In Review | Films Star Wars: The Force Awakens, directed by J. J. Abrams, 136 minutes.
“Chewie, we’re home!” these three words uttered in darkness were enough to cause shivers of excitement in Star Wars fans. All the more so when light revealed a gray-haired Han Solo stepping aboard the Millennium Falcon for the first time in decades. For me, as much a big child as a film historian when I saw the film in a neighborhood cinema in Manhattan on the morning of its release, the homecoming was real. In many ways, the Star Wars saga first awakened my passion for film.
I grew up in Bath in the United Kingdom. It was in this quaint Georgian city that I first felt the cinematic rush of traveling at hyper-speed on the Millennium Falcon. After watching the first two films on VHS, going to see Return of the Jedi for the first time as a ten-year-old, accompanied by my father, was a big deal. The screen was one of the biggest in Bath, and we arrived early to get good seats. While waiting for the film to start, my father reminded me to ignore the critics and make up my own mind. He understood that the mythology of Star Wars intrigued me and that this viewing was important to me. Seeing a new Star Wars film on the big screen expanded my perception of the galaxy—in both the literal and figurative senses. The world of Star Wars was the first place that I could see a spectrum of heroism, conflicted morality, and the boundaries between the all-too-often binary categories of “good” and “bad” being challenged.
The Star Wars saga appealed directly to my generation, Generation X, when we were children. It captured our imaginations, it seemed, in a way that the “older” and “classic” films could not. As a cultural phenomenon, Star Wars gave children many opportunities to exercise their imaginations. Moreover, it reflected the times from which it emerged. The original three films were released in the transition between a 1970s gritty cinema of lonely antiheroes and the action heroes who embodied a lurch toward renewed hope in the 1980s. In retrospect, Star Wars also dealt with some of our culture’s concerns at the time—threats of an evil empire, confidence in technology, stereotyped gender roles, and a rejection of absolutes.
Even as a child, I realized that Star Wars had given me a cinematic culture that I could call my own. Like many people in the UK, I grew up with the nostalgic stories of the Saturday-morning film clubs my parents had attended when they were children. Such clubs featured special programming to attract children and introduced my parents’ generation to the world of the movies. The original trilogy played this role for me, introducing me to a lifelong obsession with cinema.
As an adult and film studies scholar, I realized that the trilogy continued the genre makeover of the 1960s and the 1970s that defined a cinematic coming of age for the Saturday-morning filmgoers. The genius of such filmmakers as Sergio Leone and Francis Ford Coppola transformed the formulaic genres of western and gangster films. In turn, George Lucas blended, transformed, and transcended conventional genres to create a fantasy that appealed to children and adults alike. My imagination was immediately captivated by the stories and characters from this alternate world.
As a child, I had very limited access to films. During the 1980s, people were restricted to cinema runs, what was shown on television, and what eventually became available on VHS. This was long before the viewing controls we now enjoy through video-on-demand services and online streaming. I realize now that the lack of instant access encouraged me to use my imagination. I collected the action figures and models of the spaceships. Although I could not know what was happening with the “real” Han, Luke, Leia, Chewie, and Darth Vader, my skills as a storyteller were exercised by imagining scenario after scenario. One of my spin-off episodes had Luke and Chewie rescuing Han after he decided to go on a solo mission to take out Darth Vader. In my mind, I became both film director and hero as I positioned the figures and moved them within my imagined narratives.
In Luke, Leia, and Han I encountered what I now understand as a spectrum of heroism. The three characters played very different but complementary roles in the adventure: Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) seemed idealistic but naïve; Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) commanded authority; Han Solo (Harrison Ford) is a lovable rogue and an antihero. Initially reluctant to take on a heroic role, Luke worked through impetuosity to master his skills as a nascent Jedi. Not only could I empathize with this as a young viewer, I could understand the struggles that he faced when striving to become a Jedi. Both emotionally and intellectually, I could understand why Luke chomped at the metaphorical bit to be the hero who saves his friends. We never saw the culmination of Luke’s development: as Yoda reminded him, he could only become a Jedi knight when he had confronted his father, Darth Vader—something that only occurred toward the end of Return of the Jedi. This left me—and other fans—wondering how Luke would evolve and whether he would continue with the Jedi tradition after the fall of the Empire.
While Luke’s sister, Leia, was a “princess” who was “rescued,” she was far from the quintessential damsel in distress. She held her own with Han Solo and showed distinct leadership qualities. Only later would I come to understand both the novelty of a female protagonist and the significance of the gendered imagery—from Leia’s gold bikini to the low-slung holsters sported by Luke and Han—or even of the enduring friendship (which can be read as a homosocial bond) between CP30 and R2-D2.
Han, too, never set out to be a hero. Even though he was an opportunist, he was capable of love and friendship. It took the influence of Luke and Leia to humanize him into accepting his need for help with the debts he owed Jabba the Hutt. Moreover, as he came to need Leia and Luke, they each, in turn, relied on him and on each other to become a united force for good. As I grew from elementary-school age into adolescence, this sense of individuals needing friends to realize their heroism resonated with me. This was a morality tale that spoke to me precisely because it showed working together to be a strength rather than a weakness.
