The original trilogy was an attempt by what was then "new Hollywood" to reinvent the classic swashbuckler. It was, of course, incredibly successful commercially and reasonably successful artistically, though the various elements – – Errol Flynn meets Joseph Campbell meets, a bit later, David Lean – – never really coalesced and the problem got only worse as the series progressed .
Where the franchise does still hold some interest is as a cultural and marketing phenomena. I'll have more to say about the marketing later; for the cultural, the best take I've seen comes from Bob Chipman. Chipman is a good critic but he's also something more valuable and more difficult to find: a broadly knowledgeable and self-aware fanboy.
Viewed objectively, the prequels are “bad films” for the same reasons that plenty of other (substantially worse!) special-effects blockbusters are bad films: Poorly scripted, badly acted, tonally askew, etc. But as a young-ish fanboy back in the day, what really bugged me was that they didn’t “feel” STAR WARS enough, by which of course I mean that they didn’t remain slavishly devoted to the aesthetic and trappings I’d grown up obsessed with and didn’t throw out nearly enough references and callbacks and, well… “Star Wars” stuff. Whatever bad things you can say about THE PHANTOM MENACE, you can’t accuse George Lucas of pandering to the audience – that was ATTACK OF THE CLONES
My point is: I’ve long held a sneaky (and depressing) suspicion that if the prequels had been exactly as lacking on a technical filmmaking and storytelling level BUT had also been suitably packed to the gills with the requisite amount of fan-service, said fans would’ve largely overlooked those flaws and still be arguing their merits today.
And I’d been worried that I’d get a chance to test this hypothesis ever since it became clear that Disney and Lucasfilm were intent on selling THE FORCE AWAKENS based almost-exclusively around proving that they’d been listening to the last decade-plus of fanboy complaints; with a pre-release hype machine that ignored almost all discussion of story, themes or characters in favor of: “We’re using practical effects and models again!” “NO midichlorians!” “X-Wings and Tie-Fighters and Storm Troopers and The Falcon!” “Luke, Leia, Han and Chewie are all back!” Heck, they even went so far as to hire JJ Abrams – a remarkably UN-remarkable talent whose only skillset of genuine note is being an exceptional mimic of the style and feel of other peoples’ movies. If ever there was going to be a recipe to make O.G. STAR WARS fans spontaneously combust with joy *regardless* of whether or not the movie was actually any damn good, this was it.
BUT! My hypothesis will have to wait for another day. Because in spite of all that (and, if we’re being far, probably because of some of it) STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS is a pretty damn good movie. And since it in no way needed to be, I suppose that’s damn impressive in its own right.
Make no mistake though: What we’ve got here is effectively the world’s first $200 million STAR WARS fan-film – and I don’t use that designation to be flippant nor entirely critical. THE FORCE AWAKENS is scratching a nostalgia itch out of pure profit motive, but for good or ill the attachment generations of filmgoers have to the sights, sounds and characters of the original trilogy is a real, palpable thing that exists on a level above the base toy-salesmanship that grew to feed off of it. Yes, the narrative is pretty much a leisurely stroll down memory lane (with frequent detours onto Homage Avenue) but mostly feels organic and natural about it at least until you stop and start questioning the coincidences that have always been a big part of the series’ storytelling.