Where Does 'Star Wars' Find Itself and Where Is It Going?
Josh Rottenberg and Steven Zeitchik talk about the series, sussing out the cultural legacy of and reactions to the new film, the larger context of franchise revivals and where Star Wars goes from here.
Star Wars: The Force AwakensDirector: J.J. Abrams
Cast: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Adam Driver, Harrison Ford, Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis, Lupita Nyong’o, Carrie Fisher, Peter Mayhew, Gwendoline Christie, Simon Pegg, Max von Sydow, Mark Hamill
Studio: Walt Disney Studios
US date: 2015-12-17 (General release)
We’re just a few days into the Star Wars: The Force Awakens juggernaut -- somehow it feels like a lot longer than that -- and there have been few signs of it slowing down. J.J. Abrams’ film drew huge crowds over the Christmas weekend and will continue to attract audiences clear into January.
By now it seems a given that it will take in more dollars, both at home and abroad, than any movie not directed by James Cameron. And it would hardly be surprising if it eventually catches Titanic and Avatar too.
It seems, then, like an apt moment to step back and, after all the initial excitement (some might call it relief) surrounding The Force Awakens, examine aspects of the movie’s popularity. The Times’ Josh Rottenberg and Steven Zeitchik -- the former a longtime devotee of Star Wars, the latter a more casual fan -- had an extended conversation over phone and email about the series, sussing out the cultural legacy of and reactions to the new film, the larger context of franchise revivals and where Star Wars goes from here. Here are excerpts of their exchange:
SZ: This has been as strange a holiday period in moviegoing as I can recall. The blockbuster era has given us big movies and massive sensations for a while now. But you can count on one hand the kind of universal embrace that has bear-hugged Star Wars: The Force Awakens And the fact that it’s all happening for a sequel, and a sequel whose last good movie came out (at least) 32 years ago, is pretty remarkable.
JR: It is pretty remarkable that in a world that’s so fragmented, in which everybody can walk around in their own personal taste bubble, there is so much agreement on this. Obviously there are people who don’t care at all about Star Wars, and there are people who don’t love the movie for totally valid reasons. But to a large extent, we haven’t had a moment when we’ve all been on the same pop-culture page like this for a while.
SZ: It’s funny, I heard someone say something similar about Hamilton -- basically, that it’s a great unifier -- and I couldn’t help wondering about the two phenomena in relation to one another. Far fewer people have seen Hamilton than Star Wars, and the two certainly achieve that goal in very different ways -- one is radically reinventing a form and the other is hewing very closely to it. But they’re both these anomalies, transcending race, gender and class.
Of course, as with all things widely loved, the question begs to be asked -- will a backlash brew? It seems almost inevitable when there’s this much praise for anything. So far there have been only a few critics who’ve registered a more skeptical tone -- our own Kenneth Turan, the Salon writer Andrew O’Hehir, the influential blogger Devin Faraci -- but for the most part even critics have expressed their love. The movie has a 94 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes -- that means it’s more loved (or at least less critically divisive) than Bridge of Spies or Son of Saul. That’s a pretty significant statement.
JR: If you look at it cynically you might say people are getting caught up in this huge wave of hype, or critics are going easy on the movie out of a fear of looking even more irrelevant than some might already feel. But you also have to look at what the movie had to do: It had to hark back to the past and move forward simultaneously. It had to feel like 1977 and 2015 at the same time. That’s not an easy thing to pull off.
SZ: Just as we were about to post this our colleague Michael Hiltzik wrote perhaps the most notable contrarian piece to date on The Force Awakens in which, among his larger criticism of the film putting commerce over art, he essentially called out the movie-journalist establishment for not being more skeptical -- he noted those few who braved the intimidating weight of 'Star Wars: the Phenomenon'. "I think it’s indeed telling that the most backlash-y voice thus far has come from pretty far outside the ranks of film commentators. The criticism he makes -- and that he calls out the others for not making sufficiently loud -- involves the repetition question, that the movie contains basically updated versions of the Death Star and Darth Vader and R2D2 and other elements of the original trilogy.
