As the December 18, 2015 release date looms near, Star Wars fans around the world are getting excited for Episode VII–the newest installment in the much-loved (and -maligned) franchise. Most of the excitement has to do with the film’s perceived return to the authenticity of the original trilogy. But will such a return work? Or, for that matter, is it even possible? Another franchise made a similar attempt in 2006 with Superman Returns and failed. Will JJ Abrams repeat Bryan Singer’s mistakes?
Back to the future
One blisteringly hot Wednesday afternoon in 1999, my friends and I biked to the local movie theater to see Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. Summer break was in full swing, and I’d been itching to see the new film ever since the 20th Century Fox and Lucasfilm Limited logos graced movie screens months before. Like everyone else, I hoped it would uphold George Lucas’s promise to tell the back story of science fiction cinema’s most enduring legacy.
Or, at least, that’s what I wanted to happen.
Love ’em or hate ’em, the prequels gave context to the original trilogy and took their place in Star Wars canon. After decades of wondering, fans finally witnessed Lucas finish his grand space opera. And that’s the way it was, until the announcement 13 years later that Disney acquired Lucasfilm in a bid to produce new properties. Rumors about spinoff films circulated, but the press release mentioned only one confirmed title for 2015: Episode VII. Fanboys and -girls across the country (and the world) subsequently lost their minds.
Where would the saga go now? Would the creative team behind the film utilize the vast wealth that was Star Wars fiction and comics, or branch out in other directions? Who, for that matter, would be involved? Lucas? Cast members from either the original or prequel trilogies?
Questions like these plagued–and will continue to plague–the production of Episode VII and any other new Star Wars properties that emerge. This is especially the case since Disney confirmed the involvement of JJ Abrams, who admits he wants “to make a movie that feels as emotional and authentic and exciting as possible.” The word “authentic” here can mean a lot of things–genuine, real, verifiable, not false or copied. But Abrams continues, saying “I remember reading a thing somewhere, someone wrote about just wanting [the new film] to feel real; to feel authentic.” For Abrams, it’s all about the audience’s feelings. It’s all about the experience.
We can glean two very important points from this line. First, Abrams knows what the fans want. One of the more stringent criticisms of Lucas’s direction of the prequels is his perceived unwillingness to acknowledge the fans. That is, his inability to listen to their wishes in regards to Star Wars and what the prequel films should have been. That’s not to say that filmmakers should bow to the pressures of the fan base–especially one so demanding as Star Wars–but they shouldn’t ignore them either. Second is Abrams’s clarification of what he means by “authentic” when he says fans want the film to “feel real.” He later expands this point, recalling his seeing the first film as an 11-year-old boy: “As much of a fairy tale as it was, it felt real. And to me, that is exactly right.” Essentially, Abrams wants Episode VII to feel real.
This begs the question–what does the prequel trilogy feel like? If the original films were authentic, and if fans desire this quality for Episode VII, then how do the prequel films feel? Inauthentic? Unreal? Like false icons or copies without originals? Aside from Lucas’s inefficacy, critics and audiences lampooned the prequels for their stilted stories, chemistry-less character dynamics and overused digital effects. Each point deserves consideration, but the underlying problem is inauthenticity. These films don’t feel real. As a commentator in The Atlantic puts it, “They really did feel like something a long time ago, but not in the way anyone wanted.” The disconnect was so obvious, it was awkward.
Abrams’s expressed commitment to authenticity has become a mantra for fans–especially those who were initially worried with his attachment to the project. But is it enough? Story and characters matter, and the filmmakers’ insistence on this is evident with Abrams’s decision to seek Lawrence Kasdan’s (of The Empire Strikes Back fame) help with the script. Yet the oft-repeated call for more practical effects resounds loudest in the halls of internet commentary, especially when Abrams shot and released a small video for charity on the Abu Dhabi set. Apparently prosthetics, puppets and physical sets mean ooey-gooey real feelings. Perhaps there’s something to this, especially since the preference for digital effects in the last 20 years of cinema has often soured moviegoers. But maybe we’re focusing too much on the effects, and should instead attend to the story.
Or maybe, just maybe, we’re giving authenticity too much credit. Another filmmaker with the keys to an old franchise pursued a similar strategy and failed. Miserably.