Selling the Soul of Star Wars

Disney's sequels will revive many of the filmmaking techniques of the original trilogy. Is that savvy nostalgia marketing, or an earnest challenge to the rest of the movie industry?

When Disney announced that it was releasing a new Star Wars trilogy, many fans, understandably, pumped their hands in the air and yelled “Nooooo!” What was once a cool Hollywood maverick of a saga had already been brand-extended nearly past recognition: first with the CGI-“enhanced” versions of the originals in the ‘90s, then the Jar Jar Binks-addled prequels, followed by the 3-D theatrical re-releases and a critically-panned animated movie. So it was totally valid to suspect that along with Lucasfilm’s holdings and rights (those went to Disney for $4.05 billion), the franchise had also, finally, sold its soul.

But in the two years since, skepticism has given way to optimistic speculation and hype about the new sequels, the first of which is set for a December 2015 release. And a novel paradox has emerged: What the new Star Wars is selling is its original soul.

The faces heading the Disney creative team may be relatively young, but their tastes skew old. Episode VII director J.J. Abrams is essentially a professional fanboy, with a career in making blockbuster sci-fi that doubles as nostalgic post-postmodern art (hence his signature motif in Star Trek and Super 8, the celluloid-celebrating lens flare). He’s penning the screenplay with the writer of The Empire Strikes Back. Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford are all returning to star. If that wasn’t enough to invoke the feeling of balance being restored back to the galaxy, watch this promotional video in which original composer John Williams enthuses to the longing strains of the binary-sunset “Force Theme.”

All of this plays up the sentimental value of the old movies and implicitly acknowledges the common complaints that Episodes I, II, and III were blatant, poorly conceived profit ploys. The new films have recruited thespian types like Andy Serkis, Oscar Isaac, and Lupita Nyong’o—Oscar winners and hopeful in place of the green stars of the prequel series—and emphasizing that the story is more important than the release date. Both moves are the live-action realizations of many a wistful fan edit, and brilliant marketing.

Most of all, the new series is drawing attention to its handmade “practical effects”—props, physical sets, and the like—in contrast to the computerized shimmer of the prequels. That shimmer has been widely blamed for the narrative shortcomings of The Phantom Menace, The Clone Wars, and Revenge of the Sith. As George Lucas obsessed over the cutting-edge art of digital filmmaking (using the first high-definition digital camera and the first computer-generated character to interact with live actors), the argument goes, he forgot to honor age-old storytelling principles.

The first Episode VII cast read (David James/Walt Disney Studios)

So far, the PR campaign is working. On a podcast a few weeks ago, the director of the two films to come, Rian Johnson, confirmed that models, puppets, and creature costumes are indeed making their return. His statements made several headlines, even though they weren’t news: Producer Kathleen Kennedy has been underscoring the distinction between the effects in this new film and the prequels since pre-pre-production. (Wrote one IGN reporter in response to her comments, “A new Star Wars film focusing on character and story, featuring models and real-life locations working in tandem with CG effects, all capped with a score by John Williams ... interested now?”)

But there’s a weird dynamic at play here. All of Abrams’s and Johnson’s affection for the original films drive home how much the new ones will be, at base, unnecessary cash grabs—the equivalent of old action figures sold on eBay, schemes for money and not for art. The prequels seem almost pure by contrast. George Lucas was the guiding creative vision behind the franchise from the beginning, and his vision told him to invest in lush CGI, hire Hayden Christensen, and tell the story of Anakin Skywalker’s descent from wee midichlorian-surfeited boy to angsty, lanky-haired Jedi. Lucas found the story touching, even if his viewers didn’t.


But in this case it’s a good thing that the franchise is deviating from Lucas passion project to an audience-pandering corporate model. Yes, the Disney buyout dumped Star Wars into its brimming bank of lucrative narrative-universe properties. And of course, all this nostalgia is just setting up an initial framework that woos the fan viewership with an Avengers-like launchpad so  they’ll buy into a barrage of spinoffs (coming soon: Boba Fett and Chewbacca). But what for Disney is profitable recycling is for Hollywood at large a challenge to the entirely-too-low standards of the blockbuster in the digital age.

Today the word “blockbuster” invokes visions of CGI-ridden films—Transformers, superhero movies, and the like—skating on brand recognition rather than on novel characters or storytelling. Which, in turn, makes Star Wars a particularly compelling touchstone. A big part of its appeal lay in how it created a scum-caked, tactile landscape of diverse planets and people. This was a franchise where the robots were humans encased in metallic costumes, not computer-generated death-machines that transform into Porsches. The speeders and snow-walkers and lightspeed-equipped ships all were models assembled by human hands, not digital rendering. It was a blockbuster with soul, in the sense that its most impressive effects had a direct line to an engineer, puppeteer, or actor.

So it’s fitting that Star Wars Episode VII’s marketing has been combining its commercialism with deeper cause, with the the @bad_robot Twitter account Ice Bucket-challenging storm trooper legions and sneaking peeks of fully-constructed X-Wing fighters (sprinkled with realistic-looking space-dust!) into videos for the UNICEF initiative “A Force for Change.”

The clearly metaphorical title is a convenient encapsulation of the new series, which appears to be leveraging blockbuster-reboot power to champion the original series’ values. Whether the old-school filmmaking techniques will indeed translate into more compelling story and characters remains to be seen—in an age without the infrastructure to support exclusively live-action filmmaking, Abrams and Johnson face an upward climb not unlike Lucas’s prequel-era digital quest. Conceivably, they may be spending too much time and energy on the DIY trimmings.

But at least it’s getting fans pumped for a return to the galaxy. Episode VII just drummed up a fair amount of excitement by revealing it’s filming sequences in the Imax version of the near-extinct celluloid film, 70mm. Yes, it’s a format that asks viewers to pay a few extra bucks to see the movie “the way it was meant to be seen.” But it’s also relevant that Abrams recently joined a group of moviemakers to bail out Kodak film, which will likely be providing the large-format celluloid to restore the originals’ gritty, grainy, totally glorious aesthetic. Like nearly everything with this Star Wars, this money grab has a wistful side.