Sunday, January 3, 2016

The new Star Wars is a minimally criticizable movie--and that's brilliant

After reading this rather large and cranky analysis of the new Star Wars movie, I wanted to elaborate on my one-sentence take that it was a relatively uncriticizable movie that did what it had to do to appease various constituencies, despite lacking conceptual innovation.

Most of the criticism levelled at the new movie has not been about its aesthetic or technical qualities--on these dimensions the movie was pretty great. The best critiques are basically from hardcore super-nerd internet people, and raise conceptual issues involving meta topics like the movie's interaction with its fanbase and its identity as a sociological meme.

The only way to get this guy back into the canon
is with a healthy and profitable business 
Right Reason's review is actually pretty strange if you think about it. The test he sets up concludes that The Force Awakens (TFA) was a fine movie but sucked on a deeper level because it didn't use the franchise's inherent financial advantage to take creative risks. By the same token, the prequels--even though they totally sucked--were great because they went for broke in trying to do something new. Judging movies on the intent or probabilistic strategy of the production team... that's really getting blood from a stone if you ask me.

As Ezra Klein has noted, the creatively boring 'reboot' strategy makes perfect business sense for Disney, even if it opens up the "it's unoriginal!" avenue of critique. (As a side-note, doing a reboot that's technically a sequel is no small thing creatively; JJ Abrams threaded this storyline needle so deftly nobody has even praised it).

Being 'unoriginal' is a pretty stale and well-trodden line of attack, and one which nearly everyone can agree on. If TFA were edgier, criticisms would be much more diverse--and divisive. For example, consider the blowback from an attempted adaptation of Timothy Zahn's well-regarded Heir to The Empire novels. Extended Universe super-nerds would be angry because the adaptation would be imperfect. Non-super-nerds would be bewildered and confused. Everyone would find it unoriginal. Similarly, a radical departure from existing Star Wars themes and story structures would be high-risk and likely spark claims about not being similar enough in spirit to the originals.

Ultimately, creating a Star Wars film to reduce the total quantity of criticism is smart not only from a business perspective but from a creative perspective too. Because TFA is the first film in a new planned franchise, it had a unique responsibility not to screw up. Establishing a foundation of broad-based support from a diverse fan base will actually allow Star Wars to engage in riskier, more artistically creative projects in the future. Making the core trilogy safe, boring and profitable is a clever way to ultimately appease everyone and provide the wide array of Star Wars projects that our segmented media landscape craves.

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