Star Wars is coming back. In just a few days, the first impressions of the “JJ Abrams reboot” will trickle out onto Twitter. It’s all anyone can talk about online, all but obliterating the Oscar movies. Even the AFI voters have pushed back their deadline to accommodate this massive comet of a movie. The studio has rolled out an unprecedented amount of movie marketing, holding elite press meet-and-greets for comic book bloggers, cherry-picking members of the press to attend the premiere — which feels like getting a ticket on the Titanic or to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. The marketing is bigger and broader than any film to come before it — begging the obvious question, is it even going to matter if the movie is good or not? We’re still probably looking at the movie of the future. A different future. One that had its roots in the original Star Wars launch back in 1977 but has evolved separately to become an entirely different species.
This will be your first glimpse at what the movie industry might look like someday. Year-long, maybe two-year long marketing strategy (which was done back in 1937 for Gone with Wind, which still holds the record for the highest-grossing film of all time adjusted for inflation), complete and total pre-awareness of a franchise that has been recorded in our epigenomes to pass down to future generations.
This Star Wars might be the movie that either succeeds and thus continues where Jim Cameron left off with Avatar to make bigger movies that cost more and make more and become annual events, or it will fail or “implode” as Steven Spielberg and George Lucas predicted it would, realigning the movie business to go smaller again. Or it will be a combination of both. Either way, this Star Wars thing feels new.
Reading back Vincent Canby’s review of Star Wars, which he praised to the high heavens, you might wonder whether or not anyone back then either saw the future blockbuster reign coming, or saw it and feared it, or saw it and wanted to climb on board.
“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.
What seems fairly obvious given their resistance so far to sci-fi overall, is that the Academy wasn’t too thrilled with the direction Star Wars, and its success, promised to lead the industry.
Star Wars landed a Best Picture nomination, which is really hard to believe. Maybe it still felt like a fringe thing back then and not the thing that would eventually replace jobs for set builders and actors. Whatever it was, eventually, the Academy figured out that the direction wasn’t going to be one they would want to take. They didn’t even nominate Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001, but they did nominate Star Wars in 1977 alongside four films that were mostly about women, ironically enough: The Turning Point, Julia, The Goodbye Girl and Annie Hall, which won.
The next sci-fi film that would earn a Best Picture nod was Steven Spielberg’s E.T. That was a space movie with a heart of gold. Groundbreaking and extremely moving, but yeah, a genre movie. It would be 27 years before the third sci-fi film would earn a nomination: Jim Cameron’s Avatar, which became and remains the highest grossing film of all time (not adjusted for inflation). Avatar, like Star Wars, was beaten by a tiny little nuts and bolts movie, The Hurt Locker, giving a woman director the first win in Oscar history. 2009 broke a record for having two sci-fi movies nominated the same year. The other was District 9.
The next next year, Christopher Nolan’s Inception got in. Inception isn’t really sci-fi, insofar as it takes place on earth with no outer space element, but it is kind of fantasy/sci-fi in that it takes place in a different dimension of reality than the world we all live in. It lost to the King’s Speech, a movie about the 1930s, a stuttering king and World War I.
In 2009 and 2010, voters had ten slots to nominate films so they had much more freedom to choose sci-fi, which is likely how two sci-fi movies made it in.
When the Academy switched back to five nomination slots, in 2013, Alfonso Cuaron made the only sci-fi film to have a realistic chance of actually winning Best Picture. Unlike Avatar — which Oscar voters didn’t seem to like that much — Gravity was more reality-based. It won a shitload of Oscars, seven in total, including Best Director but Best Picture went to 12 Years a Slave, becoming the first film directed by a black man to win Best Picture, a mini-revolution in itself.
Now we come to 2015. The industry has thoroughly changed since 1977. Star Wars is no longer the only sci-fi movie potentially hitting the race this year – there are already three, Ex Machina, Mad Max: Fury Road and The Martian, easily three of the best films of the year. These three films offer a glimpse of humanity’s future. Anyone paying attention the to their world will feel these themes resonate deeply. Academy voters, though, tend to do the opposite — they tend to dwell in settings and eras where they’re most comfortable.
Still, you can’t stop what’s coming, and what’s coming is Star Wars: The Force Awakens, to bring back the old and reinvent the new. In the Oscar punditry world we’re keeping one eye on Star Wars to see what it does, how it resonates and what it will do to the other sci-fi movies “in the conversation.” Will it obliterate The Martian’s cheery message of hope? Will it blow Mad Max’s visuals out of the water? Will it make more money than Avatar, as many are predicting it will, and thus be too big to ignore? Finally, if the Academy opens the door to the new Star Wars Trojan Horse, how might that acquiescence change the course of their industry?
Star Wars Oscar nomination and win tally
Star Wars: A New Hope – 10 nominations / won 7
Star War: The Empire Strikes Back – 4 nominations / won 2
Star Wars: Return of the Jedi – 4 nominations / won special achievement
Star Wars: The Phantom Menace – 3 nominations / 0 wins
Star Wars: Attack of the Clones – 1 nomination / 0 wins
Star War: Revenge of the Sith – 1 nomination / 0 wins
Stay tuned in the next two weeks to find out the fate of JJ Abrams’ Star Wars. He’s got some big shoes to fill, alls I’m saying.