(EDIT 12/29/15 – see bottom of this article for additional comments now that I’ve seen the movie)
Recently there was an article by Adam Rogers in Wired describing the Star Wars franchise plans currently being cooked up over in Disney-owned Lucasfilm. The article describes the “industrialization” of Star Wars and contains this sentence: “The company intends to put out a new Star Wars movie every year for as long as people will buy tickets.” Hearing this might elicit one of three responses:
A) A new Star Wars every year! I’m literally salivating with excitement.
B) *Shrug*. I don’t really care, it’s not my kind of movie.
C) This chills me to the very bone.
I’m firmly in Group C. And if you care about movies, you should be too.
Let’s be clear – I have no problems with the original Star Wars trilogy. I loved them as a kid, and still enjoy them today. I even like the prequel trilogy. And I will probably go see the new movies when they come out (at least for a while – by 2020 I may be suffering from lightsaber fatigue). The new Episode VII: The Force Something-or-Other will probably be competent and entertaining, like most films from director JJ Abrams. I doubt it will be groundbreaking or awe-inspiring, but it won’t be Transformers.
My beef is not with Star Wars the movie, or Star Wars the series of movies. What draws my ire is Star Wars, the Beast That Ate Pop Culture.
Even under normal circumstances, Star Wars is pretty ubiquitous. It accounts for 60% of internet humor, 47% of Halloween costumes, 32% of humorous bumper stickers, 71% of toys, 49% of video games, and 92% of science fiction book sales. I made those numbers up, but admit it – they seem reasonable. Now that we’re a month away from the first new Star Wars film in a decade, the whole culture has gone into full Star Wars mode. I recently opened up ThinkGeek to do some nerdy holiday shopping and found to my dismay that they apparently only sell Star Wars paraphernalia now. Most of the movie or sci-fi related sites in my RSS feed have been shoving Star Wars news down my throat at an insane rate for a year. Every day there is a new scene, or a new trailer, or a new Mark Hamill quote, or a new piece of news about which actor or director is now attached to Episode XXIV or whatever. You can escape Star Wars mania by avoiding pop culture altogether, but if you want to hear more about the next Coen Brothers movie, you’re going to have to wade through 600 articles about Episode VII before you find what you’re looking for.
The movie Clerks came out in 1994 and featured a scene where two characters have an ethical debate about Return of the Jedi. When I saw this as a teenager, it blew my mind. Here are two normal, not-too-nerdy guys talking about science fiction like other guys talked about football. Just like my friends and I did! I think a lot of adults today can remember back to when we were teenagers and sci-fi/fantasy/comics/etc were our things, the interests that set us apart from other kids at school.
But it’s not 1994 anymore – it’s 2015, and now everyone talks about Star Wars. Kids grow up on it, sci-fi is mainstream and no longer the domain of a few kids hanging out in the AV room after class. Which is great – I have no problem with something I like becoming popular. I’m not trying to sound like some hipster who’s upset because a band I like went mainstream.
Star Wars didn’t just go mainstream, it metamorphized into a lumbering giant shitting out product after product all over the pop cultural landscape. We haven’t gotten a new movie in a while but we’ve gotten a cornucopia of books, video games, comics, animated series, toys, and even sleeping bags. I don’t understand how people who are excited about the upcoming movie aren’t sick to death of lightsabers, Jedi, droids, X-Wings, etc. The iconic John Williams music is great, but when you’ve heard it literally thousands of times in your life, doesn’t it get old?
I highly recommend Mark Harris’s article last year in Grantland where he talks about Hollywood’s “toxic addiction to franchises”. He mostly takes aim at Marvel but the same criticisms could be leveled at Star Wars as well. Essentially, the major film studios are only willing to spend major cash on a film if it can be commodified and turned into a recurring franchise. Many film critics have bemoaned the death of the “mid-budget” film – small, low-budget films can still get funding, giant blockbusters can still get funding, but everything in the middle is toast. If you want $100 million for a movie that isn’t part of a franchise – your last name better be Spielberg or Scorsese.