Other Star Wars characters also captured my imagination. Surely Anakin Skywalker must have had his reasons for taking the wrong path and becoming Darth Vader. I hoped that he could be redeemed and turn back toward the light side of the force.
Shortly after seeing the Return of the Jedi, I had an opportunity to meet Darth Vader when David Prowse, the actor who played him, came to visit Bath. He arrived at the toy department of a local store in costume. He looked very menacing, even though he presented me with an action figure signed “to Robert, love from Darth Vader.” My bubble was almost burst, however, when he spoke to me in a regional English accent. He, and others, allayed my fears that I had been duped by explaining that another actor had provided the character’s voice. This provided me with my first lesson in cinematic illusion, and I found myself intrigued by the technological tricks employed by filmmakers.
Over the years I have continued to enjoy revisiting the films in the original trilogy. Reworked versions released in various digital media from DVD to Blu-Ray have prompted me to watch them again. I have also attended special screenings of the films in movie theaters, including reworked, remastered, and original prints. I was disappointed in the prequels. But when I heard in 2015 that a new film was coming out that would feature the original protagonists, the anticipation of finding out what had happened to the cinematic heroes of my childhood filled me with an aching nostalgia for the time I first felt the force of Star Wars. This rush of emotion reawakened my interest in the characters who had inspired my love of film as a narrative medium. Would their new stories, and the experience of watching the new set of films, match my nostalgic memories? Would the older Han, Leia, and Luke be as I imagined? Would I feel a bit silly as a forty-two-year-old Star Wars nerd?
Though my access to information as a child had been limited, in the hyper-information age we now live in this was no longer the case. The run-up to the release of The Force Awakens was saturated with teasers and discussions. For those of my generation, particularly those involved in the academic study of film, the possibilities were endless. Through trailing teasers, speculative articles, and web discussions, we explored our thoughts on the fate of the characters. Social media reassured me that I was not alone in being a nerd. For many of us, Star Wars had been an important rite of passage. I was excited about picking up the stories of Han, Leia, and Luke, yet, at the same time, anxious, because I would receive the updates as a film historian rather than as a wide-eyed child. Now, I would have to assess whether my own narratives would hold true. And I would be forced to ask whether I had over-romanticized my childhood obsession.
The Force Awakens anticipates and addresses the concerns of a nostalgic audience. The film is full of homages to the original trilogy. As new stories unfold, the original cast members are reintroduced with a mix of excitement and sensitivity. They have grown older, but their personalities are still evident. Watching The Force Awakens, I became mindful of how the actors had aged, and I could not help but see the personal struggles of Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill inscribed in the lines on their faces. But mostly, I was interested to see how the characters’ life trajectories would be presented, and the film’s handling of this turned out to be satisfying—even though I had engaged in much prerelease speculation. Try as he might, Han cannot stop himself from trying to do the right thing. Leia is a statesperson striving to hold her different worlds together, in spite of life not happening as she had planned. Luke needs a new catalyst to restore his confidence as a Jedi. If anything, I was caught out by the realism of allowing the heroes to age by not always getting things right.
Their traits are evident in the new generation introduced in the latest installment in this intergalactic morality tale. This new generation of protagonists challenges racial, gender, and class binaries in cinema to become pertinent to the concerns of today. Fin (John Boyega) removes his helmet and rejects his life as a Stormtrooper in the First Order. Much like a younger Han, he is an opportunist who steps up to do the right thing. Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) causes astute viewers to wonder about genetic determinism in his struggles between goodness and evil. Rey (Daisy Ridley) is scraping out a living as a scavenger when she learns the truth about herself and is set on the path of becoming a Jedi. Just as it took a trilogy of films to understand Han, Leia, and Luke, it will take time for these new characters to evolve. As a viewer, I am intrigued to see what will happen next. Like the original characters, their world and their stories interest me, and I am hooked anew. The new characters are different from the old ones, but I want to know what happens next.
I doubt, however, that the new trilogy will be received by new audiences in the same way my generation received the first one. While I fully acknowledge the heavy veil of personal nostalgia whenever I discuss the original trilogy, the Star Wars mythology finds new purpose and expression in changed times. The power of the “force” is well-established, as is access to older movies and the spin-off cartoons. Many newcomers to Star Wars will first discover the films out of sequence. This does not invalidate the experiences of new fans. They are simply being exposed to the magical world of Star Wars in ways that are different.
Just as the nascent heroism of Han, Leia, and Luke spoke to the concerns of the Cold War, the new films will reflect the need for hope to triumph over fear amid the current conflicts that tear us asunder. The journey of different characters toward heroism in the new trilogy reflects how the “force” unites people in a world in which fear is divisive. Whether we are boomers, Gen Xers, or Millennials, the Star Wars theme—that working together for the common good is our best and strongest hope—is a message that never grows old.
Robert Hensley-King is a visiting scholar at Boston College, a features writer for Maniera District, a filmmaker, and a blogger. He researches constructs of heroism and identity in American cinema.