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.