‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’: How J.J. Abrams Recaptured the Jedi Spirit

Star Wars Episode VII The Force
Courtesy of Disney/Lucas FIlm

In a letter to staff this week, Walt Disney Company CEO Bob Iger declared the opening of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” this weekend to be “one of the proudest and most exciting moments in our Company’s history.”

That kind of boast is a rarity at a time when media companies like Disney are so diversified, their tendrils reaching out into cable television and digital platforms, that films can do massive business or crash in spectacular fashion without making a dent in a stock price. But then again, “Star Wars” is no ordinary film franchise. It’s less a film than a giant corporate happening — a film intended to not just sell tickets and DVDs, but to spawn toylines, theme park rides and television shows.

“When you are launching a new platform franchise, the first film better be good,” said Eric Handler, a box office analyst with MKM Partners. “We’ve seen that blow up in companies’ faces before.”

The expectations for “The Force Awakens” and the pressure on director J.J. Abrams to reintroduce a pop culture mythology — one that pits the Forces of Light with those of the Dark Side — that made the first “Star Wars” an epoch-defining cinematic experience were perhaps greater than any other filmmaker has faced before. Not only did the film have to succeed, it had to become such a massive hit that it could justify the $4 billion Disney shelled out in 2012 to buy Lucasfilm and with it the rights to the ongoing saga of the Skywalker clan.

“This is the train that starts everything rolling,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst with Rentrak. “If the film had been poorly received, the entire investment in Lucasfilm would have seemed like folly.”

Compounding the situation was the fact that creatively, the “Star Wars” franchise had hit its nadir. Creator George Lucas’ much ballyhooed prequels had made money when they were released in the late 1990s and early aughts, but their experiments with digital trickery, laden dialogue (“Hold me, like you did by the lake on Naboo”) and grating supporting characters like Jar Jar Binks had been poorly received by critics and many audience members. If the “Star Wars” brand had not been affixed to them, it’s doubtful they would have been successful. Fans of the original series breathed a collective sigh of relief when 2005’s “Revenge of the Sith” seemed to signal the end of  Lucas’ account of the rise, fall and rise again of Anakin Skywalker.

But by going back to the roots of the science-fiction fantasy, Abrams and his co-screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan were able to recapture the spirit of the first films. In place of CGI and the overly pixilated worlds it conjures, they put the emphasis back on in-camera effects. The collaborators also tried to inject a sense of humor that had been missing from the dour prequels and a spirit of adventure that had been scrubbed clean by those pictures’ deep dive into trade wars and political machinations. Their greatest nod was in the plotting. “The Force Awakens,” with its tale of a Messiah-like figure, Rey, who is propelled from her bleak existence on a remote desert planet into an inter-galactic conflict, directly mirrors the 1977 original’s storyline of Luke.

For good measure, Abrams mixed in veteran cast members like Harrison Ford, donning Han Solo’s iconic blasters after a three-decade absence, with newcomers such as Daisy Ridley and John Boyega. Importantly, those actors introduced a welcome note of diversity into the proceedings — Ridley’s Rey is an ass-kicking female protagonist for the post-“Hunger Games” world, while Boyega, who is black, helps shake up a film universe that was largely monochromatic with the exception of Billy Dee Williams’ Lando Calrissian. And the movie, fulfilling the wet dreams of toymakers, also introduced a merchandising rival to R2-D2 in BB-8, a lovable droid soon to be cropping up in Christmas stockings across the galaxy.

The delicate mixture of old and new, that push and pull between scratching a nostalgic itch and finding a fresh take on a galaxy far, far away, paid off in stunning fashion. “Star Wars: The Force Awakensshattered domestic records with a $238 million debut and grossed a gargantuan $517 million globally in its first weekend of release.

Critics loved the film, handing it a 95% “fresh” score on Rotten Tomatoes, and audiences agreed, with the picture picking up an A CinemaScore. Box office analysts believe that “The Force Awakens” has a chance of joining “Avatar” and “Titanic” among the only films to gross more than $2 billion around the world. It’s also expected to be a retailing juggernaut, generating upwards of $5 billion in merchandising, and setting the stage for an ambitious list of sequels, spinoffs and prequels intended to keep the “Star Wars” money machine humming for the rest of the decade and beyond.

“The stars totally aligned,” said Greg Foster, CEO of Imax Entertainment. “People have been rooting for this movie to be great since the first trailer. It’s just going to keep clobbering everything in its path.”

Disney executives, who know something about establishing inter-connected cinematic universes thanks to their stewardship of the Marvel Comics brand, credit a marketing campaign that kicked off over a year ago with a special 90-second film teaser that, with a few stray seconds of Millennium Falcon footage, captivated the social media conversation. The studio kept fans engaged, offering up shots of Ford as Solo and introducing BB-8 and Adam Driver’s villainous Kylo Ren in future trailers, while keeping details of the story closely guarded. Critics and media weren’t even allowed to see the film until four days before it opened, a rare show of restraint for a film with a $200 million-plus budget.

“This was ultimately a two-year campaign in which every beat, every pulse was considered as we built towards the crescendo that was opening weekend,” said Dave Hollis, Disney’s distribution chief. “We were able to make this a cultural event, while still preserving a sense of mystery.”

