Until recently, the most powerful scene from a Star Wars movie hadn't actually been in a Star Wars movie. On the contrary, it came approximately 20 minutes into Reign of Fire, a 2002 fantasy adventure about Christian Bale and Matthew McConaughey fighting massive dragons in the ruins of post-apocalyptic London. The few surviving humans have huddled together in underground caves for shelter, where they raise future generations and entertain the children by re-enacting the lightsaber duel from the end of The Empire Strikes Back. The names Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader have either been forgotten or deemed unimportant; Bale's character — playing the fearsome Sith lord — refers to himself only as "the black knight." It doesn't matter to the astonished kids in the crowd, who still gasp at every crackling swing of a wooden lightsaber, and completely lose their minds at the revelation that Vader is Luke's father. It doesn't matter that they don't have special effects, or Christmas specials, or trading card apps. It doesn't matter that Han shot first.
It's a brilliant scene because it knows something about George Lucas' space opera that Lucas himself has long since forgotten: Whether in a cave with sticks or against a massive green screen in Pinewood Studios, the story of Star Wars has always been much less important than the act of telling it. The Force Awakens has more flaws than it does product tie-ins, but it's so special and deserving of its record-breaking success because it's the first of the franchise's films to understand what Reign of Fire so casually made clear: People don't love Star Wars because it's great — Star Wars is great because people love it.
The original 1977 movie was innovative in many respects, but it was derivative by design. In creating a galaxy far, far away, Lucas effectively draped his imagination over a constellation of yarns so familiar that they seem to have spun from the marrow of our bones. Its alchemy is nothing if not well documented: A New Hope combined the plot of Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress with the widescreen scale of Lawrence of Arabia and the Saturday morning spectacle of serials like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. With his 20th-century influences well in hand, Lucas then poured them like molten metal into the iron mold of the hero's journey as laid out by Joseph Campbell, who traced the origins of modern narrative arcs back to the beginning of civilization. "I wanted a contemporary version of the myth and the fairy tale," Lucas said in a Los Angeles Times interview published days before Star Wars first hit theaters in 1977.
In other words, it was never meant to be a vision of the future so much as it was a mind-blowing interstellar bridge between the romance of the past and the reality of the present. That's why the very first thing that each of these movies informs us that they take place "a long time ago." That's why the saga began with its fourth installment, so that every moment was clouded by the specter of an unknown history. That's why the prequel trilogy, designed to take advantage of new digital magic, was doomed from the start: Those movies had no sense of history.
The Force Awakens has history in spades. And it's true. All of it.
J.J. Abrams is not a particularly strong filmmaker. A gifted marketer who's better at prompting our imagination than satisfying it (in October, we called him "the cinema's greatest hype man since Alfred Hitchcock"), he tends to understand the power of a story better than he does how to tell it. His action sequences can occasionally be flimsy and inert (i.e. the attack on Takodana), his third acts tend to get bogged down by spectacle-driven set pieces, and his genius for character beats often sends viewers racing towards dead ends (Abrams engineers the perfect way for Rey and Finn to find the Millennium Falcon — and then ambushes them with Rathtars).
But The Force Awakens didn't need a Steven Spielberg; it needed a Christian Bale, someone capable of looking at the series from a distance. It needed someone who knows that Luke Skywalker is a total wet blanket, but should nevertheless be a totem at the heart of the franchise's next phase. It needed someone who could compellingly justify the cash grab of making more of these movies.
People don't love Star Wars because it's great — Star Wars is great because people love it.
It needed someone who could understand why the best way to honor and reignite the power of Star Wars would be to remake the movie that started it all.
The parallels between The Force Awakens and A New Hope are as explicit as they are uncanny: On a desert planet, a seemingly orphaned young scavenger meets an adorable droid that's carrying a secret message. The encounter will provoke our unassuming protagonist to become the hero of an anti-fascist space rebellion. The bad guy is a man who abandoned his given name in favor of a more sinister one that he claimed for himself. There's a climactic death of an old friend, a cantina full of alien outlaws, and a planet-sized weapon (that's no moon, it's a ... bigger Death Star!). It's preoccupied with its own legend and welded together from recycled parts; if A New Hope felt familiar because it borrowed its marrow from the backbone of pop (and human) culture, The Force Awakens feels familiar because it's pretty much just A New-er Hope.
But it is also about passing these stories down to a new generation, and the power of the film is in how its perspective allows it to recognize the saga as the modern myth that it's become. Rey, a young scrounger on the desert planet of Jakku who waits for her absent family to come back for her, sits outside the foot of the fallen AT-AT walker she calls home. She reaches for the old and oversized Rebel pilot helmet that she keeps around for comfort, imagining what it must have been like to wear it into battle. This is her happy place. The reverence that Rey has for a relic from the ghosts of Star Wars past is a microcosm of everything that makes The Force Awakens the movie that the franchise needed in order to reignite. In that moment, it becomes indelibly clear that the story of the original film(s) is as formative a myth for Rey as it is for us. Her sense of wonder perfectly reflects our own.
It's no coincidence that Rey's life is changed forever at that precise moment, the call to adventure (which sounds a lot like a droid in distress) arriving on her ears like the helmet is a receiver transmitting a signal from the distant past. Yesterday, she thought that Luke Skywalker was just a legend. A few days thereafter, she'll get to meet him. By the end of Episode IX, she'll probably be him.
By essentially retelling the "first" movie, The Force Awakens reaffirms the core values of the series. Whether or not Lucas approves of the "retro" approach, the new film takes the most intrinsic themes from his original trilogy and effectively brings them to the surface. It's a movie about the old stories becoming new again just by virtue of being retold; even the more gratuitous fan-service moments — like Han's eye-roller of a line about the trash compactor — reaffirm that the original trilogy has become more about myths than movies. Myths are living things, and that's what makes Star Wars different from every other movie franchise there is now or has ever been: The campfire is so large and bright that the kindling doesn't matter so long as there's room for everyone to gather round.