For the first time since someone made up Star Wars Day (May the Fourth Be With You: get it?), the Skywalker franchise looks like it’s walking on sunshine. Vanity Fair has a splashy article out today and people are changing their profile pics to Leia in anticipation of a female lead who might, unlike Queen Amidala, say something like “Get this walking carpet off of me!” For the first time since Episode I came out in 1999, Star Wars fans aren’t acting like you said “uh, nice family” to your friend with a red-headed stepchild named Jar-Jar. Mostly, this is because last month the teaser trailer for Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens pretty much broke the internet (90 million views and counting), particularly because of its final flourish, where Chewbacca and a visibly aged Han Solo said, “Chewie, we’re home.” Let’s assume Han and Chewie can conquer the Dark Side. This May the Fourth, we have a more important question: can they beat the Ten-Year Rule Against Sequels?
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…called 1998, my friend Anton Goldman proclaimed – I swear these were his exact words – “You can never go home again.” This was provocative, because we were speaking about the coming Star Wars “prequels,” and at the time, most sentient American males between the ages of 10 and 30 (as we were) thought that Star Wars Episodes I, II, and III would be just about the best things EVAR. Hadn’t we been teased with an implied backstory for years, and wasn’t this the payoff? (Hard to think now that, say, SNL’s Phil Hartman probably never heard anyone say the portmanteau word “prequel,” meaning “pre-sequel,” which means that prequels, for our discussion, count as sequels.) Hadn’t the previous 20 years of blockbusters simply consisted of pale imitations of the master, George Lucas? Hadn’t technology evolved to the point where a Star Wars universe could be more convincing than ever?
Anton, uniquely amongst anyone I knew, wasn’t having any of that. For him, a popular and great film or film series, like The Godfather or Star Wars, was partly about a time and place, about tapping into the then-zeitgeist. When you leave it alone for a decade or more, and come back, the world has moved on, and it can never recapture that magic.
Everyone said Anton was mad at the academy. Then the prequels came out. Well who’s mad now?! Hoo hoo ha ha hoo hoo ha ha.
Just how ironclad is the Ten-Year Rule Against Sequels Happening (TRASH)? I recently polled some rather knowledgeable friends. How many great sequels came along 10+ years after the franchise’s last film? How many times was there an excellent payoff to, as Jake and Elwood Blues once put it, “getting the band back together”?
We could think of three, ever: The Long Goodbye (1973), the first Philip Marlowe movie in decades; The Color of Money (1986), a sequel to The Hustler (1961); and Toy Story 3 (2010). The creative overseers there were top-form Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese, and Pixar.
Most films aren’t overseen by top-form Altman, Scorsese, or Pixar.
Let’s contrast those three to other 10+ year follow-ups to great films (this may hurt a little): The Godfather III, Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace, Terminator 3, Indiana Jones 4, Die Hard 4.0, Superman Returns, The Two Jakes, The Exorcist III, Clerks 2, Scream 4, Hannibal, Rocky Balboa, Rambo (2008), Men in Black III, Tron: Legacy, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Queen and Country, The Rage: Carrie 2, Dumb and Dumber To, The Evening Star, a lot of terrible Disney projects (Bambi II, Lady and the Tramp II, Cinderella II, The Jungle Book 2, etc.), The Odd Couple II, The Blues Brothers 2000, The Black Bird, International Velvet, The Thing (2011 prequel), A Christmas Story 2, The Wicker Tree, Easy Rider: The Ride Back, Psycho II, Texasville, Factotum, 2010: The Year We Make Contact, Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights, Escape from L.A., and Son of the Mask. If you’re a glutton for punishment, there are even more here.
Of course, all these sequels sounded great during the development stages. Oh, right, we’ll give the people what they always wanted! Turns out they wanted what they already had. Perhaps the best thing you can say about the films from this motley crew is that they felt forced: forced into production, forced in manner, forced on us. Man, the Forced Be With Us.
(Is Richard Linklater aware of this rule, and that’s why the Before films are spaced nine years apart? Just a side question.)
The Ten-Year Rule Against Sequels Happening (what do you think? should we bother with that TRASH acronym?) doesn’t speak well for upcoming projects like Jurassic World, Independence Day 2, Ghostbusters (if it has any of the old cast), Zoolander 2, and The Incredibles 2. If they join the three exceptions, we’ll let you know. But that wider problem leads us to the larger existential question, bigger even than Star Wars. The American Dream is premised on improvement, on “better” as a verb and lifestyle, on more being more and never less. As you may have heard, that Dream has taken a bit of a hit during this century. Hollywood has certainly tried to do its part, increasing the scale and spectacle of its films, and faithfully reporting the box office numbers in non-adjusted dollars so that newer films look like they’ve earned more than, say, The Sound of Music (1965). They also dutifully report the gross, not the net, so that you don’t see exhibitors’ cut, which is 50% or so (on a sliding scale), especially in China where the exhibitors’ number is closer to 65%. As many have noted, reviving existing properties is one of the studios’ only current strategies. This means more and more (and more!) remakes and sequels. (Remakes/reboots, like the coming Mad Max film, have only a slightly better record than sequels; we’ll discuss those more during a future post. Yet it’s telling that Vanity Fair‘s cover calls the new Star Wars sequel a “reboot.”) In other words, Hollywood is dedicated to MORE in every single way except possibly quality. But doesn’t that caveat eventually catch up to you, and us?
Two years ago, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas predicted an “implosion” of the film industry that would follow a few mega-budget flops – as Spielberg put it, “you’re gonna have to pay $25 for the next Iron Man, you’re probably only going to have to pay $7 to see Lincoln.” 2014 seemed to dance closely to their predictions, as inflation-adjusted revenues ran far behind every year since 1998. But so far in 2015, as though to rebuke 2013 Spielberg and Lucas (and re-confirm 1977-2005 Spielberg and Lucas), the box office has been gangbusters, and today seems like a reasonable moment to catch our breath and look at the view: Furious 7 is, today, only $100 million away from becoming the third-highest-grossing film of all-time worldwide; it will displace the current third-place film, The Avengers. That latter film once scored the biggest domestic opening of all time; its sequel, Avengers: Age of Ultron, yesterday scored the second-biggest. In an industry and twitterverse that loves to focus on What’s Next?, this May the Fourth seems particularly well-suited to the sort of optimism that’s, well, scored by John Williams.
One heartening sign is that in terms of diversity, Star Wars isn’t partying like it’s 2005, when there were no blacks in Disney’s princess lineup or on The Daily Show. While no one is quite leading the way like The Fast and the Furious franchise, the end of the new Avengers (SPOILER SENTENCE) presents a team with two blacks and two women (took them until the end, did it?). Sure, some of Star Wars’ progress required the fans complaining about an early cast photo, but hey, doesn’t that conflicted black Stormtrooper look interesting? Isn’t the new trailer amazing? With George Lucas now frozen in carbonite, can we assume fewer scenes about trade disputes? (The answers are YES!!!)
Technically, Star Wars VII arrives only ten years and seven months since the last film. Technically, Star Wars: A New Hope broke all the rules when it came out in 1977, so what’s wrong with thinking the Jedis could do it again? It just feels like there’s reason for a new hope, if not A New Hope. On some weird level that relates to steady increases in bond and property values, kids being taller than their parents, and America becoming fairer and less racist, we NEED the new Star Wars to be outstanding, just to reconfirm the American Dream. We need less TRASH. We need director J.J. Abrams to join the pantheon with Altman and Scorsese, even if we have to force him in. May the Force Be With Us. Always.