Chances are, you spent the weekend rediscovering the magic of Star Wars. The original Star Warswas a miracle of seat-of-the-pants film-making that captured the world’s imagination and boosted science fiction to new popularity.
But could something like Star Wars even get made today? There’s plenty of reason to doubt it.
People have been asking lately if it’s true that Star Wars saved science fiction — and that hardly seems like an exaggeration.
On the one hand, the genre was already enjoying a bit of an upswing, with some big projects in the pipeline. (Superman: The Movie had been in development since the early 1970s, for example.) And if you believe William Shatner, Star Wars was mostly innovative because it had such great special effects — and with the rise of computers in the 1980s, special effects-driven movies were bound to become huge at some point anyway.
And yet, Star Wars inspired people in a way that other big special effects films, like Jaws and Close Encounters, just plain didn’t. And even Superman did not spawn a decade of imitators in the way that George Lucas’ baby did. If Star Wars hadn’t existed, it’s possible the movie that ushered in the era of huge special effects showcases would have been a monster movie or even a ghost movie, instead of a big space adventure. We’ll never know, and thank the Force for that.
I go back and forth, but I’m strongly inclined to believe that Star Wars wasn’t just the one lucky movie that happened to win the lottery. Sure, Star Wars came along at just the right time, but it was also uniquely fun and exuberant, while still having the feeling of being an epic. (The Joseph Campbell cribsheet really did work, as a quickie way to convey “heroic saga.”) And it was just full of ideas and weird characters, instead of just being about one idea, like “aliens come and cause people to make mashed potato sculptures,” or “alien grows up on Earth and fights crime in tights.” Star Wars was like an explosion of possibility, and one reason it had so many copycats is because you could take it in so many directions.
And maybe it was a one-time thing — we happened to get this one movie that not only launched the blockbuster special-effects movie as we know it, but also recharged our love of space adventures. And maybe something like Star Wars can never happen again.
Budget. Star Wars was not a cheap movie to make, coming in at $11 million. But the original budget was supposed to be even smaller than that, and it was not a huge-budget film by the standards of 1977. It was still so cheap that all of the stars had to fly coach. By contrast, Superman: The Movie (already filming when Star Wars came out) cost $55 million. Two 1970 movies, Tora, Tora, Tora and Waterloo, cost $25 million each. The 1976 King Kong cost $23 million, and Darling Lili and The Sorcerer both cost $22 million. Close Encounters of the Third Kind cost around $20 million to make. And so on. Tons of movies made prior to Star Wars‘ release cost more than $11 million.
And after Star Wars, budgets soared a lot more — Star Trek: The Motion Picture, 1941, Apocalypse Now and Moonraker cost in the $31 million to $35 million range. By now of course, any self-respecting tentpole film is going to cost in the $150 million range, with much bigger budgets for Green Lantern and Avatar.
George Lucas himself may be responsible for ensuring that we’ll never see another original film like Star Wars — thanks in large part to his effects shop, Industrial Light & Magic, CG visual effects have gotten many parsecs ahead of what they were in the 1980s. And they’ve also gotten correspondingly more expensive — so that to do a movie with tons of aliens and cool battles now costs way more, even accounting for inflation. And it’s pretty much axiomatic that the more money a project has, the less creative freedom and risk-taking you can have. Which brings us to…
It’s all about existing properties now.
The closest we may get to a new Star Wars in our era may actually be James Cameron’s Avatar, which… isn’t that close. Cameron was able to use his monumental clout to get Fox to let him make his stupendously expensive movie the way he wanted, in spite of how silly the whole thing sounded. (And it sounded even sillier than it actually was.)
In general, though, when studios spend tons of money on a project, they want it to be based on something with brand recognition and an existing fan base. (There seems to be a loophole for something like Cowboys and Aliens, which is based on a graphic novel nobody read — but I bet that loophole is closing.) And when a director does get the blank check for a new concept, it’s usually an established, somewhat older director like Cameron or Christopher Nolan, who wants to explore something topical or challenging. Like “don’t destroy the rainforest, man.” Or “multilayered dream heists.” Not so much with the “Whee, space dogfights and laser fencing!”
We’re just not that innocent any more
And by “we” I mean fans, or people in power in entertainment. Or baby boomers. Actually, I”m not sure what “we” means in this context. I’m pretty sure that young people are just as innocent as they always were. But the people who grew up with Star Wars aren’t as innocent as they were when Star Wars came out, and so they want to see something more cynical and less clearcut with the “good versus evil.”
Star Wars didn’t really use CG/digital special effects, but it did usher in the era of ILM. George Lucas created a whole special effects team for the movie, which grew into what became ILM. (See a video at left showing the early days of ILM, capturedon Super-8 film.) They pioneered tons of new techniques, and helped create stuff that nobody had ever seen on screen before.
And maybe there’ll be new technologies in the next decade or so that’ll make it possible to do a Star Wars-style live-action adventure in a totally new way, that nobody has ever seen before. Maybe once again, technological innovation will make it possible to tell a fresh story without the input of the studio, either because some new leaps forward in computing make digital effects radically cheaper, or because we develop some other new techniques.
Or maybe improving technology will make movies, as we know them, obsolete, because it no longer makes sense to go a building with a big screen and a lot of seats in it, and pay too much for greasy popcorn to watch a lavish entertainment. Maybe whatever replaces movies (and possibly television as we know it, too) will give us the next Star Wars. I could see it being a weird hybrid of webseries and big-budget movies, that manages to look good without requiring massive investment.
We need some goshdarn new escapism
You know, people keep saying that in bad economic times, we need fun, simplistic escapism more than ever. If I had a dollar for every time I heard someone say that escapist stories are popular during an economic downturn, I would not be nearly as scared of this current economic downturn. So far, we’re still seeing lots of zombies and dark fantasy and ambiguous, damaged heroes.
But maybe it’ll happen soon — and maybe the rush to find new escapist, fun stories will include a new desire for original works. Because you know that any time somebody remakes or adapts something old, the first thing they say is, “I’m going to do a dark gritty reimagining, to put my own stamp on it.”
At some point, brand recognition will stop being valuable
Eventually, you run out of properties to reinvent, and you start delving into properties that only a small fanbase cares about. And you start thinking it’s a good idea to make a movie based on the Battleship board game. And maybe at that point, somebody decides it’s a good idea to take a chance on some young kid who’s got a crazy story about some young kid going on a wild adventure and learning the truth about him/herself along the way. It could happen.
Don’t give up hope — if there’s one thing Star Wars taught us, it’s that there’s always a shot.