When you are given the responsibility of re-energizing one of the world’s most famous movie franchises, they aren’t going to be happy with something that just makes millions at the box office. No. They want you to set the foundation of something much bigger, much more long-term. They want you to engineer a perpetual motion cash-cow that can be milked for a series of million and billion grossers, and then even more revenue through sale of T-shirts and toys and video games and official cheese snacks and theme-park-rides.
It’s easy for very smart people, and JJ is one of the smartest people in the industry today, to get this wrong. I might eat my words later and I hope I do but he and his team have taken the Star Trek franchise, particularly after that horrendous second installment, in the wrong direction. In trying to make Star Trek reach out to a global audience that goes beyond nerds who live in their parent’s bedrooms, they have put in a lot of explosions and space-battles, and, for some strange reason, lens flairs. That has ruined the experience for older fans like me, who cannot get over the abandonment of the deep themes that were the hallmark of the original series, the lack of chemistry between the protagonists, and, worst of all, the canon-busting re-imaginings of iconic characters. It is like someone taking a dump on my childhood, watching Spock and Uhura kiss on the bridge of the Enterprise. To the generation of movie-goers not connected with the original lore to the extent we are this might seem quite cool, but the problem for them is that Star Trek is not sufficiently differentiated from the Avengers, Transformers or any of the other similar franchises that pack movie screens during the summer.
But this time, with Disney and Star Wars, JJ gets it bang perfect. This is about as perfect a franchise product as can be engineered. It targets the classical Star Wars nostalgia generation, the ones with the wallets, and bridges it to the new, the ones that drive the consumption.
As any parent would tell you, they are ready to pay for that. The force connection. And to mix my franchise metaphors, the mind meld.
Imagine this. Dad and Daughter walk out of the movie theater together, Dad nostalgic and Daughter overwhelming him with questions. They talk and talk and end up buying matching XXLarge and Small Star Wars official licensed Tshirts (each Tshirt twice the cost of the Imax ticket) and she gets a new Star Wars video game (the game four times the cost of the Imax ticket), and he picks up retro Star Wars figures from Amazon (again a few multipliers of the original ticket) and remembers fondly, summer afternoons in the 80s, making voices for Han Solo and Leia and Darth Vader, and then Dad and Daughter have another conversation. And then Daughter grows up with this generation of Star Wars, till Daughter has a Son, and rinse and repeat and, through all these years, Disney collects every time.
This is indeed a feat of epic engineering. It is to be seen how the engineering is sustained, but the beginning is pitch perfect. The secret sauce is that JJ makes Star Wars the Force Awakens almost exactly the same film as the first Star Wars (New Hope). I could deconstruct this further, but for the sake of keeping this spoiler-free, I am not. Suffice to say that, the plot points are almost the same, the locations extremely familiar,references to the past fly thick and fast, and the central conflict is identical. This isn’t lazy plotting, but deliberately done to be comfortingly familiar to the old fogeys in the way that warm home-cooked food is, and they are, as Disney knows, the ones with the most purchasing power today.
At the same time, JJ brings forth new characters and puts into motion story arcs that can be built independently of the past, to ensnare those with the most purchasing power a few years down the road. These plot decisions free the new from persistent comparison with the old, while, at the same time, making the new characters surrogates of those that we remember (it’s almost elementary to discover the new Skywalker, the new Solo, the new Vader, the new Emperor, the new Death Star, and the new Obi-Wan). Sufficiently new and racially and gender diverse to meet the standards of today’s world and yet sufficiently old so that the connect between generations is not broken, it is not easy to do both these effectively, and JJ does exactly that.
It also uses, and again I believe this is not accidental, a narrative device, that works extremely well with today’s generation. The game narrative. An outsider is put into a new environment, learns the moves, escapes from somewhere, picks up party-members and gradually levels up his character. For those who have played Knights of the Old Republic (which still remains the greatest Star Wars story ever told) and several other role-playing games, this structure will appear extremely familiar.
Of course that’s where its deepest weakness is. The new Star Wars is an extremely derivative film, from a cinematic point of view, familiar on multiple axes, but as software developers would say, it is not a bug but a feature, engineered as it is to consume pay-cheques in the way the Death Star does planets, many years into the future.
We in Bollywood have a name for this. Phormula. And JJ is now the Manmohan Desai of the West.
This one is going to break the records. I am sure of it.
Star Wars the Franchise has awakened.