Help Us Disney — You’re Our Only Hope!

2014 was a dismal year for film, and it bodes ill for the future. Looking at the top-grossing films of the year (and since it is show business, this is generally a good indicator of what will be made in the future), all of the top 10 were franchise films, and you’ve got to get down to #15, Interstellar, before you hit the first non-franchise movie. Of course, this is not to say that no good films were made this year – 1941 is brought to mind, a year in which the dreadful How Green Was My Valley won five Oscars, yet The Maltese Falcon came in 30th in the earnings, and Citizen Kane came in 57th.

With filmgoers (that’s you and me, folks) voting with their dollars for more franchise films, and not for great original films like The Good Lie, we can expect the next few years to be all franchises. Movies will be a lot of McDonalds, with a dismal sameness to them. Even more depressing is the sheer number of top-grossing movies in which nothing happened at all – consider, for example, Mockingjay, Part I, and The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, both movies which consist primarily of reaction shocks from the protagonists because they have nothing else to do.

Great franchise films are hard to make. It’s not impossible for a filmmaker to sneak a good movie through – (1954’s Creature from the Black Lagoon is a wonderful example of using thoughtful camera work to make a great creature-feature), but it’s just more difficult.

Let’s say, for example, that you were tasked with making the next Marvel movie. The aesthetics are pretty much already set, so you can’t deviate far (a happy except this year was Guardians of the Galaxy, but it had to be set so far away from the rest of the Marvel universe to make that possible). Characters and their arcs have to be adapted from an existing body of comic book work. From the moment you sign your contract, you’re shackled in setting, character, and plot.

Five years ago, if you had said to me, “Disney will acquire Star Wars, and this will be the best film news in years,” I’d have said you were crazy. And yet, here I am saying just that myself. Although there will no doubt be a few happy surprises in the next few years, our hope for franchises lies in Disney’s Star Wars.

Star Wars still holds, I think, the opportunity to make good, even great, films. Yes, the aesthetic look and sounds of the Star Wars Universe are set, but by relegating the old Expanded Universe to “Star Wars Legends,” Lucasfilm and Disney have an opportunity for good storytelling with dynamic characters and dramatic tension. Everything is really only bound by what came before in the story, and what is to come is no longer preordained. Setting is determined, but plot and character is still free.

This doesn’t mean the films will be great; we are just as likely to get another Phantom Menace as an Empire Strikes Back. But the freedom filmmakers have open up new territory to explore sophisticated ideas, to create thematic parallels with other films, to make Star Wars films aimed at various audiences, from wacky droid adventure musical cartoons for children, to sophisticated character meditations for adults. Could it be a horrible disaster? Of course … just I like to think we’ve got a new hope.

The Soundtrack Awakens

As I’m sure you’ve heard, the new Star Wars teaser trailer was released this weekend. If you haven’t seen it, then it’s really strange that you read Guitars and Geeks, and you should probably see it immediately:

Having just finished most of Fringe (and by most, I mean I couldn’t make it through Season Five. I tried. I may try again. But wow. And not a good wow.), I was trepidatious about J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars. I still am, frankly, but the teaser trailer (not to mention his amazing Star Trek reboot), has alleviated my anxieties, far more than a teaser trailer really should. Why? I have no qualms about admitting this. It’s because of his use of the sound track. More specifically, it’s because of the exquisite partnering of John Williams’ score with each shot from the film. With each shot, we get a snippet of Williams’ score, offering anxiety, urgency, foreboding. The sounds of the action overlay most of the score, and the mysterious narrator teases us with information. And then, after another dark pause where the screen blanks, the Millennium Falcon sweeps across the sky with the sweep of music into the main theme, loud, prominent, triumphant, and promising.

I cheered and shouted the first time I saw it.

