Saturday, December 19, 2015

Essay: On Revisiting the ’70s

             This weekend, longtime fans and newcomers alike will help give the seventh installment of a franchise that began in the 1970s the biggest opening in movie history. Yet somewhat lost in the din of the wall-to-wall coverage surrounding the debut of Star Wars: Episode VII—The Force Awakens is a unique coincidence. Another seventh installment of a franchise that began in the 1970s reached theaters during the 2015 holiday season. Although audiences and critics have bestowed quite a bit of love on Creed, a clever revitalization of the Rocky series, I haven’t seen much commentary devoted to the parallels between Creed and The Force Awakens. Nonetheless, these parallels are formidable and meaningful.
            As becomes plain by scanning lists of successful movies from the last few years and/or schedules of upcoming releases, we’re in an unprecedented era of cinematic recycling. The endless sequels. The numberless adaptations of old games, toys, and TV shows. The pointless reboots of cinematic franchises whose corpses aren’t yet cold. It’s all been exhaustively catalogued, and the whole sad spectacle can be summarized by the fact that Marvel and Sony will soon collaborate on a brand-new Spider-Man movie, despite the fact that the (mostly) beloved Spider-Man series starring Tobey Maguire ended just eight years ago, and despite the fact that a middling attempt at rebooting the series with new star Andrew Garfield unspooled in two movies spanning 2012 to 2014. Even without bringing the whole silly “Batfleck” business into the conversation, it’s inarguable that we’ve gone past the saturation point and entered the realm of the ridiculous.
            Still, there’s an interesting difference between rebooting a franchise (which generally seems crass) and simply continuing a storyline (which is fine as long as there’s still gas in the narrative engine). While it’s wonderful that some high-concept movies have been left alone, with no disappointing sequels tarnishing the brand, many popcorn fantasies were designed to introduce universes filled with open-ended story potential.
Among the most striking aspects of Creed and The Force Awakens is that both films combine elements of these seemingly incompatible approaches. They are simultaneously reboots and continuations.
One could argue that the first Rocky (1976) was a self-contained gem for which sequels were superfluous, whereas the first Star Wars (1977) contained a natural ellipsis all but demanding a sequel—the picture’s unforgettable main villain, Darth Vader, survived the climax, representing a plague on the land that our heroes needed to set right before claiming ultimate victory. In that sense, it’s somewhat shocking that we’re still seeing new Rocky movies in 2015, and less so that we’re still seeing new Star Wars movies. (Obviously, commercial success rather than aesthetic necessity is what prompts the creation of sequels, so let’s accept as a given that we’re talking about franchises the public embraced.)
The most noteworthy quality shared by Creed and The Force Awakens is that each essentially remakes the first movie in its respective franchise. In Creed, an underdog boxer gets a chance to prove himself by battling a world champion, thereby facing not only a physical opponent but also the psychological demons that fill him with self-doubt. In The Force Awakens, rebel heroes struggle to destroy a massive weapon that insidious villains can use to control the universe. Creed features a mentor relationship that toggles between antagonism and paternalistic love, as did Rocky. Concurrently, The Force Awakens features a young hero learning to use the Force, the very same supernatural energy field that a young hero learned to use in Star Wars. The synchronicities between the new films and their predecessors are myriad, from familiar music cues to visual references evoking specific scenes from the original movies.
Ryan Coogler, the co-writer and director of Creed, does a more graceful job of balancing nostalgia with originality than J.J. Abrams, the co-writer and director of The Force Awakens, though it must be said that Abrams faced a bigger challenge on every conceivable level.
Expectations for the seventh Rocky film were infinitesimal, because franchise creator/star Sylvester Stallone dimmed the luster of his own creation with too many inconsistent and repetitive sequels. Expectations for the seventh Star Wars film were insanely high. Not only was Abrams tasked with improving on the preceding three Star Wars pictures, which were disappointments creatively even though they made gobs of money, but he was tasked with reintroducing the beloved actors and characters from the original 1977–1983 trilogy—all while finding a way to make Star Wars relevant to audiences numbed by more than a decade of CGI-centric superhero extravaganzas. Whereas Coogler had essentially a blank canvas upon which he could paint a fresh interpretation of the intimately scaled Rocky legend, Abrams was expected to make the biggest movie of all time and withstand the scrutiny of an obsessive and vocal fan base numbering in the millions.
That both men can be proud of their accomplishments is a testament to their creative powers, even if Coogler’s film is superior not just as a cohesive artistic statement but also in ways that are relevant to this conversation about revisiting the ’70s.
First, The Force Awakens. (As Yoda might say, fret not for no spoilers here there are.) The key creative team behind the picture, including new Lucasfilm overlord Kathleen Kennedy, Abrams, and once-and-future Star Wars screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, made one crucial choice that defines The Force Awakens. Although the picture is a direct sequel to Star Wars: Episode VI—Return of the Jedi (1983), the heroes of the original trilogy are not the actual stars of the new film. Rather, The Force Awakens introduces the fresh faces whom audiences will follow for at least two more films, the already announced Episode VIII and Episode IX. Smart on so many levels. The story of the original characters has been told, the actors playing those characters have reached ages where their believability in action scenes is dubious, and the introduction of new characters is required to generate story material for future trilogies. (Disney, which acquired Lucasfilm a few years ago for $4 billion, has said it plans to make Star Wars movies for so many decades into the future that the fans who saw the original films as children will not live to see the end of the story—yikes.)
