Stage Three: The New Star Wars Movies And The Evolution Of The Blockbuster

Earlier this month, at CinemaCon, Alan Horn of House Disney announced the plan for the Star Wars sequels. Starting in 2015, there will be one released every year, for a minimum of five years.

And lo, much weeping, rejoicing and arguing over how this will impact on continuity did echo throughout the land.

This announcement has been met in most circles I read with a modicum of enthusiasm but more caution and reticence. There’s a sense, expressed frequently, that this is milking the cash cow until it squeals, a conveyor belt of movies that will tarnish the already slightly less than sparkling image of Star Wars movies beyond repair over an endless, five year, march towards whatever he has planned next. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss, except this time he wants five new movies instead of three.

What no one seems to be focusing on is that, without making a big deal of it, Disney have just ushered in the second wave of massive narrative evolution the Summer tentpole movie has seen this decade

The Marvel movies, starting all the way back at Iron Man, have operated off a narrative plan. Each movie has seeded the next, or featured a cameo from a previous character or plot element, culminating in The Avengers. Which is, in turn, the black swan of summer blockbusters; it absolutely has no right to work. At all. Think about it, this is a film which takes the leads from three other movies, some of the supporting cast, a recast (For the third time) lead from a fourth failed movie series and throws another couple of characters in for good measure. It should be an unholy mess, the sort of endless parade of spectacle, slow motion and heavy metal falling off a cliff that Michael Bay’s absolute worst movies are.

Instead, it completely changes the rules of the game. Each character has a moment to shine, each character is intrinsically connected to the plot and the whole narrative flow of the movie is built, not around any single one of them, but all of them. It’s the same level of narrative fairness that Kurtzman and Orci showed in the 2009 Star Trek reboot, where each character has a moment that, without their actions, brings the movie to a grinding halt. The Avengers takes this and expands it to a massive scale, express through the bravura (I love that word) rolling action sequence towards the end of the movie which follows all of them through the battle for New York in a single, blocks wide, shot. This is the sort of visual vocabulary blockbusters have half-assed for years and here it springs fully formed onto the screen and throws a gigantic space worm at you and has Mark Ruffalo punch it to death for good measure.

It’s not a universally popular movie, but nothing is, and, for me, it’s a game changing example of how to do something different, and all but impossible, with one of the most universal narrative templates on the planet; the blockbuster. The fact that it’s both the culmination of Marvel’s ‘Phase I’ movies and the instigator for the ‘Phase II’ block only fascinates me more. This is a film that may well look very different in a couple of years when the sequel comes out.

That phased approach, building larger stories out of each block of films, is something that hasn’t been done, to the best of my knowledge, ever before. Ideally (And I know a lot of Iron Man 2 viewers would dispute this. I’m not one of them), each movie tells a standalone story that contributes something to the larger block and those blocks in turn combine to create a coherent, nuanced fictional universe. The fact that Agents of SHIELD, a TV show, is set to be introduced to this narrative framework is particularly interesting and will, I suspect, see them experiment still further. It’s a chance to be bold, and there’s clearly something in the air that’s pushing more people to do the same.

The SyFy channel, who are so reviled amongst many of their apparent target audience that simply mentioning their name triggers genuine anger, have just rolled out Defiance. Set 33 years after a disastrous first contact with the Votan, a coalition of alien races fleeing their dying solar system, it follows former soldier Nolan and his adopted, alien, daughter Irisa as they try and make a living salvaging technology from the ships continually falling from orbit. They end up in Defiance, formerly St Louis, renamed for the actions of the ‘defiant few’, a group of alien and human soldiers who stopped fighting to help evacuate civilians from a fire. It’s an interesting show, and its companion MMO computer game has been designed so the two narratives complement one another. Nolan’s non-committal response about being one of the defiant few bother you? Go and play the game, where the truth is part of the central plot. Doesn’t bother you? The show’s perfectly coherent without any satellite media, at least so far.

(Image taken from ScreenCrush)

Narrative bravery, the one thing that Hollywood is continually and justifiably most of the time, pilloried for is in increasing supply these days and that brings us back to Horn and the Star Wars movies. The detail that, for some reason, hasn’t been announced everywhere, is that this isn’t a contiguous set of movies. The plan is to alternate episode VII, spin off movie, episode VIII, spin off movie, episode IX.

This is really clever for three reasons. Firstly, it’s the best possible on ramp for old and new fans alike. Think about it the spin-offs, set to feature characters from various time periods most likely starting with Boba Fett or Han Solo, will be a rolling catch all designed to attract fans of the original and prequel trilogy alike. Want to know what Boba Fett did after his dad was killed by Mace Windu? Here’s your movie. Want to know how Han’s childhood intersected with the prequels? Here’s your movie. It keeps the door open to everyone, honouring the previous movies without trying to over-write them.

Secondly, it builds in checks and balances that the prequels didn’t have. The two year process, coupled with the widespread criticism of the prequel trilogy, speaks to a welcome level of caution from the studio here. They want, and need, to get these films absolutely right, and if one or the other isn’t ready, then there’s the option of switching the order around to give the team involved time to get ready.

Which brings us to the last thing that impresses me about this; whilst it looks like a conveyor belt it’s an off ramp designed to take as much pressure as possible off the creative teams. A new Star Wars movie, let alone a new trilogy of Star Wars movies, is a military-level undertaking in terms of people and logistics and if it gets away from you then the fans have long memories and no problem holding grudges. This way, there’s a chance to keep momentum going without sacrificing quality and that’s already paid off. JJ Abrams has made it clear he won’t be rushed into that 2015 release date and I strongly suspect that this one on/one off approach has been developed to allow for directorial choices like that. It’s the old planning rule that you can pick two of these factors; quality, speed and cost but never all three, writ large and scrolling away from you as the John Williams fanfare plays.

So I understand, and sympathize with, the caution. This is a period of massive change for a fictional universe that’s been part of people’s personal maps of fandom for decades, and so many people were burnt by the prequels it makes sense to be a little cautious about touching the hand that’s feeding you the new movies, let alone biting it. But this isn’t just Disney laying out the future of Star Wars, this is Disney future-proofing Star Wars and doing so in a way which, again, innovates what can be done with the blockbuster. It’s entirely commercially driven, that’s a given, but it’s also breaking new ground and doing so in one of the most universal, populist mediums on the planet. Regardless of how the movies are, that can only be a good thing.

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