For a movie everyone at least likes, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” has been pretty divisive. You might think it doesn’t bring anything new to the party but simply imitates the original trilogy (that is, episodes four through six). You might also believe that that’s, you know, fine. The same is what the massive and ever-swelling fanbase wanted, and it’s what they (OK, we) didn’t get from the prequels, which not only expanded upon the universe George Lucas created but took it in a different, stiffer, talkier, C-SPAN-ier direction.
The anti- side has good points. J.J. Abrams is nobody’s idea of an original thinker, and often simply repurposes other people’s works, such as doing his best imitation of ’70s and ’80s Spielberg with “Super 8.” (For the record, he was fairly unfaithful with “Star Trek,” which he dumbed down and roided up for mass consumption.) “The Force Awakens” amounts to noble plagiarism, copying the cinematic language of the originals to make it feel like it was 1977 through 1983 all over again.
The backlash against “Awakens” hasn’t been fierce; even something as thoughtful and unmerciful as Eric Hynes’ terrific Reverse Shot review acknowledges the author basically had fun. And it has resulted in some defending Lucas and the prequels in a manner that isn’t simply clickbait. Whatever their many, many (many, many, many) faults, Lucas’ own attempts at returning to his saga were trying something new rather than placating the heads. They were righteous failures, whereas Abrams is just a kid who bought all the “Star Wars” toys and played with them on a $200 million movie set, rather than in his basement.
And yet therein lies the secret power of “The Force Awakens.” It’s strong because it is a copycat. It works because it’s essentially a grown-up kid playing with old toys. It’s effective because it’s about our own collective love for an unstoppable cultural powerhouse. It couldn’t have been made by Lucas, not only because he’s no longer the same guy who made the original trilogy. He’s the creator of “Star Wars,” whereas Abrams, like us, is someone who grew up with it. It’s “our” “Star Wars,” which is to say it’s the one that belongs to us — and to, of course, a massive, ravenous corporation, hungry for more “Star Wars” funbucks.
But let’s consider “Awakens” from an honorable, not purely greedy, point of view. Let’s say it’s a movie specifically about “Star Wars” fandom. Its heroes aren’t the iconic older characters, most of who’ve returned. They’re essentially us, only “us” in a world where the events of “Star Wars” are real and have entered into fuzzy, half-remembered myth. Daisy Ridley’s Rey and John Boyega’s Finn find themselves caught up in the same shenanigans as the people they’ve heard about, find themselves aboard the Millennium Falcon, find themselves fighting alongside Chewie — essentially doing all the things someone reared on the films could only dream of doing.
As a dialogue with the original, “Awakens” can’t touch “Creed.” That sequel-reboot reworked the “Rocky” movies by updating them for a diverse 2015, even realigning its racial component. The black characters were now the heroes, not frenemies a la Apollo Creed. But “Awakens” isn’t deaf to our times. Rey is the new Luke Skywalker, which means the closest thing to a main character in the ensemble is now a woman — this, in a series historically with barely any. The good guy who spends most of the movie wanting to fend for himself — just like Han Solo circa the first — is a black character, i.e., Finn, who’s also a turncoat stormtrooper, thus playing even more with deeply seated traditions.
The most interesting new character is Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren, the son of Han and Leia and the grandson of Darth Vader. A Dark Side convert, he wants to continue Vader’s evil work. He’s in essence a fanboy, and one struggling to live up to his idol. He wears a mask, but not out of necessity, as Vader did. He does it because it makes him feel more Vader-like. When it’s on he sounds ominous and scary; when he takes it off, we can more easily hear the doubt in his voice, the worry that he’s nowhere near a Vader 2.0. It’s obvious that Kylo’s going to slice up Han during their drawn-out, hushed meet-up on that sliver of a bridge. But Driver makes his decision seem genuinely anguished, as though he really might listen to his dad and go apostate, at least until he doesn’t.
The new “Star Wars” class makes “Awakens” more than a superficial repeat, but even a superficial repeat would run deep. When Abrams is simply imitating Irvin Kirshner’s elegant “Empire” direction or indulging in screen wipes or busting out classic John Williams song cues, it taps right into our memories of the old films. It feels like a classic “Star Wars” outing, even when the plotting gets sloppy, especially in the final stretch. A new “Star Wars” film that didn’t end with a third Death Star, now the size of a planet, might feel like a bigger, if not better, rehash, but it might have also gone too far afield.
“Episode VIII” may be the one that does; it’s directed by the very unique Rian Johnson (“Brick,” “Looper”), whose script has already been described as “weird.” That’s great, and it should finally find a franchise lighting out on its own, unburdened by the need to, as Hynes puts it in his piece, “not f— it up.” And yet it was important to bring things back to normal, to let us re-find our footing in a world that hasn’t been seen in this exact fashion for over three decades. And that, at least for this one episode, is better than fine.