Does it seem like your world is split between people who are irrationally hyped for Star Wars: The Force Awakens and those who are irrationally angry about said hype? Well, there’s a reason for that. It has to do with nostalgia, cynicism, and our very complicated relationship with this franchise.
See, all human attitudes are subject to something I call the Belief In Santa Claus Cynicism Progression, or if you prefer, the Human Santapede. It works like this:
From birth to early childhood, you believe Santa Claus is real and magical;
In late childhood, you find out Santa isn’t real;
In your teens, you find out your parents sometimes can’t afford Christmas gifts;
In your college years, you hear that Santa was created by Coca-Cola for an ad campaign and decide the whole thing is commercialized bullshit;
In adulthood, you see the glow on a child’s face on Christmas morning and decide that Santa is real and magical after all.
Star Wars is like that — the more you dig into it, the uglier it looks, until eventually it … isn’t. What do I mean? Well, it starts with the day you realize …
Luke, Han, and Darth Vader were literally among the first names I ever knew. George Lucas was writing the first draft of Star Wars at the exact same time my parents were entering the pre-production phase on me — spring of 1974. When my little growing brain was figuring out the names of things a few years later, Star Wars was everywhere — my tiny little universe was Mommy, Daddy, Big Brother, Grandma, Grandpa, Luke Skywalker. I spent more of my childhood imagining how I would live in the Star Wars universe than I did imagining being an adult in ours. This is why I have no idea how to manage my life today, but I can guarantee every exhaust vent on this house has a fucking screen on it.
Toilets, too. Just to be safe.
When I was old enough to understand what a “movie” was — that it was just a thing people made up and not an actual alternate universe I was viewing through a rectangular portal — I was even more amazed. How can a human brain even conceive of something like Darth Vader, or The Force or … any of it? Yeah, I knew pretty early I wanted to create things, too — it seemed like a form of magic.
“Seemed” is in past tense for a reason — these days I know that the roots of Star Wars go back to 1912, when Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote a novel about a human having a swashbuckling space adventure called A Princess of Mars. It was the first mainstream hit that featured a now-familiar formula: spaceships, sword fighting, and magical fantasy shit like telepathy. A decade and a half later, this inspired a writer named Philip Francis Nowlan to create the swashbuckling space adventure Buck Rogers, which launched a wildly successful franchise that spanned radio, TV, film, novels, toys … you name it. The bad guys were called “The Han” and the main villain was a flamboyant dictator in a cape named Killer Kane:
And under the cape, what appears to be a polo shirt.
Seeing the success of Buck Rogers, a comic strip publisher called King Features Syndicate went to one of its writers and said, “Write us something like that. And we mean exactly fucking like it. Make it rain money up in this shit!” The writer, Alex Raymond, came back with Flash Gordon, a shamefully identical comic strip that debuted in 1934 and launched its own lucrative media empire. Flash’s swashbuckling space adventures involved fighting a flamboyant dictator in a red and gold robe with a long mustache named Ming the Merciless:
Merciless to his enemies, merciless to fashion.
Oh, and the live action Flash Gordon episodes would open with a slanted crawl, stating the “Chapter” and giving some backstory:
This is what George Lucas grew up watching. Flash Gordon was his Star Wars. An adult George Lucas, hot off the enormously successful American Graffiti, tried to buy the rights to Flash Gordon to turn it into a big-budget film franchise. They couldn’t come to terms on a deal, so Lucas just decided to just write his own version. That’s all it was.
I mean, you can’t feel bad for King Features Syndicate — it’s the exact process by which they created Flash. In Lucas’ knockoff, the hero was to be called Kane Starkiller, his friend was Han, the villain was to be an emperor with a long mustache and a red cape with gold trim. Lucas was just copying and pasting shit, later changing enough to avoid getting sued.
The rough draft of Star Wars was an incoherent rambling mess, borrowing entire scenes from other movies, mostly Akira Kurosawa samurai films (then again, Kurosawa had borrowed his from American Westerns). This is probably why Darth Vader looks a lot like he’s wearing samurai armor …
It’d be such a different movie with the antlers.
For the space dogfight that would mark the climactic battle at the end of the film, Lucas literally stitched together footage from war movies and documentaries, then just re-filmed them with spaceship models, shot for shot.
In other words, Santa Claus isn’t real. The wondrous fantasy universe I spent every spare moment daydreaming about as a kid turns out to be a young director’s crass, hacky grab for fame and fortune. Lucas had remixed two enormously popular franchises, tossing in the coolest moments from several other movies he liked, to create something that everyone in the industry agreed was a piece of shit. Oh, you didn’t know that part? Yeah, Lucas delayed the movie for six months so they could do emergency re-shoots, and even then most theaters were refusing to show Star Wars until studio arm-twisting and early box office returns changed their mind.
Of course, it defied the odds and became a phenomenon. At which point …
George Lucas took a massive pay cut in his director’s salary in exchange for all rights to Star Wars merchandise and future sequels. The studio happily complied, saving a cool $350,000 against what they were sure would be purely imaginary merchandise sales (movie merchandise wasn’t a huge business at the time, and remember they thought the movie would bomb).
But George Lucas knew exactly what he was doing: Star Wars toys would wind up generating $27 billion(!) in revenue over the next few decades. Lucas knew that he was, in part, making a series of toy commercials. This is the reason Han Solo didn’t die in the middle of Return of the Jedi, as originally planned — in the words of Harrison Ford, “George didn’t think there was any future in dead Han toys.” Even though these stories took place a “long, long ago” and all of these people are surely dead anyway.
It got to the point that Kenner was cranking out action figures of every single extra seen in the background of every shot (over 100 separate action figures for just the three movies). These were characters who didn’t even have names in the script — George Lucas quickly came up with their names and backstory when it came time to make the toys.
