On Christmas Day, I fulfilled my duty as an American consumer and took the family to see the new "Star Wars" movie. The excursion solved a mystery: Why do so many of the reviews, even the enthusiastic ones, carry an undertone of disappointment?
The simple answer is that "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," is not very good. It's professionally made in the sense that it displays an industrial level of Quality Control. But it's depressingly unimaginative and dull in long stretches, and -- crucially -- reproduces George Lucas' original 1977 movie slavishly almost to the point of plagiarism.
This isn't to say that it's not an enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours. If you're among the millions who plainly have done so, bless your heart. The issue, however, is whether "The Force Awakens" even deserves to be considered as a movie, because it's not. It's the anchoring element of a vast commercial program, painstakingly factory-made for maximal audience appeal, which means maximal inoffensiveness. The result tells us a lot about the state of entertainment today, and about the future of Hollywood.
The most important thing to know about "The Force Awakens" is that it's the first "Star Wars" feature produced by the Walt Disney Co. since its $4-billion acquisition of Lucas' production company, Lucasfilm, in 2012. The deal reflected Disney Chairman Robert Iger's strategy to snarf up the best franchise-oriented producers, including Pixar (acquired in 2006 for $7.4 billion) and Marvel (acquired in 2009 for $4 billion).
For "Star Wars" fans, the good thing about the deal was that it placed the franchise in the hands of experts committed to delivering professionally produced mass entertainment; the downside, as became clear only with the release of the new movie, was Disney's formula-bound assembly line for its major properties.
"Star Wars" already was a merchandising bonanza, as Lucas had kept control of the licensing when he sold the first film to 20th Century Fox. Under Disney, at a minimum, there will be more of the same--toys, collectibles, theme park rides, video games, TV spinoffs, clothing, promotional tie-ins. Disney just announced that it will close 10 attractions and restaurants at Disneyland to build a new "Star Wars" area. (It won't be rescinding its recent 31% hike in the price of Disneyland passes in the interim, however.)
Before the 1999 release of "The Phantom Menace," Lucas' first "prequel" to "Star Wars," the cultural commentator Louis Menand reported that commercial licensing connected to the film had been so lucrative that it would turn a profit even if no one went to see it. The same is probably true of "The Force Awakens," which is expected to generate up to $5 billion in merchandise sales in 2015 alone. But there's no need to validate the claim, since the film has already sold more than $544 million in tickets.
Producing the hub of such a vast commercial undertaking brings its own pressures. Whether out of his own instincts or via directives from the suits at Disney, J.J. Abrams, the co-writer and director of "The Force Awakens," plainly labored under a mandate to not get the thing wrong. Lucas had, in the three widely derided "prequels" starting with "The Phantom Menace" in 1999, and made money anyway. But there was no telling how long the franchise's momentum would last if the movies continued to deteriorate with Disney's nominees, not Lucas, at the helm.
Abrams seems to follow the precept that the surest way to keep from putting a foot wrong is to walk only within the footprints of one's predecessors. As has been noted by a few reviewers who braved the intimidating weight of "Star Wars: the Phenomenon" to write critical pans, the new movie obsequiously replicates the formula of the original -- its set pieces, rhythm, pacing, even dialogue -- almost without advancing the story at all. It's a mark of Disney's own caretaker mentality that not only is a Jar Jar Binks-level blunder absent from "The Force Awakens," but so is surprise or even much suspense. One has to be a pretty inattentive viewer to be surprised or shocked by either the big reveal in the story (no spoilers!) or its denouement.
Abrams' big advance is said to be supplanting the whiter-than-white protagonists of the original "Star Wars" with a young woman and a black male. This hardly is a cinematic breakthrough, as other moviemakers who understand the demands of a gender- and culturally diverse audience have been doing it for years. But as a "rebooting," the term ubiquitously applied to "The Force Awakens," it feels entirely market-oriented, the way the Tide logo gets periodically redesigned to look fresh or the trademark figure of Betty Crocker is redrawn to stay "modern." But redesigning logos and brand icons is a technique drawn from Madison Avenue, not traditional moviemaking.
It's commonly said that the original "Star Wars" changed Hollywood, and that's true. But it didn't change the movies the way "Bonnie & Clyde" (1967), "Chinatown" (1974) and "Taxi Driver" (1976) did, by applying creative craftsmanship to raw, adult subject matter; or like the '30s movies "It Happened One Night," "The Awful Truth," and "Bringing up Baby," which undermined the moralistic strictures of the Hays Office with the libertine sophistication of screwball comedy.
Instead, "Star Wars" transformed Hollywood economically, by establishing a blockbuster mentality--and especially a mentality based on blockbusters made for teens. It wasn't the first film to do so; "Jaws," released in 1975, was a pioneer. But "Star Wars" outdrew "Jaws," and the opportunities to exploit the product commercially were much greater.
Ever since then, blockbusters have dominated studio economics and big mainstream movies have gotten stupider. "Titanic," "Avatar," and "Prometheus" are professionally turned-out and entertaining enough for the two to three hours that one sits in the theater watching them and they mint money. But they don't have a coherent thought in their heads, despite the intellectual veneer decorating some of them. "Star Wars" was slathered with the same philosophical gravitas, bootstrapped from Joseph Campbell, but the most incisive judgment was delivered by Alec Guinness when he was being courted to play Obi-Wan Kenobi: "Fairy tale rubbish but could be interesting perhaps," he wrote to a friend.
"The Force Awakens," curiously, elicits greater respect for the first "Star Wars," which was a pastiche of old serials, Buck Rogers space operas, and military adventure stories but was at least an inspired act of cultural appropriation. Nobody thought of "Star Wars" as Art, though there was something definitely novel about Lucas' reassembly of old parts.
But not until now, in Disney's hands, has the series become commerce and nothing but. Many of the pre-release articles about "The Force Awakens" were business stories, and bows to its box-office success creep even into critics' reviews. Among the publicity features preceding the premiere was one in which Daisy Ridley, who plays the new protagonist Rey, rated eight action figures being sold with her character's image.
Modern blockbusters are not enjoyable the way the original "Star Wars" was, because they come at you as artifacts of high finance. Sitting in the theater at "Avatar," I felt like I was being pounded into submission by a giant hedge fund. Watching "The Force Awakens," I felt as though I was being shown a trailer for the next four movies in the series. Except that trailers aren't normally two hours long and you don't have to pay $12.50 to see them.
"The Force Awakens" will reinforce even more strongly a blockbuster, sequel-oriented style of moviemaking and marketing that has sapped Hollywood of its creative energies. Why be creative when that will merely interfere with merchandising, and when recycling is more dependably profitable?
It was said of George Lucas that he originally envisioned "Star Wars" as the first of a trilogy, which became reimagined as a series of three trilogies, and ended with two. Now we're at seven films, and anyone who thinks "Star Wars" will end at nine features doesn't know their Disney. The company, you see, is not really a movie studio, but an entertainment conglomerate. For Disney, "Star Wars" will be the gift that keeps giving. You, the consumer, are the mark who keeps paying.
"Star Wars" sequels, prequels, and requels are destined to be part of moviemaking into the infinite future. One can envision Hollywood eventually turning out only two products: "Star Wars" movies and James Bond movies, each periodically "rebooted" for a new generation of customers by casting the latest new young stars in new costumes facing the same old perils and uttering the same old quips, with every other vestige of creative originality relegated to the void and forgotten.
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