My blogging has slowed down over the past six months or so, and I think Star Wars: The Force Awakens is to blame. It’s like I have a mental block that’s been in place since around the time the 2nd teaser trailer was released (you know, the one with Han saying “Chewie, we’re home”). I used to feature a weekly trailer analysis, but I haven’t done one since the first trailer was released. I haven’t written nearly as many analyses of movies as I would have liked, my Friday Favorites feature has ground to a halt, and in all honesty I even have trouble getting regular movie reviews and TV recaps done. It’s not as if I’ve run out of things to say, and I desperately love writing about movies, but Star Wars is blocking me at every turn. Every time I sit down to write something, I feel like I should be writing about Star Wars and yet I’ve been avoiding discussing my favorite film series any more than I must. But even beyond that, The Force Awakens has almost (but not quite) diminished my ability to enjoy the world of film in the first place. So in an effort to clear my mind of this block, I’ve got to just put my thoughts about the current state of Star Wars before my brain explodes.
Star Wars has long had a special place in my life. I wasn’t old enough to have seen the films when they were originally in theaters, but discovering the films on VHS back in the 80s is what kindled the spark of not only my love of cinema, but of storytelling in general. The universe George Lucas created captured my imagination, and became obsessed with the films, the books, and anything Star Wars I could get my hands on. The Phantom Menace came out at the perfect time for me, right as I hit high school, and I had the prequels to carry me into college. As I matured, the stories matured, moving away from wisecracking heroes and scary villains into the more subtle world of politics, of moral murkiness, and the questions of what makes a person good or evil. The films, all six of them, are still among my favorites of all time, although my tastes have changed as I’ve aged, but Star Wars will always be one of the most important stories I’ve ever experienced. (I’ve defended, and will continue to defend, the prequel trilogy despite being in a seemingly silent minority. I’ve honestly lost my taste for the fight, so I tend not to be as vocal about them as I used to be, but if anything I appreciate the prequels more now than I did when they first debuted.)
I posted an episode of my web series a little while back where I discussed my concerns about The Force Awakens, despite my excitement for the film in general. You can watch that for my rambling account of how I went from super excited for more Star Wars to genuinely worried about The Force Awakens. It mostly boils down to the way George Lucas was cut out of the creative process, ensuring that instead of seeing his vision of the “Star Wars story” we’re getting someone else’s version. In a new interview with CBS This Morning, set to air next month, Lucas talks about how his story treatments for the sequel trilogy were discarded by Disney, something well within their rights to do as the new owners of Lucasfilm. It’s not new information, but the way he expresses his feelings over happened shed some light on the decision making process, and hit at some parts of the mental block that’s kept me from writing as much as I would have liked in recent months.
Star Wars has never been as popular in my lifetime as it is right now. It seems like The Force Awakens is all anyone can or will talk about (more on that in a minute), but Lucas has been scarcely mentioned. When he is mentioned, it’s usually in the vein of “I’m glad he’s not involved anymore.” It seems that the popular opinion is that the original trilogy was a success and iconic not because of Lucas but in spite of him. That attitude is beyond disheartening and more than a little ungrateful, but it plays perfectly into the current mindset that removes ownership of art from the artist and gives control to the audience. We live in a day when the line dividing crazy theories, headcanons, and fan fiction from the source canon of the original art is practically nonexistent. Don’t like this part of the story? Just ignore it. Think this character should have had a different ending? Rewrite it and make yourself happy. Like the universe but don’t like the tone or themes of the story? Make it darker or lighter to suit your tastes, or turn it from a message of hope into a nihilistic dystopia or vice versa.
On a conceptual level, there’s nothing wrong with any of that. It’s important to allow your imagination to have complete freedom at all times, and it can be great fun to play around in someone else’s universe. And, after all, there’s nothing stopping someone from rewriting things as they see fit. But I’ve always felt that there’s a limit to the subjectivity of art. Everything is open to some level of interpretation, sure, but I think there’s something inherently wrong in our current trend of consumer-based art. Partly it stems from the fact that many works of art have a clear message and to ignore that message is to deny the very essence of the story. But also I tend to look at stories the way I look at history. There’s interpretation of history, sure, but denying man walked on the moon is to history what denying the existence of Jar Jar or midi-chlorians is to Star Wars. Obviously, comparing moon landing deniers to people who hate midi-chlorians and choose to ignore them is insane, and I’m not arguing that there’s anything in common between the two, but I’m trying to make a point about the sanctity of the story. I’ve always looked at stories the same way I look at history, as something that happened and is in some ways unchangeable. You can’t go back in time and change history any more than, I feel, you can go into a story that exists and change it and then claim that this new version is the “real story” and always has been. To me, the only one with the power to do that is the original author/creator of the story.
Lucas obviously views stories the same way I do, as he describes the differences between his approach and Disney’s in the interview. “The issue was, ultimately, they looked at the stories and they said, ‘We want to make something for the fans.’ So, I said, all I want to do is tell a story of what happened – it started here and went there.” I’m sure many people will disagree with Lucas (and me), but this is the key reason why I can’t get excited about The Force Awakens the way so many other fans who love Star Wars as much as I do can. I feel like we’re not actually getting Star Wars at all, just Star Wars fan fiction. It could be great, it could recapture the spirit of the original trilogy, for all I know it could be the best movie I’ve ever seen, but it still won’t ever truly be Star Wars to me, any more than a Harry Potter story written without J.K. Rowling’s involvement would be Harry Potter to me.
