Exploring Hollywood’s reliance on the rinse & repeat method of filmmaking…
The announcement of a new entry in the Star Wars film series provoked an unsurprising groundswell of interest from both press and fans alike. The Force Awakens sees JJ Abrams taking over from George Lucas for the new film which is due to be released next month. It also offers an opportunity to reflect on what direction the classic film series will take under new stewardship.
The trailers and information that have gradually appeared over the past few months have teased out plot elements, increasing the eagerness of those keen to see the next chapter in the saga. But at the same time, they’ve set off some alarm bells revolving around the possible plot.
What’s clear from the information that’s been released so far is some of the basic plot elements of The Force Awakens. This includes a frustrated youth stranded on a desert planet, a masked villain, a battle in a fortified trench and what appears to be a large battle station (that could possibly be mistaken for a moon). If that all sounds familiar then you’ve probably caught a screening of an obscure art film released in 1977 called Star Wars.
Of course the film has yet to be released and it could well be that Abrams is deliberately introducing an element of misdirection here. However, it’s also clear that there’s been a rise in the trend of nostalgic references in genre films of recent years.
Jurassic World, which saw a return to the world of man-made dinosaurs, featured a film packed with references and shout-outs to the original film. As well as staging an end sequence that essentially photocopied elements of the closing scenes of Jurassic Park, the film was littered with other direct lifts, references or simply having characters picking up props seen in the original film.
Regardless of this, Jurassic World cleared $1.6 billion at the box office (and was also the highest-grossing film of 2015). A sequel is already in the planning stages – and a further film beyond that has not been ruled out.
The original story for Jurassic World was penned by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver who have past form with this approach to mining nostalgia. Their script for 2011’s Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes is another film that judiciously references the previous entries in the Apes filmography. Jaffa himself has made it clear on what angle the script was approaching: “We tried really hard to create a story that would stand on its own and yet also pay homage and honor the movies that came before us”.
The problem with the art of homage is that relying on it too much can rob any contemporary film of standing on its own two feet. Rather then telling a story, we’re treated to the cinematic equivalent of “Who remembers Spangles?”
JJ Abrams is no stranger to this approach of crafting films. Star Trek Into Darkness, the 2013 sequel to the rebooted series, not only revisited a classic Star Trek story, but also took wholesale an entire scene from the 1982’s Wrath Of Khan which revolved around the death of a major character (but without the emotional investment that the original TV series had invested in those characters).
With an entire universe to play with, falling back on old stories seems to be a lazy approach to presenting Star Trek for a 21st Century audience. But is there sense to this method of reinterpreting classic films? Arguably, existing properties and franchises have more clout attached to them than brand new stories. It’s the reason that so many reboots and sequels (and even prequels) get greenlit to begin with. At the end of the day, filmmaking is an actual business and it’s clear that the homage and nostalgic approaches that many of these films employ are doing no harm at the box office.
But it’s entirely possible for these films to both introduce new ideas and concepts – and produce good box office results. When James Cameron took on writing and directing duties for Aliens, he managed to swerve neatly past a reheated version of 1979’s Alien and instead created a very different movie. Whereas Ridley Scott’s original film played with themes of horror, Aliens created a war movie set in the same universe.
Although there were references to the original film in Aliens, these never felt gratuitously shoehorned into the film. As a result, the film surprises audiences by defying their expectations and feels no need to litter the film with unnecessary shout-outs to the original.
It’s perhaps ironic that Ridley Scott’s recent return to the Alien universe with Prometheus had been crafted as a deliberate attempt to step away from Alien, yet has a clumsy final sequence that deliberately does just that. The sequel to Prometheus also promises to steer back to the ideas of the 1979 original, suggesting that Scott is clearly aware of the value of nostalgia.
The Force Awakens will no doubt spark debate amongst Star Wars obsessives (as the prequel trilogy did in years past) who are keen for the series to maintain strong links to the original films, but at the same time deliver a fresh story that can stand apart from its forebears. Whether or not the film will deliver a surprising gift in its Christmas wrapping – or a lump of nostalgia coal, remains to be seen.
The Force Awakens opens in cinemas 18th December.