Money spinning cargo cult
Jeremy Hunt reviews, JJ Abrams (director) Star Wars: The Force Awakens (12A), 136 minutes, general release
The latest film in the Star Wars series, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, has already broken several box office records, taking over 1.5 billion dollars since its release. Given that it has yet to be screened in the lucrative Chinese market (projected to overtake the US as the world’s largest cinema going country by 2017), it seems probable that it could become the most financially successful film of all time - a record currently held by James Cameron’s Avatar which made $2.8bn.
While the first six films in the Star Wars franchise were made by George Lucas, the new film has been made by Walt Disney after they bought George Lucas’ company Lucasfilm for more than $4 billion in 2012. Disney were making a calculated risk when they spent that money. For their investment to pay off, they need not only The force awakens to be a commercial success, but the next two films in the planned trilogy too.
But financial success does not rely on the films alone. Whereas the first six Star Wars films have made a highly respectable $6 billion, other franchises like Harry Potter and James Bond have made far more at the box office. The real money comes from all the related merchandise: the computer games, toys, books and comics and spin-off television series. When all this is included, Star Wars towers above its rivals, with the franchise valued at more than $30 billion.
Disney then has their eyes set on a far bigger prize than the mere box office success. To profit on what they paid out for Lucasfilm, they need to milk Star Wars for everything they can get. In addition to the trilogy they have already announced two other films set in the Star Wars universe, and anything even tangentially related to Star Wars will be furiously marketed.
Raking over the financial prospects may seem rather unseemly in a film review, but it is key to understanding the context in which The Force Awakens has been made and the pressures on the creative team behind it. Put simply, this film has been made in order to make money. This may well sound unnecessarily pessimistic - after all, in a capitalist market the demand to make money will always play a role in the creative process, and all too often, artistic imagination is forced to give way to commercial demands - but the way in which Disney has quite explicitly decided to milk this film seems particularly shameless.
The original Star Wars, released in 1977, was unexpectedly successful. When a film is more successful than critics and studios expect, there is a tendency to mythologise a heroic individual. In this case George Lucas was lionised as the creative visionary who succeeded despite all the odds. Lucas himself has liked to play up to this narrative in interviews, but although there is an element of truth here, there are other factors that contributed to its success. Films are necessarily collective enterprises, and the people Lucas assembled undoubtedly had tremendous talents: the special effects team developed innovative approaches that were later used in many of the 1980s action blockbusters; the designers created a distinctive fantastic world with their sets and strange aliens, spaceships and droids; and John Williams composed an epic and instantly recognisable soundtrack. Nor should it be forgotten that, while George Lucas wrote and directed the first Star Wars film, the second and third were directed and co-written by other people.
The success was also due to the setting and the plot of the original films. Lucas borrowed liberally from all manner of disparate sources. Although set in a strange galaxy with an unfamiliar history and culture, that history and culture is painted in such broad brush strokes that it does not alienate casual viewers with its complexity. Star Wars hints at wider history, with mentions of the ‘Clone Wars’ and the ‘Old Republic’, but resists the temptation to spend screen time explaining what these things are, other than through the famous opening sequences. The eponymous Star Wars are a galaxy-spanning civil war, but that is merely a backdrop for a plucky band of rebels fighting against an evil empire. The plot focuses on archetypal characters and the relationships between them. The resulting films rather cleverly present a fantastical universe that, although superficially strange (increasing the capacity for escapism), is actually about a comfortably familiar mythical story of an orphaned farm-boy going on a journey and fulfilling his destiny through previously unknown mystical powers. The success of Star Wars then was due to that juxtaposition of the familiar and the unknown.
Following the release of the third of the original trilogy, Return of the Jedi in 1983, George Lucas could have been forgiven for resting on his laurels. He had created a series with a lasting cultural impact and had made an enormous personal fortune. In the late 1990s however, Lucas was tempted back to the Star Wars universe to make a second trilogy, set before the original series. His motivations seem plausible enough: he had written a great deal of expanded history for Star Wars which had not been revealed in the original films; and he was keen to make use of the technological innovations that had been developed in the succeeding years.
The prequel trilogy was released between 1999 and 2005, and told the story of how Luke and Leia’s father, Anakin Skywalker, was seduced by the Dark Side of the Force and became Darth Vader, the principal villain of the original series. Although the prequel made a great deal of box office money, the second and third films made less than the first. People who had enthusiastically bought tickets for The Phantom Menace did not all return to watch the second and third instalments. The prequel trilogy was heavily criticised and mocked by fans of the original series. George Lucas had fallen victim to his own hubris. Whereas the original trilogy offered tantalising hints about a wider background to the Star Wars universe, the prequel trilogy went into much greater detail and the result was sadly not up to the expectations of the fans. Equally, whereas the innovative special effects of the originals had captivated the audience, the prequel trilogy relied heavily on computer generated effects that offered nothing new.