Additionally, Abrams and Kasdan have said they wanted to prioritize brevity, given the tiresome bloat of so many modern blockbusters. Hence The Force Awakens’ running time of roughly two and one-quarter hours, versus, say, the absurd three-hour sprawl of The Dark Knight (2008).
Given all of these circumstances, Abrams faced an impossible job. Reintroduce and service the main characters of the original trilogy, without edging them into leading roles. Generate a handful of new characters and make the audience fall in love with them. Provide a rollicking space adventure that reconciles the comparative visual simplicity of the earlier Star Wars films with the sensory-overload expectations of current moviegoers. And keep the whole thing as close to two hours as possible, figuring that something like six to seven minutes will get consumed by end credits. Did he stick the landing? No. The Force Awakens is a problematic film with myriad dead ends, derivative moments, and plot holes.
I elect to focus on the many things the picture does well. By shooting on film instead of digital and by employing a fair amount of practical effects, Abrams approximates the handmade quality of the original trilogy. He also accentuates the most important tropes from the earliest Star Wars films—themes of destiny, family, heroism, loss, and sacrifice. At its best, The Force Awakens recaptures the fun of seeing relatable human beings juxtaposed with a crazy-quilt backdrop of creatures, magic, and spaceships. The picture even achieves that rare goal in a sequel by legitimately deepening the journeys of returning characters.
Most intriguing of all is the movie’s expression of mortality, a theme that’s embedded deep into the DNA of Star Wars. Rather than venture into story terrain that viewers should be able to enjoy for themselves, I’ll tack to Creed because mortality is just as important to that movie, for the same fascinating reasons.
In case you stopped watching Rocky movies a few sequels back, life hasn’t been amazing for the Italian Stallion since 1990, when the series’ first run sputtered out with Rocky V. At the end of that picture, boxer Rocky Balboa (Stallone) was still happily married to shy Adrian (Talia Shire), and he had a decent relationship with his son. Yet when Rocky Balboa (2006) began, Adrian was dead from cancer, and Rocky was estranged from his now fully grown son. He participated in one more boxing match to exorcise his demons, and then he seemed ready to walk into the sunset.
Enter Coogler, the gifted young filmmaker behind Fruitvale Station (2013). He conjured a story about Rocky becoming the trainer for Adonis Creed, son of the champion whom Rocky fought and eventually befriended during the Rocky movies of the ’70s and ’80s. Coogler persuaded Stallone to reprise his role for the first Rocky movie that Stallone did not write, and the first Rocky movie in which Balboa does not fight. Coogler came up with something quite special, because while Creed honors the earlier pictures, it also gets into the problems faced by young black men raised without fathers—to say nothing of mortality.
The Rocky we meet in Creed is a tired old man waiting for death—just like the Han Solo we meet in The Force Awakens is a haunted old man hiding from life, even though he still has a quick wit and a rascally smile. As of this writing, Stallone is 69 and Harrison Ford, who plays Han Solo, is 73. No other versions of these characters would make sense.
But what does it mean when we watch our heroes age? And what does it mean when the inevitability of our own endings is foreshadowed by watching treasured characters face mortality? I think the answers to these questions address the deepest purposes of storytelling. We look to stories for escape from our daily lives, of course, but we also look to stories for guidance. Simple stories about noble heroes overcoming adversity—like the Rocky films—can seem like platitudes when they’re done poorly, and they can seem like inspirational fables when they’re done well. Layered fantasies about metaphorical characters seeking to balance the benevolent and destructive impulses of the human animal—like the Star Wars films—are stupid when they don’t work, transcendent when they do.
The first Rocky is a shameless tearjerker, just as the first Star Wars is a manipulative crowd-pleaser. It’s easy to regard these movies cynically. On the worthiest plane of audience engagement, however, these films strive to eradicate cynicism. Star Wars presents a galaxy in which good people reject selfishness for the benefit of their community. Rocky revolves around an uneducated man who possesses innate wisdom. Recalling Frank Capra’s optimistic movies of the 1930s and 1940s, the first Rocky and the first Star Wars offer homilies about the great things that young people with their lives ahead of them can accomplish.
Creed and The Force Awakens recycle those themes by introducing new characters with endless potential for positive change, and yet Creed and The Force Awakens also acknowledge that yesterday’s heroes are today’s teachers. Rocky Balboa’s role in Creed involves passing along what he’s learned even as circumstances remind him that far fewer days lie ahead than behind. The roles played by the original heroes of Star Wars in The Force Awakens are similar. Time to pass the torch. Or the lightsaber, as the case may be.
As a child of the ’70s, it’s bittersweet for me to realize that Rocky Balboa will never step in the ring again, and that change will always visit the Star Wars galaxy with its usual savage caprice. It is for exactly those reasons that I think both Creed and The Force Awakens are markedly more resonant than the average reboot or relaunch or remake or retread. Creed justifies its existence by treating Rocky Balboa as a living embodiment of his own legacy, and by exploring difficult issues pertaining to race. The Force Awakens, despite its flaws, casts the ugly shadows of loss and regret and time over the jaunty textures of outer-space dogfights and swashbuckling sword duels.
And that’s where these two movies have perhaps their greatest impact. Like children who understand their parents once they have children of their own, fans of these two franchises must face complicated feelings by engaging with Creed and The Force Awakens. At various times in these pictures, sobering truths take center stage: age replacing youth, disappointment supplanting optimism, fatigue usurping vigor. In twilight, what matters is what is left behind. Legacy. For the story that began with Rocky and continues with Creed, what remains is the quaint notion that each individual has value. For the story that began with Star Wars and continues with The Force Awakens, what remains is the modest proposal that we’re all part of something bigger than ourselves. As legacies go, you could do a lot worse.
The ’70s are dead. Long live the ’70s.


