Abrams was determined to use as little CGI as possible, so he made BB-8—a fully functioning robot—who has already become an iconic character.
Photograph by Marco Grob for TIME
By Lev Grossman
December 3, 2015

Inside Building 29 on the Fox Studios lot in Los Angeles there is an enormous windowless room containing a conference table, a giant screen and a good six meters of softly glowing consoles and monitors–the kind of room from which an intercontinental ballistic missile could plausibly be launched. Its official name is the Howard Hawks Mixing Stage, and at the moment it also contains J.J. Abrams and 22 other people who are making final tweaks to the audio of the new Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens, which will be in theaters on Dec. 18.

They pause on a moment when a Stormtrooper named Finn, played by the English actor John Boyega, takes off his helmet. As he does so there’s a quiet whoosh sound, as of a vacuum seal being broken.

Question: Do Stormtrooper helmets form a seal when you put them on, which is then broken when you take them off? An engineer points out that both Luke Skywalker and Han Solo take off Stormtrooper helmets in the first movie with no whoosh sound of any kind. Abrams–compact build, serious mien, black-frame glasses, plaid shirt and Daily Show baseball cap that he doesn’t take off indoors–considers.

“I know,” he says finally. “But this is the future of the past.” In the future of the past, Stormtrooper armor seals tight.

I have seen the future of the past, or about 20 minutes of it. In that 20 minutes–mild spoilers follow–a young woman named Rey, played by Daisy Ridley, sits disconsolately on a dead-end desert planet in the shade of a wrecked AT-AT, waiting for her life to happen. (“I know all about waiting,” she says.) Her only companion is a friendly droid named BB-8. At the same time Poe Dameron, a captured rebel pilot played by Oscar Isaac, is being tortured by the sinister masked dark-sider Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) aboard a Star Destroyer belonging to the evil First Order, a military faction inspired by the Empire. Finn, the Stormtrooper, having realized that he wants to be one of the good guys, busts Poe out and together they steal a TIE fighter (“I’ve always wanted to fly one of these things,” says Poe).

They crash-land on the desert planet where Rey lives. Poe is presumed dead in the crash, but Finn meets up with Rey and BB-8, who turns out to be carrying information vital to the resistance. The First Order is hot on their heels. They need to escape. There’s a ship, Rey says, but it’s “garbage”–a clapped-out old rust bucket. Pan over to the garbage ship. It is the Millennium Falcon. And scene.

If I’d seen that footage in a movie theater, I would not have asked for my money back, but when it’s finished Abrams snaps out 50 or 60 separate notes on the audio effects alone. There is very serious talk about footsteps (the phrase space floors crops up), droid language, the muffled, Dopplered scream that accompanies the passage of a TIE fighter, the relative awesomeness of various hatch noises and how to get midrange frequencies in there for people who are going to one day be watching this on their iPhones. They are nothing if not thorough.

It’s often said that the original Star Wars movies changed the movie industry, but they also changed something else: the way we make fiction onscreen. They were a new kind of illusion, one that felt real in a way that no fantasy or science-fiction movie ever had before. “When that giant spaceship flew over your head, and it was preceded by that kind of old-fashioned title crawl,” says Harrison Ford, who played, and plays, Han Solo, “and then the rumbling sound of that spaceship, you were in the movie for approximately 30 seconds before you knew you were in for something that you had not seen before and that was gut-level engaging.”

The universe of Star Wars didn’t just feel real in the moment; it felt as if it had existed before the film started and would go on long after it was over. It felt as if it extended out beyond the visible frame of the image, on and on, world without end. “I remember when I was watching Star Wars when I was kid, and these two droids were walking along the deserts of Tattooine, and I knew they were there,” Abrams says. “It wasn’t some painted background on an interior set, it wasn’t some lame visual effect, or even a great matte painting. You knew. They were really somewhere else.” It was a new kind of world building, and it has influenced if not transformed every piece of popular entertainment since then, from Harry Potter to Avatar to The Hunger Games to Game of Thrones.

