By Anthony Breznican
Updated December 18, 2014 at 12:00 PM EST

Maybe we really are alone in the galaxy. The heroes and villains of Star Wars: The Force Awakens sure seem to be.

The movie is unquestionably 2015’s most anticipated film, and although we’ve only seen flashes of actual footage from next December’s journey into that other galaxy, I can’t help but notice that director J.J. Abrams chose to introduce the story’s new characters in moments of isolation and desperation.

Consider John Boyega as Finn, the scared, sweaty Stormtrooper trying to make an escape in the desert. Or Daisy Ridley’s Rey, riding solo (no pun intended) in her Taser-shaped speeder across a similarly blighted landscape.

Yeah, Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron is flying his X-wing in formation with the rest of his squad, but life in those cockpits can be solitary.

Even BB-8, the adorable ball droid, rolls alone.

Then there is Kylo Ren, the mysterious cloaked figure staggering through the woods on a snowy evening before igniting his fiery three-pronged lightsaber. Clearly a villain and identified in the trailer as standing for “the dark side” in this new awakening, he is possibly the shadow version of Luke Skywalker from the original trilogy—the nobody who rises from nothing and nowhere to topple the powers that be. That would certainly mirror contemporary anxieties: We are less fearful of evil empires now. Instead, what terrifies us is the angry loner with a tricked-out weapon.

Without a doubt, at some point these characters will cross paths—or lightsabers. But Abrams and producer Kathleen Kennedy (who took over as president of Lucasfilm after Star Wars creator George Lucas sold his kingdom to Disney in 2012) seem to have tapped into what made the earlier films so powerful: a group of loners who discover they’re part of something bigger. We’ve all felt alone and powerless, and most of us have been saved from that by friends who join us in a shared quest or destiny. What the new films need — and what the prequels lacked — is the melancholy solitude that makes it so satisfying when forces are ultimately joined in the final reel.

“I always think back to the original movies and to those quieter moments where Luke is out in A New Hope, and there are the two suns setting,” Adam Driver, another of the newcomers to this galaxy, told me in an interview during the shoot. “It is the equivalent, basically, of a farm boy dying to get out of his small town and do something bigger. It’s those kinds of universal themes that ground this whole thing in space.”

That’s the challenge facing this movie: create a big spectacle fused with some measure of intimacy. “I feel like that’s everyone’s goal, to balance those two,” Driver says.

We still don’t know who Driver is playing; same goes for his costars (and fellow trailer absentees) Gwendoline Christie, Lupita Nyong’o, Domhnall Gleeson, and Max von Sydow. Andy Serkis (best known as Gollum from The Lord of the Rings and Caesar in the new Planet of the Apes films) also has an unspecified role, but intones ominously as the narrator of the trailer.

In a recent interview, Serkis couldn’t tell me much about who (or what) he’s playing, explaining only that his character has been hardened by the celestial battles that have raged all these years. “He’s been through some stuff,” Serkis says. The actor can also knock down some rumors. He does not juggle multiple motion-capture roles, for starters. “I only play one character,” he says. “And I’m not leading a band of gymnasts or acrobats.” But he’s eager to be part of a Star Wars tradition: becoming an action ­figure. “I’d better,” he says.

Mark Hamill has seen his likeness on dozens of Luke Skywalker figurines, but even he admits that the emotion of being back in the Star Wars galaxy can be overwhelming at times. Playing the son of Anakin was a huge part of his past, and although he once thought the Star Wars world would continue, he says he eventually got used to the idea that it was a relic of bygone days. When Lucas said he would go back in time with the prequels instead of following what happens after the collapse of the Empire in Return of the Jedi, Hamill thought that was it for him and that Tatooine farmboy turned galactic savior.

“I don’t know that I’m even completely recovered from my state of shock,” he says. “Part of the experience of [Star Wars] in my life was coming down from that, putting it behind me. We had a beginning, a middle, and an end. And I certainly, in a million years, never expected to return. I thought, ‘Even if they do more trilogies, my story is over.’ ”

This time around, Hamill tried to make the most of being reunited with his former costars, including Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia and Harrison Ford as Han Solo—as well as getting to know the new generation of actors. “It’s kind of like Scrooge on Christmas morning,” Hamill says. “‘Oh my God, this time I’m going to appreciate it in a way I wasn’t able to as a young man.’ ”

We can’t be sure what destiny awaits Luke until the film’s Dec. 18 release. What we do know for sure is, if he’s back with old friends, how could there be anything but a new hope?

For more Star Wars news:

EW has scoop on 116 things that you’re going to be talking about this year—so why not get a head start now? Grab the forecast issue and impress your friends with your newfound powers of prediction.