The Force Awakens is the perfect name for the latest Star Wars film. Like the generic food in the 80′s with labels which simply stated the contents within, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”, uncolorfully describes the contents of the latest installment in this nearly 40 year old movie franchise.
Star Wars films have a tendency to be named like this: “The Empire Strikes Back” was about the Empire, striking back after the Rebels blew up their Death Star; “The Return of the Jedi” was about Luke Skywalker returning to confront his father and the Emperor as a full Jedi; and “The Phantom Menace” was about how George Lucas took his own much beloved story and nearly ruined it with Jar Jar Binks and Vader-Christ analogies. As the British would joke, “maybe Star Wars 8 should be named: it does exactly what it says on the tin.”
Without giving away any spoilers, “the force”, the unnamed energy that runs through all life in the Star Wars universe, indeed “awakens” during the film. But “The Force Awakens” also seems to have a double entendre because with the raging success of the reboot, the force of Star Wars as a brand for marketing and selling things has awakened.
Disney paid George Lucas $4 billion for the rights to Star Wars. No one has ever paid that amount of money for the rights to six old films, three of which are the filmic equivalent of Jaws 4,5, and 6. It’s a crazy amount of money but $4 billion might turn out to be a good deal for Disney because the true value of Star Wars isn’t the films, it’s the marketing.
Disney paid $4 billion for the rights to make the films that will sell the action figures, Lego sets, juice boxes, candies, plastic swords, flamethrowers, video games, and every conceivable toy or food item known to childhood. But Star Wars doesn’t stop at selling bedsheets, Star Wars has even be used to sell new cars to adults. There are several car commercials out there right now which play one of John Williams’ themes and/or have a voiceover which is instantly recognizable as a character from Star Wars and which then instructs you to purchase this new car and choose from the light side or the dark side of the dealer’s new sales force.
Very few things in our world cut across generations like Star Wars. I saw The Force Awakens in the theater with my mother and my seven year old daughter. I saw A New Hope with my mother when I was seven. And there is a good chance that my daughter will take her child to see a Star Wars movie when she has a seven year old, 30 years from now. I’ll probably still be around, 75 years old, and I’ll probably be there with a king sized bucket of popcorn.
See, Disney didn’t buy films, sure they are already in talks to make five new films in the next four years but the films aren’t the point, the films are just something to keep the myth alive and add to our understanding of the universe. They didn’t buy the rights to films, they bought a global cultural icon. They bought the next Mickey Mouse.
And so, the executives at Disney must have had a good chuckle when they saw the title of the film, the Force Awakens. It’s not a coincidence that the film opened at Christmas. Disney’s force, in the global marketplace, re-awakened just in time to coincide with America’s most religious shopping holiday.
I hope this isn’t really a surprise to anyone. I mean, Mel Brooks in his film Spaceballs nailed the true meaning of Star Wars: Merchandising. The question isn’t whether this happened, the question is whether it’s a good thing. In other words, has Star Wars lost its soul?
Sure, of course it has. Nothing can top the first Star Wars film. Empire Strikes Back gets better critical reviews and was a bigger film in terms of box office but it was the originality of Star Wars, the uniqueness of that first experience, which can never be regained.
The latest film is ok. I didn’t hate it, though my daughter was quite bored. She found the seats in the theater (we sat in one of those modern theaters with the recliner seats) more interesting than the film. Throughout, she fidgeted with the motorized seat backs, sat back, lay forward, brought grandma popcorn, and so on. She didn’t laugh, cry, or get scared at any moment in the film. There was very little emotional investment in this movie for her. And after I asked her what her favorite parts were and she basically just liked a few of the more cute scenes (I can’t say more without giving something away).
But did it lose its soul?
This is a similar question we get as football fans. Football, like Star Wars, cuts across generations and has a longevity and deep cultural impact and so it was ripe for corporate appropriation. Football is much, much larger than Star Wars and much more meaningful to many cultures in many different ways than Star Wars will ever be. If Star Wars is Mickey Mouse, Football is Michael Thomas, charging through the midfield.
But the question of football’s soul remains. Football has been radically changed by Jabba the Hut and Boba Fett in FIFA and UEFA and by the Trade Federation that is the Football Association and the Premier League. The image has been smoothed over and football’s lovable scoundrels of the past, the Cantona’s and Maradona’s, are encased in carbonite and paid for by Coca-Cola, VISA, and Budweiser.
I hope football never loses its soul but I can’t say that it won’t. There’s too much at stake now for these massively wealthy men and when Adidas mentioned that they didn’t like the way van Gaal’s Man U played football it was the first sign that the corporate masters are trying to Jedi mind-trick the game in an unprecedented way. “These are not the results you are looking for, Louis.”
But I guess if there is a saving grace it’s that once the big money gets involved they do eventually give the people what they want. Star Wars, like FIFA, was a franchize on the verge of failure. Lucas had script 7 in his head and was ready to start production when Disney stepped in and bought the rights. They then made a film which was slick, took no chances, was full of nods to the past, and judging by the box office results, a huge success. They gave the people what they wanted. And with five new films in the next four years, including a film dedicated just to Han Solo‘s lost college years, they are going to keep giving the people exactly what they want.
And so will football.
Bonus: Who are your favorite players/managers/owners turned Star Wars Characters? Only-One Arsene Wenger (“That mad old wizard?”)? Darth Mou? Pep Guardiyoda? Sith Blatter?