Ultimately the prequel trilogy led to the kind of acrimonious break-up between George Lucas and his fans that we can thank the internet for facilitating. Fans who felt a misplaced sense of entitlement lambasted Lucas for betraying the Star Wars that existed in their own heads, and Lucas responded in increasingly petulant terms. On the eve of selling his company to Disney in 2012, he asked a journalist from The New York Times, “why would I make any more when everybody yells at you all the time and says what a terrible person you are?” One might feel that the pro-war Labour MPs who recently complained about being bullied on social media did so as much out of political opportunism as any genuinely hurt feelings, but Lucas genuinely appears upset by what must have seemed to him to be incessant criticism of his artistic creation.
Regardless, George Lucas is now thoroughly out of the picture. When Disney took over they made it clear that his involvement was no longer welcome. His continued defence of the derided prequel trilogy makes Lucas an economic liability. To make as much money as possible out of Star Wars Disney clearly feel they need to expunge all trace of the prequel trilogy and focus on recapturing the spirit of the original trilogy. So Disney appointed JJ Abrams as director for the new film, best known for his reboot of Star Trek, a franchise that became rather lacklustre after the glut of Star Trek spin-offs in the 2000s that also suffered criticism for not being sufficiently faithful to the original feel of the series.
The Force Awakens sets out to recapture the sense of nostalgia that many people feel for the original films, and in that regard it succeeds. Though it will satisfy those who want more Star Wars, it is stunningly lacking in ambition or originality. Whereas the originals drew on a plethora of different sources of inspiration, the only reference material used in this new film are the old films.
The settings are a greatest hits compilation. The action moves from the desert planet Jakku (like Tatooine from A New Hope, but with added wrecked Star Destroyers), to the Millennium Falcon, to a jungle planet with loveable aliens (combining the cantina scene from the first film with the forest moon from Return of the Jedi), and ends on a planet that combines the ice planet from The Empire Strikes Back with the Death Star. The sets look magnificent, of course. They are filmed with a loving attention to detail, and - in deliberate contrast to the prequel films - they are made up mostly of practical effects rather than digital ones. Their appeal, however, lies in revisiting the fondly remembered settings.
The new central characters, Rey and Finn, are ably played by two young British actors, Daisy Ridley and John Boyega. Both are likable and have suitably mysterious pasts that will no doubt be revealed in future instalments. In a nod to modern sensibilities the actors are a white woman and a black man, in contrast to the overwhelmingly white and male cast of the original films. The real draw to the cinema going public, though, is the inclusion of familiar old faces: Carrie Fisher’s Leia, now a general in charge of the Resistance, Harrison Ford’s loveable rogue Han Solo and his co-pilot Chewbacca. Luke Skywalker appears as only a mythical figure for most of the film, and the plot revolves around searching for him and his lightsabre. Indeed, Rey and Finn speak about the earlier characters as if they are figures from legend rather than of recent history (the film is set 30 years after Return of the Jedi). While the droids from the previous films do make an appearance, their role is taken by a new droid designed to be even more cute and loveable than R2-D2.
The central villain is where the film is at its most self-referential. Darth Vader was an iconic villain in the original films, with his sinister black uniform and his voice hissing from within an all enclosing helmet. But having died at the end of Return of the Jedi, JJ Abrams had to resort to grave-robbing to recapture his appeal. His equivalent in The Force Awakens, Kylo Ren, speaks to the crushed helmet of Darth Vader, treating it as a kind of religious fetish. He wants to emulate Darth Vader; he almost wants to be possessed by his spirit. Like Darth Vader, Kylo Ren also wears a helmet that obscures his face, but seemingly for no other reason than for him to try and imitate his predecessor. Here then is a perfect metaphor for the film as a whole: The Force Awakens has taken the material trappings of the earlier films and, like a cargo cult, attempts to use them to magically invoke their spirit.
Considering that it is clearly intended to be a family film, it is also quite shockingly violent. There are mass executions barely off screen, an act of planet-wide genocide and large numbers of storm troopers are gunned down. The central character, Finn, is a Stormtrooper who has deserted from the overtly fascistic First Order, and through him we learn that Stormtroopers are abducted as children and raised to be soldiers. Finn is able to feel emotions and exercise agency, so the same must be true, to at least some extent, of the other Stormtroopers. They are as much victims as they are villains. Yet, they die in droves, killed by the heroes with no expression of remorse. As in other Hollywood films, when heroes die it is presented as a tragedy, when villains kill innocent people it serves to illustrate how evil they are, but the deaths of the supposed baddies are treated as a good thing. It is even more jarring when these deaths are juxtaposed with the overall light-hearted jaunty feeling of the film. The Force Awakens tries to feel like a fairy tale, with goodies and baddies, and it does an admirable job of portraying the villains as truly evil, but this moral certainty is undermined by the way that the heroes - and the creators of the film - seem to be callously indifferent to death.