Why The Force Awakens Might Disappoint: Star Wars and the Modern Blockbuster

Love or hate it, when Star Wars crashed onto cinema screens in the 70s, it heralded a new type of blockbuster film making. It took storytelling elements from sci-fi serials, fairy tales and westerns but ultimately created something that played by its own rules, becoming a franchise that had the confidence to pull off the gut-punch ending of Empire Strikes Back and to create a love triangle including a brother and sister. That is not to say that the original trilogy was not a fundamentally commercial enterprise (it was), but even its overtly commercial decisions, such as introducing kiddie-friendly characters such as C3PO and Ewoks, were done with a fresh, ambitious mindset, going on to revolutionise toy making and tie-in franchising.

All of which begs the question: will the new set of Star Wars films be as bold? Will they buck the current trends of Hollywood film making, or follow them?

Much has changed since the original trilogy, and the modern formulas of blockbusters are so dominant that they influence almost every studio tentpole film released. Nowadays, any film over a certain budget will either be a part of a gigantic cinematic universe à la Marvel, or trade on nostalgia for franchises that are at least 20 years old. The fact that Disney are doing both with the Star Wars material may be exciting for fans, may also be reason for concern: how innovative can the new episodes be, and to what extent might they fall foul of the rules of modern blockbuster film making?


Movie Universes: the bloat of modern film making

Since the success of Marvel, the ambitions to turn every property into a multi-movie saga has become ubiquitous. It would almost not be worth mentioning, were it not for the clumsiness with which some recent films have used your fandom as a vehicle to beg for cash.

Terminator Genysis, to pick one of the most egregious examples of the year, ends with a voiceover that practically apologises for its plot holes, stating that the characters still have “many questions”. This is just before a post-credits sequence in which- surprise! – the enemy isn’t as defeated as you thought/feared/struggled to remember.

At its worst, this sort of set-up can actively undermine the film you just watched, sacrificing the satisfaction of ending a story for a bid for your wallet. Watch the film again, and you’ll know that there will be no payoff for some of the most fundamental questions of the film, and no real resolution of the conflict either.

This has been the case with single plotlines (the scientist in Jurassic World), sections of films (Avengers: Age of Ultron, Prometheus), or even the entirety of the films themselves (Mockingjay: Part 1)- all designed to get you to return to the cinema rather than remind you why you are there in the first place. Even Peter Jackson, who strove to give proper endings to all his Middle-Earth films even though they were released just a year apart, resorted to cliff-hanger cinema in The Desolation of Smaug.

This sort of filmmaking makes the stories buckle under immense pressure, unable to address both the needs of the story and the need to effectively market the next instalment. The Force Awakens is set within a world which we already know, but that doesn’t mean it won’t have to set up a lot of plot points for the upcoming string of films and spin-offs. It’s entirely possible that it might fall prey to the exposition-before-storytelling aspect of Marvel at its worst (Thanos has yet to serve any purpose in any film yet) or to the current trend of keeping things back for sequels (hello, The Amazing Spider Man 2).

Reasons to be Optimistic:

The franchise has previous form in tying up plot strands while also hinting at things to come- Exhibit A being Empire Strikes Back. It’s a film that left questions unanswered and finished on a cliff-hanger, but still managed to become the most beloved film of the franchise. Also, JJ Abrams has yet to do sequel baiting in any of his films to date.

You could also make a serious case that Star Wars is the granddaddy of the cinematic universe anyway- after all, the moment that A New Hope was christened Episode IV promised a whole host of other stories to grace our screens.


Release Date Slavery: putting the cart before the horse

It was only a little while ago that we didn’t know what films we’d see in years to come. Now, we have announcements of release dates going up to 2020. It might make business sense for the studios to plant their flags in the sand, but the fact of the matter is that this could also dramatically affect the quality of future instalments. We have been promised a Star Wars film every year; this may well be cause for celebration for the fans, but their mood may turn sour if the films are not of a high standard. Which- given the frantic rate at which some of these movies will be produced- could place the filmmakers in a difficult position.

It’s no surprise that two of the biggest failures of 2015 were Fantastic Four and Terminator Genysis– two films rushed so that the studios could keep the rights to the material. When a release date is announced before there is a script, director or writer then there is no way for films to develop organically, or for the filmmakers to change their minds and radically rethink the project like the Pixar team do on a regular basis.

