Wednesday, April 8, 2015
Can Star Wars Overcome Its Obsolescence?
I've had Star Wars on my brain a lot recently. This is partially because of reading a recent book about the growth of the films into a major phenomenon, and also listening to episodes of The Star Wars Minute podcast. I have also become a little more sanguine towards the upcoming sequels when my initial reaction was to refuse to see them. I still doubt that they will be anything better than just okay or an exercise in nostalgia. (I'm basing this on JJ Abrams' track record.)
There are a lot of narratives surrounding Star Wars, and people today act as if fans turned against the prequels with the release of The Phantom Menace in 1999. I actually think this is a bit of revisionist history. Plenty of fans had problems with Jar-Jar and other elements of the film, but the initial response was still largely enthusiastic despite acknowledged drawbacks. Many thought it was a great leap forward in terms of special effects, and Roger Ebert gave it 3.5 stars. A film that makes a billion dollars isn't exactly unpopular. Sure it wasn't what the fans hoped it could truly be, but they could be reasonably satisfied with it, and plenty of kids enthusiastically got on board.
I really think the "it's not great, but it's good enough" mentality around Phantom Menace changed when The Matrix came out later in 1999. The special effects were much more innovative, and the story line much more compelling (and I say this as someone who can take it or leave it.) The complete failure of the prequels did not become truly apparent, however, until 2001 and the release of The Fellowship of the Ring. That film (perhaps the best of the LOTR trilogy) blew Phantom Menace clean out of the water when it came to story, special effects, acting, dialogue, and direction. When Attack of the Clones came out a year later, Star Wars looked obsolete, yesterday's news. At that point, I didn't know a single sci-fi/fantasy fan who preferred the Star Wars prequels to the LOTR films, and with good reason. Peter Jackson showed George Lucas up.
Of course, Peter Jackson appears to have suffered from the same affliction as George Lucas, using his prior success to make a second, mind-numbingly dull trilogy that has sapped any of his audience's goodwill away. There are legions of Star Wars fans waiting for the new sequels, but the first one will be a major test. It could end Star Wars' obsolescence, but more likely I figure it will either be a nostalgia moment (hence the involvement of the original cast) or an updating of an old property by making it just like all the current day blockbusters, which is what Abrams did to Star Trek. Those films aren't bad, but they're hardly inspiring. That'll be good enough for Disney, who can be content to sit back and watch the money roll in.