It was a powerful illusion, but it has proved to be an elusive one, difficult to reproduce. It’s hard to put your finger on what makes it work. The Star Wars universe is a little like Narnia: even those who have been there can never be sure of getting in again. Since Return of the Jedi was released in 1983 it has yet to be demonstrated that it’s possible to make another really good Star Wars movie. The prequel trilogy was a cautionary tale: not even George Lucas, the man who built the Star Wars universe in the first place, could bring it back to life. But it’s interesting to watch Abrams try.

Jeffrey Jacob Abrams first saw Star Wars at the Avco Center theater in Los Angeles, at age 11. It’s fair to say it made a big impression on him. “It was a confluence of greatness, all these levels of things working spectacularly together,” he says. “It was a kind of reality that was not normally associated with fantasy or science-fiction stories, a level of filmmaking that was not typically associated with mainstream genre. And it had incredible heart. There was a sweetness to the story that gave the film this palpable sense of hope.” Hope: it’s the keystone concept in the Star Wars legendarium. One of the eternal mysteries of Star Wars is that it looks like science fiction, with robots and lasers and such, but at the same time it’s set far in the past and has the dustiness and feel of ancient history. It catches you up in a double-reverse, a temporal anomaly subtler than anything in Star Trek, that leaves you with a strange nostalgic longing for the future. And what is hope but a longing for the future?

It’s de rigueur to describe anybody taking over a beloved franchise as a die-hard fan, but Abrams genuinely does seem like a huge Star Wars fan. “On one of the first days that we showed him an X-wing,” says Gary Tomkins, the art director on The Force Awakens, “we were talking about various technical details, and he said, ‘Hey–just give me a minute. I’ve got my own X-wing here.’ And suddenly the 8-year-old boy in him came out.”

Being the director, co-writer and co-producer of the first Star Wars movie in a decade is an amazing position for a grownup fanboy to be in, but it’s also a delicate one. Abrams has come into a magnificent inheritance, but it is not unencumbered. Tens of millions of fans also share ownership of it, if not in a legal sense then in a moral and emotional one. Disney, which bought Lucasfilm in 2012, owns it too. “[Abrams] and I had dinner alone together, and it was primarily for us to raise a glass to what was about to become our future,” says Bob Iger, Disney’s chairman and CEO. “But it was also for me to look him in the eye, nicely, as a friend and say, ‘Look, we just paid over $4 billion for this franchise.'” Iger says he was more personally involved with the making of The Force Awakens than with any movie since he became CEO 10 years ago.

Furthermore, the person Abrams inherited it all from is still around. The Star Wars movies have always been to an unusual degree the expression of Lucas’ personal vision, and whatever else he is, Abrams is not Lucas.

For starters, Abrams is, it is generally attested, a considerably more verbal person than Lucas. “George doesn’t really talk,” says Carrie Fisher, who reprises the role of Princess Leia in The Force Awakens. “We were going to make a sign for him when he got sick at one point, saying faster and more intense, because those were his directions. J.J. is a very good communicator, so really in that sense he’s the opposite.” Adam Driver, who plays the Vaderesque Kylo Ren, notes that even with vast set pieces in play Abrams has a gift for changing direction and improvising in the moment. Everybody agrees that Abrams is funny and relaxing to be around. There are rumors of his beatboxing over the on-set PA system. The humor comes through: whereas in Lucas’ movies the jokes were sudden isolated phenomena, like ball lightning, the humor in The Force Awakens is more organic, part of the fabric of the movie. Abrams’ Star Wars is slightly warmer to the touch.

What Abrams and Lucas do share is an obsession with controlling minute details, in particular the minute details of Star Wars. “J.J. has always cared about the design process, but I have to say that on Star Wars he was different,” says Michael Kaplan, who oversaw the costumes for the new movie. “He even once asked me where I was planning on putting a seam in a costume, which really made me laugh. I mean, no director has ever asked me that before.” (Lucas wasn’t involved with The Force Awakens after Abrams got on board, something he has expressed mixed feelings about. Abrams offered to show it to him early, but Lucas demurred. “He was an incredibly gracious guy,” Abrams says. “He wanted to wait till it was done, because he’s never gotten to see a Star Wars movie from the outside in.”)

