I had just turned 13 in 1977 when my parents packed us into the family station wagon and took us to see “Star Wars” at the Wood Theatre. It was the same suburban New Jersey movie theatre my father had spent his childhood, taking in Saturday matinee serials, melodramatic, action-packed space operas with titles like “Flash Gordon Conquers The Universe.”
For Dad, the miniature spaceships, talking droids, power-mad villain cloaked in black and the yellow title card crawling across the screen recounting the action so far were nothing new. Like George Lucas, who had long been inspired by those old serialized low-budget space epics, Pop had seen it all before.
But us kids were on the edges of the Wood’s weathered seats for 125 minutes, marveling at a shaggy haired dreamer named Luke Skywalker playing with his model spaceships, the wise-cracking daredevil pilot Han Solo and especially, Princess Leia. From her first moments on screen stashing a secret message inside R2-D2, Leia was something new entirely for kids in the 1970s. Here was a central female character who could go toe-to-toe with Darth Vader, bickered and bantered with alpha male archetype Han Solo and had deadly aim with a blaster.
It was impossible then not to have an emotional reaction to seeing Carrie Fisher (now General Leia Organa), Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill and the rest reunited at Tuesday’s press screening of the much-anticipated “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”
It’s been 32 years since the original “Star Wars” trilogy actors last played these roles. Initially, I was completely content to leave the characters where they were — locked away with fondness like action figures on the top shelf of my childhood bedroom closet. Like most high school reunions, some things in life are best examined in the rearview mirror with considerable distance put between us.
But in “The Force Awakens,” like Luke Skywalker’s dusty old light saber, director J.J. Abrams finds lots of creative new things to do with these relics. Luke, Leia and Han, perhaps like many of us, are older, wiser and grappling with the life choices they’ve made over the last 30 years.
More importantly, Abrams and company have created new characters with fascinating backstories: fearless scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn, a storm trooper with a conscience (John Boyega), a nimble, snark-spouting resistance pilot named Poe (Oscar Isaac) and a new droid, BB8 who gives R2-D2 a roll for his money in plucky adorability. The film’s new Darth Vader-obsessed villain Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), meanwhile, is mesmerizing as his pivotal backstory, the source of his anger and family tensions are slowly revealed. Unlike Lucas’ disastrous introduction of Jar Jar Binks in “Phantom Menace” or the overused Ewoks in “Return of the Jedi,” there are no missteps here with the new characters either. In fact, fans will likely want to spend more time with Abram’s additions, including the wise, no-nonsense cantina owner Maz Kanata (voiced by Lupita Nyong’o) in future installments.
Unlike some (most?) of the Lucas prequels, Abrams’ new characters are three-dimensional lifeforms who are flawed, afraid, brave, often laugh-out-loud funny who bleed (sometimes literally). We’re rooting for them. We’re emotionally invested in their well-being.
Abram’s vision of the future is also a more diverse one. Kids from all ethnic and racial origins will see themselves represented on the big screen, an important development in a series where even a supporting African-American character didn’t emerge onscreen until “The Empire Strikes Back.” The script by Abrams, veteran “Star Wars” screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt is captivating, smart, funny and notably penned by fans for fans. In many respects, it echoes Lucas’ original 1977 screenplay. The crackling dialogue in an early scene between Poe and Ren reassures longtime fans they’re in good hands with Abrams.
Due to multiple electrical surges at Atlantic Station Tuesday, the first press screening stopped just short of the film’s finale. Disney rescreened it for media Tuesday night. The film’s ambitious ending was not only worth the return trip for critics but it may be the franchise’s most satisfying — and tantalizing — final shot since “The Empire Strikes Back.”
And just like 1940’s “Flash Gordon Conquers The Universe,” it’s craftily designed to keep you on the edge of your seat and inspire fans to return for the next thrilling installment.
With “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” J.J. Abrams may have created the best film in the franchise since its 1977 debut and certainly the best since 1980’s “The Empire Strikes Back.” So, go see this. Take your little sister. Your best friend. Or your dad. Most of all, be prepared to high-five your 13-year-old self when you see Han Solo and Princess, I mean, General! Leia on screen together again for the first time in 32 years.
“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” opens in theaters Friday, Dec. 18 with advance ticketed fan screenings tonight.