Since I've been a fan of the Star Wars franchise since its debut in 1977, it was my personal responsibility (or perhaps a mandatory requirement in my Lifetime Commitment to Geekery contract) to see the latest installment, The Force Awakens (a.k.a. Episode VII), as soon as possible after it was released last month. So far, I've seen it twice already--once on a regular movie screen and once in the 3D IMAX format--and while it's a fun movie, it's the only Star Wars film that left me feeling underwhelmed. Lucas may have felt that Disney would be an ideal home for his franchise after he sold it back in 2012, but its latest live-action contribution to the saga felt like it lost its spirit of fantasy when compared to the other movies.
This post isn't a review of Force Awakens as much as it is a look back at Star Wars as a whole, what the new movie means in that context, and speculation of what Disney era of the franchise will look like in the years to come. Read on ...
At its heart, Star Wars was a '70s era makeover of the pulpy space operas that were shown as multi-part serials in movie theaters during the early decades of cinema. Before the Skywalker family, the Jedi Order and the Sith Lords, there was Buck Rogers, Commander Cody and Flash Gordon. In fact, one of the earliest Star Wars posters even said as much, in case fans might miss the connection:
What made Star Wars such an unexpected phenomenon was Lucas' approach to space operas. As a movie buff himself, he didn't limit himself to mimicking the look and feel of previous space operas; he also threw in visual and thematic content from westerns, samurai movies, and World War II films (among others) into the mixture. Adding to this ambitious pastiche was Lucas' utilization of a wide variety of special effect techniques (e.g., stop motion animation, rod puppetry, motion controlled cameras, matte paintings, etc.) to bring his story to life. The end result was a distinct cinematic experience that captured the imaginations of audiences around the world. Considering how much it popularized special effects in films in the years and decades since, it's hard to imagine a time when Star Wars was so different from everything else at the movies.
Tatooine from Return of the Jedi.
From what I have seen over the years, I don't think Lucas ever lost his ambition to do something new with what he created. Each successive film in the original trilogy boasted unique alien creatures and technologies, imaginative landscapes, and impressive set pieces, all depicted by using the latest advancements in visual effects. When the prequel trilogy came along a few years later, Lucas' inspired use of effects continued in order to expand the scope of his fictional galaxy. Even though he wasn't directly in charge of The Clone Wars animated series that followed the prequels, the series’ production crew remarked in interviews about how Lucas would keep challenging them to bring new ideas, characters and themes into each season of the show.
The common complaint among critics--even during the earliest days of the franchise--was that Lucas' approach put special effects ahead of everything else, resulting in visually impressive but ultimately shallow, mindless films. (I swear that cinema must be the only form of visual art that can be legitimately criticized for being too visual.) Yet the way he filmed his fictional universe stayed firmly rooted in the fantasy aspects of space operas, placing a heavy emphasis on breathtaking wonder and a daft sense of whimsy. Scenes from the first six films linger on the gorgeous locations that the characters visit during their adventures; tellingly, the most significant additions that Lucas made to the original trilogy in the special editions were more landscape shots and more creatures and robots to inhabit those spaces.
Naboo from The Phantom Menace.
The wonder and whimsy that make Star Wars what is has been for so long is significantly absent from Force Awakens. The new trio of heroes--Rey, Finn and Poe--is appealing enough to anchor a trilogy of films, but the story heavily relies on familiar designs and action-propelled momentum in place of bold new visions; it has plenty of chase scenes, shoot-outs and explosions, and not much else. Instead of aliens with varying shapes, colors and sizes, most of the aliens are interchangeable and have bland, earthen colors. The worlds upon which the action takes place lack character, including the Earth-sized weapon that provides the film with its final act. You'd think that such an impossible weapon would be a wonder to behold, but it isn't. Even though it required the removal of half of its equator in order to install an Australia-sized canon, the planet seems disproportionately small.
For a series filled with wondrous imagery, what happened? Blame the faction of irate Star Wars fans who have been complaining endlessly about the special edition versions of the original trilogy and the prequel films. I have my own theories about how this came to be (something I'll save for another post), but I think John Weathers on the wrathful dove blog put it best: “Although (The Phantom Menace) played well with the wider movie-going public, there was a vocal, obsessive minority that absolutely detested the film. Having spent the previous sixteen years imagining their own ideas of what stories the prequels would tell, many of these people had created mental yard sticks designed for disappointment. Through the young, rapidly growing medium of online communities these disenchanted fans were able to group together and obsessively trade criticisms, feeding their negativity and killing their former passion with a thousand paper cuts. The stage was now set for these “fans” to grab a megaphone and amplify their voice of dissatisfaction to the point of distorting public perception.”
Kashyyyk from Revenge of the Sith.
Regardless, Disney is willing to fulfill the demands of angry fans and it shows in Force Awakens. It relies heavily on designs from the original trilogy, mildly updating them to suggest a passage of time from the last film but still retaining their general appearance for easy identification. There are no new aliens, vehicles or technologies distinct enough to contribute to the saga's ongoing story. It's almost as if Disney was terrified to add anything too unique, daring or offbeat into the film for fear that it might offend the delicate sensibilities of the special edition/prequel haters. Even the soundtrack provided by Star Wars vet John Williams feels subdued, only rising to prominence when it makes callbacks to themes from the original trilogy. Considering how well the animated series Rebels captures the energy of the previous six movies without feeling like a retread, I was taken aback by how much Force Awakens distances itself from the grand, fantastical visions that have previously characterized the Star Wars saga.
In exchange for Lucas' focus on wonder and whimsy (things that are not "badass" enough for today's snarky moviegoers), the new film does what many other sci-fi films and TV shows have been doing since the '80s: taking the "used universe" look that Star Wars popularized and focusing on its darker, grimier aspects--or, as some would put it, the grimdark approach to space operas. As such, there were scenes that felt more like a generic sci-fi action film in Star Wars drag than an actual Star Wars film. I suppose this approach tests well among current focus groups and fits the sensibilities of today's sci-fi film fans, but it wasn't what put Star Wars on the pop culture map in the first place and kept it going for so many years since then.
If advance word and promotional stills for the next Star Wars film are any indication, this trend is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. The next film is called Rogue One, a stand-alone film that tells the story of how the Rebel Alliance acquired plans for the first Death Star, thus setting into motion the events of A New Hope. Yet from the way they are dressed and photographed, the film's cast of "scoundrels" (see below) look like they could be put into a Guardians of the Galaxy sequel or a spinoff series for the Battlestar Galactica reboot without missing a beat.
The cast of Star Wars: Rogue One.
With the wild popularity of Force Awakens at the box office (it just surpassed Avatar as the highest-grossing film), Disney will probably keep moving Star Wars away from Lucas' original vision and closer to whatever is trending with other sci-fi action-adventure films. This will most likely mean plenty of spaceship battles, lightsaber duels, and blaster fights with extras dressed as Stormtroopers for many movies to come. Each new script will be handed to a new, critically-lauded director, and a designated committee will oversee how this franchise will keep cranking out new films like clockwork for years to come. Unfortunately, it seems that the goofy, creative and ambitious spirit that made Star Wars unique among the sea of its imitators has been pushed out of the airlock.