The Popcorn Champs
The Popcorn Champs looks back at the highest grossing movie in America from every year since 1960. In tracing the evolution of blockbuster cinema, maybe we can answer a question Hollywood has been asking itself for more than a century: What do people want to see?
J.J. Abrams played the hits. He had to. Ultimately, it’s the only choice he really had. In 2012, Disney spent $4 billion to buy Lucasfilm, essentially dropping a diamond mine on George Lucas’ front lawn for the rights to those hits. Given the option of recruiting virtually any director on earth, Disney hired Abrams, someone who’d proven his ability to fuel mass speculation, steward franchises, and, yes, play the hits. The hits were what people wanted. With Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the hits were what they got.
When The Force Awakens finally hit theaters in December of 2015, the Star Wars franchise was nearly 40 years old. It was in a strange place. The initial Star Wars movies had changed the face of cinema, and they’d inscribed themselves on the imaginations of entire generations. Hollywood acted quickly to remake itself in the image of Star Wars. It wasn’t just that the movies made money. It’s that they opened all sorts of ancillary revenue streams and essentially became a part of the air. As a kid born in 1979, I slept on Star Wars bedsheets and carried a Star Wars lunchbox to school. When Steven Spielberg filled 1982's E.T. with Star Wars imagery, he wasn’t just making a sly nod to a friend. He was depicting early-’80s kid-world as so many of us experienced it. Star Wars was everywhere. E.T. would’ve been more fantastical if Spielberg didn’t include all that stuff.
The Star Wars movies were hits again in the late ’90s, when George Lucas released his Special Editions into theaters. Lucas’ three prequels were all massive, generational hits, too, even though plenty of people hated them. Even after those prequels, Star Wars lived on in video games, in novels, in toys, and in all sorts of other lucrative nerd-culture wormholes. But the wild, out-of-control shittiness of the prequels left a bad taste in a whole lot of mouths. So when Disney handed a Scrooge McDuck money tank to Lucas, fans celebrated. The individual artist who’d come up with the whole vision had disappointed everyone. Now the crowd-pleasing corporation would take control. That corporation did what it was supposed to do. It pleased crowds.
Despite occasional attempts to say nice things, George Lucas did very little to hide his general disdain for The Force Awakens. The movie was derivative, Lucas would say. Its thrills were reycled. It did nothing to push forward the art of film, or to tell new stories. Lucas wasn’t wrong, even though his own attempts to push film forward had mostly resulted in brain-scraping digital noise. The Force Awakens was comfort food. The principal members of the cast from the original trilogy all came back, reprising their long-dormant characters. An 83-year-old John Williams scored the film, earning his 50th Oscar nomination in the process. All the aesthetic baubles of Star Wars found new homes: the R2-D2 bleep-vwerps, the stars streaking across the screen as ships jumped to hyperspace, the looming villainous fortresses where spindly walkways stretched across gigantic chasms. All of it was familiar. All of it felt good.
Really, Abrams made The Force Awakens at the last moment that he could’ve possibly filmed it. Kenny Baker, who’d originally planned to squeeze back into the tiny R2-D2 prop body, died during production after serving as a consultant. Peter Mayhew could only play Chewbacca in scenes where the character sat down; other towering actors had to rock the Wookie fur during the parts that required any sort of action. And Carrie Fisher, who’d just found a mature version of her old Princess Leia crackle, went into cardiac arrest on an airplane one year after The Force Awakens hit theaters. She died at the age of 60, and when Abrams returned to the franchise, he basically had to cobble together a final Fisher performance from whatever footage Disney had left over.
In some sense, The Force Awakens is really just a chance to see those old actors back in those old roles, finding familiar rhythms and grunting familiar catchphrases. As a work of crowd-pleasing theater, it’s masterful, staggering out the arrival of each returning favorite, practically breaking for applause every time it reprises a role or element. (This is the same strategy that Disney had deployed for introducing each of the Avengers in the studio’s smash team-up film a few years earlier.) The first of those reintroductions isn’t even a character. It’s a prop: the Millennium Falcon, sitting vacant in a desert-planet junkyard and waiting for someone to hijack it for a new adventure. Seeing the Falcon spiraling across the horizon, dodging TIE fighters, was a primal thrill, like being at an AC/DC show when the opening “Thunderstruck” riff hits.
Every new hit feels something like that: Han Solo and Chebacca stepping into their close-up; Leia locking eyes with Han across a smoldering battlefield; C-3PO shoving his face into the screen. Abrams literally yanks a tarp off of a comatose R2-D2, and he fills his command room with returning bit-part characters like Admiral Ackbar and Nien Nunb. Even the mutilated mask of Darth Vader gets a big reveal. Luke Skywalker, meanwhile, spends the entire movie as a MacGuffin, a magical object to be acquired. When Luke finally shows up at the end, it’s maybe the most effective sequel-bait scene I can remember. I couldn’t believe I had to wait two more years to see more of that guy.
Shortly after the film’s release, Michael Arndt, the Toy Story 3/Hunger Games: Catching Fire screenwriter who wrote the initial Force Awakens draft, admitted that he didn’t know how to introduce Luke Skywalker without him becoming the protagonist: “The whole movie is a series of character introductions. You want all your character introductions to be A-plus. You give each person their moment… It just felt like every time Luke came in and entered the movie, he just took it over. Suddenly, you didn’t care about your main character anymore because, ‘Oh fuck, Luke Skywalker’s here. I want to see what he’s going to do.’”
