Every generation has a pop cultural phenomenon it considers its own. For Baby Boomers who sat wide-eyed in front of their televisions when John, Paul, George and Ringo played The Ed Sullivan Show, it was the Beatles. For millennials who stood in midnight lines at Barnes & Noble every time J.K. Rowling released a new opus, it was Harry Potter. And for Generation Xers who came of age the first time the Force was awakened, it was Star Wars.
Of course, like the Fab Four and the Boy Who Lived, Star Wars belongs to everyone. It’s a film series and entertainment property with an enduring appeal that’s so broad it defies definition based on any single age group. But for those who grew up in the late ’70s and early ’80s, who not only saw A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi during their initial theatrical runs, but were also the prime target for all the toy and merchandise marketing that surrounded them, Star Wars is something we understand in a way that anyone born post 1980 can’t quite grasp. We were the pioneer children who first asked for Princess Leia dolls and Millennium Falcons for Christmas, who actually watched the mythic Star Wars Holiday Special during its original broadcast, who can recall both the eras BC (Before Chewbacca) and AD (After Darth). And we are the ones most likely to get all nerd-verklempt while watching The Force Awakens, which unapologetically hearkens back to the original trilogy while aiming squarely at every nostalgic, non-midichlorian-infused blood cell in our middle-aged bodies.
The Force Awakens accomplishes what Mad Men‘s Don Draper once promised the Kodak Carousel could do: “It lets us travel the way a child travels, around and around and back home again.” But it also represents the passing of a torch, from one generation to the next. Within the context of the movie’s narrative, that passing does not involve any Xers. The ones doing the hand-off are generally baby boomers, and the ones receiving are millennials, leaving X, in typical neglected middle-child fashion, out of the equation. (FYI for those who have not yet seen The Force Awakens: This is where things get a little spoilery.)
I realize that such generational labels do not exist in the galaxy far, far away from a long time ago, well before the 20th century. But for those of us who experienced these movies during that century and continue to do so in the current one, they do. Which is why I paid close attention during The Force Awakens when Han Solo (Harrison Ford who, at 73, is technically more silent generation than boomer) asks Rey (23-year-old Daisy Ridley) to be his Millennium Falcon second; and when Princess Leia (59-year-old Carrie Fisher) embraces Rey like an heir apparent; and when Rey and Finn (John Boyega, also 23) grip the light saber that once belonged to Luke Skywalker (64-year-old Mark Hamill) and own it anew. It’s why I wondered: Where’s our guy or woman, someone in the middle of those two age extremes that represents the original Star Wars kids?
The closest thing is Poe Dameron, the cucumber-cool pilot and mentor to Finn played by Oscar Isaac, who, at 36, is certainly a member of the Xer tribe and whose attitudes about Star Wars reflect that accordingly. (“I grew up with this thing, and now I have my own John Williams theme!” he recently told Vulture. “So, it’s a whole lot of feelings.”) Poe’s a great character, but we really don’t see that much of him in The Force Awakens… which, come to think of it, seems exactly right for someone from a generation that’s constantly overshadowed and forgotten.
But of course, there is a Generation X hero in Episode VII. He’s someone we don’t see in the movie at all, yet, at the same time, is in every frame of it. That’s director J.J. Abrams, who was born in 1966, on the early end of the Gen X spectrum, and was blown away by the first Star Wars when he saw it at age 11. The kid who collected Kenner action figures just like we did — who, according to the L.A. Times, even dressed as a Jawa one year for Halloween — became the man in charge of the Star Wars universe, and he handles that role with the kind of reverence that the father who passed it on to him — George Lucas — never matched in the prequels. Which makes sense, in a way. Lucas may have created the Jedi, but he didn’t grow up on them. Having that experience makes a difference.
Some critics have accused Abrams of simply mimicking the tropes and sensibility of the original trilogy in the new films, as opposed to putting his own idiosyncratic flourishes on The Force Awakens. But I think the film has Abrams’ fingerprints all over it, minus the lens flares that have become his Star Trek signature.
The Force Awakens is a movie about reluctant heroes, people just trying to break free or get by who suddenly get thrust toward greatness. The same could be said of Captain Kirk in Abrams’ Star Trek, or the young alien-confronting Joe in Super 8, or the confused Jack Shepard who runs toward the wreckage in the Lost pilot. Abrams’ flair for creating hyperkinetic action that remain coherent and grounded in emotional stakes — something that a lot of current tentpole filmmakers (Zack Snyder, for one) would be wise to pay attention to — is on full display in every saber fight and swooping TIE Fighter battle in The Force Awakens, just as it was in the Chesapeake Bay Bridge sequence in Mission: Impossible III or the “Sabotage”-soundtracked speeding-car introduction to a young James Kirk in Star Trek.
The witty banter that adds levity at exactly the right moments — again, a staple of just about every Abrams project — is all over Episode VII, and so is his love of mystery. The Force Awakens ends with a lot of questions unanswered and the resolution to the movie’s central mystery — where has Luke Skywalker been? — still not fully resolved, which is as Abrams-y as it gets. (Even when the guy directed an episode of NBC’s The Office, he ended it on a cliffhanger, for God’s sake.)
Okay, sure, you might say. But pretty much all of that stuff is in the DNA of the original Star Wars movies, not to mention many of the Steven Spielberg blockbusters of the same era. That is true, which is why Abrams was the perfect guy to take on The Force Awakens. His style, approach and sensibility was shaped by Lucas mythologies and Spielberg sagas. As Esquire put it in a recent profile of Abrams, “He is just not reanimating Star Wars. He is what Star Wars begot.”
And that’s why, even though the balance of its star power leans toward the populations born before and after X, The Force Awakens will likely be embraced most heartily by that middle group, the ones who slept on R2D2 sheets and disco-ed out to Meco versions of the Star Wars theme. The Force Awakens plucks effectively and movingly at the heartstrings of no one more than us often-forgotten forty-somethings, and for good reason: because, Abrams, its director, has the very same strings inside himself.