In 2009 J.J Abrams revitalised the Star Trek franchise with a fantastic cast, strong storyline and copious amounts of lens flare. Happily the movie in question was a huge success, commercially doubling its budget. ‘Star Trek’ (2009), to the benefit all cinema-goers, was also a critical success. The reason for the vast majority of the underlying praise was, as review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes sums up, that it pleases ‘traditional trekkies and new fans alike’. Abrams’s successfully modernised nostalgia for the masses.
Why is this important? Well, when we talk about revisiting an even bigger long-standing franchise with an even bigger fan base with even bigger expectations you can see where the critical success of a new Star Wars franchise may lie. It is hard to overstate how much of a task Abrams has in creating ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ (2015), one which no one would believe to be anything but simple. Star Trek may have an infinite run time of different TV series across all of TV, but when someone hears the words ‘Star Wars’, you think big movies not, in relative terms, small TV shows. Sure there are ‘Trekkies’ out there who follow the series religiously, but has it got its own registered religion à la Jediism?
Having said that, Abrams does have one tiny advantage that rests in the not-so-fondly remembered legacy of the franchise’s latest film. Revenge of the Sith (2005) was not fondly remembered for its dialogue. Re-watching it on TV leaves families, die-hards and the average Joe cringing with either delight or embarrassment at some of the lines. Hearing “Hold me, Ani. Hold me, like you did by the lake on Naboo…where there was nothing but our love…”, ones ear drums tend to bleed. Penned by ‘Empire Strikes Back’ (1980) and ‘Return of the Jedi’ (1983) screenwriter Lawrence Jasken, and assisted by the ever capable talents of Abrams himself, ‘The Force Awakens’ certainly has a far better pedigree.
While it is relatively obvious that ‘The Force Awakens’ will have to appeal to all generations of Star Wars fans and the average Joe, a new Star Wars franchise will only have the goods if it can also transcend a domineering force of cinema in this current age: the so-called ‘Golden Age’ of comic book/super hero films. Marvel at the box office is a force (no pun intended) to be reckoned with, and somehow is only just getting into its universe-building stride despite enormous critical and commercial success. Marvel also has the benefit of releasing a number of films in the same year that share the same universe to keep the franchise booming along. Then there is DC, whose film line up now includes Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and many others. In the wise words of Qui-Gon Jinn, ‘There will always be a bigger fish’ – but what happen when there are a lot of big fish? How do you become the bigger fish? How do you consistently fight with the bigger fish to be The Big Fish?
The new Star Wars franchise, beginning with Abrams’ film, must distinguish itself as something different to the comic book films while staying loyal and true to its roots. Jedis can’t resemble Captain America’s, Han Solo cannot remind us of Star Lord and Darth Anonymous cannot remind us of Thanos. In other words, it doesn’t have to be a bigger fish – it could be a bigger bird, or snake. Abrams must delve deep into the nostalgia and expanded universe of Star Wars to create something different, and the traditional Good vs Evil storyline that was made so clear in the two original trilogies must become a little blurred.
Comparisons have already been made between Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) and Star Wars, with remarkable yet subtle similarities (Groot and Chewbacca, dogfight sequences). Considering the surprise hit that ‘Guardians’ was, it may well be the film franchise that Star Wars has to contend with in terms of the world of space opera cinema. But ‘Guardians’ is a small fish part of the Biggest Fish. And then ‘Avatar 2’ releasing early 2016 which could just drown the ocean of fish entirely.
In the financial industry, there is a now well-known yet infamous dilemma of ‘too big to fail’. Will ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ be a success? Undoubtedly, as it has to be. Will its success propel it to usher in the ‘Golden Age of Star Wars’? Questionable. To the benefit of all cinema goers, to be a sci-fi franchise in the 2000’s isn’t easy. To be a trilogy (Hunger Games, Iron Man) is even harder.
As trailers emerge and plot details leak we will get a better understanding of which (hopefully) unique yet nostalgic direction the new Star Wars franchise is propelling itself into. Until then we can only hope that Jar Jar isn’t anywhere near it.