Star Wars fans are like Democrats. Hope springs eternal for another movie that’ll recapture the magic many of us experienced seeing the original film (Franklin Roosevelt) more than 37 years ago but, time and again, these hopes are senselessly dashed, from Return of the Jedi (Walter Mondale) to The Phantom Menace (Al Gore). And now they’re pinning their hopes on (what they perceive) as a visionary director, JJ Abrams (Barack Obama) to clean up the catastrophic mess left behind by George Lucas (George W. Bush). And just as the country remains fiercely divided about Obama’s legacy, with many of his supporters wanting so much to believe the state of the union has improved under his watch, so too will Abrams’s followers strain to find something good to say about his vision of Star Wars, regardless of how the film really turns out. Meanwhile others (Republican pundits) are already finding fault with absolutely everything in the new movie’s trailer, a full year before its official release.
It’s preordained that Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) will make a boatload of money, probably a billion dollars, even if it’s no damn good. It also seems likely that it will be at least a bit better than the woebegone prequel trilogy of the late 1990s-early 2000s, if only because it won’t be subjected to Lucas’s meddling mitts. But will it be any good? Like the Mel Brooks song, hope for the best, expect the worst.
Here’s why: Few seem to grasp, even now, even probably Abrams, the reasons the original Star Wars became the pop cultural icon it did. The other reason is that the movie marketplace has changed so dramatically since 1977 as to render another film like it highly improbable if not impossible.
When Star Wars was brand-new, I was a young lad of 11-12 years old and vividly recall the impact that first film had on ordinary, unsuspecting moviegoers. And it wasn’t just in terms of its startling and varied orgy of special effects, though they undeniably played a role. No, it was everything, the combined strengths of its ingenious synthesis of cinematic influences, the direction, cinematography, music, performances – everything, all accidentally perfectly timed for an audience primed for such an immensely joyful, even cathartic, movie-watching experience. It was a rare example (The Wizard of Oz and Casablanca being two others) of the accidental masterpiece, a movie that could easily have been terrible, but that, luck on its side, miraculously, perfectly fell into place at exactly the right time.
Simply put, audiences were completely unprepared for what they saw. Remember, this was long before the Internet, cable television, the ability to watch movies anywhere at one’s convenience, and a time when pre-release hype was limited to little featurettes that occasionally ran as filler after network prime-time movie airings, or a star plugging his new movie on The Tonight Show. Star Wars appeared as if out of nowhere.
Few saw it opening day, as it opened on a mere 32 screens — 32 screens! — unimaginable in today’s economy. I probably first saw it in June, in a packed theater of film-goers only vaguely aware of the growing buzz, spurred by news reports of long lines on both coasts and ecstatic audience reaction. During those early months – and I personally experienced the film around 15 times during 1977, including once at a drive-in – audiences literally, audibly gasped. They responded with spontaneous laughter, applause, even cheers. It remained in theaters four out of the next five years.
The new Star Wars movie will likely open on at least 5,000 screens and, of course, already, a year before it’s out, fans are scrutinizing scads of photos being leaked across the Internet, and literally every last shot of that teaser trailer. I don’t envy Abrams. Movies shouldn’t be subject to such intense scrutiny before they’re even finished. It would have better to keep everything under wraps until opening day but that’s impossible in this day and age; that Disney’s publicity people want to exert at least some control over the flow of leaked material is probably understandable.
But the new Star Wars won’t be made for me and it won’t be made for you, either. With a projected $200 million budget (about 20 times the cost of the original) it can’t help but cater to the broadest possible worldwide audience, and that means taking few chances or “pleasing the fans.” The first movie was so memorable because it was the first movie – everything was new. Everything since involves characters and a universe we’re now all intimately familiar.
Abrams and cinematographer Daniel Mindel are to be commended for stating publicly they want to minimize the use of CGI and instead film on real locations and utilize scale models as the original trilogy but not the prequels had. Whether this comes to pass is unknown though these good intentions do not seem borne out in the trailer. Regardless, I’d like to see Abrams go significantly further than that.
