Star Wars in the Age of Social Media
One of my earliest, most vivid memories of childhood: was exiting the 7 o’clock showing of Star Wars and being astounded that it was still light out as we left the theater. It felt like I had been away for a very long time and had traveled great distances and the harsh light of reality momentarily threw me. My six year old brain experienced total immersion and I was hooked. Another vivid memory I have of my childhood is when my father mistakenly took me to see Bladerunner when I was 11; he thought it was a new Star Wars movie because of the Harrison Ford connection. That threw me as well, but in a totally exciting (what did I just watch?) way – love you dad.
I went to see Star Wars another 3 times that summer and felt transported every single time. The year was 1977 and there was nothing remotely similar to it in either tone or scope. When it was released, science fiction was a very niche market and Lucas himself believed it wouldn’t have much staying power. 2 years earlier Lucas’ friend Steven Speilberg had invented the summer blockbuster with Jaws but no one could have anticipated what Star Wars would become and that kids like me would go see this thing again and again. All said and told,over the course of my life; I’ve probably seen the film close to a 100 times, with the lion’s share occurring in my youth from an old VHS copy, taped from a television broadcast. The tape finally wore out but my fondness never did.
A few years went by after the initial rush and along came The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi and they did not disappoint. A few more years went by and Episodes 1-3 happened and they did disappoint. People were really upset; blaming George Lucas for ruining their childhoods. They criticized that the characters were one dimensional, the acting wooden and the dialogue -just terrible. On that last point, all dialogue in Star Wars movies is terrible, it’s kind of part of their appeal. Lucas would be the first to admit that. He revealed recently that he actually constructed them more like silent films; where the visuals heavily out-way the spoken words. Another huge sticking point with fans was; gone were the practical effects and in was the CGI. Episodes 1-3 didn’t feel real enough. I personally missed puppet Yoda (from Empire not Phantom Menace).
Episodes 1-3 had no other course but to disappoint. The movie landscape had changed drastically since 1983 and nothing could live up to the hype. This was also pre-Facebook, pre-Youtube, pre-Twitter hype. The original trilogy worked best because it looked lived in. Things looked beaten up. Luke said it best in the original film when he first lays eyes on the Millenium Falcon: “What a piece of junk!” As a kid I was confused by this statement, because in my brain I was thinking that’s the coolest thing I’d ever seen. In Episode 1 everything was way too shiny. The other thing that really let people down was the design; the original three are full of really original cool looking things and characters. Stormtroopers just look good, the spacecraft look like hot rods, Darth Vader is iconic menace and so on. The newer films got a few things right like Darth Maul and the two sided lightsaber but all those CGI droids and alien races -just lame. Jurassic Park and Terminator 2 had proven CGI could work in a film when used strategically but when the band is more focused on the the fireworks than the music, things start to breakdown. Lucas was too in love with the technology. All these things didn’t prevent these movies from making a ton of money and introducing a whole new generation to Star Wars.
Fast forward to this past Thursday and the 2nd Force Awakens trailer hits the internet. Three days later and it has been viewed over 40 million times, tweeted countless times and added roughly 2 billion dollars to Disney stock value. Hey no pressure. Reading all the content that has been generated over these 119 seconds and two things are certain: people are excited and people are optimistic but nervous they’ll get burned again. Star Wars in the age of social media is an all together different beast than all its predecessors. We are eight months away from its release and the demand is relentless. We live in an instant gratification society where super heroes rule the cinema and our news cycle is 24 hours of instantaneous updates. We consume so much content on a daily basis from multiple sources that our tolerance for cultural pollution has eroded our critical filter. We’re so supersaturated, that things no longer move us. The sentiment that I’m picking up online is that people want to be moved again, feel like a kid again and feel the shock of the new again. The funny thing is that the shock of the new will come by returning to the old: familiar characters, practical effects and hopefully an emotional core at the heart of it. No real information about the story has surfaced but so far they got the design right, things look cool again. Part of the movie going experience in the age of social media is the power of anticipation and conjecture. Entertaining theories and predictions is just as much fun as consuming the actual artifact. We get to participate in the process in a very minor way and in our hearts we hope our voices have some effect. The Force Awakens has been molded by the sins of our fathers. JJ Abrams is well aware of the tidal wave of fan criticism that was levied on Episodes 1-3 and that helped inform his vision for the new film. Is this how social media really works? Can it help preserve and alter our cultural sacred cows?
One thing’s for sure, social media will dissect everything surrounding this film up to and after its release. Some will love it and some will be disappointed. Can it possibly live up to the nostalgia machine, or can it evolve and become something new again? I know personally I can’t wait for the lights to go down and hear that familiar John Williams score. Will it transport me back to my youth? Hard to say, my pre-internet brain says possibly, and my post-internet brain says -it’s not the destination, but the getting there, that’s half the fun.