By Paul Sawchuk
When I saw the first trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, there was one overwhelming thought I had: They got it right. The overuse of dull cartoonish effects of the prequels was replaced with large landscapes which were shot on location, not on obvious green screen studios, and even the CGI, by master-craft director J.J. Abrams — I don’t think I’m remiss in calling him a master craftsman as Abrams has shown to be very efficient at creating effects shots that are if nothing else immersive where many directors are not — and an incredible call back score of original but appropriate soundalike composed by Michael Giacchino all create a feeling of liveliness akin to Star Wars or Empire. Finally, we had a STAR WARS movie, and capping off the trailer with Harrison Ford’s Han Solo quipping “Chewie, we’re home” was a sure sign that we can forget what happened with the prequels, the real Star Wars is back.
And it’s all fan service.
Let’s be honest, since Phantom Menace’s dismal legacy, we’ve more or less put up with the prequel trilogy, and though some good things have come out of it — the well received Clone Wars series and Star Wars Episode 1: Podracer —fans have wanted a return to the story of Luke, Han, Leia and Chewbacca for decades. We finally got it, and it’s no surprise that it’s already breaking box-office pre sales records.
I’ve written at length about nostalgia in the past. Its intensity is everywhere. If you spend too much time online — as I do — you’ll see a barrage of man-child fanboys now creating Youtube reviews on popular channels sparking a lot of discussion about these these subjects, often waxing nostalgic. Some are even making the news — Moviebob was featured in various news outlets for his vitriol fueled hatred of Pixels earlier this year — but at the same time, The Force Awakens is made for this kind of audience, noted for it’s prickly (and often prickish) nit-picky nature that will obsess over minutiae and miss the heart of the matter. But a lot of these films are also by this audience.
Abrams grew up watching Spielberg and Lucas in their prime. So, we can argue that studios are just cashing in on nostalgia, but I think Hollywood pundits might be missing the point. As generations of filmmakers shift, we’ll likely see genre resurgences. Hollywood, like anything, are cyclical, after all.
Take the “Movie Brats.” This was a group of filmmakers in the 1970s who grew up watching movies. Their love of this form of storytelling led them to make a career out of it. Guess which filmmakers were part of that group. Spielberg, Lucas, Martin Scorcese, Francis Ford Coppola and others. In that time there was a strong resurgence in genres that had been gone for 20 or more years: Adventure serials (disappeared in the 50s and reappeared with Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark), crime and gangster films (Coppola’s Godfather, or Brian DePalma’s remake of the 1930’s Scarface), and of course the space operas of the 1950’s, which resurged with Star Wars. These films weren’t calculated studio maneuvers to cash in on nostalgia, they were love letters to what brought these filmmakers into filmmaking in the first place.
J.J. Abrams Super 8 is a clear love-letter to Spielberg’s films E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and also Jurassic Park. Colin Trevorrow was so in tune to his fans, following his Twitter account during the production of Jurassic World yielded such tidbits as “Shooting on 35mm” or “Practical Effects,” terms associated with film aficionados both professional and amateur. Can you really call it “fan service” if the people behind the filmmaking process are active fans?
It’s easy to be cynical and cite a “nostalgia craze” as the dominating force of the box office. We can’t forget that filmmakers are not always corporations or organizations. “Film by committee” can sometimes deliver some cynical summer movies (want to see a hilarious review? Go to Youtube and watch MovieBob’s Amazing Spiderman reviews), but in today’s climate, many of these directors and producers are the fans themselves. Trevorrow made one film prior to being given the reigns on Jurassic World, a small indie comedy, Safety Not Guaranteed. Much like the 70s, we’re living in an era where fandom has evolved and fans are making the films, which is a strong argument against studio intervention and “cash cows.”
With YouTube it’s even easier for fans to create. Take Belated Media, a Youtube channel that has created as of now two videos of interest: What if Star Wars Episode 1 Was Good? and a follow-up for Episode 2. The videos are hypothetical, thought out reduxes of George Lucas’ prequels in a way that stays more true to the vision of the originals but also offer, in my mind, more interesting and engaging stories for a prequel trilogy, and not just because of the lack of Jar Jar Binks.
Speaking of Binks, various theories sprouting from Reddit and around the Internet have given way to a theory that Jar Jar Binks was actually a Sith Lord! As ridiculous as this may sound, there is spotty evidence that this may be a fact (but thankfully, it remains in the realm of theory). Fan theories offer a unique way of navigating our way through plot elements that either didn’t make sense or left us lacking a real connection with the narrative material at first. In this case they ask the question, what if we could reconfigure the most annoying part of the prequels into the most narratively interesting? Whether the “Darth Jar Jar” theory would’ve been proven accurate or not, it shows that fan engagement on amateur levels appears to be corrective in nature. When fans become professionals, as is the case with Abrams on Star Wars, Trevorrow on Jurassic, and potentially Neill Blomkamp on the Alien franchise, can we say that these are corrective? Jurassic World barely addressed The Lost World or Jurassic Park 3, heavily favouring the original film, and obviously Abrams is eschewing any reference to the prequels. Is focusing on this direction “corrective” of their view of where the franchise went? But at the same time, the original creators are involved. Spielberg served as a producer of Jurassic World, and Lawrence Kasdan, who wrote The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi is a writer of The Force Awakens.
At the beginning of this article I said that I felt the first trailer for The Force Awakens got it right. Who am I to decide that? As a fan of the franchise, how does my judgement count? I’ll certainly buy a ticket for the film before I actually see it, contributing to the box office numbers on my own blind faith, but might I echo the characters of Fanboys after their long trek to a Phantom Menace premier screening: “What if it sucks?”
It’s far too ignorant to claim that nostalgia is always a cash in. Sometimes it’s a love letter.