Another delicate matter: Abrams has to figure how to be true to Lucas’ vision, and also how to avoid being true to the bits of Lucas’ vision that didn’t really work. Abrams is diplomatic about the prequel trilogy, but it’s safe to say they weren’t his primary model for The Force Awakens. (It’s neither fun nor original to beat up on the prequels, but they really weren’t very good.) “Even in the beginning, J.J. would say, ‘I don’t want it to be like the prequels, because I don’t want it to be all cluttered and about senate embargoes and all sorts of middle-aged kinds of concerns,'” says Rick Carter, the movie’s production designer, who has worked on basically every Hollywood megahit since The Goonies. “‘I want this to be about the edge of the frontier, with real threats and real people.'”

The approach Abrams arrived at was to go back to the techniques Lucas used the first time around, the time that really mattered, all the way back in 1977. Abrams almost literally devolved the entire production of The Force Awakens technologically to an earlier era of filmmaking. He shot on film. Wherever possible he abandoned CGI in favor of models and practical effects, and green screens in favor of actual sets and physical locations. “I wanted to feel that thing that I’d felt when I was a kid watching this movie, which was that this was actually happening,” Abrams says. “So the decision was made very early on to build as much as we can and actually film it. And what that would do is obviate the need to try to make people believe it was actually happening. Because it simply would be happening.”

There’s both a logic to it and a funny perversity: what Lucas did then, with crude untried technology and minimal computer power, on a bare-bones budget and under desperate time pressure, Abrams has redone with all the time and money and computing power in the world. “We were very careful not to be overclever or overcomplicated or use too many sophisticated materials or techniques,” says Neal Scanlan, who was in charge of the creature shop on The Force Awakens. “We wanted them to fit very much in the world of New Hope, Empire and Return–that dare-I-say precious world was one that we tried never to step beyond either visually or conceptually with technology.”

It’s almost like a historical re-enactment of the making of Star Wars. Abrams is engaged in a kind of cinematic archeology, digging back in time, in search of that original, primal dream.

It helped that he had key members of the original cast on board. Lucas himself reached out to them in 2012. “I was happily engaged in other things,” Harrison Ford says. “I did not think there was going to be another one. I never thought about it.” As it happens Ford already liked Abrams–they’d worked together a quarter-century ago on Regarding Henry, when Abrams was a 23-year-old screenwriter. “It did occur to me that it might feel silly to run around in a belt and tight pants, tight boots and a 7-foot giant-dog suit, but in fact–this may be revealing about my character–it didn’t feel funny at all. It was fun.” (I ask him if he could have said no, given all the pressure from Lucas and Abrams and Disney and the fans. This produces a classic Han Soloism: “Sure, why not? I have money in the bank.”)

Fisher has sometimes expressed ambivalence about Star Wars–she told Daisy Ridley in an interview, “Don’t be a slave like I was,” referring to the infamous gold bikini she wore in Return of the Jedi–but she didn’t hesitate either. “I’m a female in Hollywood, and it’s difficult to get work after 30, maybe it’s getting to be 40 now,” she says. “I also long ago accepted that I am Princess Leia. I have that as a large part of my identity.” When I ask her if she missed Star Wars in the decades in between, she laughs. “That unstable I’m not.”

Of the old guard, the one who waited the longest was Mark Hamill–he didn’t call Lucas back for weeks. Contrary to popular mythology, Hamill has a busy acting career, and he won a BAFTA in 2012. “I assumed it was about publicity for whatever, Blu-ray release, 3-D conversion, I don’t know,” he says. “My wife said, ‘What if he’s going to do another trilogy?’ And I just laughed.” Even when he did call back, Hamill had to think it over. “I said, ‘It’s got to be solidarity–I bet you Harrison won’t do it,'” Hamill says. “I probably still would have done it, but I would have had an out.” Eventually he gave in. He shudders to think of the fan reaction if he hadn’t. “Remember all the torch-bearing angry villagers that stormed the Castle Frankenstein? I had images of that. Substitute lightsabers for torches.”

