There’s a reason The Force Awakens has (adjusting for inflation) become the highest grossing Star Wars movie of them all.
Now, about inflation. Whenever you mention the success a modern movie is having, someone always brings up inflation. In the case of Star Wars, the original 1977 movie is the second biggest film in history. When you adjust for inflation the film’s domestic gross is about 1.5 billion dollars, just under the number one movie, Gone with the Wind, which grossed 1.7 billion. In terms of raw ticket sales, nothing will ever touch Gone with the Wind, and it’s not likely any movie will make enough to overtake Star Wars. Again, when you adjust for the inflation of the US dollar.
But it’s an overrated caveat to bring up inflation when you talk about modern movies. There are a lot of reasons why movies in the ye olden days of the 70’s made more bucks than movies today. Media in 1977 was a lot less vast, so there was less competition compared to now. TV was around (unlike in the days of Gone with the Wind, which was basically a must-see attraction that came to town on multiple limited basis), but there weren’t as many channels or shows to watch. When a big movie premiered, it captured the collective attention of the nation, much more so than today. A movie like Star Wars was a revelation to the 1977 culture. It became the first “event” movie since Gone with the Wind itself, whereas today big movies—even the biggest movies—are events unto themselves, and only grab the attention of the so-called “movie-going public.” Back in the day, all of the public was “movie-going.” That’s just not how things are anymore. So there are a lot more factors than inflation to consider when you look at box office receipts.
Still, even when you account for inflation, and just consider raw ticket sales, the newest Star Wars film certainly belongs in the “New Hope/Empire Strikes Back” company, and far away from the company of the prequels. Why is that?
In the months leading up to the movie’s premiere, fans online were…apprehensive, to say the least. There was a lot of worry—including right here on this site—that the movie would not live up to the legacy established by George Lucas. Many fans believed that, without George Lucas at the helm, the movie would not feel like Star Wars. Even though many of those fans were frustrated with the prequels, there still was the idea that Lucas needed to maintain some input in the story, and that depriving him of that would make for a hollow sequel.
And yet, The Force Awakens premiered and smashed the box office. Read the reviews; there are many. Watch the many online analyses of the film and read the plethora of editorials penned about it. Certainly the movie has its detractors, but even the ones that were disappointed with parts of the movie still had to acknowledge one thing:
The Force Awakens felt like Star Wars.
That’s an almost universal compliment but it’s also one that deserves some exploration.
There was something in the mood, in the characterizations, in not just the action but in the way the action was shot, it all added up to a movie that felt like you were watching a Star Wars movie. Of course, you were watching a Star Wars movie, so that should be expected, right? Not after the prequels it shouldn’t.
The prequels disappointed in the box office, compared to the original three, despite there being a bigger worldwide audience to tap into than Hollywood had in the 70’s and 80’s. Even though most fans would agree that the prequels got “better” (there’s a relative term if ever there was one) as they went along, and certainly the final prequel is considered the “best” of the three, it still did much smaller box office gross than the original trilogy..
At the time, the first prequel managed to exceed the box office total of all but the original Star Wars. But after the high wore off and critical and fan support for the movie withered away, the final two movies in the trilogy grossly underperformed. Why? Because, after the disappointment of the first prequel–when it became clear that these movies had little in common (beyond the superficial) with the original trilogy—the casual fans checked out. The hardcore fans were there and stood in line for each premiere, but the casuals weren’t with them.
Who are the casual fans?
- Star Wars’ a fan favorite from the beginning
- 1977: when Star Wars hit the UK – in pictures
- ‘Star Wars’ and S.F.’s Coronet in 1977: An oral history
Depending on your age, there’s either a picture of your parents or your grandparents today, in line to see Star Wars in 1977.
Those are the ones who first experienced the galaxy far far away. Many of them happily returned to the cinemas in 1999 to see the first of the “new” Star Wars movies. But they walked out instantly realizing the prequels weren’t for them. To those fans, the prequel movies didn’t “feel” like the Star Wars they grew up with. As for the next generation of fans, it took them longer to jump ship and deem the prequels substandard compared to the original trilogy (and some still cling to the belief that they are, in fact, well made movies). Those new fans kept coming back , in 2002 for Attack of the Clones, and in 2005 for Revenge of the Sith, because with each one they told themselves “this will be the one that is good.” Meanwhile that other generation (the first Star Wars generation) had long since given up hope.
Those are the fans that have returned in droves to see The Force Awakens.
As we await the upcoming release of the movie on blu ray, I can’t help but think about how Star Wars has returned to the collective consciousness of America. I saw the the movie five times in four different cinemas. Each time I did I was amazed at the diversity of the audience. There were people from 8 to literally 80 enjoying the film. And that 80 year old couple was there to see it on their own, no grandkids in tow.
So when I hear people complain that The Force Awakens is “derivative” and “just a carbon copy of A New Hope” I feel like those who say that miss the point. “Derivative” is what you call a bad movie that just shameless rips off an earlier work. It’s what you call a lazy film that is trying to ride the achievement of a better precursor to its own successes. The Force Awakens is, in a lot of ways, indicative of A New Hope, but that’s by design. And The Force Awakens is not a bad movie, nor is it a lazy film. It soars with excellence in technical, acting and directing levels.
The movie was meant to inspire comparisons to the original Star Wars movie. It was meant to follow many of the same story beats of A New Hope. It was designed to appeal to those first fans, who had given up on Star Wars. It was a nostalgia trip for the casual fans of the franchise. And not only did it do that, but it pulled off the even greater challenge of making the movie—with all its similarities to the past film(s)—feel like Star Wars and not a cheap knockoff.
I have no doubt that Rian Johnson’s Episode VIII will move the story forward and take the audience down a new path for the franchise, but with The Force Awakens, with the first Star Wars for a new generation, JJ Abrams and Disney did the right thing. Call it a quasi-sequel/reboot if you want, but that’s exactly what the creators were going for. They took you back to the universe you loved, not in a hollow and superficial way, but through a genuine and emotional journey back to the galaxy far far away.
For that reason, though it’s become popular among some to knock the successful film for its attachment to the original movie, I will defend it as the perfect Star Wars movie for its time. It was the Star Wars film that, after the disappointment of the prequels, needed to be made.
It was a Star Wars film that felt like Star Wars.