Sunday, January 31, 2016

$uccessfu! Films: Star Wars, Record-Breaking and Redefining

It’s no surprise, really. Star Wars: The Force Awakens has revived public interest in the cinematic space saga that George Lucas first created in 1977. That practically goes without saying, what with all the merchandising and anticipation months prior to the film’s December 2015 release. Having broken just about every record in the history of movies since then (including the worldwide $1 billion mark in a record 13 days), audiences and critics have been reminded of the power of a franchise that doesn't just center on Jedis, Wookies, droids, lightsabers, battle cruisers, and villainous Sith lords.

Lucas was inspired by the writings of Joseph Campbell, as well as Saturday matinee serials such as Flash Gordon, while penning his saga of a young farm boy who journeys to become a Jedi, a princess who co-leads a rebellion against a sinister empire, and the central battle between good (the Light) and evil (the Dark Side). And let’s not forget two droids, a Wookie, and a smuggler, as well as spiritual, mythic, and psychological motifs throughout. As Obi-Wan Kenobi said, “You’ve taken your first step into a larger work.” The rest is history.

The 1977 original film
Fully titled Star Wars: Episode IV—A New Hope in subsequent years, the film became an instant blockbuster and worldwide phenomenon, spawning a whole new franchise and generation of filmmaking and storytelling forever. Says IMDb user “EggoMan” (on the 1980 sequel The Empire Strikes Back): “This is a truly wondrous film, and serves as a constant reminder that just because a movie is expensive and a blockbuster doesn't mean that it has to be shallow and two dimensional.” A New Hope remains a classic piece of science-fiction nostalgia, mythology, and entertainment, with an unforgettable score by John Williams that grabs you right away, revolutionary special effects that were detailed and jaw-dropping, and episodic stories and fantastic worlds that served as a substitute, in the universe of film, for what was apparently lacking for children in the 1970s. In fact, one of Lucas’s intentions was to create a story for children who were apparently growing up without fairy tales and classic stories. Late film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert remarked that the film contained a “childlike” sense of fun and entertainment.

That being said, this film (as well as its sequels, Empire and Return of the Jedi) bridge the gap between ages, generations, cultures, and countries. They also represent subtle amalgamations of different genres, and not just science-fiction. Says Forrest Wickman of Slate magazine, “There are few faster ways to incense a movie geek than by calling Star Wars ‘sci-fi.’ [It] may feature spaceships and aliens, but . . . its aspirations are definitely not those of science-fiction. Ask what Star Wars actually is, however, and you’ll receive as many answers as there are scoundrels at the Mos Eisley Cantina. Star Wars is a western . . . a samurai movie . . . a space opera . . . a war film . . . a fairy tale. A Jedi craves not such narrow interpretations. In fact, Star Wars – the original 1977 film that started it all – is all these things. It’s a pastiche, as mashed-up and hyper referential as any movie from Quentin Tarantino. It takes the blasters of Flash Gordon and puts them in the low-slung holsters of John Ford’s gunslingers. It takes Kurosawa’s samurai masters and sends them to Rick’s Café Americain from Casablanca. It takes the plot of The Hidden Fortress, pours it into Joseph Campbell’s mythological mold, and tops it all off with the climax from The Dam Busters. Blending the high with the low, all while wearing its influences on its sleeve, Star Wars is pretty much the epitome of a postmodernist film.”

(l-r) Rey, BB-8, and Finn in The Force Awakens
And so it is, once again, with the J.J. Abrams-helmed seventh episode in the franchise, a roller-coaster of excitement, action, humor, drama, nostalgia (real sets, practical effects, and 35mm Kodak film were used to great extent), and Shakespearean tragedy. Although it has been criticized for being too “retro” in terms of being like the original film, The Force Awakens is arguably a story of one generation’s lack of knowledge or little knowledge of a previous generation that involves certain people, stories, or news of yesteryear. Along with iconic characters Luke Skywalker, Leia, Han Solo, C-3PO, R2-D2 and Chewbacca, Episode VII introduces newcomers in scavenger Rey, reformed Stormtrooper Finn, pilot Poe Dameron, droid ball BB-8, and the villainous Kylo Ren. All are on various journeys of different kinds. Rey (Daisy Ridley) waits on the deserted planet Jakku, apparently for a family she never knew. Finn (John Boyega) longs to escape a misguided life he was forced into. Poe (Oscar Isaac) leads a resistance against the menacing First Order (successor to the Empire of the original trilogy), of which Kylo Ren is a leading apprentice to the Supreme Leader Snoke. BB-8 carries a secret message that may bring balance to the Force again. (Sound familiar to all you die-hard fans?)

Rey is exceptional as a strong female lead in the Star Wars universe. Writes Alicia Cohn for Christianity Today, “Throughout the series, Star Wars has shown us a chosen character grappling with how to use his unmerited gifts. It established the pop culture expectation that a young man has the right to choose his own path. Now perhaps it’s time for an iconic coming of age tale about a young woman. It is particularly encouraging – particularly for the mothers taking daughters – that for once, a female coming of age story in popular culture might not involve a messy sexual awakening, but her own search for power, agency, and calling.”

Said Siskel and Ebert, on the construction of stories: “If a story is written well, if it is told well, if it is acted well, then it will reach across to audiences with its mythological influence.” This is part of what makes Star Wars timeless, as well as historically, culturally and globally relevant.

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