The date is May 18th, 1999. Star Wars fans worldwide wait with eager anticipation for the return to the big screen of the most beloved of movie franchises with The Phantom Menace. At the time, the idea of a George Lucas free Star Wars movie was unthinkable. Yes, he’d sat out directorial duties on The Empire Stikes Back and Return of the Jedi, and yes, he’d ruffled a few feathers with the original trilogy’s 1997 re-release, but he’d still been intrinsically involved every step of the way throughout the original trilogy of films, and with all things Star Wars in the intervening years.
Thankfully, we all thought, Lucas was involved, and back in the director’s chair to boot. It recently transpired that before settling in for his return to directing, Lucas asked Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind), Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future), and his good friend Steven Spielberg (Jurassic Park) to all consider taking the reins for the return of the franchise. All three, of course, would turn down the offer, all feeling the Lucas himself was the man to take the new trilogy forward. How wrong we all were.
On May 19th, 1999, The Phantom Menace released, and though it proved a box office success, its critical response was less flattering. As one reviewer put it, “Neeson and McGregor seem so focused on hitting their marks for the blue screen, that they barely make eye contact, let alone generate any genuine emotion.” Because if nothing else, Lucas went all out on the CGI. Perhaps we should have known it would be the case. Whilst the films of the original trilogy were technical marvels, the 1997 re-releases of said films created unrest amongst Star Wars fans with CGI additions and re-edits, the most infamous of which being the “Han shot first” debacle. If this had left a bad taste in the mouths of fans, the continued mixed reviews for the latter two films in the prequel trilogy, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, along with even further changes to the original films with their DVD and Blu Ray releases in 2004 and 2011 respectively combined to make the recent additions to the franchise somewhat of a running joke. George Lucas was being looked upon as a fox in the chicken coop.
Rewinding back to the release of The Empire Strikes Back, the second of the original films, fanfare for the franchise was at a high with queues literally forming outside of cinemas worldwide as eager fans awaited the return of their heroes to the big screen. If A New Hope was the foundation stone for the franchise, The Empire Strikes Back was the rocket that took it to to unparalleled heights, acting as an early catalyst for the dawn of fandom and geek culture so prevalent today, and giving us lines to quote and re-quote for eternity. Comparatively, the second film of the prequel trilogy Attack of the Clones took a backwards step financially from The Phantom Menace; not surprisingly so with Jar Jar Binks still lurking around and Hayden Christensen’s sulky face to contend with.
Time though is a healer. Here we are, just days away from the return of the franchise once more with The Force Awakens. Much has changed through in the past ten years in the Star Wars world, and we stand on the cusp of the very first of the film in the series to have zero input from George Lucas after his sale of Lucasfilm, and the Star Wars franchise along with it to Disney for the cool price of $4.05bn. I’ll take two please! So out went Lucas, and in his place stepped J. J. Abrams, fresh off reinvigorating the slumbering giant that was Star Trek. If he can do it once, he can do it again, right?
And so, with the announcement of a new trilogy of Star Wars films – with Abrams to direct the first of them – the hype machine began its journey in earnest. We’d been burned once before, and we’d all do well to check our enthusiasm…or at least that’s what we’d told ourselves right up until the release of the first trailer for The Force Awakens. From that point onwards the marketing for the film has been nothing short of spectacular. It helps that the man pulling the strings is a long term fan of the franchise. Regardless of whether he’s pulled it off and delivered a worthy return for the films, he certainly seems to be in tune with what it is fans want. From the get go, in unison with producer Kathleen Kennedy, Abrams has consistently preached a return to the roots of what drew us all to the Star Wars universe, a return of practical effects, and a return of the main players. It’s this approach that helped to shake off the initial doubts that came with Disney’s stewardship of Star Wars, and if the promise of this approach is upheld then we’re at least moving in the right direction.
The cynics amongst us might dismiss the talk purely as pandering, but the combination of the writer of Episode V and VI, Lawrence Kasdan, penning the script, along with Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher taking their places on the cast list, and nostalgia galore in the footage released so far all, a confidence has grown from even the most doubting of fans. It’s those fans who’d been raised on the original films, and had been disappointed by the prequels that were likely to be the toughest to draw back in, but record-breaking numbers for pre-sale tickets suggest that they are well and truly on board. People want to see The Force Awakens, and they want to see it now, with the speed that pre-sale tickets are being snapped up fueling anticipation further. I myself grabbed seats for a midnight screening the day that tickets became available – easily the earliest I’ve ever considered pre-booking cinema tickets.
The trailers worked. That score from John Williams. The Millennium Falcon. The adorable new droid BB-8. That cross-blade lightsaber. The release of each trailer has been built up to feel like an event in itself, chock full of the good stuff without giving away too much. So often we see all too much of a film before its release, but besides a few teases here and there, the plot has been kept mostly under wraps. As a fan first and foremost, I for one can’t wait to see how it all turns out.
The proof is in the pudding as they say. The saga continues December 18th – I’ll be there, will you? No pressure J. J., we’re all counting on you.