Disney purchased Lucasfilm for the grand sum of $4 billion in October 2012, with the intention of making new Star Wars movies (both within the core saga and standalone adventures). The wait for the first of these projects, J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, ended up being a little more than three years, and now fans finally have the opportunity to go to their local theater and see the beloved space opera continue with a new generation of heroes and villains.
There were concerns that The Force Awakens would not be able to live up to the outrageous hype that it generated, but that tune changed once the reviews started rolling in (read ours). Many see it as a rousing return to form for the franchise, and Star Wars 7 has become the most acclaimed series installment since 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back. Its Rotten Tomatoes score (as of this writing) is actually higher than A New Hope and Empire, and the American Film Institute recently named The Force Awakens one of the 10 best films of 2015.
If it’s possible, these facts will only raise the expectations viewers have for the movie when they go to watch it. While most assumed it would improve upon the prequels, few could have predicted something that was this universally praised. Of course, this means that Force Awakens backlash is inevitable, as some who see it will call it “overrated” or “not as good” as the originals, particularly Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. And the people who make that comparison are simply missing the point.
An Experience Like No Other
Simply put, there really isn’t anything that can compare to the first Star Wars films. Nobody is going to be able to replicate the cultural impact the original movie had in 1977, when the Hollywood blockbuster was a relatively novel thing and society was in a place where it desperately needed the escapism a space fantasy adventure provided. Nowadays, so-called “event” films open seemingly every other week, and the industry has a plethora of blockbuster franchises planned out for the next handful of years. While few (if any) modern movies could top the anticipation of The Force Awakens, it’s one of many similar films that open over the course of the year.
The same can be said about The Empire Strikes Back, which is widely considered the greatest sequel ever made. For many fans, it’s also the best in the series, seamlessly combining action spectacle with heartfelt character drama, developing all the principal players in ways that felt enthralling. Empire was a rare instance of catching lightning in a bottle twice, and illustrated what a great sequel could accomplish. The galaxy felt more expansive, characters were taken in exciting new directions, and there were plenty of surprises that added depth to the proceedings. At its core, Empire represents what many fans want a Star Wars film to be, since it does so many things perfectly.
So The Force Awakens had a pretty high bar to clear if it was even going to come close to the originals. The first two movies were unlike anything anyone had ever seen before, because there wasn’t anything like them before. To his credit, Abrams seemed to understand this, and never set out to make something that would be “better” in terms of quality. He wanted to craft a heartfelt film that honored their tradition.
Appreciating the Present
It’s not an understatement to say that Abrams was under intense scrutiny and pressure to deliver on The Force Awakens‘ promise. Not only were the fans hungry for another good Star Wars movie, Disney also has substantial plans for the franchise’s future moving forward. In order for the wave of forward momentum to keep going, Star Wars 7 actually had to earn a universal approval rating. If word-of-mouth was mixed (or worse, terrible), then the last three years would have been for naught and enthusiasm for the Star Wars brand would be greatly diminished.
For all intents and purposes, it’s a minor movie miracle that Abrams was able to direct something that’s so well-liked. These days, high-profile films such as this generate a flurry of opinions, and its uncommon for just about all of them to be positive. Even Abrams’ own Star Trek Into Darkness (which is Certified Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes) didn’t sit well with all who saw it upon release, due to the derivative nature of the narrative and the mishandling of the Khan reveal. Out of Abrams’ love and admiration for the original Star Wars trilogy, The Force Awakens could have easily fallen into the same trappings and divided the core fan base after everything played out. But the consensus across the board is that Star Wars is back in a big way.
That’s the greatest triumph Abrams and Disney could have hoped for. While even the die-hard fans will admit there are a few flaws, the shortcomings are not prominent enough to derail the picture completely (after all, no film is perfect). It’s a movie that has so many entertaining and heartfelt moments that it’s nearly impossible not to like it. And for longtime followers of the galaxy far, far away, The Force Awakens is exactly what they’ve wanted since Return of the Jedi: an entertaining, exciting space opera populated by memorable characters with the essence of a classic Star Wars film. That’s just as significant as what the first film meant in 1977.
Excitement for the Future
Those who get bogged down in comparing The Force Awakens to the past are doing themselves a great disservice. They’re looking past the fact that Star Wars 7 sets up a tantalizing future that many cannot wait to see. Abrams arguably took a risk by focusing on the younger characters of Rey, Finn, and Kylo Ren (instead of the nostalgia trip of Luke, Han, and Leia going on another adventure), but it paid off in spades. The new cast delivered in their roles, establishing themselves as the next faces of the franchise. Those who contributed to the $1 billion in merchandise sales can rest easy knowing these are great characters.
Abrams was smart in leaving certain things unresolved in The Force Awakens. While it does operate as its own story with clear arcs, it’s also obviously laying out the groundwork for the last two installments of the sequel trilogy. Fans are curious to see where Rey goes from here, how Finn and Poe Dameron will aid the Resistance, and how Luke Skywalker factors into the story. There also seems to be some developing left for Kylo Ren, and the question of whether or not he’s redeemable will be a running theme in the remaining movies. There’s so much left to explore that it’s better for everyone if they look ahead instead of in the rearview mirror.
The reason why so many fans were excited for The Force Awakens is because of the endless possibilities future stories presented. The Star Wars universe is a vast place that captures the imagination. It shouldn’t come as any surprise that in the immediate aftermath of Star Wars 7, people are already generating their theories for what will happen in Episode VIII. Abrams ended his film on such a cliffhanger, it would be difficult for fans to think of anything else in the next few days. Trying to rank The Force Awakens’ among the best in the series misses out on all this fun. For the first time in decades, moviegoers are filled to the brim with anticipation for the next Star Wars movie. And that’s an amazing feeling.
To borrow a sports analogy, trying to compare The Force Awakens to the movies of the original trilogy is like comparing great athletes from different eras. It’s impossible to truly judge them through the same lens because the circumstances surrounding each is extremely different. The original Star Wars movie came out of left field and reinvigorated an unsuspecting industry that wrote it off as a silly kids film. What it did cannot be duplicated. A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi are cultural landmarks that defined an entire generation and changed Hollywood forever. No matter how wonderful The Force Awakens was, it was never going to be on that substantial of a level.
The absolute best case scenario for Episode VII was a movie that brought the saga back to its glory days by telling a story that was funny and emotional, thrilling and captivating. By all accounts, that’s exactly what audiences got. After the maligned prequel trilogy that spent too much time on political delegations, it was refreshing to see Star Wars return to its roots and exhilarate moviegoers again. The Force Awakens feels like a Star Wars film, regardless of how it compares to what came before. Asking if it’s better than Empire or even Return of the Jedi misses the point of why this film’s overwhelming critical and commercial success means so much to the Star Wars community.
Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens is now in theaters, followed by Rogue One: A Star Wars Story on December 16th, 2016, Star Wars: Episode VIII on May 26th, 2017, and the Han Solo Star Wars Anthology film on May 25th, 2018. Star Wars: Episode IX is expected to reach theaters in 2019, followed by the third Star Wars Anthology film in 2020.