When Abrams was casting the new generation of leads, he went looking for relative unknowns, just as Lucas had. “In trying to remember that feeling I had seeing Star Wars,” he says, “it wasn’t one of seeing people I had seen in other movies or recognized from other things as much as discovering new people in a new place.” Other than that his only requirement was range. “Actors who could do everything. Except for singing, there was nothing that was not going to be required of them.” (For the record, Hamill has lodged an official protest over the fact that there are no musical numbers in The Force Awakens.)

If you’ve seen John Boyega before, it was probably in the cult hit Attack the Block in 2011. In The Force Awakens he plays Finn, the recovering Stormtrooper, and part of his learning curve was just getting into the armor every day, seal or no seal. “It originally took about five people to do it,” he says. “Best cosplay outfit I’ve ever worn.” Ridley went through three months of physical training to play Rey, who in the 20 minutes I saw kicked three people’s asses single-handedly. “She is very much alone,” Ridley says. “There’s no real excitement in her life. Every day is kind of the same–and then she gets drawn into this incredible adventure which is not only exciting and filled with creatures and space but is also incredibly emotional for her. She makes these connections with people she’s never had.” To Abrams that’s one of the bedrock themes of the whole movie: “This is a story of disparate orphans who discover each other, and who discover that they can trust each other.”

Ridley wasn’t even particularly a Star Wars fan. Lupita Nyong’o, who won an Oscar for her role in 12 Years a Slave, grew up in Kenya, where the Star Wars movies were shown on TV on public holidays: “I always associated them with time away from school.” Nyong’o plays a mysterious CGI character called Maz Kanata. There’s a sharp limit to how much the actors can say about the characters they play, which results in a lot of careful circumlocutions and awkward pauses. “I can tell you,” Nyong’o says, “that she is a larger-than-life, strong character with a colorful past.”

Oscar Isaac was already emphatically a fan. “We would actually memorize the fight scenes and try to re-enact them with lightsabers, to a T,” he says. “You know, like, O.K., no, no, no he goes left, right, left, right and then down.” Here’s his heavily redacted sketch of Poe Dameron: “He’s incredibly dedicated. He’s perhaps sometimes a little overenthusiastic with wanting to prove himself as a pilot and so can sometimes find himself in slightly reckless situations. I think part of his journey is figuring out what a real leader is, what it means to be a leader, what it means to be a hero.”

Among the new cast the most hardcore Star Wars fan was probably Gwendoline Christie, the 6-ft. 3-in. English actor best known for playing Brienne of Tarth on Game of Thrones. “I really was besotted with R2-D2,” she says. “There was something about that robot–I couldn’t work out why I was so attached to him.” When she heard they were making a new movie, she began answering any and all emails from her agent, on any topic, with the words, “I want to be in Star Wars.” She got a meeting with Abrams and eventually won the part of Captain Phasma, who spends the entire movie encased in gleaming chrome Stormtrooper armor. “She’s a Boba Fett–style character in that she isn’t at the forefront of the action all the time,” she says, “but she definitely has a lot of impact.” She describes Phasma as Star Wars’ first female villain. “Being bad is just fun, isn’t it now? Unfortunately, it came all too easily.”

One imagines a kind of passing-of-the-baton taking place on set, from the first generation of Star Wars leads to the third, but nobody will cop to much in the way of mentoring. “I told Daisy that dating was difficult,” Fisher says. “I never wanted to give anyone the anecdote, ‘I slept with Princess Leia.'” Ford coached Isaac on how to pilot a spaceship, or at least how to look like you’re piloting one. (On his first day Isaac was given a blueprint of an X-wing cockpit, laying out every button and what it had been used for in every film, including the all-important launch sequence. He still has it.) “With Harrison I remember there were these action things,” Isaac says. “This was after he had hurt his leg, so I said, Have you been working out a lot? What are you going to do with that stuff, and all the shooting, and you have to jump over these boxes and run and do all that stuff? How do you think you’re going to do that?”

“And he goes, ‘I’m going to act it.'”

