The Force Rebooted: How ‘Star Wars’ Smothered The Movies

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There was never a chance that Star Wars: The Force Awakens wasn’t going to disappoint me or let me down to one degree or another. It is not because I am biased. It is not because I do not like Star Wars, because I do. Few subjects send me into apoplexy as swiftly as the prequel films, for one thing. For another, big chunks of my childhood were spent watching Lucas’ original trilogy, or playing out scenes from Lucas’ original trilogy in and around my home or at school*, or reading novels in the Star Wars expanded universe**, or playing Star Wars video games. 

So basically, I am Star Wars: The Force Awakens‘ target audience. That is the verifiable truth. But when you hear about a movie for roughly two years, give or take six months, and when you write on and off about that movie in the capacity of an entertainment journalist within that time frame, a funny thing happens. You begin to get sick of it. Anticipation is a lot like sugar. Let’s say you eat a sugary treat and delight in its sweet sublimity. Then you tell yourself that since you’ve been watching what you eat and going to the gym recently, you can safely eat another. And then another. All of a sudden, the top layer of cookies have disappeared from the tin and you’re having a frank exchange of ideas with your stomach about proper dietary intake.

The same is true of build-up for hotly anticipated movies, particularly movies that mark the continuation of cultural landmarks a’la Star Wars. You hear tidbits about casting and directing; you see a photograph of the film’s stellar troupe of actors gathered around for a script read; you weep onto your plate of leftovers while watching the cardinal teaser trailer, premiered the day after Thanksgiving. That should be enough, but it doesn’t stop. When two minutes of footage air in April, you avoid them as you avoid the Republican presidential debates. When tickets go on sale in September, you don’t participate in the rush; that’s the web equivalent of camping outside the theater just to secure your purchase. You are at peak Star Wars months before the thing even plays in a theater.

All of this preamble is meant to convey one thing: Try as I might to ignore the endless cacophony of Star Wars updates pouring through Facebook and Twitter, I hit the point of overload on this sucker a long time ago. This, perhaps, is not especially surprising. Star Wars is bigger than a trip to the multiplex. It has been for everybody since 2012. For me personally, Star Wars is too big, so I was not surprised that the movie left me underwhelmed. (It actually pissed me off, but that has more to do with the unapologetic franchising bullshit ending than anything else.) “So wait,” I said to myself in the restroom after walking out of the theater, “you’re telling me that after spending the better part of the last decade having The Force Awakens incidentally hyped for me despite my best efforts to keep that from happening, all I got was a remake of A New Hope with a more diverse cast***? That’s it?”

That was the immediate reaction. Weeks later I have had the time to process all of my mixed emotions. Put simply, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is an entertaining if overlong movie replete with all of J.J. Abrams’ greatest strengths (his knack for perfect casting, his talent for directing with such energy that you don’t notice how messy his seaming is) and worst tics (his inability to tell a cogent story, his hobbling reverence for Steve Spielberg) as a filmmaker. It’s a good ride that mercifully only falls apart once you get off, and then only if you know about what went into making it. (A script-by-committee, for one thing, and it shows.) It doesn’t necessarily sound complimentary to say that The Force Awakens will leave you looking forward to the next installment****, not to mention this year’s spin-off, but the movie does a lot of legwork setting up what’s to come and establishing its young blood protagonists and ingratiating them to us. Finn, Rey, and Poe are wonderful characters, and I sincerely can’t wait to see where their stories go from here.

But. 

Star Wars: The Force Awakens has done something that even the biggest Marvel movies of the last few years haven’t been able to do: make it impossible to talk about other movies. Seriously – who gave that much of a crap when The Avengers: Age of Ultron came out? Apart from some seriously ill-conceived essays about the Black Widow problem*****, nobody had much of anything to say about that one, and Ant-Man didn’t add to the cultural conversation, either, which is a shame because it’s incredibly fun by virtue of how baldly it ignores Marvel formula. Meanwhile, in the month leading up to The Force Awakens‘ release, and in the intervening time between then and now, the Internet became the place you go to hear about Star Wars. That’s it. It’s not that great movies weren’t on the market during the early stretch of The Force Awakens‘ theatrical run, or that smart articles about those movies weren’t being published. It’s that the people posting selfies with the ticket stub for their fifth time out at The Force Awakens didn’t read those articles, or see those movies, or talk about any of them.

