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With 'Force Awakens,' 'Star Wars' expands its universe (+video)

The resumption of George Lucas's space opera offers a shared cultural experience that transcends generations, gender, race, and politics. These days, that's rarer than water on Tatooine.

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    Daisy Ridley, right, as Rey, and John Boyega as Finn, in a scene from the film, 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens,' directed by J.J. Abrams.
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In 2015, people across the world are divided over gun control, terrorism, immigration, and whether the term “Christmas” should come with a trigger warning.

But there is one thing that can unite almost everyone: the release of “Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens.”

The resumption of George Lucas’s space opera offers a shared cultural experience that transcends generations, gender, race, and politics. These days, that’s rarer than water on Tatooine. The popularity of “The Force Awakens”– ticket pre-sales are $100 million in the US alone – arises from a desire to revisit some old friends (and meet some new ones) in a galaxy far, far away. But a core appeal of “Star Wars” may lie in its universal themes and inclusiveness.

“There a lot of entry points into the series,” observes Alyssa Rosenberg, an obsessive “Star Wars” fan who blogs about pop culture for The Washington Post. “If you’re a teenager, Luke Skywalker may be your point of identification. If you’re a bit older and you feel jaded, then maybe Han Solo is the person who hooks you into the storytelling. If you’re optimistic, or idealistic, then maybe Princess Leia is the way into the series. One of the things that ‘The Force Awakens’ does really well is that it broadens those opportunities and entry points. It’s important to remember that it’s a movie where the three leads are a man of Hispanic descent, a black man, and a woman.”

“The Force Awakens” bridges two generations of characters. The story picks up three decades after the events of “The Return of the Jedi” and includes many familiar faces. But the emphasis this time is on new, young characters—an attempt to draw in Millennial moviegoers. (Don’t worry, the yellow scrolling text at the start of the movie doesn’t include Emojis.)

These main characters are also more diverse than the patrons of the Mos Eisley cantina. British actor John Boyega, who is black, depicts a Stormtrooper named Finn. Fellow Londoner Daisy Ridley stars as Rey, a self-reliant scavenger. Guatemalan-American Oscar Isaac plays cocky pilot Poe Dameron.

The conscious diversity of these characters is partly a response to the perceived racism of the “Star Wars” prequels. “The Phantom Menace” included black actor Samuel L. Jackson as a Jedi, but it also featured a conniving alien race that appeared to mimic Asian stereotypes. And a certain floppy eared, dreadlocked, and widely ridiculed sidekick spoke in pidgin English reminiscent of 1930s African-American comedian Stepin Fetchit.

The business side of moviemaking has dramatically changed between the release of “The Phantom Menace” and “The Force Awakens.”

“The market is no longer white, suburban America,” says Harry Benshoff, a professor of Media Arts at the University of North Texas and co-author of “America on Film: Representing Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality at the Movies.” “The market is a global audience that is very diverse.”

Hispanics are the fastest-growing segment of movie audiences in the US. And Mr. Isaac's inclusion in “Star Wars” is notable given how few Latinos were represented in Hollywood movies this year. (Also largely missing: Asians and Muslims.)

The casting of Mr. Boyega and Mexican-Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong'o feels proactive during a time of widespread conversations about gender and race in the workplace, politics, and culture.

Despite its alien landscapes, “The Force Awakens” reflects our world in other aspects. At a time when one of the leading candidates for commander-in-chief of the United States is a woman, it’s fitting that Leia has jettisoned the princess title and is now a general of the rebel armed forces. It’s a natural progression for a character whom, one imagines, could command Han Solo to wash up the dishes in the Millennium Falcon.

“She’s a feminist icon,” says Sarah Seltzer, an editor-at-large at Flavorwire who frequently writes about feminism. “I went online yesterday to look for feminist odes to Princess Leia. There were so many!”

The series’ new heroine, Rey, fits into the trend of female action heroes in movies such as “The Hunger Games,” the “Divergent” series, and “Mad Max: Fury Road.” “The Force Awakens” also passes the so-called Bechdel test, which is assessed by whether two named female characters have a conversation about something other than a man.

Yet despite all the progress heroines are making on-screen, women in entertainment still face challenges. In a widely read 2015 essay, Jennifer Lawrence revealed her first-hand experience of the gender pay gap in Hollywood and how difficult it is for men in the industry to accept assertive women. Meanwhile, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recently opened an investigation into alleged Hollywood discrimination against female directors.

Yet it would be a misnomer to conclude that Hollywood is as much a boys-only club as the Galactic Empire in the original “Star Wars.” (The baddies in “The Force Awakens” now include women and people of color.) As chairman of Universal Pictures, Donna Langley has generated a record-breaking $6.7 billion box-office in 2015. She’s responsible for green lighting “Straight Outta Compton” and “Pitch Perfect 2,” hit movies without white male leads. Ms. Langley’s biggest hit, “Jurassic World,” will most likely be eclipsed by “The Force Awakens.” That movie’s producer is Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy.

Ms. Kennedy’s canniest move was to persuade J.J. Abrams to direct “The Force Awakens.” If there’s one person who can unite “Star Wars” fans across the decades, it’s Mr. Abrams. As a longtime devotee himself, the director not only tried to recapture the humor and fun of the original trilogy, but was also keen to focus on its underlying themes.

“To me ‘Star Wars’ was never about science fiction – it was a spiritual story,” Abrams told SlashFilm.com. “When I heard Obi-Wan say that the Force surrounds us and binds us all together, there was no judgment about who you were. This was something that we could all access.”

Abrams’ nonsectarian outlook is a signature element of his productions. Following in the footsteps of his two “Star Trek” films, which paired Spock and Uhura as a couple, “The Force Awakens” features an interracial love story.

“For the younger generation, I think the interracial romance is moot,” says to Anne Thompson, editor-in-chief of influential entertainment industry blog Thompson on Hollywood. “They don’t notice it. The same goes for gender issues. It’s the older generation that gets hung up on that stuff.”

For the most part, the original trilogy transcended debates about categorization. Even though its principals were white (with the honorable exception of Billy Dee Williams), the tale of Darth Vader’s redemption spoke to the human condition.

People of every stripe could relate to its universal truths, says Allen Voivod, host of the daily podcast “Star Wars 7 by 7.” Indeed, “Star Wars” is actually about seeing beyond appearances.

“Luke realizes that there’s actually a person under [the suit]—spoiler alert, his father —and that there’s actually humanity that can be touched in there,” says Mr. Voivod. “He tries to bring him back to the good side. People are not irredeemably lost to one side.”

That sense of optimism is something the old and new trilogies share in common. Viewers may come away from “The Force Awakens” with a new hope.

“One thing I noticed watching ‘The Force Awakens,’ is how often the characters hug each other,” says Ms. Rosenberg. “The characters are not riven by the same identity-based divides or gender and race assumptions. That’s utopian, to a certain extent. But it’s also just a relief to spend time in that kind of world for a while.”

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