30 October 2015

The Eternal Iconography of Star Wars

No matter how good Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) actually is, and if we're being honest with ourselves, neither Star Wars' or J.J. Abrams' track record is all that great, the movie will still go down as one of the most anticipated cultural events of all time. The only film that may previously match such lofty expectations is probably...well, it's The Phantom Menace (1999).

With the latest trailer dropping last week, anticipation seems to be reaching a fever pitch. It's amazing to me that Star Wars reigns supreme over all other cultural artifacts. Earlier this year Jurassic World (2015) became the third-highest grossing movie of all time but it's going to be totally forgotten after The Force Awakens drops.
And it's a chick, too!

At least, that's the cultural thinking right now. It would seem like everyone on earth is jumping on the Star Wars bandwagon and it's hard to believe that there would be a bigger movie this year. I, of course, find the rationale behind that pretty interesting. I'm not going to recount the whole story of Star Wars here, because that ought to be pretty obvious, but it's worth looking at how The Force Awakens uses a golden ratio of old and new iconography to sell its product, which is and always has been toys first and movies second.

J.J. Abrams ought to have a bizarre legacy. He's almost Whedon-esque in how much nerds forgive him and accept anything he cranks out, but looking at his filmography creates quite a few holes. First, you've got to remember that he's only directed four movies, three of which are continuations in well-established properties. His knack for re-energizing stagnant franchises surely earned him the Star Wars gig, but looking back on it, the only film I can really express has had strong cultural weight is Star Trek (2009).

Mission: Impossible III (2006) was pretty solid, but is known now mostly for that goofy Keri Russell brain explosion. Super 8 (2011) was a really great, nostalgic time in the theater, but has anyone cared about it at all since? I feel like it's hampered by simply being made out of time. It's totally Stand by Me (1986) with an attempt at a Spielbergian sci-fi vibe although it never comes together. It loses the benefit of true nostalgia, which for my generation masks over flaws in films from our youth. And Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) sucked ass. Let's be honest.

Star Trek is an exceptional film, but it also suffers from an uninteresting villain and an anticlimactic ending. It does succeed, however, in renewing and maintaining classic Star Trek iconography, which gives me a lot of hope for Star Wars. Even with just a handful of trailers (totaling three and a half minutes) we see thoroughly established images and characters that have already established a foothold in our culture. This is pretty nuts. Before Jurassic World came out (and even after), there isn't much that is visually iconic. Maybe the Mosasaurus.

The Force Awakens, though, already has strong visual characters in the form of Captain Phasma, BB-8, and Kylo Ren, without even mentioning John Boyega and Daisy Ridley's characters who do an excellent job of emulating the style of the Star Wars universe without being repetitive. It's a visual style that's remarkably consistent with the internal world established by George Lucas nearly forty years ago, which is virtually what Abrams does best. This is mostly boiling down to praise of costume and production design, which I do believe will be a huge reason why this film is successful. Maintaining themes while pushing them in new directions while appeasing the most rampant and ridiculous hate/love fanbase in all of pop culture is not an easy thing to do at all.
What other property can gain so much
media attention from the debut of
its poster alone?!

This of course just fuels Star Wars' marketing machine. Characters and costumes that look good are easier to sell and if they can fit in with what nerds have previously collected, that's even better. Star Wars is a toy manufacturing giant that never really ends. We've gone through periods of Alien and Terminator love, but there are always Star Wars toys on the shelves, and it's been that way for the past twenty years, when the re-issues came out, which really first jump-started modern Star Wars love. Or maybe it was the Thrawn Trilogy? It's tough to pinpoint, but that's the point. It's just something that's always been there, and with the force of Disney's empire behind it, it's something that will now never really go away.

Star Wars is the rare property that can do that. The Terminator needs to lean pretty heavily on John Connor, Die Hard on John McClane, and Mission: Impossible on Ethan Hunt, but Star Wars works as a Universe, not a character. That Universe is also one of the most articulately-built worlds in film with a crystal clear visual style, cadence, and iconography. It's a damn goldmine. The story doesn't really matter, because even at this point, nerds who hated the prequels still watched them a few dozen times.

There's some weird addiction there that has been well explored and documented, probably most notably in The People vs. George Lucas (2010). The Force Awakens is also taking the property largely out of George's hands (although it'd be foolish to think he didn't contribute anything) and into the care of a huge marketing and toy production company. My anticipation is tempered because more and more the thing I'm looking for most is good story and characters. Films based on nostalgia and spectacle end up being hollow and tepid and devoid of cultural value. Also, Phantom Menace. That's all I'm saying. Blind faith in these idiots is dangerous.

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