The famous line has appeared in almost every Star Wars movie: but in the face of increasing competition, will it be etched on the franchise’s cinematic gravestone? .
A long, long time ago in a galaxy not so far away, (our own, to be exact) the release of a new Star Wars film possessed a quality that could only be described as mythic: fans of a particular vintage grew up and came of age having only ever experienced the original trilogy of Star Wars films on the small screen. This was the mid-80s too, when home entertainment was not what it is now, so when we say small screen, you can be assured we’ve selected those words with great care.
As such, the very concept of Star Wars being emblazoned on the giant canvas of a cinema screen during a late 80s childhood was the stuff of fantasy, akin to a dinosaur suddenly appearing at your childhood bedroom window. Much like the extinct creatures, you knew that at some point in the distant past Star Wars and cinemas had been a real thing and that for a while had seemingly ruled the Earth. But now it was gone, lost to legend and to wish otherwise was pure folly.
On the rare occasions then, that the franchise did turn up in cinemas, it felt nothing short of seismic.
In 1997, Star Wars creator George Lucas retooled Special Edition re-releases of the original trilogy. When they arrived, it was a landmark moment for fans who’d never experienced these movies on a cinema screen before.
A couple of years later, Episode I: The Phantom Menace would land, eclipsing even the zeitgeist-defining cultural impact that Tim Burton’s Batman had enjoyed a decade prior. Despite Lucas’ prequel trilogy meeting a mixed response, the decade-long wait between 2005’s Revenge of the Sith and 2015’s The Force Awakens, the first instalment in the sequel trilogy, once more stoked anticipation for Star Wars to a fever pitch.
The power of myth
Whilst Star Trek fans are of course entitled to vehemently disagree, Star Wars has always been the premier cinematic franchise, in science fiction and perhaps even beyond. Trek carved out its space on the small screen primarily, Star Wars reigned in cinema.
In part, the key to maintaining that sense of magic has been the franchise’s prolonged absences from the silver screen. Star Wars after all is a tapestry of stories founded on the enduring influence of myth. Why are myths so powerful? Because of the distance that exists between them and us, the audience. Myths are rooted in ancient times which in turn confers upon them a state of universality and grandeur. Whilst myths can be endlessly mined for truth and revelations, there is something eminently unknowable about them and that is where the magic lies. And so it was with Star Wars, each successive decade-long hiatus from cinemas only serving to embellish the franchise’s sense of mystery and power.
But the times they are a-changing. The birth of the internet means that even when the Star Wars saga enters one of its dormant states as it seemingly has once again, it isn’t really gone. The unending litany of leaks, rumours, announcements and what we’ll charitably refer to as ‘spirited online debate’, make Star Wars an ever-present part of the cultural conversation. Familiarity breeds contempt as the saying goes, and with fresh news, takes and conjecture arriving with each passing week, you wonder if the franchise will benefit from its prolonged silver screen absence to the degree that it has in the past.
There are of course other factors to consider when we re-evaluate Star Wars’ standing as a crown jewel of blockbuster cinema. Several other rival science fiction franchises are gearing up to establish themselves as the next cinematic sci-fi superpower and to be frank, they’re all in considerably better shape than Star Wars. Despite going at it in a rather unconventional fashion, Paramount seems to have resurrected the popular Kelvin-timeline iteration of Star Trek, with a fourth film in the series currently fast-tracked for development.
That project has a director in the form of WandaVision’s Matt Shakman, the ever-prolific JJ Abrams producing and perhaps most importantly, unwavering support from the studio brass. In fact, Paramount Pictures president Brian Robbins recently spoke publicly about his desire to see this film made, stating, “we’re deep into it with JJ Abrams, and it feels like we’re getting close to the starting line and excited about where we’re going creatively”.
He added, “I’m a research nerd, and what the data tells me is that the audience wants that cast in this movie.”
Robbins would go on to reiterate his desire to see Star Trek (as well as other Paramount franchises) become part of a coherent vision for the studio, adding “you’ve got to have multi-year plans for these franchises. You can’t just make a movie, see how it does, and then decide to make another one, because if you do that, it will be years between sequels.”
This unqualified statement of public support is remarkably different from the way that Lucasfilm seems to operate with the Star Wars franchise, at least since its purchase by Disney. Filmmakers are often hired, you would imagine, for their storytelling vision. Then typically, things go very quiet for a long time with no public expressions of support from the studio. Then, said filmmaker leaves the project as we’ve seen happen with David Benioff and DB Weiss, Josh Trank, Colin Trevorrow, Phil Lord and Chris Miller. Alternatively, such creators are frozen in carbonite like Patty Jenkins or Rian Johnson, their Star Wars projects mired in a limbo-like state of development hell.
Time for Trek?
