star wars force awakens poster

Star Wars: The Fan Awakens

That’s what a Star Wars movie is supposed to be,” we said as the end credits rolled. We’ve seen it twice more since that opening weekend. I saw it twice within the first week it was in theaters. I haven’t seen a movie for the second time so soon after the first since…well, since Star Wars.

That would be the very first Star Wars film–the one that caused a bit of confusion when it was first released by being subtitled “Episode IV: A New Hope.” Episode IV? Had there been three of these movies already, and I’d never heard anything about them? I was thirteen years old when Episode IV was released, so it was entirely plausible that I could have missed three earlier movies in this series.

(I hadn’t missed them, because they hadn’t happened yet. They came later, the “prequels”–were they the first movies we called that, long before they were even made?–and by the time they did, I learned I hadn’t missed much and would have been perfectly fine if I’d missed them entirely.)

The formative years of my pop-culture awareness spanned the period from the mid-1970s to the early 1980s, and they were nicely bookended by Star Wars: A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi. The story was classic, but the framework was new, and it gave my generation a set of references all our own. “Darth Vader” remains a shorthand for evil (although we learned from the prequels that the story of how that came to be really wasn’t all that interesting). The story’s heroes are symbols too, especially Princess/Senator Leia Organa –a smart, badass leader who was, like me at the time, also petite and brunette (representation!)

The Force Awakens is a Star Wars movie for Star Wars fans, because it was made by Star Wars fans.

The Force Awakens picks up the Star Wars story roughly three decades after the end of Return of the Jedi and moves it forward with reference to and respect for what came before it, and I think that’s a huge part of why fans and critics have received it so well. In some ways, it’s the best kind of fan fiction–it takes the elements we love from a story and remixes them into a version that just makes us happy. On the other hand, sometimes the biggest fans can also be the toughest critics, and some have complained that there was too much referencing–that The Force Awakens is fundamentally a retelling of A New Hope. Writer/director J.J. Abrams responded to these complaints in an interview:

“I can understand that someone might say, ‘Oh, it’s a complete rip-off!'”  he says, adding, “What was important for me was introducing brand new characters using relationships that were embracing the history that we know to tell a story that is new — to go backwards to go forwards.”

That embrace of history was a big factor in what made The Force Awakens work for me, and the fact that it did work for me makes me excited to see where the story will go in Episodes VIII and IX. I love the new heroes nearly as much as the old ones, but it made me ridiculously happy to have the old ones back. Fans are debating just how much Rey, Finn, and Poe Dameron are counterparts to Luke, Han, and Leia, but I want to know all of them better in their own right, and I’m still waiting to see whether Luke has become the counterpart to Obi-Wan Kenobi.

I still get chills at the words “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” I was thrilled that Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens totally justified them. 

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