When Han Solo appears for the first time in picture in the closing shot of the most recent trailer for J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: The Force Awakens, actor Harrison Ford is once more joined by his Wookie best friend and personal confidant, and the viewer receives a visceral rush of nostalgia. Sure, Han is a little more grizzled and grey than the last time we saw everyone’s favorite intergalactic gun-for-hire, and it’s still unclear just what kind of performance Ford will be able to muster for a genre franchise that he has never been reticent to criticize in the past. And yet, when we see Ford smiling, it feels as though the character Han Solo himself has stepped out of the past, his first line of dialogue — “Chewie, we’re home” — situated within a narrative context that has yet to be revealed, but which directly implicates the viewer in the emotion of the moment; Star Wars is back.
After George Lucas’ ill-conceived trilogy of prequels in the early 2000s, the pop-cultural zeitgeist suffered from having its golden calf revealed to be a potentially false idol. The seminal sci-fi soap opera that defined an entire generation, and changed the course of popular Hollywood entertainment well into the twenty-first century, had been fundamentally destabilized. With the release of The Phantom Menace in 1999, the Force was decidedly not with George Lucas at his Skywalker Ranch estate. What was to be the first in a planned series of up to six subsequent installments in the franchise was drowning in clumsy political dialogue and the very same sorts of computer generated special effects that marred Lucas’ directed re-masters of the original three films in 1997; a precedent, moreover, that would continue to characterize and plague the two installments that followed, in addition to each re-release of the original trilogy produced over the course of the next ten years. Since 1997, there has never been a special edition set sold that has not come replete with further post-post-production tinkering.
Once a defender against the colorization of black and white classics, Lucas has since become the evil that which he fought, employing the Star Wars brand wherever and however he sees fit. The independent properties which he owns have been hypocritically excluded from the same historicity that he once called upon on Capitol Hill in order to protect the films that meant so much to him as a budding American filmmaker. In refusing to release his original Star Wars trilogy unedited, uncut, and un-tampered with, Lucas is doing a disservice to the institution of the motion picture, and denying his legions of fans the films that they unilaterally love and adore. Instead of courting the nostalgia for authenticity that appears to drive The Force Awakens, Lucas has been dishonest and capricious with the films that have meant so much to so many people, milking his patrons for cash without ever providing the artistic reciprocations that have so long been expected, if not explicitly promised.
And yet, however much excitement and good will Abrams’ has worked in the popular consciousness surrounding his revitalization of the Star Wars franchise, Abrams is operating upon the same basic consumer impulses that Lucas has for so long exploited unilaterally, only Lucas has never been afraid to call a spade a spade. It’s undoubtedly exciting to see a Star Destroyer crash-landed on a desert planet, as it is equally thrilling to listen to voice over work from Mark Hamill detailing his family history as Luke Skywalker, superimposed over a montage of iconic images and objects from the franchise so far. What the trailer is lacking is any imagination of its own; the footage promotes itself as a part of the independent property that The Phantom Menace exploited wholesale. Abrams is, as of yet, unwilling to take any chances aesthetically speaking.
Which is why it’s hard as a die hard fan of the original films to embrace what looks like nostalgia overkill. Though Abrams may have garnered some praise for his Star Trek reboots, their inspiration lies entirely in Abrams’ having been able to bring something new to the table outside of the Trekkie camp, offering creative avenues both in terms of visual sophistry and novel storytelling. As a Star Wars fan, Abrams’ Star Trek was a thinly veiled adaptation of that other sci-fi franchise, one that he has been in the business of courting perpetually, professionally and personally speaking, and The Force Awakens is sure to be an even grander imitation of the original trilogy, with all of the bells, whistles, and lens flare that an Abrams production can provide. It might be easy to want to hand the reins off to the first fan boy to come along, but maybe what makes 2009’s Star Trek so compelling comes in the distance it takes from its source material, nostalgia entirely absent, and for the better.
And Star Wars isn’t the only feature franchise getting a face-lift this summer movie season. Jurassic Park is receiving a gargantuan, Guardians of the Galaxy inspired redux, with Peter “Star-Lord” Quill himself in the leading role, and The Terminator is due for another incomprehensible sequel in Terminator Genisys, with Emilia Clarke taking over the lead role of Sarah Connor, burying any good will done by her Game of Thrones co-star Lena Headey in the short lived Fox TV show, The Sarah Connor Chronicles. What Jurassic World and Terminator Genisys get right comes in their shameless pandering to a geek culture eager to devour more genre features from the two respective franchises; what both lack is purpose outside of the tireless task of stroking the ego of nerd nostalgia that currently controls Hollywood filmmaking.
J.J. Abrams’ second teaser trailer for The Force Awakens looks good, so far, for all of the reasons identified above. The fervent anticipation that has built to a fever pitch for The Force Awakens is reasonable, as the technical precedent set by Abrams’ body of work is indicative of a capable creative director of the sort of blockbuster spectacle that the Star Wars franchise at one time defined. What it doesn’t yet intimate is any inspiration outside of the good will that its fans hold for it; the enthusiasm professed by the revelers at the recently held Star Wars convention in Anaheim, CA is indicative of the sub-cultural hype of isolationism, not widespread and accessible exhilaration. Star Wars is important for far too many reasons than can be objectively quantified, and emotional sentimentalism shouldn’t get in the way of seeing what has been presented to us so far as being little more than unequivocal advertising. The Force Awakens is ultimately an entertainment as of yet unseen, so here’s to a new chapter, and may the fourth be with you, J.J. Abrams.