And, honestly, I don’t have a problem with more Star Wars movies without George Lucas. I really don’t. I’m stoked for Rogue One the first “Anthology Film” of the new series. I’m less enthusiastic about a young Han Solo film, but it could be interesting at least. But it’s easier to separate these as cinematic fan fiction in my mind. The Force Awakens is not only placed as the “official” continuation of the Star Wars story, but has also been built up as some kind of redemption for the series, and I just can’t get on board with either of those ideas. So seeing the non-stop reactions of people to every ounce of footage from The Force Awakens has almost killed the experience for me before it even happens. Star Wars is in a unique position as a franchise. It has pretty much 100% saturation among the public; everyone has seen at least some piece of Star Wars. And, interestingly, while your average filmgoer couldn’t care less about canon and the “true” story, many die-hard fans are thrilled to see a new beginning to the series that will wipe away the parts they don’t like. I’ve never seen a fandom that so despises the creator of the thing they love as much as Star Wars fans seem to hate George Lucas, whether it’s for “ruining their childhood” or “selling out to the toy manufacturers” or because “Han should have shot first”. (I could write an entire article about how people seem to love “directors’ cuts” of movies, especially when they’re produced years later using modern effects to fill out deleted scenes, yet people hate the Special Editions with a fiery passion. Or how some directors’ fan bases cry out in anger whenever a studio tries to undermine or change a director’s vision, yet people are thrilled that the reins have been taken away from Lucas. But I probably won’t write that, because just thinking about it wearies me.)
All of that is to say, I think George Lucas has been treated pretty shabbily (at least, as shabbily as someone with all of the money on Earth could ever be treated), and that canon matters to me. The idea of wading into the Star Wars: The Force Awakens discussion with that baggage just sounds exhausting, but with all of that rattling around in my head I’ve found it hard to concentrate on writing anything else. But there’s another aspect to The Force Awakens that has kept me from writing as much as I’d like, though it’s symptomatic of a larger trend in the film industry. I feel like The Force Awakens has been overexposed, it’s everywhere you turn, but it’s the reaction to the trailers in particular that have really bothered me.
I love movie trailers and the delicate balancing act they play. I love how in two minutes they can bring out your emotions, pique your interest in a new film, excite, scare, or make you laugh. I vividly remember seeing the trailer for The Phantom Menace in the theater for the first time, and what a magical experience that was. But the way that the trailers for The Force Awakens have been dissected, examined with a microscope, and investigated for secrets has really killed my enthusiasm for the film, trailers in general, and the film industry as a whole. You can’t view a single movie-related website without coming across links to “10 things you didn’t noticed in the latest Force Awakens trailer” or “What the new footage from TV Spot #2 tells us about Kylo Ren’s origins” or “Possible spoilers from latest sneak peek.” I understand the business, and I know these sort of articles get clicks and generate revenue and I’m an idiot for having a movie blog and not taking part in the speculation, but the need to have everything figured out sickens me. And I know I’ve been guilty of it in the past, but things have gotten way out of hand.
I don’t want to know if Rey is crying over Chewie’s dead body, or if she’s Han and Leia’s lost daughter, for example. Even if both of those things turn out to be true, I’d rather save those revelations for the film. I’m not a spoilerphobe, I don’t avoid watching trailers and commercials, but I just don’t understand the need to know everything before going into a film. Some movies play up the mystery aspect of the film, trying to get you guessing so you’ll go see the movie to find out if you’re right, but Star Wars is a journey, not a destination. The endless theorizing might make now more fun (for some people anyway), but I can’t help but think it will make the movie itself less enjoyable. The Force Awakens has almost ceased to be a movie in my mind and has become merely an event, not a work of art to experience in the dark for 2 hours with a group of strangers and a bag of popcorn.
But beyond just the search to uncover every secret, something new seems to have happened with The Force Awakens. The transition of ownership from artist to audience seems to have happened before the film is even released this time around, with people going so far as to proclaim Rey a strong, inspirational character, based on a few minutes of footage and a handful of lines. Or doing character analysis of Kylo Ren despite knowing nothing about him or his real motivations. People are taking a shell of a character, based on a few images and words, and creating the heart of the character themselves. It’s one thing to see the first footage of BB-8 and decide he’s the cutest thing ever, but quite another to assign character traits and motivations to someone we don’t yet know from a movie we haven’t seen, filling in background, personality, and projecting their story before it’s even had a chance to be told. It’s not just judging a book by its cover, but actually writing a book based on its cover.
It’s part of a trend that isn’t confined to Star Wars, though The Force Awakens has taken things to an extreme. It’s why I haven’t been able to muster up the energy to cover trailers on my blog lately. I know many people are thrilled at the triumph of the audience over the artists, but it feels like a cheapening of things to me. If the results of fan-oriented filmmaking are travesties like Jurassic World, I’ll happily pass. And if everything is figured out, analyzed, interpreted, rewritten, and claimed before a film even comes out then we might just as well make nothing but trailers and start charging fees instead. There’s no doubt that Star Wars has the power to change the way the film industry works, after all it’s done it before, but I can’t help but feel like things are being changed for the worse. Perhaps this is just a blip in the history of cinema, and things will return to a more “normal” state once December 18th has come and gone, but for now we’ll just have to wait and see. And if all that this mass of word vomit has done is enabled me to unclog the pipes of my mind that are filled with Star Wars mush, so that I can get back into the swing of the blogging I love to do, so be it. I don’t want or expect things to change just because I don’t like the way they’re headed. But I do think we need to take a hard look at the way we consume the art of film, and the way we discuss it. If we don’t treat movies right, we might not have them anymore.