Andy Markham charts the departure of George Lucas from the Star Wars franchise.
Luke, Han, Leia, Chewie, Threepio, Artoo... they're all back. Our familiar friends are back on the screen once more fighting the dark side, amongst a host of new allies and enemies. But there's one important person who didn't return to the galaxy far, far away for Star Wars: The Force Awakens - the creator himself, George Lucas. After selling the franchise to Disney in 2012, Lucas gradually took a step back from Star Wars, until the recent revelation that he has virtually no involvement in the new film. With fresh face J.J. Abrams taking the reins, Lucas described the situation as being rather like a divorce. So how has this particular break-up affected Star Wars? Here, we take a look at what has changed since George Lucas' departure, and what will be forever associated with Star Wars.
It goes almost without saying that J.J Abrams and his team (including old hands and former Lucas associates Lawrence Kasdan and Kathleen Kennedy) had an awful lot of respect for what had gone before when approaching the next instalment. Much has been made of The Force Awakens' similarity to A New Hope in terms of plot and its eagerness to recapture former glories, with major set pieces devoted to nostalgia (the Falcon battling TIE Fighters) and familiar imagery (X-Wings attacking an enemy base). Most of the familiar elements of the Star Wars galaxy are in full force here - costumes, sound effects and music that are recognisable from the "Lucas films" are here in abundance. On a superficial level at least, The Force Awakens is the quintessential George Lucas-style Star Wars film.
But when one digs beneath the surface and applies a more critical eye, a more complicated and slow-burn approach seems very visible. What appears to be a passing of the torch is more of an ignition of a new flame.
Let's quickly address the elephant in the room - three of George Lucas' six Star Wars films are not well-regarded. The prequels, coming straight off the back of the most widely praised film trilogy ever, were, suffice it to say, not as popular as their predecessors, earning mixed reviews at best and with many points of universal criticism. The Star Wars brand was tarnished by the prequel trilogy, and with that George Lucas was no longer as deified as a filmmaker, nor as trusted as a storyteller. It came as little surprise, then, that after the initial handover to Disney, executives politely dismissed Lucas' story treatments for a sequel trilogy and gently eased him out of the franchise. Whether this is really a fair way to treat the creator of the saga is of course up for debate, but the key point here is that right from the start, everyone involved with The Force Awakens was ready to leave Lucas' era behind.
The marketing and promotion for the film could not have made this any clearer. With the almost obsessive talk of "practical effects"; the huge focus on solely-original-trilogy elements such as the Millennium Falcon and Han Solo, and the massive love that the team have poured upon the first three films, the message has been very clear without anyone ever outright saying it: "Forget the prequels". And with that, one must inevitably "forget George Lucas".
That does come across in the film, as well. You can count all the references to the prequels on one hand, and all of them are miniscule. The imagery of the prequels is entirely absent and none of its characters appear. What seems to take its place is an immersive dive into the world of the original trilogy, but again, this is superficial. Throughout the film, the effect wears off and aspects such as the Falcon, Han and Leia, and the Skywalker family story become far less important than that which is brand new - the struggle between newcomers Rey and Finn and their nemesis, Kylo Ren, an entirely new creation that is not at all in the mould of Darth Vader despite outward appearances. Rey and Finn have no clear counterparts in the original trilogy, and Ren is infinitely more complex and layered than Vader. By the end of the film, Abrams fully embraces the future of the saga and mostly looks ahead rather than backwards.
However, this is not to say that Lucas' influence has entirely disappeared. The overall ethos and approach that Lucas established is still present and many of The Force Awakens' elements of subtext and deeper meaning are entirely inspired by Lucas. For example, the first six films were built around a heavy dose of mythology and ancient lore, with a sci-fi twist - using Shakespearean melodrama and epic fantasy tales to inspire the broad strokes of the saga. Abrams and Kasdan carry on this approach, with Luke's lightsaber used in The Force Awakens as something of a futuristic Excalibur, and the journeys of Han Solo and Kylo Ren intertwining to re-create the sense of high drama so vividly associated with Star Wars.
Thematically, The Force Awakens also uses the first six films as a jumping-off point. The theme of destiny defined Luke Skywalker in the original trilogy along with his father Darth Vader, and here our new protagonist Rey (Daisy Ridley) faces the same struggles with her destiny and where her path in life is leading. The struggle against the light and dark sides of the Force is presented as more important and all-encompassing than ever, and whilst the action and very high plot stakes provide a dramatic backdrop for this theme, the eternal struggle between good and evil, light and dark, and hope vs despair is at the core of The Force Awakens, just as it was for the original trilogy.
And thus, this is the balance that the film strikes - an unshakeable core of pure Lucas-inspired space opera, with an outer shell of brand new material that differentiates itself from Lucas' world and looks to new directions. And as for the superficial elements, the viewer very much gets the feeling that this is not so much a recapitulation of the former style - it is a fond wave goodbye. It's no coincidence or lack of imagination that causes The Force Awakens to appear so largely similar to A New Hope - it is because The Force Awakens is less a continuation of the saga than a gentle reboot. The tone is one of a new beginning, with a final farewell to the old guard heavily built in to the mix.
It's an amicable divorce then, and one that is full of solemn reflections, loving tributes to times gone by, and acceptance of Lucas' exceptionally good qualities as a storyteller. But it's a break-up that is permanent and final. Although for now, Lucas and Star Wars appear to remain close, it's difficult not to see the gulf between them growing wider with each film. It's one of The Force Awakens' most delightful qualities that it so enthusiastically opens the door to so many new opportunities for Episode VIII and beyond, and the writers and directors to follow should seize those opportunities wherever they appear.
Whilst Star Wars hasn't changed all that much for now, with The Force Awakens it takes its first steps into a larger world... and I for one can't wait.
Andy is a writer, musician, graduate, and super-geek. Ginger
glasses-wearer. Star Wars obsessive and Doctor Who enthusiast.
Specialises in film music and currently writing his first book on the
subject. Follow Andy on Twitter.