Obviously, great films still get made. Even great non-franchise science fiction gets made – in recent years we’ve gotten terrific big budget standalones like Oblivion, Looper, Edge of Tomorrow, The World’s End, Interstellar, Gravity, and The Martian in addition to great indies like Attack the Block, Snowpiercer, Ex Machina, Coherence, and Primer. A couple of those films even made a lot of money. But as Harris points out, “the evidence that good movies survive…is a bit like saying that climate change is a hoax because it’s nice out today.” No one expects to see franchises crush non-franchise moviemaking entirely, but we don’t have visibility on all the movies that don’t get made because some studio exec vetoed a pitch due to a lack of franchise potential.
And, as Shakespeare said, “the fault is not in our Star Wars but in ourselves”. You can’t blame Hollywood – they’re just making the stuff we want to buy. Disney is funneling all of their cash into Marvel and Lucasfilm because fans have voted with their wallets and their feet and their tweets. As a culture we have collectively decided that what we want is more of the same: more Star Wars, more Avengers, more Batman, more Ghostbusters, more Indiana Jones, more of all the stuff that we already know we like. Great movies like Edge of Tomorrow eat dust at the box office because people don’t know what to expect – it doesn’t have the safety of an existing property.
I often hear people bemoaning all of the sequels, prequels, reboots, and remakes flooding theaters these days. But the same people who will roll their eyes when they hear about a new Robocop reboot or a new take on The Smurfs will drool over every morsel of news regarding Star Wars. Many reboots fail, but the box office for Jurassic World shows that if you tap into the right vein of nostalgia, it doesn’t matter how mediocre your movie is.
Science fiction fandom should be about celebrating the huge diversity of the genre, the incredible originality, the blossoming of a thousand new ideas all the time. Instead, conversation inevitably leads back to the same old franchises: Star Wars, Star Trek, Doctor Who, Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings. Personally I would rather watch and discuss misfires with originality (like Elysium or Jupiter Ascending – movies that are bad but at least trying something a little different) than the next franchise movie. It seems like what most people want is small variations on things they already know they like. They want to go to the theater and know, before they get there, exactly what they’ll be getting.
When Star Wars came out, it represented something new and original. The trilogy resonated with people because it felt unique and daring and outsider-y. In 2015, Star Wars represents commodification, corporatization, and conformity. It’s the output of a moviemaking process that starts with marketing and works backwards to a script. The new movies might be good, or they might be crap. But what they definitely will be is safe. They won’t challenge us or our view of the world, and they won’t take the kind of risks that produce truly great films. Because Disney isn’t going to take any chances with their $10 billion dollar franchise.
Addendum 12/29/15 – I’ve now seen The Force Awakens and it was more or less what I expected. I liked the new actors and there were some fun action scenes, but the movie as a whole seems to be entirely playing off nostalgia. It assumes that Star Wars fans want to be coddled with lots of stuff that they’ve already seen before, and based off the box office it appears that it assumes correctly. Other writers have done much better than I could in describing how much this movie steals from the original. In addition to the constant recycling of moments from the original trilogy, I was also annoyed by the thin plotting and the lack of world-building. I was hoping for a decent explanation of the political situation – if I have to go home and Google “difference between Republic and Resistance in Force Awakens” then there’s been a screenwriting failure.
Look, I don’t expect (or want) a Star Wars movie to be Citizen Kane. But as seen by other big-budget action movies this year like Mad Max: Fury Road, it’s possible to do a big fun adventure movie while still having a plot that feels original and unfolds organically. I think the best comparison to The Force Awakens is last year’s Guardians of the Galaxy, another franchise installment about a group of misfits having adventures in space. Guardians is better than The Force Awakens in every way – it has better characters (and better character arcs), more originality, funnier jokes, better serious moments, and a far more emotionally moving climax. The only thing it doesn’t have is lightsabers, TIE fighters, and a John Williams score designed to return us all to our eight-year old selves watching A New Hope for the first time. The real question will be if the nostalgia mining will be enough to sustain fan interest in 2019 when we’re watching the fifth new Star Wars movie in five years.