We don’t know much about what’s happening in The Force Awakens in terms of the larger galactic military and political situation, but we do know when it’s happening. It’s 30 years after the end of Return of the Jedi–the future of the past. It’s clear that the Battle of Endor wasn’t as decisive as we thought, because the stars are still at war. The Ewoks partied too soon. There’s a New Republic, but the Empire-inspired First Order is still a force to be reckoned with.

Because so much time has passed, everything in the Star Wars universe–X-wings, TIE fighters, lightsabers, Stormtrooper armor–has had to evolve technologically. “If you imagine a Porsche 911 from the 1960s and a Porsche 911 from today, it’s still recognizable as a Porsche 911, but it is a completely different beast,” says Tomkins, the art director. “So if you look at an old X-wing with our new Force Awakens X-wing side by side, you’ll find it’s a little bit slicker, a little bit smoother. The engines obviously have changed. They’re not two circles on top of each other; they’re two semicircles.” Tomkins is second-generation Star Wars: his father was an art director on The Empire Strikes Back, and he spent his 15th summer on the ice planet Hoth (a.k.a. a soundstage in the suburbs of London) making cardboard models of snowspeeders. Early in his career Tomkins himself worked as a draughtsman on Phantom Menace, which makes him one of the few people to have worked on all three trilogies, and as such a key repository of institutional memory. “We had very, very many meetings with J.J. looking for what became known as the Star Wars vernacular,” says Tomkins. “The style of Star Wars, why it’s so unique. It’s not slick and it’s not necessarily high-tech, but it has a certain look about it.”

Part of his job was showing Abrams one concept drawing after another, hundreds of them, and waiting for him to say no, not that, or yes, this. It was yet another delicate balance for Abrams. “It was a very tricky thing, continuing what we inherited,” he says. “What do we embrace? And when is embracing that thing simply repetition?” A key attribute of the Star Wars vernacular, though you wouldn’t necessarily guess it, is simplicity. Everything’s based on easy basic shapes–Carter, the production designer, describes the look as Norman Rockwell meets Edward Hopper. “The Millennium Falcon is a very simple shape,” he says. “The Star Destroyer’s very simple. The TIE fighter–the TIE fighter looks like a bat.”

They weren’t just evolving existing technology. Abrams and his team had to improvise new creations in the vernacular, most prominent among them the droid BB-8, which has already become the iconic ambassador of The Force Awakens. “We knew we had to have a star droid in this movie that was not a familiar face,” Abrams says. “I just drew a sketch of him and believed that we could get an enormous amount of expression from the motion of these two spheres. We needed to feel that it was of that universe, so the top sphere, the dome of BB-8’s head, is very much a reference to what we saw in R2–and yet not exactly that.” (It’s worth noting that with his broad rolling body BB-8 is better designed for a desert world than R2-D2 or C-3PO were.)

A lot of directors would have created BB-8 as CGI, but in keeping with the spirit of ’77 Abrams had the droid physically built instead. Like the original Yoda, BB-8 is a puppet. “Having a droid as one of the stars of the movies that was being puppeteered, and physical and practical and tangible, allowed actors like Daisy to interact with it in a way that was 100% legit, because she was performing with someone who was performing with her.” Rey has a special a bond with BB-8, and Ridley had to work out her own relationship with the droid. “I remember J.J. saying, ‘He’s not a child,'” she says. “Obviously the impulse is, because he’s small and cute, to infantilize him. But he’s not a child–he’s a droid with a mission.”

CGI is the devil on the director’s shoulder, always tempting him or her to stray from the simplicity of the Star Wars vernacular and clutter up the frame. “If you need a hundred villains and you’re only a few keystrokes from having a thousand, and what the hell, the same price,” says Harrison Ford, “what happens is you overwhelm the human experience with kinetics and you lose what I refer to as scale. What needs to be preserved is the emotional experience a human being can identify with.” (I ask him if he thinks this was a problem in the prequel trilogy. This produces another classic Soloism: “Nice try, cowboy.”)

