The Force Awakens is the Biggest and Best Fan Movie Ever Made

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(Very minor spoilers.)

My first memory of watching Star Wars was on my grandparents’ couch with my dad. I was 5, maybe 6 years old, and traumatized by Darth Vader’s voice. I kept begging my dad to turn the volume down whenever he spoke, even before he showed up, but I wasn’t scared enough to stop watching. Not the tiniest bit.

I even watched them out of order. The VHS rental store didn’t have a copy of The Empire Strikes Back, but I needed more. Needed. So we watched Return of the Jedi second, and ESB third, despite my parents’ warnings. Whoops.

I’m one of those people who doesn’t remember a life without Star Wars. It’s as omniscient and influential as a movie can be, whether it was informing my love for cinema or telegraphing my personal spiritual worldview. Of course it’s only a movie, but it’s the pinnacle of how film is capable of affecting a viewer. No other piece of fiction means as much to me because of how long it’s been with me.

The Force Awakens feels like the same story I’ve loved for over 20 years.

It’s an instant transition and a seamless expansion to this nearly 40-year-old mythology. The sounds, the cinematography, the practical effects, the music, the story. Nothing rings false. It’s been 32 years since Return of the Jedi, and although everything’s changed, just like its audience has, nothing’s changed where it matters.

I was a captivated 5-year-old again, and I was a grateful 26-year-old crying in the parking lot afterward.

I’m the opposite of alone in that feeling, obviously. My experience as a lifelong fan isn’t anything original (except maybe for the out-of-order thing). I don’t have anything original to say about The Force Awakens either at this point, I’m sure.

And in a way, that’s why it’s a resounding success.

I’ve never met JJ Abrams, but I don’t think I’m far off in guessing his experience mirrors mine. He’s a fan, first and foremost. A fan who discovered his love of movies in part because of Star Wars, and now he’s living the pipe dream of making one. (I’m jealous.) Every frame of The Force Awakens is filled to bursting with history, reverence, and an awareness that this isn’t singularly about Abrams as a creator — it’s about the shared feelings of an audience. The communal experience of Star Wars broadly and Episode VII specifically is kind of a Force in its own right, binding us all together. As a fan, this lent Abrams a distinct, vital perspective. He understands why we love this franchise: the same reasons he does.

This is what happens when the generation that grew up in fandom runs the movies. Hollywood loves its reboots, and there’s no question The Force Awakens was constructed as a way for Disney to mine yet more money from a guaranteed goldmine. It could’ve been a slapdash cash-cow mess, but the fans stepped in. Kathleen Kennedy. JJ Abrams. They crafted a love letter on a multi-million dollar budget.

Jurassic World, Spectre, The Force Awakens — fans are becoming the creators. A tonal shift is occurring in the industry, and Episode VII is the benchmark.

Objectively, I know there are quibbles. Why is the plot so derivative of A New Hope? Why is there a MacGuffin map if Luke’s in hiding? Why didn’t they save the massive emotional moment for the next film so it’d have more buildup? Why is there yet another Death Star, just bigger? Why is the Pale Orc from The Hobbit leading the baddies? Did Luke really have nothing better to do than search the ducts of Cloud City for the lightsaber?

But emotionally, who the fuck cares?

Emotionally, I’m satisfied. Despite hopes and fears, it not only met every expectation I had but damn well exceeded them. It’s miraculous how accurately this movie encapsulates, honors, and continues, rather than just going through the motions of mimicry. The themes of father and son, loss and heroism, faith and hope, inheritance and potential, are refracted and reinterpreted without losing sight of what made the original material profoundly beloved, and it pushes the story forward onto a potentially new, fresh path. (We’ll see how Rian Johnson molds the framework they’ve given him for Episode VIII.)

Yes, it’s a nostalgia trip. The directorial perspective is fondness and love, not unbiased detachment; everywhere you look, there’s an echo. But what else could it be? Could a good version of The Force Awakens really have been just a sequel, even though that’s technically all it is? Maybe. I can’t think of another pop culture phenomenon with a bigger weight of responsibility, especially after those much-maligned prequels you might’ve heard about.

More than the surface level music cues and imitation cinematography, what roots everything is the returning cast. Harrison Ford oozes his iconic charm as well as he always has, and the light in his eyes betrays just how much fun he’s having in this tenderly written homecoming. (The Force Awakens is Ford’s movie, through and through, as it should be.) Leia, now a general, didn’t lose a bit of her spirit or wisdom. Although underused, Carrie Fisher arrests the screen with intensity at the same time her softness grounds the film’s moral center with the humanity and thought it needs to be truly affecting. She’s a tired warrior, and acutely lonely, but she keeps fighting on behalf of the people who can’t. When those titans of screen history reunite, I dare anyone not to get goosebumps.

Luke? That’s a detail best saved for his reveal. What I will say is if Han and Leia seem unchanged, Luke’s transformed into a haunted ghost of himself, guilt as responsible as age for the lines on his face. I don’t think Mark Hamill’s ever gotten enough credit for the subtlety of his performance, and the play of emotions across his face speaks decades without any words. If this was Harrison’s movie, Episode VIII must be Mark’s.

As for the newcomers literally passed the baton, or lightsaber, the trio more than step up to the plate. Daisy Ridley is a one in a million find as Rey, my beautiful, lonely survivor Rey, brittle-edged but clinging to optimism. She may be a walking mystery box, but Ridley makes her breathtakingly human, frail when she needs to be as well as the heroic centerpiece. These are the heights Leia could’ve reached if they’d given her the attention and time, and Rey’s the female sci-fi protagonist we needed years ago.

Then there’s John Boyega’s Finn, forging his new identity and choosing a better path than that of a nameless, faceless death machine in a mask. Poe Dameron isn’t given much to do, but Oscar Isaac’s plucky charisma would do Han Solo proud. (And BB8, of course. Who doesn’t love a sassy droid?)

Emotionally, The Force Awakens is a monumental event. It’s thrilling and funny. Frenzied and suspenseful. Grin-inducing and heartbreaking. The final shot is seared into my eyeballs as the best ending of any Star Wars movie, and the opening shot almost takes the crown as best. I sniffled when the titles began. I cried whenever Han and Leia shared screentime. I wept profusely at the first strains of Luke’s theme.

I’m not usually in the business of thanking Hollywood celebs, but if I met JJ Abrams for two seconds, I’d spend those two seconds saying “thank you.”

Thanks for understanding. Thanks for being a fan.

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