As a casual fan this probably bothers me both more and less than it does the hard-core devotee -- more because I’m not as willing to give the retreads a pass on the sheer basis of nostalgia, less because it’s not like these ideas were so front of mind in the first place. On balance, though, it’s hard for someone like me, who’s not a hard-core fan, to get entirely past it. A friend emailed me shortly after seeing the movie on opening night that all the familiar ideas and scenes felt good, almost as though the movie’s main purpose was to scratch an itch. And I remember thinking ‘that’s great for him and all the others who have that need. But it doesn’t make an overwhelming argument for the film itself.
JR: There’s no question The Force Awakens draws pretty liberally from a grab bag of tropes from the original trilogy -- the movie sometimes feels like a cover band doing Star Wars’ greatest hits. But I also think the argument that the movie is an overly cautious carbon copy of A New Hope doesn’t give it as much credit as it deserves. Abrams opened up the Star Wars universe in an unprecedented and important way through the breadth of his casting, which is no small thing. And he and co-writer Lawrence Kasdan came up with some interesting twists on familiar Star Wars archetypes, whether it’s John Boyega’s morally conflicted Stormtrooper Finn or Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren, who is more like a misguided, screwed-up school shooter than a one-dimensional embodiment of pure villainy.
The fact is, Star Wars is not a vast, open-ended cinematic universe. It is -- and has always been -- a single story of good and evil centered around a single family and animated by a single all-encompassing spiritual system. While a larger expanded universe has developed outside of the films, Star Wars on the big screen is not as unbounded and infinitely renewable as something like Star Trek. Unlike the James Bond series, you can’t just toss in a fresh villain each time out. Unlike a superhero franchise, you can’t cross-pollinate it with characters from adjacent fictional worlds. If you just look at the titles of the first two sequels – The Empire Strikes Back and The Return of the Jedi – you can see that from the start the story was already looping back on itself. For better or worse, some amount of repetition is just baked in.
SZ: Well, except they did toss in new villains, and you could argue not always convincingly. And I think it’s hard to deny at least the basic appeal, if not every nuance, of Hltzik’s argument: that the line between indulging nostalgia and conservatively (he would say capitalistically) avoiding any creative risks is thin indeed.
But I do agree that some of this debate about originality is beside the point. It’s an argument the Star Wars mythology almost innately inoculates itself to, since it’s always been about nostalgia. Even the original films have come to be about that -- less the movies themselves than our memories from when we first saw them. So the idea of some retreading is, on one level, kind of correct and it does diminish the value or at least the originality of this film. But on another level it really doesn’t matter. You can’t blame a movie for failing to achieve what it was never designed to do.
JR: Some people who complain this movie doesn’t feel original seem to be saying they wish it had somehow been darker.
SZ: Yes, basically, is there a Christopher Nolan version of this movie, in which the same characters are used to tell something different, edgier? What do you think?
JR: I think Abrams could have taken ‘Star Wars’ in an edgier direction -- he could have made the First Order more like ISIS or something, and it might have been more intense and felt more Nolan-y and relevant somehow. But I don’t know if it would have felt right as a Star Wars movie, and I doubt people would have embraced it as much. Sometimes I think skeptics forget this is a fairy tale in space. It’s good guys and bad guys. It’s not going to become Breaking Bad; it’s not going to become The Sopranos.
SZ: I agree that Star Wars is different at its core -- you don’t have deep ambiguity in the way, say, Batman had (and Nolan shrewdly expanded upon). And you certainly can’t paint the entire movie in moral grays. But I do think you could create a bit more inner conflict. Finn is ripe for some of this, for instance, and there isn’t a whole lot of it in the movie. One of the rules of 21st-century big-canvas storytelling is that there are no rules. You can make characters far more specific and personal, whether it’s darker or lighter or just handcrafted and weird.