The Groovy Agent said...

I was talking about these same ideas with my wife Thursday night after seeing SWtFA, but I wasn't nearly as eloquent. Best. Post. EVER.

Sir Sweetstick said...

Yes, seconded, chock full of insights :) A fun read indeed :)

starofshonteff0 said...

Bear with me on this one.
After the success of Friday The 13TH IN 1980, there were numerous reports in the trade and popular press in America exaggerating the box office receipts and devoting endless column inches to how producer Sean S Cunningham and writer Victor Miller had hit pay dirt and were consequently living the American dream.
Meanwhile, little attention was paid to the "boring" topic of how distributors Paramount were raking in far more than Cunningham and Miller were ever going to gain from the deal
In a similar fashion, Disney have orchestrated mind-numbing acres of media coverage devoted to guns for hire like J.J. Abrams to deflect attention from the chilling plan referenced in your essay for the company to milk the STAR WARS franchise for decades to come.
The major topic of importance in any consideration of THE FORCE AWAKENS is the one notable for its absence in account after account of the film throughout the online world: the long-term goals of Disney and the marketing strategies employed by the company to shape the content of the new trilogy and attempt to manipulate audience responses to the films.

Will Errickson said...

"But what does it mean when we watch our heroes age?" I've been wondering the same thing lately. Fantastic post!