Another summer of cinematic wilderness is drawing to a close and I owe you all a big apology. Why? Because I am responsible for the terrible state of mainstream American cinema today. I know that’s some claim for an Englishman who didn’t first set foot on American soil until 2002.
If you’ve ever wondered why popular American cinema has degenerated into a constant flow of mindless effects driven spectacle, especially in summer, well look no further. Though it’s all my fault I do have an excuse – I was too young to know better.
The least I can do is explain.
When I was a teenager I used to get terribly frustrated that virtually every film which played at my local cinemas was aimed at adults and carried an X certificate, then the UK equivalent of an R rating. I’m talking about everything from Hammer Horrors, eurotrash and kung fu adventures to many of the landmark films of the 1970’s: The Godfather, The Exorcist, The Omen, The French Connection, Last Tango In Paris, The Devils, Don’t Look Now, Straw Dogs, A Clockwork Orange. Films, inside genre and out, broke taboos, pushed boundaries, took risks. Were exclusively for adults. I couldn’t wait to grow-up. Not because I wanted to see endless sex and violence and hear Marlon Brando saying rude words, but so I’d be able to get into any cinema at all. I loved movies, but no one seemed to think it was worth their while putting on anything a person under voting age could see.
It may be hard for young people to grasp now, in a period when almost every major film has the same suitable for everyone PG13/12 rating, but back then almost the only time there were films to which children could gain admission was during school holidays. Pretty much all the rest of the year it was adults only. And most of the films aimed at children or at a family audience looked cheap and stupid. All that was left were a few blockbusters like The Sting, The Towering Inferno, Jaws, the James Bond movies and Disney reissues. I never liked Disney. There were the occasional A certificate (now PG) genre films like Logan’s Run or the first official remake of King Kong.
The irony is that now I’m old enough to get in to films restricted to over 18’s there are very few of them, and of the handful which are released are so extreme I have no interest in seeing them. Regardless of certificate, there is hardly anything I want to watch.
Because Star Wars changed everything. And it’s my fault.
In 1978 I saw Star Wars at the cinema five times.
In 1979 I saw it a further six times.
In 1981 I saw it twice more on a double-bill with The Empire Strikes Back. I saw it again on a Saturday morning show round about 1993, and three more times in the Special Edition version. But that’s neither here nor there. One way or the other I saw Star Wars 17 times.
I saw Superman and Excalibur six times. Alien five times. Carrie and Time After Time four times each.
I saw lots of other films three or four times, almost of all them genre films.
Hollywood got the memo. If teenagers really like something they will see it over and over. That didn’t happen with older blockbusters like Ben-Hur or The Sound of Music.
And I didn’t just pay to see Star Wars. On opening day I bought two copies of the souvenir programme. Why two I have no idea, but I did. I bought the novelisation, nominally by George Lucas, actually by Alan Dean Foster. I bought the double-LP soundtrack album and other less worthwhile memorabilia.
It’s been argued that the success of Star Wars destroyed cinema. Equally that the success of Star Wars saved cinema. Whichever you believe, the unparalleled and enduring success of Star Wars began the transformation of the movies into something very different. So central now, in retrospect, is Star Wars to the history of cinema as a business that it must be considered the most important film ever made. Everything revolves around it. There were films before Star Wars, and massive franchises afterwards.
In the late 1970’s on a review programme on BBC television the British critic Barry Norman speculated that cinema was dying. That in another decade there would only be a handful of cinemas left. He said they would be massive, screening the same film for months at a time. Everything else would be made directly for home consumption. In the mid-80’s a woman indignantly told me that there shouldn’t be any cinemas at all. They were elitist. Everything should go straight to video.
At the time Barry Norman’s speculation was plausible. Star Wars played for almost a year in my home town. In London the same films would run for years, occasionally downsizing to a smaller screen. In the end Barry Norman was half-right, half-wrong. Wrong in that there are now more cinema screens than there were then. Right in that effectively only a handful of films play, because each film runs on multiple screens, even in the same building. In a form of madness, rather than the opportunity to see a film perfectly presented on one gigantic screen, you have the ‘convenience’ of seeing it badly presented on five or more medium-sized to tiny screens. You gain the ‘advantage’ of not having to wait, or rather not having to plan ahead, while the theatre company gains in being able to switch films around quickly between auditoria depending on how well they are doing.