When Lucas made Star Wars, computer graphics barely existed–the crudely animated pilots’ briefing before the Battle of Yavin was the absolute state of the art. Lucasfilm’s computer-graphics department would eventually be spun off, bought by Steve Jobs, and turned into Pixar, but at the time Lucas had no real options besides models and physical creatures. That had the effect of giving the droids and aliens and spaceships in Star Wars a sense of physical weight and presence that’s missing from, say, the CGI disaster Jar-Jar Binks. There’s no way you can make a movie like The Force Awakens entirely without CGI, but Abrams was determined to keep it to an absolute minimum–in effect, he took a world that had become virtual and forced it back into the realm of the actual. “I can tell you a lot of movies that I’ve seen and I’ve loved where I don’t quite believe it’s real,” Abrams says. “You can feel somehow the artifice of it. You can’t even necessarily quantify why it doesn’t feel real, because everything that you’re seeing is intellectually what it should look like. And yet somehow it’s missing that thing.” He used CGI as much for taking out the visible apparatus of the practical effects–wires, rigs, puppeteers–as he did for putting things in.

For A New Hope the crew scavenged interesting-looking spare parts from model kits and junkyards to make the ships and vehicles. Tomkins works the same way now. “It’s found items, you know, be it parts from an airplane breaker’s yard or from a plastics-molding company or a dismantled photocopier,” he says. Tomkins likes to crack open washing machines and fridges and TVs in search of interesting shapes, which then become what are known in the trade as greebles: the tiny functional-looking details and asymmetrical sticking-out bits that encrust most technological artifacts in the Star Wars universe. “They’re all glued on, and little pipes are added to them–it’s kind of industrial collage, is the phrase that I like to use.”

It gives the Star Wars universe something else too, something even subtler than solidity: an uncanny familiarity. When you’re watching Star Wars, you’re often looking at car and airplane parts, the guts of electronics, bits of appliances, fragments of the everyday world, but they’re so far removed from their familiar context that you don’t recognize them–except that on some level you do. This is a subliminal but crucial component of the Star Wars vernacular that almost everyone on the production side talks about. “You might go to your local garage to have your car fixed, and there’s the compressor in the corner and the heavy engineering equipment over there, the guys wearing some safety equipment,” says Scanlan. “Or maybe you’d go to a hospital and see certain things there. These are all things that we are familiar with, and what Star Wars does so beautifully is to take those things and reinvent them, repackage them, reconceptualize them, in such a way that they become new and fresh and different to us–but we still have a connection, a visual umbilical between the world that we’re living in in our everyday lives and the one we’re watching on the screen.” It’s an effect not far, far away from Picasso’s collages or Marcel Duchamp’s ready-mades. It’s the quotidian made strange and beautiful, the terrestrial made alien.

But the most important, most un-simulatable quality of real objects is their raw physicality, a stubborn intractability and imperfection that’s profoundly convincing both to the audience and to the actors who have to work with them. “It helps you be in the moment,” John Boyega says. “There are hidden gems within a performance when you’re actually there that you can never get if you’re on a soundstage with just blue screen, or if you’re looking at a creature that isn’t actually there. There’s just something about the physical thing being in your face.” This is especially true of Scanlan’s creatures. “Each one is a little piece of theater,” he says, “and I think that’s what the viewer picks up on.” He builds them out of foam latex and high-end aeronautical carbon fiber, silicones and urethanes. Chewbacca’s skin–in case you ever wondered about it–is hand-knitted, as in with needles, and then each hair (it’s a mix of yak hair and mohair) is knotted to it individually. As a result it moves with the physical heft of a real organic creature’s pelt. In a very real sense the creatures become performers just as much as the actors are. “The baseline reality,” Scanlan says, “is that they are there on the day, they are under the lighting, the atmosphere, everything about them is real.”