Would should be a cardinal rule for anyone making a remake or sequel to such films is an intensive study of what made the original so appealing in the first place. This is not to say the filmmakers are obliged to copy those elements or to bend to the demands and expectations of fans of such pictures. But it only makes sense to clearly understand what worked the first time around and to build on that success, or to consciously move in different directions for valid reasons, and even sometimes to subvert what worked before into a work entirely new. Any of these approaches are fraught with peril: Lucas tried second-guessing audience expectations in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi (1983) and the results were movies with both good and terrible ideas. By the time he got around to the prequels he decided to fashion them into precisely and down to the last detail exactly what he thought they should be, all other core creative input be damned. Those movies pleased so few because either even he didn’t understand why Star Wars was so embraced. Or maybe he subconsciously wanted to aesthetically dismantle all that he had built. Maybe he was only interested in making money.
But, even earlier, other than some strong story developments in Empire (negated somewhat by several supremely bad choices elsewhere), none of the Star Wars sequels to date have lived up to their potential. Partly this was Lucas’s obsession with raising the bar in terms of the visual effects with each film and implementing CGI technology. Most of the truly bad ideas in the original sequels were his.
The new Star Wars would be better with less, a less frenetic, more deliberate pace and, most important of all, an intelligent, adult, and humanist approach to its story and characters. The first film had between 300-380 special effects shots, compared to around 2,000 in each of the prequel films. Some CGI-filled movies today have closer to 3,000, resembling video games more than movies. What the new Star Wars movie should do but probably won’t is dramatically deemphasize the visual effects. I long to see long stretches of real, unenhanced location work backgrounding character-driven scenes. A few major set pieces, as with the original picture, would be far more dramatic, especially if the screenplay carefully and intelligently laid the groundwork for (and reestablishes) characters and a story its audience can truly embrace.
But I just don’t see that sort of thing in Abrams’s filmography. His Star Trek (2009) probably had more effects shots during its first ten minutes than the entire original Star Wars. I don’t have data about the average shot length in Abrams’s Star Trek movies versus the original Star Wars, but I’d expect the total number of shots of all kinds to dwarf any of the original films.
Star Wars came along at a time when Hollywood-made and foreign films tended to be downbeat and pessimistic: think A Clockwork Orange, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, Network, Nashville, etc. As important as its special effects, more so even, was that Star Wars provided escapist entertainment when such movies were comparatively rare. Today, virtually all Hollywood-produced movies are high-concept, superficial escapism. Just as Star Wars movies are no longer light years ahead of industry standards in terms of their special effects, so too is it no longer an entertainment anomaly generally. Audiences have become more sophisticated in terms of their awareness of movie technology, and in tandem have also become much more jaded, even afraid to feel. The spontaneous, unselfconscious euphoria audiences felt as the end credits of the original Star Wars rolled during the summer of 1977 is hard to imagine today. Indeed, readers too young to have seen Star Wars when it was new might find the very idea of that last sentence perplexing. But it’s also exactly what Star Wars fans have been positively craving to experience again for decades.
The new movie brings back the original trilogy’s stars: Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford. Probably there will be a lot of smart-alecky dialogue about them being too old for this sort of space-swashbuckling (one can already anticipate the catch-phrases), something akin to the jokey, obvious lines found in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), made when Ford was 65. But wouldn’t it be something if the new Star Wars script could find a way to humanistically reflect some of the concerns and interests these favorite characters might be experiencing and feeling in their late-middle age? (Well, Harrison’s now 72. Han Solo’s “autumn years,” perhaps?) The new Star Wars is primarily, perhaps unavoidably targeting 18-24 year olds who don’t have the patience for such contemplation, but what about the millions of original Star Wars fans, primarily moviegoers now in their late-40s to late-60s? The first film was such a resounding success partly because it appealed to such a broad audience spectrum: theaters weren’t just crammed with kids, but middle-aged and senior citizens who rarely went to the movies, many of whom had probably never seen a science fiction-fantasy film in their life. Not before or since have I seen a phenomenon like it: a movie that practically everyone, all age groups, races, tastes, etc. had to see at least once, a movie that nearly everyone enjoyed immensely.
Why can’t we have that again?