Ironically, the thing that ultimately may have enabled “Star Wars” to attract new generations of fans to its stories of Jedis and Sith lords, is that it was liberated from its creator. Lucas’ place in film history is secure. Along with Steven Spielberg, he helped usher in a new era of blockbuster entertainment, rubbing off the rough edges of the gritty films that defined the first half of the 1970s, and replacing them with soaring updates on the Saturday matinee, B-movie genre that could appeal to a globalized audience of filmgoers. These are the films that inspired Abrams, and directors such as Rian Johnson and Gareth Edwards, who will be guiding future “Star Wars” adventures, to take up their movie cameras. But in the prequels, Lucas lost that childlike sense of wonder, immersing himself in technological improvements at the expense of storytelling. Although Lucas mapped out stories for another trilogy as part of the sale of Lucasfilm, he has said the new corporate ownership and Abrams had opted to go in a different direction.

Now, with the Disney era of “Star Wars” films upon us, audiences are left with the rare movie series that has outgrown its author. A franchise that belongs more to the fans than the filmmaker behind it.

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  1. drush76 says:

    I didn’t realize that recapturing the “Jedi spirit” entailed plot holes and the lack of originality. If you honestly believe that “THE FORCE AWAKENS” was a lot better than any of Lucas’ work in the STAR WARS series, including the Prequel Trilogy, I simply cannot take you seriously as a movie critic.

  2. Buddy says:

    Finally got forced into seeing this, and I fell asleep.

  3. Kai says:

    “Do it or do it not”,” there is no try” Unfortunately Abrams has done it. Story; more than worse! Another Death-Star (that was the third one) only bigger and easier to destroy. Story has had no kind of recondite. The characters, especially “Rey” were foreseeable. The “bad-guy” is a shame and unimpressible; nothing compared with Darth Vader, because Kyle Ren easy loses one nerves and is instable. All important facts are copied from the original Star Wars. In conclusion Abrams failed the Mission.

  4. Tino Trivino says:

    Are you kidding me??? recaptured? more destroyed i would say!!!

  5. Laschman says:

    The force wasn’t awakened. Just greed with mediocre ideas and directing. Almost everyone I know had a very difficult time staying awake. Without Han Solo, this movie would have bombed horribly.

  6. I thoroughly enjoyed the movie…it was like riding a well-loved, “top three” ride at the amusement park. As for the trailers leading up to the premier, I thought the team did a good job of using images that would excite fans, but didn’t give the story away (which is something that Hollywood tends to do). My only complaint is that Kylo Ren, the off spring of Han and Leia (and descendent of Anakin, Padme and Shmi), do not look like them. Granted this is an oddball nit, but perhaps his hair changed to jet black because he turned into a bad guy. I know, trying to use earth logic in a different universe, and in a movie for that matter, is truly “illogical”, but it is what it is. It bugged me. Otherwise…Bravo!!
    = )

  7. I, for one, liked the movie. I don’t fall for the hype and the bull that it is just a “rip off of the same BS that has been done before. Everyone has a right to their opinion, and I have a right o mine. If people don’t think that the movie is worth the money, then they should get off of their ass and do one that is much better. What would they have done that would have been much better than the Force Awakens?

  8. Scribe says:

    Yeah, they captured the spirit of the first three films by blatantly ripping off the first film. Typical JJ Abrams, no originality at all and has started on the path to ruining another classic sci-fi franchise. Trust me, the movie is raking in the bucks on hype alone. Once people realize they’ve been flim-flammed, the money will dry up.

  9. cadavra says:

    For the record, Samuel L. Jackson also appeared in previous SW films, and you could theoretically make a case for James Earl Jones as well.

  10. Dwight Huth says:

    Why is JJ trying to capture the Jedi Spirit? Does JJ have the Dark Side in him?

    • enmukee says:

      JJ Abrams is a hack without a speck of originality. The story is predictable and is borrowed unashamedly from the earlier movies, None of the characters have any depth or emotional connection, the technology of the real world is transformed from 1977 to 2015, yet the Star Wars world is stuck in 1977, the Dark Side continues to make ludicrously enormous weapons that can be destroyed by a bunch of fighters, the force is a joke to manipulate, even neophytes can use the force to command others which breaks the point of any Jedi training. These paid reviews are not doing the industry any favors by encouraging such mediocrity.

      • Conscientious Objector says:

        Got to agree that I think a lot of these “for two hours, I was an excited 7-year-old again” reviews are by paid stealth marketing writers.

      • Jedi77 says:

        He does lack in the originality department (he is after all a reboot/sequels director), but to give credit where it is due, I think that all the similarities to the original trilogy are intended – like them or not.
        And call it what you will, “lack of originality” or a lack of creativity, but the last time someone was creative with the Star Wars universe, they gave us Midichlorians.
        So I will take Force Awakens over creativity any day.

        That said, I liked Force Awakens, but I didn’t get to really care about any of the characters. I am guessing though that in two years time when we get a sequel, that’ll start to change.

      • Absolutely agree. Very poor plot, locations and characters stolen from earlier star wars movies. No originality. It took six films to destroy the death star and the man in the mask and bingo film 7 here they are again. Sad.

      • Dwight Huth says:

        The movie was released on December 18, 2015 12.18.2015. When divided by 3 the result is 4.666.66666.6 Something regarding four is going into a very bad place.

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