The new Star Wars movie is going to be good - like, really good. Maybe even great. At least, that is my hope and belief. My feelings are based on more than a just a fan's optimism, however. Here's why I think it will succeed where the prequel trilogy failed so miserably.
Reason One: female characters. Out of six Star Wars films to date, not one of them passed the Bechdel Test.* I don't think any of the movies save Return of the Jedi even had two named female characters with speaking parts. Along comes the latest trailer for The Force Awakens, and by itself, the opening voiceover passes this classic litmus. A small fact, to be sure, but this alone sets the new film apart from anything that's come before. I think that this is a very good sign, and I'm a big fan of stories with interesting and engaging female characters.
Reason Two: visual style. In some ways, the first Star Wars movie is the best: George Lucas was just out of film school, where he had studied luminaries like Akira Kurosawa and spent time with people who would become some of the great American directors of our time. That first film reflects an almost silent-movie ethic, in which the visuals and the editing are the central storytelling mechanisms. The subsequent films, however, moved away from that style of cinematic expression.
Now consider this short sequence from the trailer that gives a vignette of exploration - it is remarkably similar to Miyazaki's Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind.
It's a simple setup, but it suggests a command of visual storytelling that was sorely lacking in the prequel trilogy. And its clear parallels to an artist like Miyazaki is cause for hope and celebration.
Reason Three: real sets. As Red Letter Media so devastatingly pointed out, you simply cannot make an exciting movie with nothing but a green screen (seriously, watch four minutes of this clip). From interviews and production stills, we know that the new film will not suffer from this defect.
Reason Four: genuine loss and emotion. George Lucas has never had a gift for dialog, nor has he ever been known as an "actor's director." The best-written Star Wars film to date is Empire Strikes Back, written by Lawrence Kasdan based upon Lucas' story. In that film, Kasdan and director Irvin Kershner conjured real humanity and feeling out of the light-hearted space opera.
So having Lucas out of the picture gives an immediate boost to the prospects of the film having a good story with well-written characters. More deeply, the latest trailer has some tight, expressive dialog and voice acting that give me chills. Finally, the themes of the three The Force Awakens trailers seem to be fear and menace, family and home, and the search for a history and an identity. These are powerful and timeless themes that fit well within Joseph Campbell's Hero With A Thousand Faces. If the filmmakers can deliver on the promise, the movie could surpass all expectations.
Reason Five: insiders, and especially the actors in the film, are already fans of this movie. Of course actors are professionals who are under contract to pitch the movies in which they star. But they don't do things like this or this when they aren't excited about the results of their work.
Of course, it still could end up being terrible. But if it sucks, I'll come back here and eat crow and complain. I always do.
*UPDATE: several smart people have pointed out that A New Hope does have two named female characters (Leia and poor Aunt Beru, who I had forgotten), and that Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones actually do pass the Bechdel test (though only just barely). I will simply point out that apart from Princess Leia, none of the female characters in the first six movies had much to do or much screen time. And with the exception of Leia, none had any character development whatsoever. So, however we score the previous films on the Bechdel test, from the trailers, The Force Awakens looks to be a big departure from the glaring lack of developed female characters in the Star Wars film franchise. Thanks to my old friend the Dutchman and to Manny Kant over at LGM for pointing out my omissions.