One of my earliest memories involves, unsurprisingly, Star Wars. I, and another kid, were talking about Empire and how Luke loses his hand and gets a robot one. I’m sure in there was talk of Darth Vader being Luke’s father and all that. Now, I couldn’t have been that old; based on where we were I doubt I was more than four. Which shows just how inborn my Star Wars nerd is, but also, wait, I was four and talking about Empire? The darkest of the original Star Wars movies? We’re talking losing limbs and finding out your dad is the villain.
And yet, here I am, twenty-odd years later and decidedly not emotionally scarred. There’s no denying that Empire is dark, darker than I realized as a kid. But, this is Star Wars. Even though it’s a bleak ending, it’s still one with hope. When faced with the fact that Vader and his father are one and the same, Luke chooses to sacrifice himself instead of turning surrendering to his father. Han’s only mostly dead and Lando and Chewie have teamed up to find him. And, of course, Luke gets his hand back.
There’s a romantic optimism to Star Wars amidst its background of a cosmic Good and Bad. It’s Luke Skywalker versus Darth Vader, which is big, but it’s rife with hope. There’s no cynicism to Star Wars at its best: something can’t be ruined forever. No matter how far down they’re forced, good will be able to come of it. Luke’s father is Vader, but Vader can be redeemed. This isn’t something that would fly in the more recent slate of movies (besides the Marvel Cinematic Universe): whereas can the love between a father and a son be triumphant? Star Wars unapologetically wears its heart on its sleeve, which by today’s standards seems a little old fashioned.
So maybe this is one of the big places the prequels went wrong. They seemed to teeter a little too far into the realm of tragedy (which, it being Anakin’s fall, it is) without that earnest hope that made The Original Trilogy so great. That galaxy far, far away is one to escape to, one where a backwater farmboy, fumbling smuggler, and planetless princess can save the galaxy. Maybe the prequels got so caught up in their tragedy they forgot about the escapist nature of these movies, where it’s okay for the underdog to be the hero plain and simple. Obi-Wan, for example, is a Jedi, respected albeit inexperienced and not a crazy old wizard. The closest we really got were Jar Jar and Anakin in The Phantom Menace, but neither had an arc worth investing in. As a kid (and an adult), I wanted to be Qui-Gon because he was cool, but that’s about it. But Luke got to be the nobody-turned-Jedi and Han was the selfish-jerk-turned-war-hero. There was a change there — an optimistic one — that the prequels lacked.
The Force Awakens comes a solid decade after the last Star Wars movie. It’s also directed by someone who grew up with the movies and knows, as an outsider, why he liked them so (and they stuck with him). And the movie delivers. Despite containing perhaps the most tragic moment in the entire film franchise (and one that actually works courtesy of deft writing and acting), it remains rife with hope. There’s the declaration that unconditional love beats out hate, even when it seems like hate has won.
There’s an unquenchable joy to The Force Awakens that gives the originals a solid run for their money. Like in the old ones, we want to be a part of this world because there’s adventure here, and even when the adventure goes tragic, there’s hope. Star Wars is fun again.
And also, Rey is the friggin’ best.