But it doesn’t really matter which auditorium you end up in because almost all of the films are functionally the same, and they are almost all awful.
For which I apologise. Because by going to see Star Wars all those times I made Hollywood realise they could make more money targeting science fiction, fantasy and superhero spectaculars at teenagers than they could by making just about anything else. And of course Star Wars was lightning in a bottle. Making great science fiction, fantasy and superhero films is a very difficult thing to do and inevitably 90% of everything is rubbish.
Occasionally there’s a glimmer of hope. Warner let Christopher Nolan make Inception so he would follow it with another Batman flick. But even the success of Inception didn’t result in a new wave of intelligent SF movies. Probably because no one in Hollywood knows how to make them because they don’t understand science fiction. They understand ‘The Hero’s Journey’ and blowing stuff up real good.
So while you groan over the mediocrity of Oblivion or After Earth, or Elysium or Ender’s Game remember that those are just the obvious ones for which I am to blame. I’m also responsible for all the mediocre superhero films, from Avengers to Thor to Iron Man 3 and Man of Steel to every silly CGI franchise and Harry Potter and Jurassic Park and Twilight and The Hunger Games and Percy Jackson and Transformers all the other nonsense which takes up production budgets and cinema space which might otherwise be devoted to real films an intelligent adult might want to see.
I’m sorry. I really am. If only because what I chose to watch then means there’s nothing for me to see now.
I’m a real fan of Starwars the movie saga. It’s a real science fantasy film. Lucas have retranscripted science fantasy language. He has created a new language to represent space opera in using reference to illustrators or comic drawers. Star Wars make reference in scienc fiction and fantasy corpus not in cinema corpus. Science fiction and fantasy are transmedia and a good scifi film must be able to “speak” with litterature, comics, illustration and not only with cinema. And Starwars pass the test with a hand up.
The problem of indigent blockbuster come from the scifi film who speak only cinema language.
I couldn’t imagine my childhood without Star Wars and I think a lot of people reading Amazing Stories today are doing so because of events that happened a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.
Star Wars also had a huge impact on the comics industry. In the mid-1970s Marvel was facing financial difficulties and it was only when they agreed to do serialisations of Star Wars that the company’s fortunes picked up. Who knows if the X-Men and Avengers would even be around today if Star Wars sales hadn’t propped up the rest of the line during those dark days?
Over the pond, the British comic 2000AD was set up because in-house editors had heard of this new movie and they wanted to grab a slice of the pie. In the end, it proved to be one of the best launching pads for UK comic talent, and it’s still going strong today.
I know that I’ve changed my ‘tude towards SW dramatically over the years. When it first came out I was just entering college. SF was not treated seriously by the general public (we were still in the “oh, that Buck Rogers stuff” era) and was just beginning to make inroads into academia. It was considered pure (worthless, potentially damaging) escapist trash. Star Wars monetary success (mostly realized through the product marketing rather than just the film itself) put an SF property front and center and certainly opened doors in many media. But then, over the years, it began to have effects and influences that I feel are detrimental. Among these are the (over) use of digital effects that are increasingly used to cover up a lack of story and/or characterization and the substitution of “science fantasy” for science fiction (at least in the minds of the great unwashed public). Not to mention my annoyance with Lucas for giving himself airs (Joseph Campbell indeed. The original inspiration was Flash Gordon and not once during the lead up to SW did Lucas ever mention Campbell, myth, archetypes, heroes or anything else related publicly). I watched that film four times in a row on first blush. I bought the album; I bought the Giant Size comic; I bought the novelization. Now, I find myself wishing it would just go away, or better yet, would never have been.
