Friday, December 18, 2015

851. I have seen The Force Awakens (SPOILERS)

I have seen Star Wars - Episode VII: The Force Awakens.  And I love it.

A storytelling geek like me, and not just a Star Wars geek, is bound to love it.  It's cyclical in the best tradition. 

That's all I will say before I again warn you I have SPOILERS in mind as I continue talking about it.

The least spoiler I can say is that it's very reminiscent of Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean movies, in a good way, mind you, because I loved them, especially the original trilogy (the fourth is basically for anyone who might want to just experience one of them, because it's mostly unrelated).  I say this not just because Daisy Ridley's Rey ends up reminding me of Keira Knightley's Elizabeth Swann, but because of a few other elements besides, like the pirates hideout (more or less) where our heroes meet Lupita Nyong'o's Maz Kanata, which clearly evokes a similar haunt from the Pirates films.  The treasure hunt, so to speak, is right out of them, too.

You'll find, in my Episode VII label, two previous posts I've written concerning my speculations and expectations, which ended up being exactly what happens in the movie (from a certain point of view).  I loved that.  I thought Kylo Ren being revealed right away to be Han Solo and Princess General Leia's son was brilliant.  Because it probably sets up something even greater, which is how the movie ends, very strongly suggesting that Rey is Luke Skywalker's daughter.  It's a strong twist, and an ode, to the original trilogy, in two different ways.  First is pretty obvious.  The second is that the big fight in this new trilogy will be between the offspring of the original heroes, who often were at odds with each other anyway.  And still are, come to think of it.

I love how John Boyega's Finn transforms from a stormtrooper to reluctant hero.  He helps make the whole thing more rich than any previous Star Wars (yes, I just said that).  I love how Han Solo continues the tradition of veteran hero dying in the opening film of a trilogy (even if I'm sad to see him go).

J.J. Abrams is once again true to form.  (Big Red Ball 'O' Doom?  Check.  Greg Grunberg?  Check!)  I've been fascinated with his work since Lost.  (Also, hello, Ken Leung!)  He's got such a strong creative track record at this point, it's only appropriate that he next gets to become the next Christopher Nolan, a guy with the ability to unleash big ideas on the big screen as big as he wants.  The next Star Wars is in very good hands with Rian Johnson (check out Brick and Looper right now!).  So it's great that Abrams got to set the ball rolling, and will be able to what he wants now.  Because we are all in for further treats.

The best part of The Force Awakens?  That it's got its own massive payoff, from the lightsabers duels Ren fights with Rey and Finn after killing Han to Rey's meeting with Luke.  This is the best ending of any Star Wars.  It's dramatic payoff that's so good you don't even care that they just destroyed another Death Star-type weapon and completely downplayed it in favor of the human drama.

The worst part?  Carrie Fisher's acting.  But there's always a stiff actor somewhere in Star Wars.  The good news is, the saga is always filled with enough spectacle where it doesn't matter, from the originals to the prequels, to a whole new trilogy. 

And it's just beginning...

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

850. Box Office: Star Wars Episode I - The Phantom Menace

The year was 1999.  Once again, Star Wars was the most hotly anticipated release of the year.  It went on to become the most successful release that year.  And then to become known as one of the most maligned movies ever.

How is that even possible?  Not every huge success remains popular.  It's strange, it really is.  You look back historically and it's virtually unthinkable.  Going back just twenty years, and there's not a single such success, the top draw of the year, that went on to become unpopular.  The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), E.T. (1982), Return of the Jedi (1983), Beverly Hills Cop (1984), Back to the Future (1985), Top Gun (1986), Three Men and a Baby (1987), Rain Man (1988), Batman (1989), Home Alone (1990), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), Aladdin (1992), Jurassic Park (1993), Forrest Gump (1994), Toy Story (1995), Independence Day (1996), Titanic (1997), Saving Private Ryan (1998)...These were all cultural touchstones of varying degrees, and to varying degrees still relevant and beloved today.  (Quibble about, say, Three Men and a Baby, but it doesn't really matter.) 

After The Phantom Menace?  In fact, immediately after, How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000), suffered the same fate.  It happened again to Spider-Man 3 (2007).  It's time to stop blaming Jar Jar Binks and do some actual analysis.

It's worth starting with Star Wars itself.  Return of the Jedi was widely panned by fans, too, and for the same reasons (Ewoks being indisputably the original trilogy's Jar Jar Binks).  Over time, fans forgot how little they actually liked the last one, and got caught up in the anticipation for the next one.  Why's that, exactly?  Because it took that long for anyone to come up with another blockbuster idea.

From the moment of A New Hope's release in 1977, Hollywood started scrounging for the next big thing.  That's how we got Superman and Star Trek on the big screen.  For the entirety of the '80s, however, big hits looked nothing like Star Wars.  Go ahead and look at the films that topped the box office during that period again.  To find anything remotely resembling the modern era, you have to look at Batman (1989) at the end of the decade.  And then you'll see that there was still no real follow-up for the next decade

In fact, if you look at the '80s and the '90s, you'll find that Hollywood embraced one aspect of the Star Wars phenomenon: its family-friendly atmosphere.  With variations (commonly, action), the formula was eventually adapted so that it was thoroughly safe for kids, kind of like how Disney had such a long string of hit animated films, including the latterday surge in this period as typified by Aladdin (1992) and Toy Story (1995).

It should have been very little surprise that Jar Jar happened at all.  Or was attempted at all.  Or the filmmakers believed he would happen, up until they started hearing the public's vitriolic feedback.

But what Star Wars really accomplished, in 1999, was to finally force everyone else to take event movies seriously, the way everyone assumed Hollywood had starting in 1977.  What were the most popular movies thereafter?  Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (2001), Spider-Man (2002), The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), Shrek 2 (2004), Star Wars Episode III - Revenge of the Sith (2005), Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (2006), The Dark Knight (2008), Avatar (2009), Toy Story 3 (2010), Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (2011), Marvel's The Avengers (2012), The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)...In fact, until American Sniper (2014), which snatched victory from another Hunger Games installment at the last minute, every top release since Phantom Menace has been part of a major franchise, with minimal overlap.

In addition to everyone complaining that there are no original ideas anymore (which is always ridiculous), what this means is that Star Wars finally created it own competition, by finally bringing back the concept of mass anticipation.  It took years.  It took about two decades, really.

And it produced the phenomenon of mass disappointment.  Films flop all the time, but it took The Phantom Menace for a hugely successful movie to flop, metaphorically speaking.  Suddenly even a movie people couldn't stop seeing could be nitpicked to death.  And that's what the discussion surrounding Phantom Menace has really amounted to all these years.  Nitpicking is what fans do.  When you produce a culture where fans are no longer a limited phenomenon, you end up with something as absurd as what happened to Phantom Menace.  Now, people just assume it was a bad film, no matter how closely it resembles the same exact tendencies as every Star Wars before it. 

I could go on about the film itself, which I've long admired, if not counted among my most favorite movies.  Hollywood keeps trying to retain the goofy element in these blockbusters, no matter the fan reaction.  That's why Jack Sparrow propelled the Pirates of the Caribbean films to great success, and why Iron Man and his fellow Avengers usually take things tongue-in-cheek.  Anytime a blockbuster tries to play things straight, even the fans are disgruntled.  Which makes it all the more ironic that they continue to insist that Jar Jar was a horrible, horrible mistake.  Hey, you wouldn't have him without C-3PO in...all the other ones.

So here we stand at the precipice of another hotly anticipated Star Wars release.  The question we have before us is: will the fans allow themselves to enjoy it?  The answer could very well define the next twenty years of filmmaking...


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