Physical things can also get dirty, which is important. One of the most radical things about Star Wars in 1977 was that it wasn’t clean. The spaceships in Star Trek and 2001: A Space Odyssey and Space: 1999 looked like they’d just come out of cellophane–they were practically mint in box–but everything in Star Wars felt scuffed and used and old. According to Chris Taylor’s excellent history of the franchise, How Star Wars Conquered the Universe, Lucas had a phrase for it, “a used universe,” and when he was making the first movie the cleaning crew used to come round during the night and wipe all the dust off the unclean “used universe” surfaces, so that it had to be reapplied in the mornings. The dirt gave everything an extra dimension, not of space but of time: the objects in the Star Wars universe had a history that stretched back before the start of the movie. “I think it’s sort of holographic,” Abrams says. “Whether it was references to the Clone Wars, which of course you wouldn’t have a clue about, or it was the wear and tear that was on a particular ship or a droid, all of these things implied this very rich history from which the story came.”

Immense care goes into creating that wear and tear. Kaplan, the costume designer, had an entire department devoted to distressing the clothing in The Force Awakens. “There’s nothing better to bring you into the world of believability than when clothes look like they’ve been worn quite a bit,” he says. “You won’t see brand-new soles running through a scene or when a character puts his feet up. It’s not a fashion show.” One of the toughest scenes to create was the crash site of Finn’s and Poe’s TIE fighter. “We had to get two trenches dug in the sand in the middle of a desert in Abu Dhabi, about 800 feet long, and then add debris that had fallen off the wings,” Tomkins says. “That particularly had a lot of weathering and distressing around it.” Each bit of debris was hand-painted with its own individual damage.

One way to gauge the power of the Star Wars universe is that although nobody really knows what The Force Awakens is about, they don’t really care that they don’t know. “Normally, when a movie comes out the most important thing is who’s in it and what’s it about,” Carter, the production designer, says. “What’s interesting about Star Wars, this one, is that you can see that people don’t even really know who’s in it. You don’t know what it’s about, you don’t know the narrative–but you know what it feels like to be in the movie.” There are stars in Star Wars, but the universe is bigger than them. The universe is the superstar. “There’s such a thing, in a weird way, as the spirit of place. You can feel it. There’s an invitation to come and be a part of this world.”

Of course there’s also a story going on in that world. From what I’ve seen so far, that story is, just like the spaceships and creatures, a collage of the familiar, reconfigured. There are recognizable elements from A New Hope: a young person stuck on a nowhere desert planet; a droid carrying secret information vital to the resistance; a masked adept of the dark side interrogating a resistance fighter–Kylo’s banter with Admiral Hux, played by the ubiquitous Domhnall Gleeson, even has a strong Vader–Grand Moff Tarkin vibe. The repetition is, oddly, pleasant rather than tiresome. The recycled plot elements have the feel of a theme being reprised toward the end of a long symphony.

Some of the repetition makes intrinsic logical sense: the characters are inheriting the past, just like Abrams is. “This is in a world where the bad guy is going to be cognizant of Darth Vader,” he says, “and when the bad guys have a massive weapon that can destroy a star system, they’re going to reference the Death Star, because this is their history too.” But it goes beyond that. It’s there for people to recognize–it’s nostalgia for the future. Back in the Howard Hawks room, working through the audio track, there’s a moment when a couple of Stormtroopers spot Finn and Rey, and one of them says, “Blast them!” It’s a little scrap of audio lifted intact from a scene in A New Hope. (Abrams decided to move it, but it’ll still be in the finished movie. Probably.) At times Abrams even reaches beyond the Star Wars universe. Singling out the sound of a ringing bell, he says, “You know why I like it? It reminds me of E.T.” This is both a brave new world and a long-awaited homecoming.

There’s a robust academic literature devoted to analyzing the meaning of the first two Star Wars trilogies, which makes illuminating if occasionally painful reading. In a lot of ways the movies are period pieces, and like a lot of period pieces their politics haven’t aged particularly well. It’s entirely possible to read Star Wars as a movie about white men fighting to regain their rightful position as rulers of the universe, against a man who, if he’s not actually black, wears all black and has the voice of a black man. (Vader was voiced by James Earl Jones.) With a few notable exceptions–Princess Leia, Yoda, maybe Admiral Ackbar–women and nonhuman races are relegated to the sidelines. Human males run the show. Star Wars is framed as a story about revolution, but in some ways it’s also a fable about maintaining an old worldview of race and gender. The prequels tried to balance the slate a little (Queen Amidala, Samuel L. Jackson) but ended up just making it worse (Jar Jar Binks, the Trade Federation and, when you think about it, Queen Amidala).

