We need to unlearn what we have learned
Star Wars changed everything. It’s become that singular defining moment of cinema history, the film that changed everything, pivoting cinema from the innovative and critically acclaimed new wave of the 70s, into the barnstorming blockbuster era of the 80s and 90s, and franchised, serialised, merchandised juggernauts of the 21stcentury.
From Star Wars, sound design, special effects, visual effects, and soundtracks all changed dramatically, entire industries and companies spontaneously thrust to the forefront of filmmaking. Spin-offs, TV shows, video games, books and comics all extended the reality and the life of Star Wars beyond the two hours of screen time. And, most importantly, a whole generation of filmmakers rose up in George Lucas’ wake, benefiting from the investments in technological advancements that Lucas orchestrated, as well as the influence Star Wars had on their own cinematic visions and storytelling.
And the influence was immediate.
Ridley Scott went out and began work on what was to become Alien, and then later Bladerunner. Jim Henson made The Dark Crystal and then Labyrinth. James Cameron started with Terminator, took over on Aliens, and then made The Abyss and Terminator 2: Judgement Day with ILM, which Lucas founded, and which subsequently spawned the beginnings of Pixar. Christopher Nolan, Jon Favreau, Kevin Smith, Peter Jackson, Edgar Wright, J.J. Abrams, Lana and Andy Wachowski, Rian Johnson, Diablo Cody and Eli Roth all identify Star Wars as the ignition for their desire to make films.
Lucas’ use of Joseph Campbell and foreign films as guiding influences on his story design has been endlessly copied to the point of canonising Star Wars as its own archetype. The structure, tone and characterisation of the trilogy are effectively the blueprints for every modern franchise. And this is where we start to run into some problems.
The Star Wars franchise ran awry. Lucas’ storytelling limitations and obsessions over technological advancement drove the prequels into frustrating, hollow territory. The ever-inflating Star Wars universe left the narrative riddled with inconsistencies and irrelevancies that brought about Disney’s takeover and inevitable reset on the Star Wars universe. So much so, that J.J. Abrams, in making the upcoming Episode VII, has gone to great pains to reassure audiences that the film is returning them back to where they started.
Now we are the masters
In Star Wars’ legacy, we not only have a legion of talented filmmakers, we also have the model for how blockbuster films are failing.
Star Wars was released in 1977. Thirty-seven years ago. Given cinema’s fairly young history, the day George Lucas changed filmmaking is closer to the midpoint rather than acting as some kind of recent influence. The generation of influenced filmmakers are getting old. Ridley Scott seems stuck on adaptation-remake autopilot. Cameron is more concerned with technology than story. Jackson and Abrams are almost parodies of themselves lately, while Smith, Wright and Roth seem to abandon more projects than start them. And then the Wachowskis managed to cram Lucas’ disastrous prequel trilogy tailspin into their original trilogy, ruining everything The Matrix established with the swift crash and burn of the sequels.
And yet we still seem to be in an endless cycle of monomyths and trilogies, where we can recite the character beats and plot points in our sleep. We watch for the spectacle, but forget the story (were there any classic lines in Avatar?) We all remember that opening shot where the fleeing Rebel ship is dwarfed by the enormity of the Imperial Stardestroyer. And we remember the first sighting of the Death Star. And the lightsaber. And Darth Vader. Star Wars was spectacle, but it’s remembered because of the strength of the story underneath it.
What worked with Star Wars’ story is that it provided something that had been severely lacking in cinema for decades. It did something new and innovative with story that underpinned all its technological advancements. It worked because of so many different facets. Lucas provided a hopeful, triumphant, classic tale at a time when audiences were fearful of further destabilisation. The continuation of the Vietnam War, the paranoia of the Cold War, and the disenfranchisement of an entire population due to increasingly malicious governments left everyone unsure of what was right and what was wrong. Star Wars changed that entirely.
Of the current directors, only Nolan seems to understand this. He rightfully channelled contemporary concerns about politics, media and justice into The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, aware of how that magical symbiosis between story and reality is crucial to a lasting impact. One can only hope that his coming Interstellar brings the same respect for the audience.
These aren’t the films we’re looking for
We have exhausted the lessons from Star Wars. We need to start telling our own stories.
In the way that Lucas drew on everything he loved to create his own original story, we too need to do the same. We need to free sequels and trilogies and heroes from the repetitive and hollow confines of Campbell. As successful as Abrams is, being a modern remix of Lucas and Spielberg isn’t necessarily creating a lasting impression, especially when his lasting trait seems to be lens flares. For a time, it appeared The Lord of the Rings was going to be this generation’s Star Wars, but its impact seems to have been more along the lines of fuelling more classic book adaptations and exhausting our capacity for box-sets and blue-screens.
The current audience is one that, too, grew up with the impact of Star Wars. It is a far more cinematically knowledgeable audience, one well-versed in everything that Lucas brought about. Like anything once revolutionary, Star Wars has become the norm, the standard, the complacent mainstream.
We need a film to come along and have the wherewithal to challenge convention and do something entirely new. And from that, the next generation of films and filmmakers will spring forth.