I think the boldest statement J.J. made is that he wouldn’t make a lot of bold statements, at least as far as really creating compromised characters: there are good guys and bad guys, and even those who crossed from one to the other don’t spend a lot of time in-between. So his claim was to say, with both the old characters and the new ones, 'no, old-fashioned is OK. You don’t have to subscribe to this modern idea of characters undergoing a major crucible or becoming something entirely different from what we know them as. You can just gently nudge them along a little further, and that’s just fine.’ And I think how you feel about that will go a long way to indicating how you feel about this movie.
JR: Back when there was talk of David Fincher directing Episode VII, I think there was some idea that maybe he would move the franchise in a more radical direction. Abrams is a different kind of director -- he’s a Star Wars fan first and foremost, so he was predisposed to make a more nostalgic fan-service type of movie. But don’t forget about the new movies. It could still happen with them. Empire is a different movie from A New Hope; it puts characters in a very different kind of jeopardy.
With Rian Johnson making Episode VIII, it could go that way. And Gareth Edwards’ spinoff film Rogue One could have its own unique feel. These are original voices, and even though there are commercial considerations, I think the filmmakers could have a lot of latitude to tell the stories their own way.
SZ: All these new movies almost make you wonder how they might change our view of The Force Awakens. We had 16 years between the original trilogy and the widely disliked Phantom Menace, and I think that retroactively bolstered the original trilogy even more, even so many years later. Now we’ll have two new movies within just a year and a half of this film. If the Johnson installment is very complex and still works, it could create some revisionist thinking that The Force Awakens was a little too simple or straightforward. But if it doesn’t work, it could make this movie look even better in retrospect.
JR: Or you could have a scenario where this movie and the next two movies parallel the evolution of the original trilogy. Think about what you had then -- you had Star Wars setting the world up, then Empire was the dark Act 2 when everything went to hell, and then Jedi was the crowd-pleaser that brought it all home. These three new movies could follow a similar path.
SZ: It’s also interesting, as we’re invoking those movies from so many decades ago and whether they can keep their mojo, to note two other recent revivals of long-dormant franchises that began in the 1970s -- Mad Max: Fury Road and Creed. I think if you had said at this time last year that they would be among of the standout films of the year, people would have looked at you a little sideways. It flies against what we’re trained to believe: that reboots aren’t as worthy, that there’s a presumption of guilt -- or at least cash-grabbiness -- whenever a studio revives something that’s been gone so long. Yet somehow here we are.
JR: It has been kind of amazing. But Mad Max and Rocky also I think carry a lot of nostalgia. People liked those characters a lot, and if the movies are done well, we want to spend time with them. They almost seem to operate on the same principle as Star Wars.
SZ: To a point, though, no? Certainly it helps if you know the mythology, or at least appreciate the original films, in all of these cases. But I don’t know if Mad Max and Creed are playing off nostalgia in the same way. Max Max really isn’t -- apart from the fact that the first three movies were visually groundbreaking in their day, there are not many ways in which this leans on or requires a deep-dive understanding of the earlier movies. Even Creed -- sure, it’s the son of Apollo, that gives added weight to the relationship between Adonis and Rocky. But you don’t really need to know it to appreciate this film. Whereas I think if you drop someone who’s never seen a Star Wars movie in front of The Force Awakens they’d be a lot more mystified.
JR: They are a little different maybe in that way. There was certainly a lot more riding on this movie to be good. I don’t think -- and maybe there were a few people like this -- but I don’t think most people were invested in every single Rocky movie being great. But Star Wars was handed down through generations. This was not just another sequel or reboot. And that fandom is the element that potential criticism of Star Wars misses. You’re a big sports guy -- isn’t rooting for The Force Awakens to be good not that different from hoping a team you love will get back on top after falling into a slump?