IG-88 was in one scene and had no lines. His original action figure has an eBay bid of 200 dollars.
This is Stage Two of my cynicism cycle. Not only is Santa not real, but behind Santa is a whole bunch of grown-up money concerns. (“So that’s why ‘Santa’ always gave the rich kids nicer clothes!”) See, today no movie studio would make that deal with a young director — merchandising is too important to the bottom line. And I mean, to the point that the merchandising now shapes the movie.
It turns out that one of the several thousand reasons Batman & Robin sucked is the studio forced Joel Schumacher to cram in as many vehicles and costumes as he could, so they could be turned into toys (the studio famously told him the movie should be “toyetic,” a word that should instantly give you a seizure). This is why today big movie franchises get so, well, crowded.
Want to buy everything Avengers: Age of Ultron-related from Toys R Us? That’ll be $1,025.32. Still no Black Widow stuff though.
This is why you need three or four villains in every superhero movie, and like two dozen Transformers designs for each of their sequels. It’s why the third Iron Man movie needed 10 different Iron Man suits …
You remember Sonic Blasting Iron Man, right?
All of those movies needed bloated, convoluted plots to accommodate all of these characters/vehicles/costumes. You can thank George Lucas for that. Because …
The question, “Why are all of the most popular movies big-budget special effects spectacles?” seems like a no-brainer. It’s all exciting, dazzling, light-hearted stuff that anybody can enjoy, right? Of course that’s what will rise to the top. But check this out: Here’s a list of the highest-grossing movies for each of the 10 years before Star Wars came along in 1977. I’m putting the genre first; you’ll see why:
1976 – Inspirational sports drama (Rocky)
1975 – Horror/Monster movie (Jaws)
1974 – Screwball parody (Blazing Saddles)
1973 – Heist movie (The Sting)
1972 – Serious gangster drama (The Godfather)
1971 – Musical (Fiddler on the Roof)
1970 – Romance drama (Love Story)
1969 – Action/Western (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid)
1968 – Serious sci-fi drama (2001: A Space Odyssey)
1967 – Comedy/Drama (The Graduate)
Now compare that to the last 10 years:
2015 – Action/Sci-fi (Jurassic World)
2014 – War drama (American Sniper)
2013 – Action/Sci-fi (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire)
2012 – Action/Sci-fi (The Avengers)
2011 – Action/Fantasy (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2)
2010 – Animated comedy (Toy Story 3)
2009 – Action/Sci-fi (Avatar)
2008 – Action/Fantasy (The Dark Knight)
2007 – Action/Fantasy (Spider-Man 3)
2006 – Action/Fantasy (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest)
2005 – Action/Sci-fi (Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith)
Not that I have any problem with sci-fi/fantasy action — that’s my genre, too! I’ll let them make action figures out of all this shit.
And hey, it’s not like great original films aren’t still being made — they absolutely are, and some of them are now in the form of TV shows. It’s just that the mega-blockbusters do matter. They’re the cultural touchstones, the shared experiences that bond our childhoods. They’re the movies you can bring up on the playground (and then, the break room) and know that everyone has seen them, the shared references becoming a second language. You know, like how when the Jared Fogle story broke, every single person immediately made the same joke.
But they don’t serve Subway in prison, so … oh, I get it. He’s getting a dick. In the butt.
Well, today if you’re making a movie that can stand at the center of the collective cultural imagination, you’ll need $200 million in production (split between big stars, elaborate stunts, and CGI effects) and another $100 million in promotion. And you’ll need a concept that is a very safe bet — usually a sequel, remake or spinoff. You can thank George Lucas for that, too.
It’s true Lucas didn’t invent the sequel craze (James Bond had already cranked out nine movies before A New Hope came along, even though scientifically Bond’s dick would have fallen off by then). But I do know this: There absolutely was a time when you could look at the top 10 movies of the year and not see a single sequel. That was the case in 1976, the year before Star Wars came out, for instance. But by the time Jedi hit in 1983, sequels had begun to dominate. Raiders of the Lost Ark, Back to the Future, Rambo, Batman, Die Hard, Star Trek … Hollywood was looking for franchises, the promise of a bunch of sequels helped justify the initial investment.
And that was crucial, because those initial investments were getting obscene. The average wide-release film budget in the 1960s was $12 million (adjusted for inflation). By the 1980s it had risen to $40 million. Today? Try $140 fucking million. Oh, and the marketing blitz that it takes to get enough people into the theater to make that money back can run an additional $40 million to $200 million on top of that. Just to get people in to a movie they probably already want to see.
I think, at some point, they were won over.
That right there is why they’re scared to make a blockbuster that doesn’t have built-in brand recognition, so they know they have a certain number of fans in the bank. That’s why the top 10 movies of this year (as of the writing of this article) are six sequels, a remake, a spinoff, and two originals. By the time the year is over, it’s likely only four of the top 20 movies will be originals (I’m going to take a wild guess that Episode VII and the last Hunger Games movie will both wind up there).
Now we reach the “Santa is just a crass corporate mascot” level of cynicism, the point at which you decide there is no magic, or wonder. It’s all just a soulless assembly line. You see The Hunger Games become a hit, and then watch the knockoffs flood in (Divergent, The Maze Runner) and you roll your eyes because it’s just so transparent, so cynical. You decide that it was never about trying to give us a fantastical journey that would elevate our imaginations; it was all about a series of buttons they could push to make money shoot out of our little wallets. “Oh, hey, I wonder if the young attractive guy/girl who’s down on their luck in the first scene will turn out to be the Chosen One?” Screenplays that are just fill-in-the-blanks.
And just when you think it can’t get worse …