First of all, folks: Here be spoilers.
I’ve now read at least half a dozen Star Wars: The Force Awakens reviews that focus primarily on the film’s intense awareness of itself as a Star Wars sequel. It lifts a whole bunch of plot mechanics and character dynamics from A New Hope, and a few from The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, and even ticks all the desert planet/forrest planet/ice planet boxes. What new elements it brings to the table are specifically new versions of these old ideas—new characters thrown into familiar situations, reacting to them in interesting ways.
MovieBob went so far as to call The Force Awakens “a $100,000,000 Star Wars fan film” (the most succinct version of an argument that a lot of reviewers seem to be making) and Devin Feracci said, “As I watched a squad of X-Wings attack a planet-destroying superweapon that they could only approach after a group of intrepid heroes on the ground disabled the shields I wondered how a universe of infinite possibilities had brought us to this scenario yet again.”
Fairly few reviewers, however, seem to think that the film’s myriad, carefully orchestrated callbacks mean much of anything. The thing is—and there’s no way to say this without sounding like an asshole—we’re not really accustomed to reading J.J. Abrams projects as though they mean much of anything, or as though they’re making an argument, or even as though they come from a point of view other than that of an uncommonly competent technician.
But The Force Awakens is absolutely trying to say something, and doing so in the least subtle manner imaginable. A.A. Dowd sort of skirts the issue when he says that
the Star Wars movies build myths on top of myths on top of myths, creating a universe where future legends are always nipping at the heels of established ones. Here, in what amounts to Abrams and company’s smartest play, the characters themselves are basically Star Wars fans; they speak in hushed tones about the events of the original trilogy, just as Luke Skywalker and his crew hung on stories of how a great Jedi turned to the dark side. Hell, even the villain of The Force Awakens has done his homework: Dressed head to toe in black, with a mask to go with his James Earl Jonesian baritone, he’s got serious Sith envy.
Let’s take that one step further and assume that these elements serve a purpose over and above making series fans happy. It seems to me that there’s a pretty clear argument here about what we should hope to accomplish by making more Star Wars, and by extension, about modern day geek culture making peace with geekiness past.
The root of all evil in The Force Awakens is an inability to reconcile the present with the past. General Hux can’t stand the idea of the New Republic, and is fanatically devoted to restoring the status quo of the Empire. Supreme Leader Snoke wants to prevent “a new generation” of Jedi from coming into being. The failure to bring that new generation into being is what sends Luke into hiding and brings Kylo Ren into being. And then there’s Kylo Ren himself, who literally worships his grandfather, but kills his father. He’s a figure of what we could call Dark Side fandom, moody and volatile and entitled and unhinged. He’s the precise point where dedication becomes destructive fanaticism.
Conversely, the film’s heroes succeed specifically because they can find a productive place for the past. They don’t just represent the Light Side of the Force, but also the Light Side of fandom. Maz keeps Luke’s lightsaber for years, but immediately recognizes the moment when she should pass it along to Rey. Finn uses his insider knowledge of the First Order to fight them. Han and Leia make sense of what can and can’t work in their relationship, and what they can accomplish together, and what they fundamentally have to do separately.
This theme even carries through to the droids, for fuck’s sake. BB-8 has a map to Luke, but that map is useless without the context that only R2-D2 can provide.
And the goddamn movie goddamn ends with Rey finding Luke and giving him his old lightsaber back. The new guard and the old guard sharing a moment of understanding and deciding to work together for the common good. The image would be one of a torch being passed (kind of like Rey’s last moment with Leia), except that the torch is getting passed backwards. So it’s not one generation yielding to another. It’s more reciprocal than that. It’s a victory lap for the pop culture landscape that Star Wars made possible, heralding a brave new world of nerdery unstuck from time and performed on the grandest possible scale.
The film’s nonsensical, Abramsy plot leaps—Why exactly isn’t BB-8’s map sufficient to find Luke? How can the First Order faultlessly aim a fractal laser at five planets at once while collapsing the star around which their planet-sized base orbits?—start to make some degree of sense if you keep this central theme in mind.
The Force Awakens is a fantasy of coherence and continuity—a fantasy wherein old Star Wars and new Star Wars form a single cohesive whole (and where we’re largely free to not think about the prequel trilogy or the Ewok-centric TV specials).
This means, of course, that the movie’s thesis mostly amounts to patting itself on the back for existing. The Force Awakens frames the Rey and Luke lightsaber moment as a microcosm of the film itself, as a return to form, as a moment of indulgent cohesion, as an announcement that a new and uncharted era has begun.
I don’t think that J.J. Abrams is the guy who’s going to lead us into that brave new world. But maybe he’s the director most qualified to announce and initiate it. His is a career that probably wouldn’t exist if not for Star Wars, and so it’s no accident that The Force Awakens is obsessed with legacies and cohesion and making sense of the past without being subsumed by it.