalker Ranch for a conversation aired on PBS (and later published as the book "The Power of Myth"). The setting was not incidental; George Lucas had acknowledged his debt to Campbell's work on hero stories. During the conversation, "Star Wars" and its characters came up repeatedly.
Moyers said of the original movie, "It wasn't just the production value that made that such an exciting film to watch. It was that it came along at a time when people needed to see in recognizable images the clash of good and evil. They needed to be reminded of idealism, to see a romance based upon selflessness rather than selfishness." The same could be said of "The Force Awakens."
It is this sense of myth, so lacking in the prequels, that the latest episode has recaptured. It allows us, the viewers, to see ourselves in the characters on screen (and with a more diverse cast, even more of us can see ourselves there) and imagine a world of hope, new beginnings and the possibility of redemption.