Because that’s what happened. Yeah, when the prequels came out the cries of "George Lucas raped my childhood!" were a little overblown. But to have the same person who created this universe we fell in love with suddenly push it in the Jar Jar Binks-y direction he did was hard to reconcile. It would be like if the Beatles had reunited in the late ‘70s and put out a string of bad disco albums. Then, adding insult to injury, Lucas went back and digitally mucked around with the original trilogy. So to now see The Force Awakens and have it feel like the old Star Wars we grew up on is validating. This stuff comes down to emotion and childhood memories and how we identify ourselves. It’s not always subject to logic.
SZ: I was thinking of the sports analogy too. I feel like there are different kinds of movie fandom, And the fandom of Star Wars is sui generis, even among people who love other franchises. Like, I’m a fan of most team sports and even a few nonteam sports. But I can watch a baseball or college basketball game, and, while I have some favorites among various clubs, I really just enjoy the pure sport of it.
But in a select few cases, like with the Jets and the Patriots, it really does become a battle between good and evil. It doesn’t matter that these people are not inherently good or evil -- well, except Belichick, he might actually be inherently evil. But as a rule, they’re just highly paid athletes who happen to be wearing one color uniform instead of another. And yet I care deeply. I don’t want to know why someone I think is good may not, ethically speaking, be any more superior to someone I think is bad. I just want some skin in the game, and I just want to identify with its players. And that’s why, for some people at least, Hiltzik’s argument just won’t penetrate. They’re not evaluating it on the same terms as he is.
JR: Trying to explain any part of fandom to someone who doesn’t feel it is pointless. And that’s why I think a lot of discussion about whether Star Wars is good or another supposedly objective term doesn’t really get at what it means to a lot of people.
And even if you can analyze it this way, you have to remember who these movies are made for. Here we are, guys in our 40s, talking about Star Wars, which meant something to us first as kids. I was 5 years old when I first saw Star Wars in 1977 and I got to go on that original-trilogy ride through a pretty ideal chunk of my childhood -- when Return of the Jedi came out, I still wasn’t too cool for Ewoks. For a 44-year-old like me to now wag his finger at something that’s ultimately aimed largely at today’s kids, griping about how it doesn’t live up to his hopes -- that’s not a flattering look. We had our turn.
SZ: I agree, though I don’t know if I can forgive you for reminding me of the decade of life in which I now find myself. I do think this is interesting generationally. Because as much as this is aimed at kids, it really is an older phenomenon -- a Gen-X phenomenon. And I think there’s something oddly reassuring about that to a lot of people of that (read: our) generation.
You look at some twentysomethings -- our colleague Amy Kaufman, for instance -- and she’s been very up-front about not knowing anything about Star Wars and not being hugely enthusiastic about it; she even was asking me the other day which actor played Luke Skywalker. Now maybe she’s a bit of an exception. But the numbers say she might not be a total outlier. I was struck by stats from the site MovieTickets.com that said just 22 percent of people buying Force Awakens tickets on opening weekend were under 30. And the percentage for those between 30 and 50 -- many of whom are of course Gen-Xers? It was 62 percent.
Forget the Sith -- this is a little Revenge of the Gen-X-ers, isn’t it? Hollywood has been busy making movies less and less for our demographic. And along comes this franchise that so many Gen-Xers grew up with and so many Gen-Xers are running out to see, and it becomes the biggest movie of the year in 2015. There’s a kind of assertion of generational power, even if a lot of it is unconscious.
JR: I think there’s some truth to that, though, Amy aside, there is a whole generation who grew up on the prequels, many of whom are as big Star Wars fans as people our age, and then there are little kids who’ve never even seen a Star Wars movie in a theater before this one who are still obsessed with it. On the flip side, I look at my parents, and they’re not nearly as into it as me and my friends are.
SZ: Which contains a certain irony.
JR: Yep. Because Baby Boomers are the ones who made this thing to begin with -- and are still then in a sense controlling the strings.
SZ: A different kind of epic, Resistance/First Order-style battle.
JR: Now who’s the hard-core fan?