Obviously, Abrams–and Disney–are conscious that times have changed. “J.J. can’t rely on going in and making a movie that just calls upon everything that came before,” says Kathleen Kennedy, president of Lucasfilm. “He has to come up with new ideas, new points of view, and he has to move it from 1977 to 2015.” The casting alone is more diverse. “It was very important to me that this movie look more the way the world looks than not,” Abrams says. Women figure in a more dynamic, physically powerful capacity. Gwendoline Christie points out how rare it is to have a female character dressed the way Phasma is, totally unrevealingly. “It felt to me that here was a character where we would respond to her due to her actions and what she represented rather than a more conventional delineated flesh outline,” she says. “That felt really, really progressive to me. I’m very proud to play this part.” We’re a long way from the gold bikini.

On another level Star Wars is also, like a lot of science fiction, about how humans relate to technology. This is an open-source, hackable, homebrew-computer-club world. When a droid goes on the fritz, Luke doesn’t take it to the genius bar, he repairs it himself. When something goes wrong with the Millennium Falcon, Chewie pops open a panel and gets up in there. Interestingly, the technology that looks most like our glossy, sealed, Apple-dominated present belongs to the Empire. That gap in C-3PO’s golden skin, for example, with the wires showing through between his abdomen and his pelvis–Jony Ive would never have signed off on that.

But the heart of Star Wars is and always has been the ghost in the machine, the human trapped in the Stormtrooper armor. “I’m not so much interested in science fiction as I am in human, emotional stories,” Ford says. Hollywood movies tend to explore either a fascinating, spectacularly CGI’d outer world or the textured inner worlds of a character, but rarely do you get both worlds at once. You do in Star Wars. Even if the plot isn’t necessarily the most original thing anybody’s ever written–it toes the Joseph Campbell party line pretty closely–the characters have a rough, vital complexity. There are life forms on board. “They’re not superheroes,” Fisher says. “Good people do bad things, and there are bad people who do good things. We got ’em all in Star Wars.”

And what those people do matters. They’re oddballs and misfits, but their actions disturb the universe. “It was one of the things that got me most excited about being involved with this,” Abrams says. “The idea that there would be a new generation of young people, a new generation of nobodies. That was what Star Wars was for me, so wonderfully: a story of desperate nobodies who became somebodies.”

As Lucas discovered, there is a whole world out there of people who want to feel like somebodies, and Star Wars gives them a world where that can happen. The point of Abrams’ effort is to make that world one they can believe in–a world so plausible, so tangible, that they can almost step into it.

It won’t be a new world, not the way it was in 1977. It’s not like we’ve never seen this Jedi mind trick before. In a sense, Abrams is restaging a revolution that already happened, decades ago. But while The Force Awakens won’t have the element of surprise, it does have another advantage, which is that even without having seen it, people already love it. They want this Jedi mind trick to work on them. On the first day tickets were available, Oct. 19, Fandango reported that The Force Awakens octupled the previous record for advance sales set by The Hunger Games; at the theater chain AMC the factor was 10. One thing almost everybody involved with the movie wanted to talk about was what it’s been like getting up in front of fans: the outpouring of enthusiasm has been unlike anything they’ve ever experienced, even the veterans. Hamill was at the Star Wars Celebration in Anaheim, Calif., in April when they played the new trailer. “To see that many people transported with joy just for a few minutes was so overwhelmingly satisfying for me, I got the chills,” says Hamill. “I was choked up. I thought, Wow. So lucky. I’m so lucky.”

Christie’s first experience of it was at Comic-Con in July in front of a crowd of 6,000. “There was a feeling in that room, and it was palpable,” she says. “I talked to J.J. after and said, What is that feeling everyone has? It isn’t hysteria. It has a real intensity, it has a euphoria–but what is it? Everyone clearly has such a love for this, but what is it?”

“And J.J. said, ‘It’s hope.'”

Contact us at editors@time.com.

This appears in the December 14, 2015 issue of TIME.

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