When it comes to Star Wars, hype has always been an important part of the overall experience. A new installment in the beloved sci-fi franchise, for example, has been praised by critics for being “deliriously inventive,” “an astonishing achievement in imaginative filmmaking,” and “captivating.”
I am, of course, talking about The Phantom Menace, the first of the three Star Wars prequels, which most fans of the original movies pretend don’t exist.
The seventh movie in the series, The Force Awakens, comes out tomorrow, and already critics are rhapsodizing about its “strong performances,” “old-fashioned escapism,” and script that “has a better and sharper sense of humor than the original trilogy.” Which bodes well for fans. Except: The same thing happened in 1999, when the first Star Wars prequel met with acclaim, which turned into late-breaking disdain. The sneering carried over to its sequel, the laughably bad Attack of the Clones, a movie about which The Hollywood Reporter said: “The good news about George Lucas’s new Star Wars movie is that the universally loathed Jar Jar Binks is little more than a dress extra.”
By the time Revenge of the Sith rolled around in 2005, many were hopeful Lucas could rescue the franchise he’d created a long time ago, in a studio far, far away. At the time, The New York Times called it “by far the best film in the more recent trilogy, and also the best of the four episodes Mr. Lucas has directed. That’s right: it’s better than Star Wars.” Honestly, it’s not; a view that’s now less controversial than the debate over who shot first.
There were reviews that pilloried the movies, of course (especially the second installment), but, in general they were drowned out by those twin pillars of the Hollywood publicity machinery: hype and hope. And despite the disdain, and fans’ attempts to excise the films from the public consciousness, the three movies made about $2.5 billion at the worldwide box office.
Which brings me to the question: Is it possible to dislike Star Wars: The Force Awakens given that we already know that it’s going to be great, “epic, awesome, and perfect”? I bring all this up as someone who remembers the excitement surrounding Episode I. I wanted to love it, came out of the theater loving it, watched it again and again, and then slowly realized how bad it really was. I, like the film critics, turned my ire toward a worthy object, Episode II, and, to a lesser extent, Episode III. But by then, it was too late. Now, I just pretend those movies didn’t happen: Jar-Jar, midi-chlorians, intergalactic trade negotiations all relegated deep into the sarlacc’s digestive tract.
What must it have been like to watch the original movie, Episode IV: A New Hope, in 1977? It didn’t have the advantages of its sequels, and certainly not its prequels. It was George Lucas’s first film since American Graffiti in 1973. It came to screens with little of today’s advance publicity and was made at a cost of $11 million (about $40 million in today’s dollars). And not all reviews were glowing.
Here’s an early one:
Strip Star Wars of its often striking images and its high-falutin scientific jargon, and you get a story, characters, and dialogue of overwhelming banality, without even a “future” cast to them. Human beings, anthropoids, or robots, you could probably find them all, more or less like, that, in downtown Los Angeles today …
Still, Star Wars will do very nicely for those lucky enough to be children or unlucky enough never to have grown up.
But The Times was more positive at the time:
Star Wars, which opened yesterday at the Astor Plaza, Orpheum, and other theaters, is the most elaborate, most expensive, most beautiful movie serial ever made. It’s both an apotheosis of Flash Gordon serials and a witty critique that makes associations with a variety of literature that is nothing if not eclectic: Quo Vadis?, Buck Rogers, Ivanhoe, Superman, The Wizard of Oz, The Gospel According to St. Matthew, the legend of King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table.
Similarly, the Los Angeles Times lauded the original movie, calling it “an exuberant and technically astonishing space adventure in which the galactic tomorrows of Flash Gordon are the setting for conflicts and events that carry the suspiciously but splendidly familiar ring of yesterday’s westerns, as well as yesterday’s Flash Gordon serials.” (Which tells you how far Flash Gordon has fallen in our cultural consciousness.)
Its two sequels, Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, came into a world where the Star Wars universe was a cultural and marketing phenomenon. Which brings me to The Force Awakens.
Can it justify—or even survive—the buildup that began in October 2012 with the announcement that Disney was buying Lucasfilm for $4 billion? The hype that continued when the cast of the new film was unveiled in April 2014? And that reached near-hysterical proportions when the movie’s title was revealed in November of that year? Disney released teaser after teaser, followed by trailer after trailer to whet fans’ collective appetites. And then there were the tie-ins: Adidas for your padawans, Kraft mac-n-cheese in a “room of lies,” and, yes, Covergirl makeup—prompting Wired to quip the marketing had “jumped the Gundark.” All of which proves, as was depressingly predicted before the release of The Phantom Menace, that The Force Awakens “will make money even if nobody buys a ticket to see it.”
Fans hope it will erase the painful memories of Episodes I, II, and III, but hopefully not make them more powerful than you could possibly imagine. Early reviews for the movie are good and expectations high. Fandango, the online ticket seller, says sales for Episode VII have already surpassed every other movie for which it has sold tickets. I’m one of those hopefuls. I plan to watch it on Friday, and then again over the weekend, with mixed emotions: I already know I have to like the movie, and that I probably will. But will that fondness carry over through decades, the way it did for the original trilogy, or is The Force Awakens a (marketing) trap that’s peddling on our collective nostalgia? As Yoda might say: Not what it used to be, nostalgia is.