The Phantom Menace shat that bed and Episodes II and III tried to make up for it while closing the loop to set up the original movie. The Ewoks were the tip of the shark being jumped in Return of the Jedi but there was still enough magic to make Episodes IV-VI classic with a truly unique feel to them. The universe worked and the characters in it drove our feelings for it. Episode I broke those badly, had poorly developed characters, and the effects somehow seemed more obviously off than the more believable ones in A New Hope (which were much older). It looked plastic, not real. These are all the challenges which JJ Abrams and crew faced in Episode VII. How to avoid a manufactured and rote production while being a part of Disney had to be part of it. Let’s not forget that the original series also redefined marketing, toy tie-ins, and the like. Even that still felt like capturing the magic and bringing it home more than something on a corporate balance sheet – which is how Episodes I, II, and III came across.
I entered my IMAX 3D reserved seating showing on my son’s birthday knowing that my kids never saw a Star Wars movie on the big screen. I worked hard to avoid possible spoilers and cleared my mind in Jedi-like fashion of all expectations aside from an anticipated excitement. My only real exposure in advance was the trailer which looked neat on my TV and rocked my world when I saw it before Spectre. In short, I tried to treat this like when I went to Empire Strikes Back. I knew Star Wars would have core characters I knew and introduce more, there’d be droids, aliens, space battles, epic music, exotic locales, and a thrilling story to tie it together. Otherwise, seeing how it would unfold would be the magic.
I had a lot of confidence that Episode VII would deliver over a year before it opened. I’m really working to be spoiler-free here so this will be vague until you see it…
The opening Star Wars logo is there as is the crawl of text into the stars beyond. We expect this as it’s been there in all the movies. And then the scene which unfolds is amazingly old and new at the same time. It feels just like those opening moments from the original trilogy. The effects could be right out of a 30 year old film yet they look right and crystalize into the most state-of-the-art film I’ve seen. Somehow the sheer atmosphere is captured and translated perfectly. I was instantly immersed in a “Holy shit, this is Star Wars” way which Episodes I-III missed.
The rest of the movie had to please the hardest of the hardcore Star Wars fans and n00bs alike. I’m in the camp where the series defined my childhood. My brother and I owned toys and swapped trading cards, yet I haven’t done a lot more than watch the movies (OK, the Lego video games are awesome). What I said in the first paragraph about what made A New Hope, Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi work all comes back in The Force Awakens. A lot of it’s familiar but it’s in context and everything’s in place. The characters get thrown together in ways which aren’t any less believable than they were in the original series. The effects and battles are stunning with terrific additions. There are quiet moments to pace the film and draw us in. The Force feels like the Force.
And, most importantly, the new characters get built out and get sucked into the adventure the same way Luke and the rest of us did in a New Hope. When a character busts out a Ric Flair Woooooooo!, you’re doing the same thing.
And that’s why it’s Star Wars.