As The Force Awakens settles into being a known commodity, the positive reaction that first greeted it has started to give way to more criticism. One of the loudest voices is Star Wars creator George Lucas, who has begun to call the new film an act of nostalgia.
I'm not here to denounce Lucas's opinion as irrelevant. As I've said countless times in the past, I love the prequels, unabashedly. Where others see creative decisions ranging from just plain bad to offensive, I see artistic achievements of unparalleled achievement. They are, to me, unquestioned elevations in Lucas's talents as a filmmaker.
His biggest problem with The Force Awakens probably stems from what he himself would have done, as he's noted would have been different from what he had done with the previous six films. The major appeal of The Force Awakens is that it is an act of nostalgia, for the most part. This was almost entirely necessary to get positive buzz back into the saga. The dramatic departures of the prequels, if nothing else, certainly succeeded in presenting something that felt totally different from the original trilogy, which fans loved so much because it was raw and dirty. The prequels are often accused of featuring wooden acting. At the very least, they featured an era with far more rigged rules of conduct than the originals. I would argue that the whole point of the prequels was about breaking loose from restrictions that had calcified. Anakin Skywalker is attracted to Palpatine's vision because it offers him a limitless existence. Fans abhor Jar Jar Binks because he seems too loose. The prequels are all about extremes.
J.J. Abrams realized, somewhere along the way, that there had to be balance. He didn't necessarily steal everything he created wholesale from the originals. Instead, he built on them. His Star Wars is deliberately more lived-in than even the original films. For me, that creates an experience that is arguably better than any Star Wars to date. He creates a landscape where the known and the unknown work in tandem, among the characters and among the fans. There's a reason why so much of the action looks familiar. Too often fans tend to great this sort of thing as a rip-off (Star Trek fans in particular, alas). But the more deeper the material, the richer the experience.
I would argue that The Force Awakens succeeds because of this, because of its deep awareness, which makes it rich, which makes it feel so familiar. But it's also new, because it wisely builds on the old material to tell a new story, one that may look predictable at this point, but uses the idea Lucas originally had in the prequels, to continue the saga, to see where the story goes next. In virtually all of the old spinoff books and comics, the writers lost sight of what made Star Wars special. It wasn't merely the mechanics, but the storytelling itself. There's a reason why Darth Vader revealing the truth of his identity to Luke Skywalker was so important, why The Empire Strikes Back has long held its place as the most popular film among the fans, because it was the first time the story was deepened.
The prequels told us a story we already knew: that Anakin Skywalker becomes Darth Vader. As Peter Jackson's Hobbit trilogy attests, fans are impatient when they already know how the story ends. For the first time in thirty years, Star Wars fans don't. That's why The Force Awakens succeeds. Well, that and impressive filmmaking.
When George Lucas first created Star Wars, he had a totally different vision than what ultimately came about. Allowing the story to breathe turned out to be a very good thing. We're seeing that again.