‘Star Wars’: Another grab for greatness

From the editorial board

Stormtroopers in a scene from the new film, "Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” which opens Thursday in the U.S.
Stormtroopers in a scene from the new film, "Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” which opens Thursday in the U.S. Disney/Lucasfilm

It’s opening this week, and sneak previewers are gushing. “The Force Awakens” could be the hope the galaxy has clung to since 1983 – a “Star Wars” sequel worthy of the original trilogy.

The international excitement – the costume parties, the advance sellouts, the Wookie action figures – shows that the old franchise hasn’t lost its appeal. Credit George Lucas for inventing a universe that endures.

Like James Bond, the “Star Wars” saga has somehow ignored the years. When the first installment – now called “A New Hope” – opened in 1977, plenty of baby boomers were still teenagers. Generation X bought tickets for “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi,” in 1980 and 1983. They then joined the older Millennials for the next round – “The Phantom Menace” (1999), “Attack of the Clones” (2002) and “Revenge of the Sith” (2005).

This week, all three generations – and some of the Greatest Generation to boot – will be in the theaters together for “The Force Awakens.”

Lucas did his fans a favor three years ago by selling his film company and the story to the Walt Disney Company, which now appears to have rescued “Star Wars” from a near-vegetative state.

In 1999, all but the fanatical fans knew they were in for a letdown a few minutes into “The Phantom Menace.”

“Return of the Jedi” ended with a spectacular triumph of good over evil and the demise of the evil emperor. Sixteen years later, with anticipation at a breaking point, Lucas started the new story with a . . . trade dispute. Really.

By the time the execrable Jar Jar Binks had occupied the screen for 30 seconds, we knew the whole franchise was battered and drifting through the asteroid belt.

Lucas wrote all three prequels on the assumption that franchise fans would be riveted by the “tragedy” of Anakin Skywalker, AKA Darth Vader, in the first trilogy.

That’s the same Darth Vader audiences saw use the Death Star to blow up a whole planet full of people in 1977. Lucas’ dramatic premise might be likened to asking the Greatest Generation to engage emotionally with “The World War I Adventures of Corporal Hitler.”

The Force had abandoned Lucas. But even in his most wretched moments, Lucas served up big helpings of what draws people to the pictures – spectacle, movement, conflict.

And at his best, in the first trilogy, he could pack amazing things into a mere two hours: galactic gunslingers and swordsmen, dark lords and minions, princesses and knights, pirates and sidekicks, orbital dogfights and armored ground battles. He could weave in elements of Flash Gordon, John Ford’s Westerns, “The Lord of the Rings,” King Arthur, “Dune,” H.G. Wells, “Frankenstein,” “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Ben-Hur.”

Fingers crossed. With Disney and director J.J. Abrams, the Force this time may have really Awakened.