I wish it would all go away too. I find it pretty dispiriting that a genre which is supposed to be forward looking is dominated, 36 years after the event, by a film which was a nostalgia exercise when it was new. We are now into an absurdly post-modern venture, nostalgia for nostalgia.
I don’t wish Star Wars had never been. The original film was a breath of fresh air which reinvigorated cinema and ensured the green light for a whole raft of other interesting productions. But its success has been so gigantic and enduring, it is like a monstrous black hole, distorting the entire cinematic universe. I just which it had been rather less successful. Popular enough to warrant a couple of sequels and to ensure some other SF movies got the go-ahead, but now simply popular artifact of its era, like the Back to the Future films.
I just don’t think that Star Wars is to blame for a lack of more ideas driven movies. It’s an unabashed science fantasy and a great example of its type, and that’s why we’ve all seen it so many times.
Generally speaking, science fiction films built on really intelligent or original ideas are few and far between. That’s not Star Wars’ fault: it’s because it’s very difficult to have something that’s both intellectually satisfying and ninety minutes of fun. You can see a trend here especially in the world of sequels.
To take one film by decade: Planet of the Apes (1968), Alien (1979), Terminator (1984) and the Matrix (1999) all had some clever and thought provoking ideas at their heart. Yet with each successive sequel, the original ideas gave way to more action, more music, more noise and fewer intriguing concepts. It happens within movie franchises as well as in the wider movie industry generally, because it’s easier to write an action script than it is to write one that’s bursting with ideas.
I don’t think Star Wars is to ‘blame’. I don’t think George Lucas set out to alter the direction of the entire development of American cinema when he made Star Wars. It is a great film. (I am of course referring to the film that all of us who were there in the beginning know as Star Wars. There is no such film as A New Hope, or ‘Episode IV’ or any of that nonsense). Star Wars is what it is, or was. Its influence is the problem, the triumph of the action franchise over all other forms of filmmaking. And yes, it happened with Planet of the Apes and Alien and The Terminator and The Matrix, but at least during the earlier examples there were plenty of other new, original films in other genres being made. Now virtually everything but genre franchise films have ceased to exist in any significant way. Look at the failure to get the long proposed new film about The Dam Busters off the ground, or the massive biopic of Ernest Shackleton. It’s the films that aren’t being made because of all the junk that is being made which bothers me… And when interesting non-franchise films are made then have to manage on table scraps for a budget, while the next idiotic superhero film gobbles up all the top technical talent and $200 million which could have been spent making something ‘interesting’.
Sure, it’s easier to write an action script than something bursting with ideas. But there was a time when films had ideas, and there are still plenty of books and stories full of ideas. But, partly due to the massive influence of Star Wars, Hollywood would sooner take the risk on an Antman movie than filming, say, Dan Simmon’s Hyperion or Joyce Carol Oates’ Bellefleur or Elizabeth Hand’s Winterlong, or any of a 1000 titles I could name which might form the basis for a superb piece of cinema.
You’re right: I can’t blame him for what’s happened to cinema – that’s what others (lazy others) have gone on to do WITH what he introduced. What I can blame him for though is burying Flash Gordon underneath the Hero With a Thousand Faces. All I want is a bit of honesty – something like: “Star Wars was originally to have been a modernizing of Flash Gordon – big budget, SFX that support the story – but King Features wouldn’t release the rights, so I changed a few things and hid Gordon and Dr. Zarkov and Dale and Ming behind different names. Later, after the films success, I discovered that Flash Gordon, like many adventure tales, can be understood and critiqued through Joseph Campbell’s works on myth and decided to incorporate some of the things I learned into later sequels…” Why? Because leaping from SW to HWATF: distorts the truth of the origins of SW AND because it seeks to eliminate all of the fine science fiction/science fantasy/space opera in between – once again attempting to elevate a property at the expense of the genre.
I could happily live without X-Men and Avengers and all the rest. But hey, I do tend to the view that comicbook movies are destroying cinema, one reboot at a time.
I don’t accept your apology. I just enjoy a good story wherever I can get one! That’s pretty much why I’m here ^,^