The new Star Wars film represents not so much a new hope as an old hope renewed. Or, since it's still the case that so few have actually seen the film, it represents the hope of an old hope renewed.
Though we won't know for sure about the true prospects and impact of Star Wars: The Force Awakens until large numbers of people have actually seen it, we certainly have a feeling of how the film might play. It looks again like an oddly nostalgic blend of old and new.
Leaving the not especially liked prequel trilogy of the decade past in the dust, the new film picks up a few decades after the much-loved original trilogy ended. It appears that the great victory which seemed to be at the end of 1983's Return of the Jedi was not nearly so complete as the celebratory scenes -- some of them digitally inserted years after the fact for re-issues of the film by creator George Lucas -- made things look.
Now we're introduced in the skillfully evocative trailers which tip ever so little of the plot to a new young person far out of the way of the galactic mainstream, this time not a young man named Luke but a young woman named Rey. Played by a little-known Londoner named Daisy Ridley, the role looks like a serious starmaker.
The final North American trailer.
She and another young person, a black man played by fellow Brit John Boyega, are beset by what appear to be powerful Imperial forces. They turn to one of our original heroes, Han Solo, much older but played with Indiana Jones-ish vigor and élan by one Harrison Ford, who helps guide them on what appears to be a quest of sorts, probably in search of Luke Skywalker, the only one of the original trio missing from trailers and posters. While adventure ensues on that track, much fighting takes place on another, with the forces of evil in the field seemingly led by a follower of the late Darth Vader.
Throw in the Millennium Falcon spaceship, a certain roaringly venerable Wookie and, oh yes, a very cute new beach ball droid and that's about as much as we really know before the film is widely seen.
While giving away far less than most modern blockbusters, the run-up to the new Star Wars succeeded wildly in evoking great anticipation for the film, invoking the original trilogy's striking blend of both futuristic and traditional appeal.
"A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away ..." The very opening phrase of the famous opening crawl invokes a curious sort of space-time warp of a simultaneous future past, especially since the people we see on screen are recognizable versions of our present-day selves. (Which, of course, is why the new set-up of heroes is adjusted to look much less like the old white male power paradigm still so dominant in the 1970s.)
The simultaneous pull of new/old, future/past seems to come from within Lucas himself. A native Californian, though from the more conservative inland, Lucas made himself a coastal Californian but retained more than a little of the tradition he grew up with. Thus he is an avid collector of Norman Rockwell pictures, whose first film was a dystopia of the future called THX-1138.
Ronald Reagan seized on the name Star Wars to describe his then pie-in-the-sky ballistic missile defense system. Yet Star Wars, as Lucas has made clear in interviews over the years, was conceived as an allegory of rebellion modeled in large part on the Vietnam War. With the dread Empire a metaphor for the defeated American forces and all their technology. Yes, that means the Ewoks are Viet Cong stand-ins. Hmm.
As Chris Taylor's excellent How Star Wars Conquered the Universe makes clear, Lucas had planned a three-film set dealing with the Vietnam experience, before, during, and after. It was to be American Graffiti, the nostalgic picture about growing up in Central California just at that moment when some are about to leave high school far behind and others are not; Apocalypse Now, which Lucas turned over to his mentor, Francis Ford Coppola, who turned it into a psychedelically mind-blowing war movie/anti-war epic; and Star Wars, a metaphorical view from the future. Or, with regard to the Vietnam War, at least as Lucas envisioned them, "absence, reality, and allegory."
Certainly not what Reagan had in mind.
In this case, the allegory takes place both in a futuristic setting of starships and powerful weaponry and a nostalgic setting of princes, knights, and clearcut clashes of good and evil.
The teaser, anchored by Harrison Ford's appearance, created tremendous anticipation.
Ironically, this at first veiled allegory about Vietnam became wildly popular in large part because it swept away the ashes and cobwebs of doubt and dismay redolent in American culture after the Vietnam War and Watergate scandal, giving people something fun and moving to enjoy and get behind. In fact, Star Wars, coming in 1977, was to play a critical role in displacing what had been a dominant if not entirely popular new cinema called the New Hollywood which dared to examine shades of gray and corruption with a new frankness about sex and violence, frequently eschewing happy endings. My three favorite films -- Chinatown, Apocalypse Now, and All the President's Men -- are all New Hollywood films.
Yet Lucas himself was part of the New Hollywood movement, revolting so much against the mainstream business that he moved his operations 400 miles north to San Francisco and Marin, my own home grounds. (As a boy, I wandered the hills and valleys of what later became Skywalker Ranch.)
In the notably scuffed yet shiny future/past galaxy of Star Wars, there are no religions to speak of save one, the Force. A religion, or, more accurately, a spirituality without a deity, "an energy field," as Obi-Wan Kenobi tells Luke in the first film, "created by all living things. It surrounds us, penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together."
A Jedi learns to tap into the power of the natural universe by meditation and achieving focus by clearing his or her mind, by letting go of attachments. Great feats of insight, martial arts, and ultimately mental powers are achievable by adepts. All of which, aside from the telekinesis, is very much like Zen Buddhism, which became very influential in the San Francisco Bay Area in which Lucas settled and developed Star Wars. Substitute the Shaolin Temple for the Jedi Temple, and you have it.
The whole epic, which I like to call a Buddhist space opera, since, unlike Star Trek, it's really not science fiction, is of a piece with this. Familiar yet angled away from the conventional that it has nonetheless in its own way become as the prototypical movie blockbuster.
If the visuals, drama, characters, and dialogue of Star Wars are a potent, oddly nostalgic blend of past and future, as they look to be again in The Force Awakens, one utterly necessary constant amidst old and new is firmly rooted in a traditional, romantic conception; the mighty orchestral music of composer John Williams. Looking back, it's hard to see the first film being nearly as successful without it.
Ironically, this Golden Age-rooted orchestral score was so retro in 1977 that it was innovative. The fashion of the time was to use pop songs to make films seem more relevant and contemporary.
I remember getting a copy of the score weeks before the film came out. As I concentrated on my honors thesis at Berkeley -- on transnational power arrangements around South African apartheid -- the dramatic Williams score became a constant accompaniment, the Imperial music prominent as I considered how happy many power players in the West were to support or at least tolerate the apartheid state.
While my housemates were pleased at first by this very different replacement for my usual Beatles/Eagles/Santana/Ronstadt rotation, that, too, changed. Until the movie came out, that is.
So it's only fitting that new director J.J. Abrams has Williams back with what sounds like another evocative score.
The Japanese trailer, with powerful new John Williams music, may be the best.
It's fitting also that Harrison Ford's Han Solo is the guide for our new young leads.
It was clear in the second, and best, film in the series, The Empire Strikes Back, that Han Solo was providing Ford the springboard with which to become a breakout movie star. A year later, in 1981, came Raiders of the Lost Ark. You probably know the rest. But Empire set the stage.
Who would forget Leia telling Han, just as he's about to be frozen in potentially lethal carbonate, that she loves him and Han's great reply: "I know." Actually, that was Ford's improv. He was supposed to say: "Just remember that, Leia, because I'll be back." I'll be back??
Fortunately, Ford, who so hated Lucas's dialogue in the first film that he tried to get Lucas to kill off Han Solo, is back for this crucial new beginning. His iconic presence as Han in the trailers did much to give the needed stamp of gravitas and adventure to the new film.
Now we will see if the sky really is the limit for this re-awakening cinematic force.
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