And there were plenty of new characters to introduce. J.J. Abrams brought in a crew of extremely likable young actors to carry the story forward. Daisy Ridley had done some British TV and one low-budget horror movie. John Boyega had starred in the great British sci-fi romp Attack The Block but hadn’t done much in the years after. Oscar Isaac was already an indie-film darling, but he hadn’t had a chance to become a matinee idol yet. Adam Driver was still on Girls. The three young heroes all attack their roles with giddy, fresh-faced enthusiasm, and Driver brings an unstable emotional petulance that makes him unpredictable and unsettling. All of those actors do their jobs well, but they never feel like they’re the center of attention.
The script—from Arndt, Abrams, and Lucas collaborator Lawrence Kasdan— works hard to integrate these new figures. All of them live in the shadows of the living legends from the older films. The characters are fans, and part of the juice is their excitement at living out their own Star Wars adventures. Rey is introduced scavenging the wreckage of long-forgotten battles, while Kylo Ren is essentially a Darth Vader cosplayer, wearing his own forbidding chrome mask even though his face is smooth and unlined. We see all of them trying to live up to long-established legacies.
But The Force Awakens moves too quickly to give these new characters the emotional resonance that they could’ve really used. Part of it is that Abrams hits the notes of the original films whenever possible. Rey isn’t from Tatooine, but she’s from a desert planet that looks a whole lot like Tatooine. She learns the ways of the Force, gets into a lightsaber duel, watches a mentor die, and participates in the destruction of yet another Death Star-type uber-threat. In the moment, in the theater, all those familiar story beats made my soul sing. Only afterwards, thinking about it, did the repetitive nature start to bother me. Even when Abrams was trying out new riffs, he was still playing those old hits.
When The Force Awakens slows down and takes delight in its own mythology, the movie still works beautifully. But there’s too much business for the film to ever linger too long. People got mad about Rey suddenly excelling in the Force without training, but the film simply doesn’t have time to give her that level of development. Abrams has too much business left to do.
Six years later, parts of The Force Awakens now clang badly. The whole Starkiller Base threat feels lazy and inert, and the space battles always seem obligatory. But parts of it still hum. Harrison Ford, for instance, seems fully locked-in. He might not admit it, but he’s having a blast, and you can tell. The film’s look, its grainy textures and janky physicality, make its otherworldly landscapes tangible and evocative. Most of the great moments are pure lizard-brain sensation. The Force Awakens teaser trailer, which arrived a full year before the movie, communicates everything great about the final product without even hinting at the storyline.
This was exactly what the world wanted. Disney must’ve known that The Force Awakens would be a huge success, but the studio must’ve still been stunned by what happened. The movie earned $250 million in its opening weekend, more than any film had before it. Within 20 days, it was the highest-grossing film in the history of the domestic box office, a record that it still holds. Last year, Forbes estimated that The Force Awakens had sold more movie tickets than even the original Star Wars had managed in its first run. This wasn’t just a hit movie; it was a cultural phenomenon. Star Wars films dominated at the box office for the next few years, but none of the follow-ups ever had a chance at equaling the impact of the franchise’s big return.
The Force Awakens served a function. By 2015, audiences didn’t want new stories. We wanted new riffs on old stories. The year’s No. 2 hit was Jurassic World, another reboot of a long-dormant franchise that walked the line between sequel and remake. Mad Max: Fury Road and Creed, two movies that I love deeply, did something similar. (Those two didn’t make the year-end top 10, but they were solid hits.) Franchises did big business in 2015; the latest adventures from Tony Stark and Dom Peretto and Katniss Everdeen and James Bond and the Minions all raked in lots of money. But those movies didn’t prey on nostalgic urges in the same way that The Force Awakens did, and none of them made even half as much money.
I like The Force Awakens. That was a fun night at the movies. I’m glad my daughter gets to grow up surrounded by images of Rey, just as I did with Luke. J.J. Abrams had a job to do, and he exceeded all expectations. But The Force Awakens still represents a sort of surrender, a sign that Hollywood wasn’t even trying to come up with new stories to tell or new ways to tell them. Instead, the entire studio system had accepted the idea that films would now call back to older films, returning to long-established myths rather than building new ones.
Star Wars itself was a pastiche, a hybrid beast made up of shards of sci-fi serials and Westerns and samurai flicks. George Lucas wasn’t riffing on real life; he was reflecting on his own memories of movies. But he was reshaping those memories into something new. Hits like The Force Awakens simply riff on those riffs. That’s how commercial cinema becomes an echo chamber. I spend my money to hang out in that echo chamber, just like everyone else. At some point, though, the echoes of echoes are going to dissipate into nothingness. What then?
The contender: My favorite of 2015's big hits happen to be the only ones that weren’t parts of running franchises. With The Martian, Ridley Scott used Matt Damon’s starpower to turn what could’ve been a dry scientific ordeal into a charming adventure. That movie rips, but it doesn’t rip as hard as Pete Docter’s Inside Out, the bright Pixar romp that visualizes feelings as cartoon characters and sometimes ventures off into bottomless, apocalyptic sadness. Inside Out worked as proof that hit movies could still be wildly inventive and emotionally resonant, at least if they were animated. Live action? Different story.
Next time: The Star Wars comeback continues with the tense, bleak, genuinely exciting standalone war story Rogue One.