Try to imagine a world without Star Wars. It’s 40 years since George Lucas unveiled the first in his sci-fi franchise and, with The Last Jedi now upon us, it’s a question worth asking. A recent Vanity Fair article came to the conclusion that it’s almost impossible – unless, that is, we can imagine the past four decades without Space Invaders, Pixar, or even Photoshop.
In short, Star Wars is unavoidable. Since 1977, the Star Wars films have been the benchmark – if not the catalyst – for modern Hollywood’s “synergy-driven strategies” – linking big-screen outings with “ancillary products” in the form of action figures and other commercial tie-ins. Now owned by Disney, the Star Wars property extends to theme-park rides, videogames and, more recently, spin-off films and animated TV series.
Much like Marvel’s comic-book multiverse or the Harry “Potterverse”, the original Star Wars film – since rebranded as Episode IV: A New Hope – sits now as part of an endlessly proliferating set of episode and merchandising possibilities.
Some commentators on contemporary Hollywood bemoan this “conglomerate” logic and the types of movies it supposedly throws up. Star Wars inevitably becomes a whipping boy in this discussion, since the huge success of the 1977 film (only Gone with the Wind has sold more tickets at the box office) helped turn Hollywood away from films like The Godfather, Chinatown and Taxi Driver and taught it to rely on comic-book superheroes, literary wizards and the new worlds of CGI.
Star Wars’ other lesson is that the “standalone” movie, especially in a modern movie climate where attracting an audience is never guaranteed, is too risky. Better to rely on established franchises, “spread” across multiple titles and media platforms. A quick glance at 2017’s US box office top ten, or the more-or-less identical UK list, illustrates this logic at work on a global scale.
The more positive spin on the franchise is its capacity for extending narrative in diverse and often richer ways; a process often known as “world building”. I’m fairly comfortable among Assembled Avengers or other Fantastic Beasts – and the dispersed, interweaving story-worlds they inhabit. But when this becomes the only possibility for large-scale filmmaking, even I find modern Hollywood’s dependency on the sequel constricting. Yet it’s odd if Star Wars (to stick with its original title) takes the rap for this, since it actually has so little in common with many of the franchise films that followed it – not to mention the extended Star Wars series itself.
Strangely enough, in fact, Star Wars offers positive lessons to filmmakers and producers hoping to change things up in the Hollywood game. Some French critics serendipitously use their word for UFO - “un ovni” (objet volant non identifié) - to describe films that, like Star Wars, seemed to come from nowhere. Given sci-fi’s box-office dominance over the past 40 years, it’s hard to imagine that in 1977 it was not yet a trusted form. Consequently, no one was sure what to do with Lucas’s film. His friends did not get it. Many of the hired production crew laughed at it. In its place, 20th Century Fox promoted forgotten squibs such as Damnation Alley. We eventually learned that Lucas was planning a saga and media empire all along. But in 1977, we just saw an out-of-the-blue epic.
Breaking the mould
Since Star Wars, the possibility of Hollywood losing money has been mitigated, paradoxically, by expensive “saturation” releases, with movies marketed intensively and opened simultaneously across thousands of screens. This wasn’t the case with Lucas’s cut-price film, which opened on just 32 of them. Contemporary Hollywood, critics might say, stifles choice. But in 1977, against the grain, audiences chose Star Wars.
Why? For my six-year-old self, Star Wars was both new and exotic. Technologically it broke new ground, pre-CGI, effectively ushering in the digital effects houses that are the engines of the modern industry. But it was also a film steeped in a cinematic past both strange and familiar: a past of Flash Gordon serials, John Ford Westerns and Kurosawa’s samurai films. It was set in a sumptuously designed galaxy far, far away – yet one that harked back to older war movies, scored to an old-fashioned orchestral soundtrack. Ironically, in drawing on so many films, Star Wars was like few other films made before, or even since.
The eventual problem with Lucas’s “prequel” trilogy, starting with 1999’s The Phantom Menace, was that it was no longer engaging with any other reference points beyond its own. Shot almost entirely against a CGI green screen, and loaded down by Lucas’s wordy script, the films felt dutiful but dull: they filled gaps in the saga, but related to nothing but the series itself.
I thrilled to 2015’s The Force Awakens, and its return to the series’ original cinematic values of adventure, pathos and wit, bolstered by the agile performances of its young, relatively unknown cast. Even here, though, as the film’s director and co-writer J J Abrams has admitted, the film was in many respects a reprise of everything good about the 1977 movie.
My point though is that we shouldn’t look to films that imitate Star Wars, but to those which follow its example. Like Lucas’s film, Damien Chazelle’s recent La La Land was a comparatively cheap picture out of step with its time and place – a one-off, non-adapted and (I hope) sequel-proof musical; one that started out screening in a few cinemas and festivals, but eventually turned into a worldwide hit.
The film’s nostalgic heart and look also owed to the cinematic past – to a Hollywood and Europe of the 1950s – yet it too seemed to emerge from its own gorgeously self-crafted world. It was proof that in Hollywood you don’t have to be totally original to be original. But you do need a bit of faith.
And, as in 1977, it felt refreshingly new. But the lesson we might learn from La La Land is an old one: if the Hollywood that Star Wars helped build wants to do something new, it actually needs more films like Star Wars.