The prequels and wider culture, debugged:
The prequels’ worst crime was to become a template for how popular culture would unfold into the 21st century. We are still suffering from their effects today.
They were terrible movies – yes, even Revenge of the Sith; stop kidding yourselves! – but they made some very serious money. Even today, there’s probably tickertape showing you how much these movies continue to rake in for the producers on a daily basis.
It’s our own fault. Even after Attack of the Clones – which was arguably even worse than The Phantom Menace – we still went back to this terrible franchise, its popularity unabated. We bought the books and toys and video games. We indoctrinated our children into it; non-discerning younglings who didn’t know any better, doomed to repeat our mistakes.
Producers and accountants took careful note. This proved beyond dispute that the quality of the end product didn’t matter, even if the film was a steaming turd. The bottom line was that if you had a pre-existing concept, with an in-built, loyal fan base, then it didn’t matter what you fed them – they’d consume it, in great numbers, and then come back for more.
We can see this manifest in the cameos issue, where some characters get walk-on parts to service fans’ desire to see them. It’s why we saw Chewbacca’s pointless appearance in Revenge of the Sith. It’s why R2D2 and C3PO were shoe-horned into the plot in the first place. Although some wonderful creatures and locations were designed, all three films were falling over each other to reference what had gone before instead of going their own way.
This is now endemic in our marquee movie culture. The Spider-Man movies were made, and then rebooted, in the space of just 10 years. Same story, played out again, with different actors. The same thing is happening with Batman, who is being rebooted despite the Christopher Nolan trilogy having a definitive ending (about the only bit he got totally right in The Dark Knight Rises).
It’s as if they think we’re stupid.
…Are we stupid?
Astonishingly, Peter Jackson made the same mistake as Lucas with his Hobbit movies – nothing like as bad as the Star Wars prequels, but nowhere near as involving as the Lord of the Rings trilogy, either. The Hobbit films, too, are falling over themselves to cram in references to characters we know, outside the framing of Tolkien’s original text. Legolas appears, although his character seems to be totally different to the one we know. Incredibly, the special effects were worse in many places.
Lord of the Rings felt like a banquet; The Hobbit feels like a binge.
Brand recognition is the key. It’s hard to launch a big movie without it these days – and turkeys like John Carter and The Lone Ranger, based on more obscure properties, have not helped.
Think back to the movies that were coming out 30 years ago in comparison. Ghostbusters… Back to the Future… Beverley Hills Cop… The Terminator… all original properties, all massive hits, all excellent films. Where is this generation’s Ghostbusters? Will a studio take a chance on an unproven tentpole movie again? You could make a case for Avatar, but it has James Cameron’s stamp across it; much like new property from Spielberg, that imprimatur means it’s guaranteed some financial backing and a turnout at the box office, come what may.
Even new movies with heretofore unseen elements on the big screen come with added brand recognition. Twilight was already entrenched in teenage girls’ culture long before the movies came out. I’d never heard of Guardians of the Galaxy, but it has the Marvel stamp on it, and that universe will tie in with the Avengers and all those other comic book guys. Godzilla, yet another reboot, has both feet firmly planted in popular culture across the globe.
A recent article on the BBC by Adam Curtis showed that there may be an economic reason for this stuttering phenomenon in mainstream entertainment. We can understand why a corporation would seek to make its risk as near zero as possible; but this is manifest in individuals, too. People not only enjoy this VHS-style “re-record and repeat” phenomenon, but actively seek it. It’s a cultural comfort blanket.
Curtis reminds us that the Blackrock computer programme analyses what’s gone before in culture or politics, and makes predictions based on that past knowledge – but this completely removes the factors which resulted in things like Star Wars making it out of some nerd’s brain and onto a cinema screen in the first place: inspiration and imagination.
We have all the creativity in the world, but nothing new gets created, because that would be unsafe for producers and consumers. So, what you get are retreads of what you already know. It’s safer that way, for us as consumers, and for the powers that be in government, entertainment, or wherever.
That’s why, in time, Keanu Reeves will make another Matrix film. That’s why Eddie Murphy will do Beverly Hills Cop again. You’d better believe that’s why we’re getting a new Star Wars. It’s the same with music. U2, the Rolling Stones, Bon Jovi, Springsteen, AC/DC… bands whose heyday was 30 years and more ago, and yet they are still the biggest draw in the digital age.
Where is this generation’s Rolling Stones? Where is its Star Wars?
Every story has a beginning, a middle and an end… here’s the beginning.
And it ends right here.