After over a decade of waiting, even longer if you’ve wiped the three prequel’s from your mind, Star Wars is back in a big way. Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Episode 7 in the franchise, has arrived, and brought with it a new direction. Like the original films, The Force Awakens is all about myth building and discovery, creating a mystique that slowly unravels as the 2-hour plus space tale unfolds. We see and hear the familiar sights and sounds of the galaxy far, far away, but it isn’t long before it becomes clear that this is Star Wars for the modern age, thanks in part to the gender and race blind casting.
The Force Awakens is as much a carefully crafted homage as it is its own thing. So much so, in fact, that it’s surprising screenwriters J.J. Abrams (also the director) and Lawrence Kasden didn’t throw George Lucas a writing credit. The characters and locales may have different names, but their roots are firmly planted in the originals. Even from a story perspective, there are so many beats that hearken back to the original films that it would be almost impossible to fully appreciate the new without understanding the old.
But, where The Force Awakens sets itself apart most overtly is in its casting. Careful choices were made in whom plays which character, despite the fact that almost any one person is easily interchangeable. Slick pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) would work just as well as our villain, our main hero, or even a one-off side character; his role is informed by story and story alone, which speaks to the newfound universal appeal of Star Wars. In the ‘70s, a sci-fi epic with laser guns and laser swords would have been seen as a “boys” film, but not anymore. The Force Awakens makes it known that Star Wars is for EVERYONE.
While few could fault the Original Trilogy for its overwhelmingly white cast, The Force Awakens was never going to get off so easy. With this film, it’s made very clear that Stormtroopers don’t have to be white, male or female, and that the chosen one could be from both sexes, nor does the wise, sage-like figure have to be an elderly man type. Nothing about Luke Skywalker requires him to be white in the original Star Wars, but had he been black the movie would have likely been viewed differently. The Force Awakens takes note of this and decides to challenge those notions, and in turn it makes for a movie that feels modern. Finn (John Boyega) is one of the first Stormtroopers to remove his helmet and it just so happens that he’s black. It’s a shocking moment because it’s the first time we’ve seen a face behind the helmet, and Finn’s skin color never factors into the equation. And eventually he meets Rey (Daisy Ridley) who, not unlike young Anakin in the Prequel Trilogy, is good with fixing things, but just so happens to be a girl. Neither of these character’s races or sexes inform their characters, but their diversity is sure to make Star Wars more appealing to a larger group of people. Yes, there’s spectacle and big moments, but it is in such a small detail that Star Wars has changed the most.
In the grand scheme of things, the color of a character’s skin or the fact that one of our heroes is a girl won’t have much of an impact on your enjoyment of the film, but that’s kind of the point. Star Wars: The Force Awakens proves that casting can be an essential tool for a successful film, but it’s not just about picking out the pretty faces. Director J.J. Abrams showed a penchant for that with his Star Trek reboot, and he has knocked it out of the park with The Force Awakens. For as much as it is nice to see familiar faces like Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and General Leia (Carrie Fisher) enter the frame, the new characters leave a lasting impression. It is their adventures that fans will be most eager to see moving forward.