Imagine a world where Star Wars doesn’t take stock after every film, and give itself some time to figure out what works and what doesn’t. That is a world in which Jar Jar Binks is a major player in an even-worse version of Attack of the Clones because Lucas is already well into preproduction by the time Episode I’s backlash hits. That is a world where Episode VI is called its original title of (shudder) Revenge of the Jedi.

The Bond franchise tried to rush their film out once. The audience ended up with Quantum of Solace.

Reasons to be optimistic:

JJ Abrams has praised the studio for giving him ample time to finish The Force Awakens, so the founding film has at least been given due time and consideration.


Nostalgia: the box-office value of childhood properties

A tricky one, this. The Force Awakens has built up internet hysteria by marketing itself as a true sequel to Episode VI– a film that came out over thirty years ago. Yes, we’ve all felt our hearts skip a beat at the sight of Han Solo and Chewie in the trailers. Yes, that score made us all gooey inside.

But with hindsight, the story of the Skywalker saga was brought to a close in Return of the Jedi, father and son finally reconciled. So why should this new trilogy bring these old characters in anyway? There’s no reason for the new films to be set in the same part of the galaxy, or within these characters’ lifetimes. After all, there are entire galaxies to play with: it’s a large sandbox, and one that is ready for some audacious new ideas. It could be fascinating, for example, to see a story set on a fringe planet with some forgotten Jedi sect, or a detective noir set on Coruscant.

Such ideas are presumably not allowed to take place because of the huge appeal of referring back to the golden age of Star Wars, and the box office strength of nostalgia. Which, although exciting, puts obstacles in the filmmaker’s path. The new films won’t just be compared to the prequels, but to the originals themselves. If the writers and members of the original cast bring anything other than their very best to The Force Awakens, then we will be treated to pale versions of characters we grew up adoring.

Put simply, once you place yourself in the world of the original trilogy, the benchmark for success becomes astronomically high. As George Lucas himself complained recently, “all you do is get criticised.”

The filmmakers are already dangerously close to making some blunders in this regard: making Kylo Ren a fan of Darth Vader could make him appear like a second rate version of the ol’ helmethead we love to hate, and the thought of seeing Han Solo’s childhood in the Star Wars Anthology films is a turn-off for many. After all, the whole appeal of that character is that he’s an amoral scoundrel subsequently turned into a hero by the forces of friendship and love. If we are told that he already accomplished feats of derring-do in his childhood, then that character arc loses its potency just as much as Hayden’s Christenson’s “NOOO!” threatened to change the way we think of Darth Vader, or the Attack of the Clones shenanigans ruined the Boba Fett legacy.

Modern Hollywood often seems to think that to revere an old franchise means you should refer to it at all times. This is what led to JJ Abrams angering the world in Star Trek Into Darkness. This is what led to Spectre bending over backwards to awkwardly refer to the franchise’s legacy. As often as not, a blatant appeal to the fans’ childhoods can excite in promotion, and disappoint in final products.

These new films could have been a blank slate. Modern Hollywood rules, however, dictate that nostalgia brings in the cash, and that a few seconds of Han Solo’s face in the trailer will probably add a few hundred million dollars in Disney’s bank.

Which means we’re at risk of having another Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull on our hands.

It’s a trap, indeed.

Reasons to be Optimistic:

The other Star Wars Anthology film, Rogue One, is set to be a heist movie with new characters. This will hopefully show just how much scope there is in the Star Wars Universe, while Star Trek (2009) also showed how JJ Abrams is capable of drawing from the legacy of a property without being bogged down by it.


A New Hope

Overall, Star Wars did so much to shape the rules of geek cinema that it may seem churlish to bemoan it fitting into that mould now. However, while many fans may be clamouring for more films and be excited with references to the original instalments, one of the best things the filmmakers could do is embrace the boldness of the 70s trilogy and try something completely new. Shock us with something that doesn’t adhere to the rules of the cinematic universes currently populating our screens, and we may get something akin to the Empire Strikes Back ending all over again for new generations.

Luke didn’t always listen to his Jedi masters, rejecting the advice of Yoda and Obi-Wan in order to save his friends and appeal to his father’s humanity. In the end, he brought freedom and happiness to the galaxy.

Let’s hope the current crop of Star Wars storytellers are as courageous.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: