Today, shooting wrapped on Star Wars: Episode VII, the J.J. Abrams-directed continuation of the Star Wars saga that blessedly lacks George Lucas's involvement. With that announcement came the film's official title: The Force Awakens. The Internet has quickly stirred to deliver waves of satire—The Atlantic’s Megan Garber has already contributed—and I know I should remain wary of any new Star Wars property.
But I can't deny it: I'm excited. “The Force Awakens” is a pretty bland, catch-all title, that's not as goofy as the prequel trilogy (where Phantom Menaces and Attacking Clones abounded) and adheres to the general strategy Abrams seems to have been following so far: Play it safe. Appeal to fans by invoking the original movies as much as possible. At least in the case of this lapsed Star Wars fan, it's working.
Abrams faces the same challenges with every Star Wars-related announcement. Despite its overall popularity, this is a highly damaged brand in the wake of George Lucas's prequel trilogy, where wooden acting, stiflingly bland dialogue, cutesy side-characters, excessive merchandizing, and an over-reliance on green-screen and CGI made every movie seem more and more like a toy commercial. In taking the helm of Episode VII (which was scripted by Abrams and Empire Strikes Back screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan), Abrams has stressed a return to what worked. He's using miniatures and practical special effects to emphasize the lived-in quality of the original films. He's got the original cast back together to pass the lightsaber to a younger generation.
Still, with every passing year, every Star Wars fan who rants about the violated sanctity of the original films sounds more and more like a bitter Gen X-er upset that their childhood is receding further into the distance. It's Star Wars. The original movies are still there, and still good. Complaints about the prequels will echo forever, and now they will surely be followed by grumbling that the sequels are just trying to pander to their love of something lost. I can't wait for the first think piece arguing that for all of The Phantom Menace's flaws, at least it wasn't cynically trying to stir up our nostalgia for A New Hope.
In short: Abrams can't win, no matter what he does, with a certain sub-section of fans and the critics. But you can applaud him for at least trying to do everything right so far. Yes, bring back the Millennium Falcon. Yes, include Harrison Ford, even at the cost of breaking his leg. Yes, go with a broad, generic-sounding title rather than something that sounds ripped off from a 1930s Flash Gordon serial. And yes, cast your younger generation well and diversely: John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong'o, Gwendoline Christie, and Domhnall Gleeson is, on paper, an ensemble to get excited about. It's easy to dismiss the throwback elements as intellectually bankrupt, but it strikes me as smart for Abrams to use touchstones from the classic trilogy to draw us into a new story. It worked remarkably well with his reboot of Star Trek, which draped a new plot onto the basic elements and core characters that casual fans remembered best about the show.
Call me a fool for getting a little rush of blood when that title, The Force Awakens, popped up on Twitter today. Roll your eyes at me for thinking a Disney Channel cartoon serves as proof that things are going to be different now that Star Wars is out of George Lucas's hands. But until something happens that makes Episode VII seem truly troubled, I'm firmly planted on the side of optimism. I can't wait for the next carefully planned release of a morsel of information just to keep me salivating as I wait for Christmas 2015. Worst-case scenario, I'm disappointed by Star Wars again. What else is new?
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