Star Trek 4 will likely go over well with audiences, especially if it can straddle that line between crowd-pleasing blockbuster and the self-contained, interesting film that star Chris Pine is adamant that it needs to be. Some enduring affection exists for the Kelvin-timeline cast and with the appointment of Shakman as director, there’s a sense that the franchise may be able to avoid repeating the decline towards hollow blockbuster territory that we saw with Star Trek Beyond (appreciating that Beyond does also possess its fair share of qualities).
Shakman is a supremely imaginative creator: whilst opinions on WandaVision may still be divided, there’s no denying that it still sits atop the MCU mountain as the most creatively daring project that Marvel has commissioned, on big screen or small. Those concerned that the presence of JJ Abrams as producer might somehow dilute Shakman’s influence should think again too: Shakman’s unconventional demand that Kevin Feige supply him with a live studio audience for the filming of WandaVision’s first episode is an example of the filmmaker’s commitment to doing things his way. In contrast, the seemingly endless cycle of creatively neutered filmmakers exiting Star Wars projects stands in stark relief indeed.
Likewise, the same can be said for Dune, a franchise which has been backed by Warner Bros, largely on the strength of the studio’s admiration for Denis Villeneuve, the creative mind behind the film series. Dune has already achieved what Star Trek is presumably looking to emulate, a giant science-fiction blockbuster suffused with an artistic and narrative depth that sets it apart from the cacophonous vapidity of other summer blockbusters such as the Transformers or Fast & Furious movies.
This of course, is largely down to the stewardship of Villeneuve who has proven himself in this regard before, not least with his sumptuously ambient addition to the Blade Runner universe, 2017’s Blade Runner 2049. Here in 2022, can we really see Lucasfilm granting a filmmaker such creative license given its track record so far? History suggests not, with the decision to give MCU impresario Kevin Feige a shot at making a Star Wars film indicating that the studio would rather stumble across its own Marvel-style formula than produce creatively distinct stories.
Yes, there is of course the much-vaunted Taika Waititi Star Wars project which holds much promise in terms of allowing a uniquely-creative voice to play with the toys in the Star Wars sandbox, but as it stands that distant project seems like more of an outlier than a strategic vision.
Time to rebel
Let’s not overlook the currently in-production Rebel Moon either. Zack Snyder has brazenly called this his take on a Star Wars movie with the title itself forming a fun portmanteau of Star Wars imagery, and the plot originating from a pitch Snyder made to Lucasfilm in the era between the prequel and sequel trilogies. Whilst the crux of this piece is debating the status of Star Wars’ position in the blockbuster pantheon, a Netflix production like this may seem like less of a threat. However, the no-holds barred nature of the streaming wars is leading to innovation on all fronts and with Netflix’s current woes a matter of public record, who’s to say that it won’t follow in Apple’s footsteps and begin giving its most high-profile projects wide cinematic releases?
After all, the Silicon Valley studio loves to play on its image as a Hollywood disruptor and what could make for better PR than putting out the best holiday season Star Wars movie of the decade, whilst Lucasfilm spends another Christmas with no franchise release, skulking in the shadows like an enfeebled Grinch? It’s a body blow that Lucasfilm can ill-afford which must make it all the more tempting to the Netflix brass.
The streaming platform is desperate to rebrand its Netflix Originals as must-see cultural events, rather than the sort of forgettable content that has sometimes become its calling card of late. Event movies are a Zack Snyder speciality and whilst you probably won’t get the cerebral texture of a Villenueve sci-fi epic, it’s not inconceivable that Rebel Moon could become a major cinematic happening should Netflix give it the opportunity.
Whilst this take is clearly critical of Lucasfilm, its intent is not to simply criticise. To give the franchise its due, Star Wars is developing superb storytelling on the small screen, equal or even superior to any of its rivals, Star Trek, DC, Marvel or otherwise. Likewise, the way that the franchise’s attempts at progression seems to have seen it drawn into (and somewhat damaged by) an ongoing culture war is worthy of sympathy, considering it is simply trying to be more inclusive. This is something that each of its cinematic counterparts is also doing, yet only Star Wars seems to be the subject of co-ordinated and sustained abuse for its efforts.
An unfortunate by-product of these two elements is that it seems to have paralysed Lucasfilm on the cinematic front.
The studio seems afraid to put a foot forward in any direction in case it is compared unfavourably to the success enjoyed by its small screen division or worse, repeatedly eviscerated by a vocal section of the fanbase. How the franchise disentangles itself from this mess is a knotty question indeed, and one that Lucasfilm boss Kathleen Kennedy will have spent a great deal of time pondering.
In the past, Star Wars has solved its problems simply by going into exodus like a hermit Jedi on a backwater desert planet. To slightly misquote that reclusive Jedi, that proved to be an elegant solution for a more civilised age.
For better or worse, the world has changed. Star Wars, in an era of toxic fandom and 24-hour news cycles, simply disappearing from cinema screens for a few years isn’t going to work like it has in the past. This time, you’re going to have to find another way to save your cinematic soul.
All we can say is may the Force be with you. It might just be needed.
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