Director J.J. Abrams is notorious for maintaining a high level of on-set secrecy when his movies are in production, but the curiosity surrounding “Star Wars: Episode VII” is proving to be too much to keep quiet.

First, a series of leaked set photos from the location filming in Abu Dhabi hit the Web. And then last week, someone posted pics of a full-scale Millennium Falcon under construction on a sound stage.

Abrams responded with a picture of a handwritten note with a tongue-in-cheek denial that Han Solo’s iconic spaceship would show up in the sequel. But in a savvy move that delighted fans, the note was propped up against the Falcon’s 3-D holographic chessboard that appeared in the very first Star Wars movie.

The message was clear: We can expect the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs to make a triumphant return to the silver screen.

It’s gestures like these that lead me to believe that with "Episode VII" we may finally get the very first new Star Wars movie since 1983’s “Return of the Jedi.”

And no, you didn’t read that wrong. I grudgingly acknowledge that there have been three big-budget movies released since then, each of which bore the Star Wars moniker and an episode number. Some of the characters in them even had the same names as the ones in the original trilogy, and at least three of those characters — Yoda, Emperor Palpatine and C-3PO — were even played by the same actors.

But that’s where the similarities end. In tone, in theme and in every way that matters, those three movies have little or nothing in common with genuine Star Wars films.

There’s no need to recount the myriad flaws that sank the prequels right from the outset. If you’re unfamiliar with such criticism, just Google “Jar Jar Binks” and settle in for hours, if not days, of written and filmed fan commentary chronicling George Lucas’ legion of sins against filmmaking. When Al Gore created the Internet, he probably didn’t anticipate that most of its bandwidth would be used for geeks to post the millions of reasons why the prequels stank.

The proof of the prequel’s disposability, however, cannot be found in geek rage against them, but rather in the non-geek’s indifference to them. “Episode III: The Revenge of the Sith,” the last of these abominations to stink up the theater, was released almost a decade ago. It has faded into obscurity alongside "Episode I" and "Episode II." Other than the hardcore fans who defend anything branded with a Star Wars label, most people pretend those movies don’t exist. No, scratch that — the prequels are so forgettable that most people don’t have to pretend.

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When anyone thinks Star Wars, they think Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Princess Leia. Names like Mace Windu, Count Dooku or General Grievous are little more than answers to trivia questions, much like the names of Chewbacca’s family from the “Star Wars Holiday Special.” (For the record: Mala was Chewie’s wife; his father was Itchy and his son was Lumpy. That’s something you’ll never need to know.) George Lucas is on record as saying that he wishes he could destroy every copy of that wretched holiday special which only aired once but still somehow endures in the pop culture consciousness with greater potency than the prequels.

Of course, it’s entirely possible that Abrams and Co. will fall short, too, and that "Episode VII" could join Episodes I, II and III in cinematic oblivion.

But for the first time in decades, I’m savoring the possibility of a new Star Wars movie that could very well be the real thing, and not just Star Wars in name.

Jim Bennett is a recovering actor, theater producer and politico, and he writes about pop culture and politics at his blog,

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