Blaming moviegoers for going to the movies to see the movies they want to see is, of course, childish, and decrying the success of Star Wars at the expense of smaller, better movies is just flat-out stupid. Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years, Alê Abreu’s The Boy and the World, and Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq were never destined to be big hits among the mainstream. But events like Star Wars: The Force Awakens make it incredibly difficult for smaller efforts to receive their due even from people who are likely to go see them. AMC’s Boston Common establishment, for example, ran Chi-Raq for roughly two weeks before booting it to make room for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Again, that means about as much to John Q. Viewer as the BoComm’s questionable projection, but when indie releases have to fight for screen time with the biggest movie of the last five years, you know who’s going to come out on top******.

That’s kind of a bad place for movies to be in, period, even if on-demand programming makes it possible for those smaller movies to find audiences where they otherwise might not. Consider, too, that Disney has scheduled a Star Wars film for release every year for the next five years, and that this time next year when Rogue One is monopolizing ticket sales, we’ll be going through this same song and dance all over again. Sounds exhausting, doesn’t it? The shit of it is that you can’t even hold Star Wars accountable for its own exposure, and that giving side eye to diehards for preferring space operas to late-stage relationship dramas and social provocations is rude as hell. Everyone has their thing. But it’s depressing when that thing is so ubiquitous as to suffocate all other things. Hell, try saying one bad word about The Force Awakens on the Internet or in real life. Unless you’ve locked yourself in your house with only your cats for company, you might just catch a bad one. Some movies are just critic-proof, but they shouldn’t be discussion-proof, either. 

Maybe this is my fault. Maybe I should have just gone with the flow and gotten sucked up into the marketing hoopla that preceded The Force Awakens‘ debut along with everyone else. Maybe then I would have gone through the stages of franchising letdown before seeing the movie, thus properly calibrating me for my eventual trip to the nearby Showcase. But even if all that had happened, and even if I enjoyed the movie nearly as much as everyone else, The Force Awakens would still be a giant pop cultural blanket over the movies. I’m not normally one to claim that the sky is falling, because, well, it isn’t; there are more movies coming out than ever, so there’s something for everybody and it is generally easy for everybody to access their something. And yet after seeing the tenth Star Wars post of the day trickle through my Facebook feed (this one, sadly, will tick that number up to eleven), I find myself longing for chatter about literally anything else. 

…oh, hey! Good news! The Oscar nominations were just announced!


*Thus answering the question of why I was not popular among my classmates as a kid.
**Thus answering the question of why I was not popular among my nerdy peers as a kid.
***This part is going to send a lot of people into fits of inchoate rage, and the subject probably demands its own piece. Suffice to say that the diversity of The Force Awakens is a big cultural deal and a good potential leap forward for franchise filmmaking, that Boyega, Ridley, and Isaac are each fantastic, and that they, and diversity itself, are done a disservice by being shoehorned into a retread of A New Hope instead of having a new story written just for them.
****Tune into this blog in 2017 for my reaction to that one.
*****Sigh.
******It’s worth noting that you can find Chi-Raq on Amazon Prime by now, meaning you should go watch it.

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3 thoughts on “The Force Rebooted: How ‘Star Wars’ Smothered The Movies

  1. Great post. I think now these huge “tent pole” movies are released, other studios have to be clever with their releases. Smaller independent movies will be crushed by an event-film like Star Wars so they should wait. That doesn’t mean just give-in, it means use your scheduling wisely. Offer something appealing but not-necessarily desperate for money (perfect example: Sisters)

    As for repeating this every year, that will wane too. I can’t imagine being this excited about a new entry into the Star Wars franchise when they appear only 12 months apart. Over-exposure could kill the Star Wars phenomenon, at least for the “spin-offs.”

    • Thanks, Ben, and you make a good point: as “Star Wars” becomes more and more of a moviegoing routine again, the frenzy over it will most likely lessen. Note, for example, how much the Marvel brand has become normalized; people still go see them in droves, but the release of a new Marvel film doesn’t dominate conversation that much anymore. We’re all talked-out on Marvel films. (For now. Maybe with that “Infinity War” two-parter, that’ll change. Hell, maybe Benedict Cumberbatch showing up in a Marvel movie will change things, too.)

      But I would posit that the amount of chatter over “Star Wars” vastly outmeasured any similar chatter on even the biggest Marvel movies (mostly the “Avengers” films), and so even if it does reduce over time, it will be a long, long while until it normalizes. Honestly, I would be surprised if chatter didn’t explode in months leading up to the release of “Rogue One” this December; it’s the first spin-off, after all, and I imagine that that newness combined with the sheer inclusivity of its casting will cause the web to erupt almost as much as it did over “The Force Awakens.”

      • I agree. I think by the time we get to Han Solo’s prequel or even Episode X, we may see the momentum shift. Until then, you are right and I fully expect the same level of crazed excitement that met Force Awakens.

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