February 12, 2013
Can Star Wars Still Be Original?
When the news arrived that J.J. Abrams would be directing the seventh Star Wars film, it was exciting because of his previous work. The Star Trek re-boot was so different than its source material, but it had so much energy and fun. Abrams is a great choice for extending George Lucas' epic story. He also did a nice job bringing a grittier feeling to the Mission Impossible franchise in the third installment. There are few obvious negatives, and it's clear that he'll bring a lot of excitement to the 2015 release. Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine) has been hired to write the screenplay, and his involvement in Toy Story 3 shows his ability to write mainstream fare. With many of the original trilogy's stars rumored to return, this is shaping up to be a welcome improvement from the mess of the prequels.
There's a serious catch, however. Star Wars has become such an institution that delivering a truly original movie could be impossible. It's easy to place all the blame on the issues with the prequels at Lucas' feet, but that's too simple. He played a major role in the failures, but there were other factors that hurt their chances. First of all, the huge budgets and success of the original trilogy created such high expectations. Lucas believed the hype so strongly that he forgot the basics of story telling. Those films were overtaken by the marketing machine of toys, books, and other tie-ins, so the corporate pressure played a huge role. How could they really feel like original works of art? It's this question that's hanging over the new trilogy and the rumored spin-off movies. Can they overcome the gigantic mechanism from Disney and their partners? Will Abrams and Arndt create an inventive, unpredictable story that will stand the test of time? I'm thrilled to see how the next movie turns out, but my hesitation springs from more than just overly high expectations.
In a recent episode of the MAMO! podcast, hosts Matt Price and Matt Brown described Abrams as just a middle manager hired to keep everything flowing smoothly. This is an interesting way to look at his role in this product. While we love to think of the director's role as a visionary who approves every little detail of a movie, that's rarely the case. Disney hired Abrams because he's shown the ability to handle a project of this scale and deliver a satisfying movie. Those skills are a good start, but are they enough to make Star Wars a creative success? It will gross a gazillion dollars, but it will do that regardless of its actual value. Even the Transformers sequel made over $400 million in the U.S., and that doesn't have a sliver of the fandom of this project. While that enthusiasm guarantees financial returns, it also can shackle filmmakers because the machine has become so large. Knowing that fans will appear regardless, Abrams should take some chances and try to really challenge them. That's unlikely to happen, especially with the first new movie. If this one does well and doesn't turn off the audience, the sky's the limit for the franchise and Disney.
When Disney purchased Lucasfilm in October, the response was generally positive because of that company's reputation. Creative individuals have thrived there and delivered remarkable animated features and theme park attractions. However, they're hardly the same company that Walt Disney led to prominence. Disney is a massive institution that has created plenty of stinkers in recent years. For Star Wars to succeed at this type of company, the suits have to give Abrams freedom to make something unique. In his book It's Kind of a Cute Story, former Imagineer Rolly Crump describes the way that Walt Disney gave his artists a lot of room to develop their craft. He could be a nasty micro-manager if you got on his bad side, but he also recognized great talent. Will all the corporate executives involved with this franchise have the same presence of mind to step back? When Lucas made the original Star Wars, he answered to studio heads but had much-needed support from powerful men like Alan Ladd, Jr. at 20th Century Fox. Without that type of corporate backing, this franchise might never have gotten off the ground. Disney leaders would be wise to follow a similar path with Abrams, despite their massive investments.
The recent announcement of planned one-off movies about Yoda, Han Solo, and Boba Fett reveals the method behind Disney's madness. After the seventh movie, they're going to expand the universe by using the model that worked so well for The Avengers. These other films will take place in the past, but they'll likely connect to the stories of the eighth and ninth movies. Joss Whedon did an amazing job with the Marvel characters, but he didn't have the same pressure of matching legendary movies. Even when you ignore that baggage, another important lesson can be learned from the Marvel films. Iron Man was the first release in 2008 and surprised everyone by sidestepping the tired conventions of the genre. When its sequel arrived two years later, it was trying to do a lot more than just tell a good story. Jon Favreau felt the need to make a bigger movie, and he also had to introduce S.H.I.E.L.D. and characters that would connect with the other superheroes' vehicles. That film collapsed under that weight and was a major disappointment. Abrams should follow his Star Trek model and recognize that creating a thrilling movie is always the top priority.
When I ask whether Star Wars can still be original, I understand that even the first movie pulled from a lot of other sources. Lucas took inspiration from Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress, Frank Herbert's Dune, and so many other sources. However, he used that material and created something unique. Is it possible for Abrams to do the same thing with this new movie? There is so much interesting material in the books that have expanded the universe. Will Arndt be willing to use those sources to create a better story? I'm pretty skeptical. This has nothing to do with their talent and relates to the pressure that I've described in this post. The Avengers has grossed more than $1 billion worldwide, yet I'm not sure that it had the same impact of a movie like Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins. That incredible film re-energized the comic book genre and spawned a legion of re-boots. Disney is counting on this new Star Wars release to have a similar effect on this franchise.
Considering the massive expectations and possible impact of the next Star Wars film, it's bound to disappoint in some fashion. Even with my reservations about its ability to be original, I still can't wait to venture back into this amazing world. Beyond updating us on Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, and other familiar faces, Abrams and Arndt have the chance to create new characters that can lead future films. This was another mistake that Lucas made in the prequels. He focused so closely on the Skywalker story that he didn't expand the universe. Jar Jar Binks doesn't count. If Disney is committed to making side projects and other one-off movies, they should consider developing characters beyond Lucas' bland supporting players. Could there be a low-budget Star Wars movie? The possibilities are endless. High-flying space battles won't be enough to generate new fans and rekindle older ones. Shows like Battlestar Galactica and Firefly have upped the ante in that department with much smaller budgets. It's time for this proud franchise to return and raise the bar once again.