I cheer and shout each time I re-watch it, too. It’s hard not to. The Star Wars theme is iconic. It’s the triumph of good over evil, it’s the struggle of the underdog, it’s fighting the good fight, it’s the oppressed overcoming the oppressor. It’s the sonic embodiment of myth. It’s epically epic. And not just the Star Wars theme, but all of John Williams’ principal motifs (and many of his minor motifs). Star Wars is a modern mythos, and Williams’ music reveals how deeply our cultural consciousness has absorbed this epic. Nearly everyone knows the theme, the motif for the Darth Vader, the motifs for Leia and Han, for the Force. And many people know the motifs for the Jawas, the Ewoks, Yoda, C-3P0 and R2-D2, and the Sith. Some of the newer motifs, for Anakin, the Droid Invasion, and Anakin and Padme, for example, aren’t quite as deep in our cultural consciousness at this point, and I doubt anyone would be quite as familiar with them outside of the context of those movies. We will probably not hear any marching bands play them anytime soon. But the Star Wars theme, and the Imperial March, condense and evoke the original trilogy so well that only a few snippets of each are necessary to recognize them.

And the really awesome part is that even 15 years ago, that wasn’t always the case. If Episodes I, II, and III did anything for the Star Wars franchise, it was to make it more recognizable than ever before. I remember college marathons of the original trilogy, on VHS, no less, with the fabulous Catherine Harris (now Brown), an awesome friend and the only other person I knew who could reliably be counted on to marathon the original trilogy (at the time, the word “original” was unnecessary) on any given college night. There were people in my residence hall who had never seen any Star Wars movie and who were not able to recognize any snippets of music, much less any of the more minor motifs. And while people who have never seen a single Star Wars movie still exist today, they are much fewer in number (possibly because there are now six movies, instead of just three), and I imagine their existences to be wispy and unfulfilled.

Commercialism, of course, must account for some of this. Someone figured out that geeks and nerds tend also to be collectors, and began marketing accordingly.  But, what was once unpopular culture has now become popular culture, and comics and sci-fiction and fantasy are now part of mainstream media and mainstream culture. Even the Internet, and computers, once the staple of reclusive geekdom, are everyday and mundane. And while a new Star Wars movie isn’t mundane, it’s possibly even more enthusiastically awaited now than the release of The Phantom Menace in 1999, which brought an abundance of Jedis to movie theatres across America. And part of that enthusiasm is due to the mundanity of things like the Internet, and Facebook, which let geekdoms flourish in their home medium, creating cultural staples and reinforcing the great American Epic. As memes spread, as the Imperial March and Star Wars theme proliferate and multiply, their significance deepens as the motifs to the light and the dark sides of the Force spread to any representation of good or evil. The Jedi Kittens are a perfect example. While the first relied on light saber sound effects (as recognizable as the music), the second, Jedi Kittens Strike Back, additionally created a score reminiscent of Williams (but without any actual copyright infringement), playing on the motif for the Sith.

Abrams’ trailer not only recognizes this, it accentuates it. The music sweeps as the Millennium Falcon sweeps, bursting into the theme at the apex of its flight. The music in the teaser trailer nods to the prequels, in the scene with the Sith, before it evokes the original trilogy with the Millennium Falcon. Each scene is matched with a perfect sonic moment. Because it’s sound that thrills us, that evokes, that lures, that inspires, just as much as the images. When The Phantom Menace was released, I went to theatre early that morning to buy tickets. At the 7pm showing, Jedis and Rebels and Imperial troops and civilians all filed into the seats. The air was electrified, as if by light sabers. We clenched our popcorns and sodas.  And we sat, expectantly, silently. It wasn’t the the words the moved us. It wasn’t the blue text reading “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away . . .” that sent popcorn flying as everyone leapt to their feet, shouting, applauding, stomping, and cheering through the opening sequence.

It was the music.

Darth Pooh
Jim Cummings, the voice of Winnie the Pooh, reads Darth Vader’s lines. The effect is indescribable.

The feature image is taken from Birna Dröfn, an Icelandic artist with a lot of great fantasy and Star Wars work.