Okay, so I know that I said I had a moratorium on negative reviews. That said, I saw the latest installment of Star Wars shortly before Christmas and let’s say that my most glowing endorsement goes to Disney. For what it’s worth, they are pioneers, not so much in regard to filmmaking but making successful franchises that make tons of money. Disney really set a precedent that I’m sure will be copied by other studios and quite possibly, it could be a good thing.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens… there are a million reviews of it out there, some glowing and others ripping it apart. I’m not going to go too much into the film itself but instead focus on its impact on the future of movies.
In 2012, Star Wars fans and pop culture enthusiasts stormed social media on the news of Disney’s purchase of Lucas Films for an insane $4 billion. Yes, for the sum that could have fully-financed a movie on the scale of The Avengers nearly 20 times over, Disney invested in a popular name. No script. No actors. No directors. They bought the name “Star Wars”. The opinions at the time varied from skepticism over a Leia becoming a Disney princess to excitement that George Lucas no longer had control over the beloved characters and universe many thought were ruined in the prequel trilogy. Most of any doubt evaporated instantaneously once slivers of information confirming that there indeed would be an Episode VII coming in 2015: a title here, the attachment of JJ Abrams later, and then first looks of the new villain. Star Wars fans salivated over a dream come true 30 years in the making.
Now look, whether you enjoyed the viewing experience of The Force Awakens or not, let’s all admit that the movie had some problems. To get a little taste of the low-lights, revisit this Huffington Post article if you haven’t seen it already. After seeing the movie and letting it settle in for a few days, I came to the conclusion that it made total sense that it turned out the way it did. The movie is huge. I mean, there are tons of new characters, new planets, a Death Star (or “Star Killer”) the size of a planet, a huge range of environments. It’s no wonder they didn’t spend more than a day on the actual script. From the purchase of Lucas Films to opening night was less than three years and I’m actually kind of amazed they pulled it off. That said…
What in the world does this say about movies from here on out?
The Force Awakens will break all box office records, guaranteed. And speaking as a Star Wars fan, here’s the one thing I can say is universally true: we’re the movie equivalent of Cleveland Browns fans, no matter how God-awful the product is, we’re buying the tickets, the merchandise, everything. We might tear some things apart amongst ourselves (like a clichéd and persistent hatred of Jar Jar Binks) but we will defend any hot mess against outsiders. And after what seemed like 30-years of losing seasons (really, you only have to stick with this analogy a little longer), finally, our team was under new management with a new coach. It was literally a new hope. And we bought it, sight-unseen knowing we’d love it no matter what. We knew that and so did Disney. And that’s the goldmine of Star Wars fans: we assume (and consume) so much of that world as a part of our identities that what should be mere entertainment becomes a reflection of our personal identities. We didn’t buy tickets to some popcorn flick; we participated in the latest chapter of a cultural legacy. It’s that naïve mentality that makes it seem like “we won” when the ginormous box office numbers come out. It’s a validation of sorts; a false sense of self-importance when all the while we’re just predictably gullible marks filling a ledger.
In hindsight, this whole scenario saddened me. I, along with millions of other people who rushed out to see The Force Awakens, paid to see a movie with a story with so many holes that had it just been an original script with no association with the nostalgia of a beloved franchise, it would have been panned worse than Jupiter Ascending. Sorry, but it’s true. Remove all the old characters, “cool” use of The Force, and a climax no different than ones portrayed in two past installments of Star Wars, and all we’re left with are plot progression reliant on the most extraordinary coincidences ever seen on film, laughably terrible dialog more appropriate for a Star Wars spoof, and a villain so prone to tantrums that he literally smashes his own computers when he gets bad news. But BB-8… wasn’t he so cute?! These points don’t sadden me in and of themselves, but what does is that every ounce of incentive for anything remotely original has evaporated.
And this is how original movies die; with thunderous applause and record-setting box office sales.
But wait, this was supposed to be about good news. It is. Now that Disney is the undisputed king of what amounts to idea fracking, I genuinely believe the pendulum can’t swing any further and must return the other way. Eventually, there will be nothing left to mine. How many Avengers movies can they possibly make? And even Star Wars fans drew lines in the sand with The Phantom Menace to some degree. What is beautiful about Disney’s takeover of Star Wars goes right back to that $4-billion they paid for the name; they have to make all that money back. And with not only this rushed fan film laying the foundation for what more than likely will be even-worse movies to follow, there’s nearly zero commercial breaks on television that have not somehow associated itself with Star Wars.
For example, somehow Dodge is intertwined with the franchise in a series of commercials that make me neither want a car nor see the Star Wars movie. I’ve seen at least two of these ad spots no fewer than 10 times each. And God forbid you’ve ever spent more than an hour on a Sunday in a bar or restaurant that is playing football; multiply those airings times fourteen screens. Personally, I welcome this scorched earth marketing campaign because what I pray will happen is that they will burn out every ounce of goodwill is stripped from the name “Star Wars”. Eventually, the loyal fans have to see that they’re no longer a part some magical perfect storm that happens when a team of talented artists create some out-there movie by pouring countless hours, days, weeks, and months into a project, wearing every bit of their geeky influences on their sleeve. Rather, they are now marks in a formulaic and targeted marketing campaign to extract as much disposable income by selling fans’ most joyous memories back to them in every gross and shameless way possible.
And then the pendulum will swing back towards originality. Hopefully.
Because the irony of The Force Awakens is that if it truly turns out to be the harbinger of what’s to come; there will never be another Star Wars. And what I mean by that is that there will never be another chance for some guy’s crazy idea to get the financial backing needed to capture that lightning in a bottle that leads to the next pop culture phenomenon. And really, why should any studio who wants to remain in business waste a dollar on it? Why, when we scramble every weekend to snag those tickets for the next movie version of the hot young-adult novel franchise, the live-action 80s cartoon, the latest comic book superhero installment, or remake of a cult classic? And we do it at the expense of anything remotely unique. We kill films that take a chance on something new or even a twist on an old idea. Movies like Suckerpunch, Jupiter Ascending, and Tomorrowland that are nowhere near as bad, plot-wise, than The Hunger Games, Transformers, X-Men: Days of Future Past, or Poltergeist. (I thought those three movies were much underrated, really.) Eventually, the woman or man walking around with the next E.T. script will have to stick around long enough to see a day when the public will spend money on something that isn’t branded, rehashed, or instantly recognizable.
A fool can dream, right?
As Disney milks its investments, connecting the Star Wars money tap to consumers’ bank accounts, I eagerly (or possibly foolishly) bide my time until the well runs dry. I walk by the faith that out there, a generation of young aspiring writers and directors quietly create disillusioned by the recycled and gaudily packaged trash that fills theaters today. And it won’t just be the next Spielberg lying in wait, but the creators of the most audacious, over-the-top, guilty pleasure movies for the next generation. When the pendulum swings back away from the movie fossil fuels, not only will the next Quentin Tarantino, Robert Altman, or Aaron Sorkin emerge, but the next James Cameron, Steven Spielberg, or John Hughes. I don’t think it will take much for a cultural shift to occur despite the largest studios spend countless dollars attempting to indoctrinate young people into brand loyalty. If we learned nothing else from Star Wars, it only takes one shot from one hero in a ragtag group of rebels to annihilate even the most powerful gigantic world-destroying machine.