'Star Wars' fans at the Kentucky Theatre
Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens is the movie we, the original Star Wars generation, have wanted to see since 1983.
That was the year Han, Leia and Luke last took flight in a galaxy far, far away, in Return of the Jedi. Back then, we didn’t have these episode numbers that the prequel series made necessary.
And prequels were what series founder George Lucas seemed to think were necessary in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when he launched Episodes I through III on the public. They were interesting and in some cases good. By the way, I stand by my four-star review of Episode III — Revenge of the Sith and I admit that I was over-enthusiastic praising Episode I — The Phantom Menace
It was interesting to see the history of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker, and the latter’s journey to the Dark Side of The Force and to ultimate movie villain status.
But most of us who came of age with the original trilogy wanted to know what became of the heroes we embraced between 1977 and ’83. Yes, Jedi brought things to a neat conclusion with Vader/Anakin’s redemption and death — although, as we know, Jedi never die — and the Empire seemingly vanquished. But if there were to be new movies, we were most interested in picking up where Jedi left off, or somewhere in that story line.
Yes, there are books, series and other offerings of “the expanded universe.” But the movies are the franchise and what launched the whole phenomenon of Star Wars and the modern blockbuster.
You tell millennials that there was no substantial merchandise when Star Wars came out and we waited months for those first action figures to trickle out, and they look at you as if you’re recalling the era before electricity. There was one option for entering this galaxy, and that was going to the movie theater, where Star Wars ran in first run for more than a year. And the prospect of watching it in your home, when you wanted? That didn’t occur to us.
It also didn’t occur to us that this would become a defining cultural touchstone of our generation, that these characters would become iconic in our lives.
That’s why when Han Solo (Harrison Ford) says to new characters Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Finn (John Boyega), “It’s true, all of it. The Dark Side. The Jedi. They’re real,” in the Force Awakens trailer, we hear more than just cool lines in a new movie. We hear a tale being passed down.
And it’s being passed down by one of us.
At 49, J.J. Abrams was at that perfect age, 11, to be sucked into the world of Star Wars when it came out, and in a recent 60 Minutes feature, he spoke of the transformative effect it had on him.
“It blew my mind, and it says anything is possible,” Abrams said of seeing the original.
Certainly, Star Wars creator George Lucas is a revered figure, without whom we would have none of this. But despite my defense of Revenge of the Sith, the prequels were plenty to shake faith in his ability to take the series forward. At times, the films were about filmmaking technology more than storytelling. Reading and watching Abrams talk about Star Wars, I have the feeling that he gets what made the original movies work.
In a recent Time magazine cover story, Abrams talked about Star Wars conveying a reality and heart not normally associated with science fiction. The story also told how Abrams went about filming in an almost historic mode, shooting on film and location, while the prequels were noted for pioneering digital cinematography and computer-generated effects.
But the big deal is that he gets to bring back these familiar characters we haven’t seen for so long, including Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill).
Who knows what the future will hold, or how long they will last, or whether the movie will even be good. Even with his track record of successfully reviving Mission Impossible and Star Trek, Abrams is aware that he’s dealing with a particularly precious commodity here.
But he also enjoys a freedom to truly expand this universe on film.
Unlike the prequels, these films are not driving toward a known story line, and clearly part of the mission of this movie and its sequels is to introduce new characters that will carry the tale forward for a new generation.
Herald-Leader entertainment reporter and editor Rich Copley, 48, first saw Star Wars when he was 10. Follow him on Twitter @copiousnotes.