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Why Star Wars: The Force Awakens is both a triumph and a tragedy

Yes, The Force Awakens looks amazing. But is anyone surprised? A long time ago, in 1977.

It looks great, but where’s the wonder? Daisy Ridley, as Rey, is one of the few new elements in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Photo: Disney/Lucasfilm

Look familiar? TIE Fighters in Apocalypse Now, whoops, we mean in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Photo: Disney/Lucasfilm

First review: Huge fun and hugely derivativeEarly reviews say original magic restoredThe n from the original Star WarsM rating is confusing for parents

As a movie, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is both a triumph and a tragedy.

Why a triumph? Because it looks amazing. The science of filmmaking is finally at a stage where the images that were in George Lucas’ head in 1971 – when he began scratching out the framework of his “space fantasy” – can now be put on screen utterly convincingly.

Why a tragedy? Because no one will be surprised.

The technological evolution of cinema is so advanced that we now believe everything is possible. And that means The Force Awakens cannot possibly reshape the cinematic universe as we know it, the way Star Wars did in 1977. It can incrementally improve upon what has come before, and kids will no doubt still be enthralled, but ultimately it is just another movie.

I was 13 when I saw Star Wars in 1977 but I’d already spent months before its release poring over fan magazines with my mates. John Dykstra – the man who designed the camera system that allowed us to fly in the Death Star trench with Luke and company – was our hero. What these guys did with models and polystyrene was incredible. George Lucas, out of whose head this all poured, was a god.

When I finally saw it, Star Wars was a revelation. There were lasers. There were swords made of light. There were cool spaceships and cars that hovered and bizarre-looking creatures who’d as soon shoot you as buy you a drink. There was hyperspace. And it was all in one movie!

Like millions of others, I was seduced by the Force.

It didn’t stop in the theatre, either. I remember going with my parents to a fancy-dress party as Luke Skywalker – I wore a karate outfit; I carried a lightsaber made from a pool cue wrapped in reflective blue electrical tape, its hilt shoved into a 12-inch aluminium tube; my hair was Mark Hamill shaggy, just like every other suburban boy back then.

I had some of those Kenner action figures, but I was more interested in making my own merch – if the filmmakers could do it, so could I. I spent hours carving X-wing fighters out of balsa wood (timber dowels for engines, toothpicks inside a short length of drinking straw for the blasters). I spent more hours making TIE fighters out of black-painted ping-pong balls, with the caps off toothpaste tubes for the wing struts and plastic card for the wings. They hung, suspended from fishing line, from the ceiling of my bedroom, a low-tech sci-fi dogfight frozen in time and slowly gathering dust.

It’s become a truism to say that Star Wars changed the movie business forever (a shift that had, in fact, started with Jaws two years earlier). It opened in the US in May 1977 on just 33 screens; The Phantom Menace, the first film in the second trilogy, opened on more than 7000 in 1999. Star Wars didn’t just spawn the era of the summer blockbuster, it ushered in the age of big-budget spectacle, and the death of the risk-taking auteur cinema that had briefly flourished in Hollywood from the late 1960s (ironic, really, since Star Wars was utterly the work of an independent auteur with a vision deemed too risky for most studios to back).

When Disney bought Lucasfilm in 2012, it valued the company at $US4.2 billion. More than half of that was goodwill. They got a bargain: the rich seam of nostalgia and childhood memories and the desire to share that with one’s own children is worth so much more than they paid.

But Star Wars for Disney is not just a movie series; it’s a launching pad for a whole bunch of business beyond the screen.

Factor in the merchandise (value to date, more than $US32 billion), the theme park rides (amusement parks brought in more than $US15 billion last year for Disney, more than twice as much as the movie division), and spin-offs (The Force Awakens is the first of six planned films; there are books, comics, TV series and computer games too) and you can see where the real value lies.

In The Force Awakens, JJ Abrams has made a fine film of a certain sort – instant and shallow characterisation, a simple duality of good and evil, visually spectacular battle sequences, and the odd dash of humour. But this is an industrial product, designed to further the interests of a mega-corporation. That’s not evil, necessarily, but it’s a long way from the singular vision that tormented The Creator (as George Lucas is known in some quarters) until he could finally put it on screen.

Lucas was in fact tormented by his vision for many years after he filmed it. He constantly tweaked and revised and reworked the digital effects as the evolving technology made more things possible.

I’d guess he might be a little tormented by The Force Awakens, too – if only because Abrams has plundered the back catalogue to such brilliant effect, taking the best elements and discarding the worst, while giving us what it so desperately needed, a strong female character (ironically, when Lucas first began work on the saga, he briefly toyed with making the Luke character female).

Strip-mining the earlier films and reworking with the benefit of better technology is precisely what George Miller did with Mad Max: Fury Road, so there’s no shame in it. But there’s no great glory either.

Star Wars had such an impact on the business and the culture in 1977 because it was so unexpected. Despite its 1940s influences (Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon et al), it looked and felt unlike anything we’d ever experienced before.

But that was a long time ago, in what now seems a galaxy far, far away, when it truly seemed there were more things in heaven and earth than we could dream of.

Now, there’s almost nothing we can imagine that a filmmaker as gifted as JJ Abrams can’t make real on the screen.

All that’s missing is the sense of wonder.

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