Two weeks to go.
As some of you may be well aware, three of my favorite movies are Star Wars (1977), The Empire Strikes Back (1980), and Return of the Jedi (1983). Two of my least favorite movies are The Phantom Menace (1999) and Attack of the Clones (2002). Revenge of the Sith (2005) I could take or leave – it’s quite good in some ways and its association with the aforementioned prequels damages its reputation a bit unfairly.
So the Star Wars series, as it stands right now, contains two great movies (Star Wars and Empire), one very good movie (Jedi), one average to above-average movie (Sith) and two bad movies (Menace and Clones). The issue that’s been on my mind since 2012 – when Mickey Mouse purchased Lucasfilm and announced (finally) a sequel to Jedi, is which of these four category The Force Awakens is going to fall into. Let’s see:
1. It’s Going to be Bad (Menace/Clones)
The team that’s been assembled to create The Force Awakens means that there’s a low risk of it being as bad as Menace or Clones. J.J. Abrams is a fine director, in fact he already basically made two Star Wars films already (Star Trek (2009) and Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013)). Lawrence Kasdan is a legendary screenwriter. The original cast, including Harrison Ford, is back, along with a half-dozen highly-regarded young talents, including Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o. The whole enterprise is being assembled by Kathleen Kennedy, one of the finest Hollywood producers working today.
Additionally, the first two prequels were written, directed, and produced by one guy – George Lucas. There was no one to tell him no, which means numerous bad ideas made it into the films, especially the first two. This risk has been mitigated by the level of talent surrounding the film, and Disney’s ability to be patient with it (bumping it’s premiere date out six months for instance).
Chances The Force Awakens will be bad: 5%
2. It’s Going to be Disappointing (Sith)
If all three of the prequels were as good as Revenge of the Sith, this would be a different conversation. The handful of poorly executed scenes in Sith can be mostly cut entirely or tweaked a little bit. I suspect the reason why these scenes remained in the film as-is was because of Lucas’ dominance.
There is a better chance that the Force Awakens is disappointing than outright bad. J.J. Abrams has made a couple of movies that have underwhelmed audiences and/or critics after all. That being said, I think the talent level involved still buttresses the movie against being disappointing. For evidence of this, look at the trailers.
Trailers rarely tell the whole story, but if you compare the trailers for The Force Awakens to the trailers for the prequels, you will see the following elements that were missing from the latter. First, Harrison Ford makes movies good. Second, the dialogue seems well delivered, out of context sure, but not cheesy. Finally, watching the prequels felt like watching a cartoon sometimes. By using real sets, the trailers for The Force Awakens have a more tactile feel to them, which should help the tone of the film enormously.
Chances The Force Awakens will be disappointing: 15%
3. It’s Going to be Very Good, but not Great (Jedi)
With apologies to those who count Return of the Jedi as their favorite movie, I tend to agree with what seems to be the prevailing opinion of movie critics. It’s a fine adventure film and a good ending to the original Star Wars trilogy, but it’s not quite a classic of its genre. While I still believe the Ewok fight isn’t as crazy as it first appears, there are few other weaknesses in the film that just don’t give it the same “umph” as the first two.
That being said, by blockbuster sequel standards very good is actually a fine standard to hit. For example, none of the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels quite make this mark. It is, however, hit by many well-regarded films like The Dark Knight Rises (2012), The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies (2014), The Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), and Abrams’ own Star Trek Into Darkness.
Here’s the problem: it’s really hard to make a great movie. Even in a genre like the Hollywood blockbuster, where no one expects Academy Award level performances or deep thematic imagery, it’s really hard. This is especially true when measured up to not only the classics of the genre on their merits, but when considering the emotional weight of nostalgia. Most likely, The Force Awakens will be as good as Return of the Jedi, or slightly better, just because even with the talent assembled, “great” movies of any genre just don’t come around that often. That’s part of the reason why they get to be called great.
Chances that the Force Awakens will be very good but not quite great: 55%
4. It’s Going to be Great! (Star Wars/Empire)
As a Star Wars fan, I hope The Force Awakens will fall into this category. As a student of film history, I don’t think it’s likely. The issue is that Star Wars and Empire are classics of their genre for very specific reasons that are unlikely to be replicated.
I just watched Star Wars yesterday. Its technical innovations are often cited for the reason why it’s a great film, and this reputation is well earned. However, for me the film is a masterpiece of pacing for an action/adventure movie. It just has its own, unique momentum, which just tramples over its flaws. Do we notice that some of the dialogue is silly? Sure. Do we care? Absolutely not.
The Empire Strikes Back is a classic of the blockbuster genre for very specific reasons as well. First, you have to remember that it was really the first attempt to make a sequel in the way that we think of sequels now. Sure there were sequels, but they usually were self-contained stories with the same characters, they weren’t an epic continuation of the first film’s story. Second, it really is a great movie-movie, not just a great Hollywood blockbuster. The story, themes, acting, and effects really are top notch. Finally, it has one of the best endings of any movie – a gut-wrenching combination of plot twist and cliffhanger.
The Force Awakens won’t have intense technical innovations. It won’t be the first modern sequel either. Its chance for greatness is to replicate Star Wars’ sense of momentum and have an ending like The Empire Strikes Back. Can it happen? I guess we’ll see in two weeks. For now I’ll be a bit more conservative in my estimate.
Chances The Force Awakens will be Great: 25%
Writing out this exercise made me feel a lot better. I’m no longer worried that the movie will be bad or even disappointing. At worst, it will be very good. At best, it will be great. Anyway – better get your tickets, I got mine!
(c) 2015 D.G. McCabe