Star Wars: Industry Prophet

My hopes for The Force Awakens are somewhat broader than simply hoping the film is entertaining, or that it ushers in a new era of quality Star Wars live-action content the likes of which hasn’t been seen since 1980. Each Star Wars film, good or bad, has had a considerable impact on not only the pop culture conversation, but on the disposition and direction of the film industry itself. The idea that The Force Awakens will be no different seems a foregone conclusion. My hope, then, is that the resulting shift is a positive one.

Look out New Hollywood, the Stormtroopers are coming!

New Hollywood was NOT trampled under the jackboots of the Stormtroopers, despite what some critics and historians claim.

Even claiming the Star Wars films were responsible for those shifts in the industry is an oversimplification. The first Star Wars film, in 1977, is often cited as the death knell of the “New Hollywood” era, a period auterists tend to look on as a golden age of cinema, when filmmakers were given the creative freedom to realize their artistic visions without much, if any, studio oversight. Easy Rider, The French Connection, Taxi Driver — even films such as The Exorcist and The Godfather are considered part of this wave of unbridled creativity and artistic freedom. And then, if you believe certain critics, Star Wars came along — a big-budget, crowd-pleasing “popcorn” film of dubious artistic merit — made a ton of money, and ruined everything for the “serious” filmmakers.

Films like William Friedkin's The French Connection were an example of studios' "hands off" policy during the '70s. [20th Century Fox]

Films like William Friedkin’s The French Connection were an example of studios’ “hands off” policy during the ’70s. [20th Century Fox]

This is, of course, not precisely fair. The shift away from “New Hollywood” and complete creative control from filmmakers was already well under way by the time Star Wars came along. Disastrous productions like Apocalypse Now, and self-indulgent bloated flops like Heaven’s Gate were the primary catalysts for a re-establishment of studio control. Huge moneymakers like Jaws, Grease, even Rocky, helped pave the way for the era of the “blockbuster”. And the then-unheard of practice of wide-release — that is, releasing a film simultaneously in theatres across the county — standard practice today, of course, was not pioneered by Star Wars or even Jaws, but by The Godfather.

Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather pioneered the now-standard practice of wide release. [Paramount]

Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather pioneered the now-standard practice of wide release. [Paramount]

It may be more fair, then, to look at a new Star Wars film (or, perhaps more practically, a new Star Wars trilogy) as less the direct catalyst for a shift in the industry, but more as a signpost, an indication of which way the wind is blowing. Computer-generated special effects were not exactly new when The Phantom Menace came along; morphing effects had long been used in films like Terminator 2 and Star Trek VI; Jurassic Park, Jumanji, and Dragonheart all featured computer-generated creatures; and even Independence Day, praised for it’s realistic practical effects, utilized computers to generate the F-18 Hornets, missiles, debris, and other elements. Indeed, digital effects had already been introduced into the Star Wars universe by way of the Special Editions. The CGI effects in The Phantom Menace were undoubtedly more numerous (and more noticeable) than in any film that had come before, but films like Titanic, The Matrix, and The Mummy were already proving that more complicated effects could be created using computers. If The Phantom Menace hadn’t pushed the proliferation of CGI forward, something else would have.

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We have Jar-Jar to thank for The Lord of the Rings. Kinda.

So, what are my hopes for The Force Awakens? My hope for The Force Awakens is that it gives me hope for the industry as a whole. Studio films are becoming larger and more unwieldy as time goes on. Blockbusters are all the studios are producing nowadays, at the expense of low or even medium-budget films. Most key, quality has been replaced by spectacle, nuance by noise, character by destruction. Now, a shift away from this is an unrealistic expectation to place on a well-known, highly-anticipated franchise film with a huge special effects budget and owned by one of the largest companies on the planet.

Films like Man of Steel and Star Trek Into Darkness (pictured) proved that bigger isn't always better. [Paramount]

Films like Man of Steel and Star Trek Into Darkness (pictured) proved that bigger isn’t always better. [Paramount]

But what if Kasdan and Abrams bring nuance and character back to the blockbuster? What if the change in the air predicted by and reflected in this film is of a smaller and more manageable scale for big-budget studio extravaganzas? I’m not expecting Star Wars to make studio heads suddenly start pouring their resources into smaller films — how could I, since Star Wars is, at this point, as big as it gets (and is primed to make truckloads of money)? If anything, The Force Awakens would seem primed to reinforce what studio heads already believe — that bigger is better, and original scripts are a loser’s game.

IS an awakening coming?

IS an awakening coming?

But what if there’s a sign, a hint woven into the fabric of the film, a quality to the movie’s texture — something, anything that might indicate this industry is stepping back from the abyss it finds itself teetering at the edge of? I’m grasping at straws, I’m well aware. But the industry can’t sustain this “bigger is better” business model for much longer. The bubble is going to pop. I’m not claiming the “death of cinema” is on it’s way, but a change is coming. Realistically, it has to be. And what if The Force Awakens is, in some small way, a harbinger of that change?

Star Wars has always been a signpost of things to come. My hope for this film, in a nutshell, is that the signs are good ones.

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