Star Wars: The Nostalgia Awakens

The publicity rollout for the franchise's newest installment confirms J.J. Abrams' greatest skill: harnessing the power of cinematic reminiscence.


J.J. Abrams, the director tasked with bringing Star Wars back to the top of the crowded franchise heap, has always been happy to borrow. When he set out to make a new Star Trek and drag that moribund cinematic franchise back into blockbuster territory, he cheerfully swapped in some very familiar visual language to help it over the hill. Early on in the film, James Kirk (Chris Pine), nursing a desire to transcend his farmboy life, rides a motorcycle to see the U.S.S. Enterprise being built at a shipyard, and gazes up at it longingly. Star Wars fans would connect the scene to one at the beginning of the first 1977 film, when Luke Skywalker wistfully watches the dual suns of his home planet set; Star Trek's producers even called the scene "our Tatooine moment." Abrams has never exactly been a visionary artist, but he's a master of elevating the familiar—a fact made clear in the previews of his new Star Wars film, The Force Awakens.

In those twin scenes of Kirk and Luke looking out into the unknown, the visuals and the swelling music behind them tell the whole story. In turning Star Trek into an egocentric hero's journey about Kirk's origins in the captain's chair, Abrams upended many a traditional Trek fan's conception of the franchise, and his films have never been fully embraced by that fan base. But 2009's Star Trek also made $385 million at the worldwide box office, compared with $67 million for its predecessor, 2002's Star Trek: Nemesis. Star Trek's first trailer also ends with a glimpse at a dynamic space battle, the likes of which one might find in, well, a certain George Lucas film.

Paramount Pictures

Now, Abrams has the reins to those films, and he got a rapturous reception at last week's "Star Wars Celebration" convention, where he premiered the second teaser to The Force Awakens, the series' seventh "episode." It might be too much to call the Star Wars franchise moribund, but after Lucas' prequel trilogy, its future seemed dire. Lucasfilm's surprise sale to Disney in 2012, which placed Star Wars in the hands of producer Kathleen Kennedy, set it up as a moneymaker for years to come, but it had been hard to know what the Lucas-less sequels would look like until Kennedy hired Abrams to spearhead them.

Kennedy, a longtime collaborator with Steven Spielberg, has known Abrams since he was 14 years old and doing a young movie nerd's dream job—watching and restoring the Super 8 films Spielberg made as a child. With a background like that, it's no wonder Abrams taps into the classic Hollywood moviemaking of that era, nor is it surprising that Kennedy saw him as the perfect candidate for The Force Awakens, persuading him to leave the Trek franchise and numerous other projects for what Abrams called "the first movie that blew my mind."

The Force Awakens is looking to blow audience's minds in the same way. As my colleague Spencer Kornhaber noted of the film's most recent trailer, there's nothing going on here that audiences haven't seen before. Familiar faces, stormtroopers, X-Wings swooping around, all set to John Williams' score; this is the stuff of nostalgia, not the breath of fresh air the original Star Wars offered in 1977. Whatever new formula Abrams might be adding, it's certainly not apparent from the advertising, which is instead designed to remind everyone of the first time they saw Han and Chewie in the Millennium Falcon.

But there are indeed hints that Abrams is going to do more than just recycle Star Wars' greatest hits. When George Lucas made his maligned prequels, one of his biggest challenges was the great leaps in movie technology that took place between Return of the Jedi in 1983 and The Phantom Menace in 1999. How could that be reconciled with the fact that Phantom was set before the original trilogy? Lucas, to the dismay of critics, doubled down and used CGI and green screen for everything, embracing the fact that he could make the "Old Republic" look like an unblemished jewel, primed for the great downfall audiences knew would come. Abrams has wisely gone the other way, returning to the practical effects of the original films. When the Millennium Falcon loop-de-loops at the end of The Force Awakens' first teaser, the real thrill is the feeling that the camera is actually moving with it, rather than mimicking that feeling with the programmed virtual cinematography Lucas eventually leaned on.

With the second teaser's bravura opening shot, Abrams is communicating everything viewers need to know about his Star Wars world with the same tactical, brilliant economy of his Star Trek. Here's the Star Destroyer fans remember, but crumpled on a planet's surface; Darth Vader's mask, burned and disfigured; Luke Skywalker's artificial hand, its fake skin gone after all these years. Most importantly of all, there's the first lightsaber audiences ever saw in a Star Wars film, seemingly being put in Leia's hands, a small but powerful piece of imagery that signals an upending of the long-standing gender dynamics of the original series, as Salon's Sonia Saraiya noted.

It's as if the blessed artifacts of the original films have been recovered by Abrams, an intrepid Hollywood archeologist who understands their power. By the time Harrison Ford delivers his one line ("Chewie, we're home"), Star Wars fans can't help but feel moved, even if the emotional manipulation at work is obvious. It's ridiculous to assume a film will succeed based on just two minutes of expertly edited footage. But Abrams has always understood the difference between nostalgia and tackiness. It's not just that you have to remind an audience of something they once loved—you have to make sure they still love it. With Star Wars, the deck is stacked in Abrams' favor.