When “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” arrives in America’s theaters Dec. 18, several extraordinary things will happen. As with most things in Hollywood, these can be reduced to numbers.
“The Force Awakens” will mark the first film in George Lucas’ science-fiction franchise in 10 years. It will bring back such iconic characters as Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia and Han Solo after more than 30 years. It will launch an onslaught of “Star Wars” movies scheduled to arrive once every year until at least 2019. And according to box-office predictions, “The Force Awakens” will generate staggering, historic sums of money.
But something less quantifiable and more magical will also happen. “The Force Awakens” will bring together several generations for whom “Star Wars” is more than just a film franchise. Like no other movies before or since, the “Star Wars” films have become shared memories for millions — those who remember the classic first films, those who saw the second trilogy and those young enough to have only streamed all six. Many other movies have strong followings — “The Wizard of Oz,” “The Lord of the Rings,” the “Harry Potter” series — but none have a hold on moviegoers’ hearts like “Star Wars.”
“There’s no straight-line comparison for this,” says Shawn Robbins, senior analyst at BoxOffice.com, who predicts that “The Force Awakens” will break opening weekend records and possibly become the highest-grossing film of all time. “It appeals to multiple generations now. That’s one reason the hype is so huge. You don’t have just fanboys and older people. It’s everyone.”
Nostalgia certainly plays a part in the widespread anticipation for “The Force Awakens.” When the first “Star Wars” was released in May 1977, audiences breathed it in like fresh air after a decade of downbeat, gritty dramas like “Easy Rider,” “Dog Day Afternoon” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Even Hollywood’s big blockbusters — “The Towering Inferno,” “The Exorcist” — seemed dark. Moviegoers young and old were primed for some upbeat, escapist entertainment.
Lucas gave it to them with a movie that used dazzling technology and a cast of young unknowns to tell a good old-fashioned adventure story. “Star Wars” created a whole new world of planets, spaceships, lightsabers and androids, but its characters came straight out of the old Saturday matinees and sci-fi flicks that Lucas — now 71 — adored as a kid. Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker was a classic farm boy, albeit one from a dusty planet called Tatooine. Harrison Ford’s Han Solo wore the white shirt and vest of every movie pirate since the 1930s. As for Carrie Fisher’s Leia Organa, she was literally a princess.
Younger viewers didn’t realize that the film’s cinematic techniques — iris close-ups, screen wipes, the now-famous opening crawl of narrative back story — had been out of fashion for decades. Critics noticed, but they loved the movie anyway. “Star Wars” may have been just a Western in space, complete with barroom brawls, gunslingers and a bad guy in black (the ever-popular Darth Vader), yet reviewers showered it with praise. “ ‘Star Wars’ is one of the greatest adventure movies ever made,” Newsday’s Joseph Gelmis wrote at the time. “It’s a masterpiece of entertainment. I haven’t had as much fun at a movie in years.”
What made “Star Wars” such a universally appealing megahit? Lucas had been partly inspired by an unusual source: Joseph Campbell’s 1949 study of world religions, “The Hero With a Thousand Faces.” A mythologist at Sarah Lawrence College, Campbell posited the existence of a “monomyth” containing recurring archetypes and narrative patterns. The theory clearly worked for Lucas, and has worked for many movies since; Campbell’s book was later distilled into a seven-page screenwriter’s manual at Disney and influenced such major hits as “The Lion King” and “Aladdin.”
Mythology and spiritualism aside, “Star Wars” connected with audiences another way: merchandising. It’s now well-known that the toys have been more profitable than the movies — an estimated $20 billion over the years — but few foresaw that in 1977. The manufacturer, Kenner, was so overwhelmed by demand that by Christmas it was selling vouchers for action figures once they become available.
Those toys were more than just the latest craze, says Mark Clark, a film historian and author of “Star Wars FAQ,” a detailed history of the first three films. “A lot of people who watched the movies, they also made their own stories and played with the toys,” he says. “They had this tactile, deeply emotional connection with these characters. You can’t quite get that just by sitting and watching the movie.”
The original trilogy — “Star Wars” (1977), “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980) and “Return of the Jedi” (1983) — have proved so enduring that even Lucas’ later missteps haven’t damaged the brand. The second three films, beginning with “The Phantom Menace” (1999), were often criticized as pandering and even a little boring, but all were blockbusters. (Robbins estimates that the number of actual tickets sold for “Phantom” is still among the highest in history.) Lucas further angered fans by rereleasing the original films with slicker special effects and re-edited scenes.
It seems clear that “The Force Awakens” intends to recapture the old magic while appealing to a new generation of moviegoers. Although Lucas has no official involvement, “The Force Awakens” will bring back Hamill, Fisher and Ford in their original roles while introducing new characters played by an ethnically diverse young cast led by Daisy Ridley, John Boyega and Oscar Isaac. The screenwriters include Lawrence Kasdan (“The Empire Strikes Back”) and director J.J. Abrams, who reinvigorated the “Star Trek” film franchise.
“The way the movies have been released, with large gaps in between, every generation has its own ‘Star Wars’ in a way,” Clark says. “This is a product that, if it’s done well, could help make the next generation of fans.”
As for the money this movie will make, the sky may be the proverbial limit. “It’s pretty much a matter of when and not if” the film becomes the highest-grossing of all time, says Robbins. “But even for people who have been analyzing box office for a long time, it’s just new territory in so many ways. It’s almost like there’s no ceiling on it.”