Saturday, May 27, 2017

Star Wars 40: The Franchise Re-Awakens

I recently posted a link or two on social media to a post I wrote five years ago about the 35th anniversary of the release of the first Star Wars movie. An interesting read, a take in a very specific moment. One that requires an update!

This was the last effort of
George Lucas's Lucasfilm.
Five years ago Lucasfilm was still in the hands of creator George Lucas— and it was looking sad. In some sort of last-ditch effort to keep the whole franchise relevant he re-released Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace in 3D, and it was met by remarkable indifference. Part of it may well be the fact he was trying to push the least popular movie of the series, and the audience was having none of it. part of it was how uninspired an idea it was in the first place: by putting 3D lipstick on the Phantom Menace pig he was signaling that he no longer had any new ideas for his creation.

That 35th post reflected this sense of despair, of the ending of things. It was the slowly dawning realization that we were going to move past Star Wars being a current, active franchise and more an artifact of past film glory. Back to the Future? Great Franchise. So was The Thin Man. Throw Star Wars on that old pile.

But less than five months after I wrote that post, the unthinkable happened: The franchise fired George Lucas. He was the immovable object: as I said in a post on the subject,

It's obvious that the rock in the road in terms of the last three Star Wars films has been George Lucas himself— his feeble kiddie-pandering, his dull political pontificating, and his peculiar and depressing take on morality. His decisions were impediments that prevented the second three films from reaching the heights of the first three.

Kathleen Kennedy shows us where her heart is.
Lucasfilm was sold to Disney without George being any part of it, veteran Lucas and Spielberg producer Kathleen Kennedy took over production for Lucasfilm Ltd., and she immediately started making brilliant decisions. She hired Michael Arndt and Lawrence Kasdan to write the next episode of the main franchise, and attached JJ Abrams to direct it. Soon after Kennedy let ILM head John Knoll develop a standalone story and brought in Tony Gilroy to write it.

This Vanity Fair excerpt tell you everything you need to
know about why Kathleen Kennedy is running
Lucasfilm now. (h/t Tadd Schellenbach)
The aspect that Kennedy brought into the franchise was more than the removal of the dead hand of Lucas’s faded imagination: she showed amazing respect for the both franchise and the audience. She realized something Lucas forgot: Star Wars was partly owned by its fans, and that base stretched back 35 years. Any new effort required fealty to that canon.

The results exceeded all expectation: Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015, right on schedule) was a exciting new installment which introduced new characters while keeping the main protagonists of the franchise— Han, Leia and Luke— front and center as well. Sure, the story was variation of Episodes IV and VI (Death Star, Starkiller Base, same diff) but it was tightly written, full of humor and surprisingly positive dialogue (after a while, you really start noticing how much all the protagonists complement the efforts of the other protagonists: it's kinda weird). The production was both spectacular and felt materially substantial, utilizing as many practical sets and effects as possible. Episode VII was critically acclaimed, very successful and sent out a tremendous message: Star Wars is back, and we went out of our way to respect the franchise and you, our fans.

With the triumph of Episode VII still hanging in the air like a rainbow Rogue One: A Star Wars Story was released one year later. This was a remarkable film in that it featured no Jedis, no lightsabers and (almost) none of the Skywalker clan. It was a completely standalone story, a bold experiment to test the ability of the Star Wars universe to support completely original characters and story forms. Rogue One also celebrated the ordinary people in the Star Wars universe, those struggling under the yoke of the First Galactic Empire-- it shredded David Brin's objection of the franchise, which he saw as anti-democratic and focused on elites. It was nearly as successful as Episode VII, and many critics (me among them) proclaimed it one of the finest entries in the canon.

Teaser one-sheet: a bit of Episodes
IV, V and VI all mooshed together.
Here are how things stand mid-2017: Lucasfilm under Kathleen Kennedy has successfully revived a dying franchise. Disney/ Lucasfilm is 2-0 so far, with two more in production: Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi opening in December and an as-yet unnamed Han Solo standalone film, due out next year. Of these two, I think we can count on one more solid win with Episode VIII. The “Young Han Solo” movie? Not so sure. It has a solid director team (Phil Lord and Christopher Miller) and Lawrence Kasdan wrote the script-- but there’s such a whiff of “Disney’s Star Wars Babies” to it that it has the possibility— a slight one, but it’s there— of this anthology entry landing with a thud.

I’d say the pessimism I have had over a beloved movie franchise five years ago is pretty much gone, and I’m one happy Star Wars fan. But when you live in golden times (I’m talking about the franchise, not the larger world, which sucks right now) you are constantly searching the horizon for storm clouds. This re-awakening can only last as long as it is led by executives who both love it and know how to make it profitable, and in Hollywood this is always a balancing act.

The other concern is more philosophical: Sure, a huge number of people love the franchise, and some have for 40 years: but being given more quality installments is like going to a huge chain restaurant that always serves everyone their favorite food. You never get tired of it, but after a while you wonder: Are better and newer restaurants being crowded out? How long can they keep serving this great stuff before everyone gets sick of it, even though the quality has never flagged? And how long can this fabulous chain go on before new management decides to cash in-- and steak and Stag’s Leap Malbec 2011 becomes saltines and tap water?

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